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Lieutenant Commander William B. Pitzer:
The Physical Evidence
Also published in JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 3(2) 6-16 (1998)
The Pitzers rose a little earlier than usual that fall Saturday morning, 29 October 1966. Bill fixed breakfast while Joyce made preparations in anticipation of a visit from her mother for a few days. Late morning saw them raking leaves in the yard as their 14-year-old son Robert washed the car. When, around noon, a neighbor dropped by to invite the boy to join her in a couple of rounds of golf, Bill finished polishing the automobile. After lunch, he dropped Joyce off at the beauty salon for a 1.00 PM appointment, drove over to the golf course to remind Robert to have a haircut, then stopped in at work to prepare a lecture he was to deliver at Montgomery Junior College the following Wednesday. Joyce missed the 3:07 PM bus, but caught it at 4:07 PM, and was surprised that Bill was not already home when she arrived there. She called his office, and, getting no reply, assumed that he was on his way. As time passed, feeling increasingly uneasy, she called the office again, and again, his club and the hospital emergency room. At 7:20 PM, she called the main switchboard at Bill’s place of work: the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC), Bethesda, Maryland. The duty officer was alerted. Ensign J.M. Quarles and Security Patrol Officer T.E. Blue opened the locked door to Pitzer’s television-studio office at 7:50 PM, and found a body on the floor, the head resting in a pool of coagulated blood, a revolver lying close by. Death was pronounced by Medical Officer Lieutenant Commander R.W. Steyn at 8:10 PM, and identification was made by Captain J.H. Stover and Lt. Cdr. J.G. Harmeling; the corpse was that of Lt. Cmdr. William B. Pitzer of the US Navy Medical Service Corps.
Captain Stover, Bill’s superior officer, went immediately to the Pitzer residence with Lt. Cmdr. C.A. Holston to impart the devastating news. In view of the personality and life philosophy of her husband, Mrs. Pitzer found it impossible to accept that he could have taken his own life. In due course, however, investigations by the FBI, the Naval Investigative Service and an NNMC Informal Board of Investigation would all reach the same conclusion: the wound to Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer’s head was self-inflicted.
Over the years, the family and friends of Bill Pitzer continued to doubt the official conclusion on the nature of his demise. And for Mrs. Pitzer there was the nagging thought that if, unbeknownst to her, her husband were to have reached the point of suicide, he would not have committed the act on US Navy property, thus embarrassing the institution that he so loved. As stated in the Informal Board of Investigation’s Report:
“Mrs. Pitzer could offer no explanation as to why Subject would take his own life and although appearing somewhat resigned to this fact, she still exhibited doubt that suicide was the true cause of death.”
LINKS WITH THE KENNEDY AUTOPSY
Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer was a mentor to Petty Officer First Class Dennis D. David, and a friend; they played bridge together regularly. On the evening of 22 November 1963, Dennis was Chief-of-the-Day at Bethesda Naval Hospital, part of the National Naval Medical Center, and it was his duty to supervise the unloading of the casket that contained the body of President Kennedy prior to postmortem examination. Early in the following week, Dennis dropped by Bill’s office with questions on the professional exam for the Medical Service Corps. He found Pitzer working on a 16-mm film, slides and black and white photos of the Kennedy autopsy. Vivid in his memory is his agreement with Bill Pitzer that those materials showed what appeared to be an entry wound in the right frontal area with a corresponding exit wound in the lower rear of the skull. Thereafter, on occasion, Dennis heard Bill refer to contacts he’d had with “agents” about the Kennedy autopsy materials on which he had worked. These references, made in the company of others and thus precluding further discussion with Dennis, were couched in matter-of-fact terms without hint of threat or intimidation.
Although Petty Officer David assumed that Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer personally had filmed the Kennedy autopsy, Pitzer’s name does not appear on any list of personnel involved in the autopsy or present in the morgue at that time. On the other hand, Jerrol F. Custer, X-ray technician for the Kennedy autopsy, recently stated that Pitzer was present in the morgue and had photographed the military men occupying the benches.
In December 1965, Dennis David was sworn in as an Ensign in the Medical Service Corps. He left the National Naval Medical Center immediately thereafter and had no further contact with Bill Pitzer; he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Commander before retiring. He recently told us that he is “certain” that Bill Pitzer had the Kennedy autopsy photographs etc. in his possession at the time of his death.
A curious coincidence is noteworthy. During the weekend on which Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer died, the Kennedy family transferred formal possession of the materials relating to the late president’s autopsy to the National Archives. A check of the inventory revealed that some items, tissue sections etc., were missing, including a stainless-steel container that presumably held the brain. Six years later, Dr. Cyril Wecht discovered that the brain was indeed missing from the National Archives.
ITEMS OF EVIDENCE
None of the fingerprint lifts in Item 12 matched those of Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer (Item 18). On 12 January 1967, Cmdr. Rumble sent to the FBI fingerprint cards of eight individuals, presumably naval personnel, who might have left the prints on the chairs and beer cans (Item 12). The paper work dealing with these other people’s prints refers to Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer as “Victim” (rather than as “Deceased” in other documentation) and the eight individuals are listed as “Suspects.” The suspects names are redacted - in any case, none of their prints matched those found at the scene.
To repeat: there is nothing in the FBI files in our possession, in the FBI Report, nor in the NNMC Informal Board of Investigation Report, that states that Pitzer’s fingerprints were on the revolver (Item 1), on the spent cartridge (Item 2), the live round (Item 3) or on the blank cartridge (Item 4).
“To the best of my recollection, at about 1400 on 12 Oct. 1966 I issued a S&W 38 caliber revolver and six (6) rounds of blank ammunition to L.R. Andre HM2. This weapon was issued after a telephone call from Lt CDR W.B. Pitzer, stating that same would be used for instruction purposes
The FBI documents include the following notation as their proof of origin of the weapon found beside the body:
“The Firearms Logbook contained in the Security Office, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, was examined and in the front of the book was located an undated notation that a .38 caliber revolver, serial number 311546 had been checked out for Lieutenant Commander WILLIAM B. PITZER. The signature under this notation was illegible.”
It would be reasonable to conclude that the illegible signature was that of Mr. Bray, except that his signature on the hand-written note is of exemplary clarity. We wonder why a photocopy of the weapon-release entry in the firearms logbook, showing the serial number and Mr. Andre’s signature, is not part of the FBI record. Certainly it is surprising that the official record of release of the weapon was, according to the FBI, undated.
The weapon assigned to Pitzer is defined as a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson (see above), whereas a hand-written note by the FBI ballistics investigator reveals that the weapon found at the scene was actually a S&W .38 Special. On advice from colleagues knowledgeable of firearms, we believe that there is not necessarily a discrepancy here; the .38 caliber S&W was obsolete by 1966, therefore, it is likely that in military and law-enforcement parlance the qualifier “Special” was routinely dropped. Surely, however, the notation in the logbook documented that the weapon released to Mr. Andre was a .38 Special.
The serial number of the weapon found in the TV studio (see Item 1) was the same as that described in the above-quoted FBI document. It was impossible for the FBI ballistics expert to determine with certainty that the slug found on the floor of the studio, about six feet to the right of the body, had been fired from that particular .38 S&W:
“Specimen Q2 (i.e. Item 5) is a caliber .38 S&W copper-coated lead bullet. The few remaining rifling impressions on specimen Q2 are the same width as those found on test bullets fired from specimen K1 (i.e. Item 1). However, due to the mutilation of specimen Q2, the microscopic markings remaining on its surface are insufficient to permit identification of the particular weapon from which it was fired.”
Ballistics tests showed that the spent cartridge in the cylinder had been discharged in that weapon. Neither that cartridge nor the live round in the revolver were Special ammunition, and must have been loaded with “extreme difficulty,” according to the FBI lab report. Pitzer obtained only blanks with the revolver; there is no record of his acquiring live ammunition at the NNMC or anywhere else.
“I do not recall ever seeing Bill wearing glasses.”
Of course, it is possible that Mr. David’s memory of 30 years ago is faulty. Unfortunately, our efforts have been fruitless to determine from Pitzer-family sources if Bill used eyeglasses. It may be significant that the FBI assigned the eyeglasses a “Q” (“questioned”) notation, rather than “K” (“known”) as for the revolver and the blue crayon pencil.
A DAMAGED BLACKBOARD
“possible [sic] by the projectile after passage through the skull of the deceased.”
Apparently, this was a source of puzzlement for the investigating officers; given the locations of the corpse, revolver, spent bullet, and blackboard, there had to have been another point of ricochet:
“Extensive examination of the scene failed to determine what the projectile struck resulting in the extensive indentation.”
The metallic residues within the indentation were in insufficient amounts to match them conclusively with the slug found on the floor.
Referring to the spent bullet, Cmdr. Rumble requested the FBI to:
“Examine for all foreign matter on the surface with particular attention to determine as to what the projectile struck and if it struck Item 8.”
Nothing in the FBI Report addresses this request; however, the hand-written notes by the FBI ballistics expert include the following:
“Bone fragments on bullet.
And there is no mention of bone fragments on the blackboard indentation.
“Remind me to return gun to the sec. [sic: security] office.”
If Pitzer committed suicide, certainly it was without premeditation.
One of the note-pages lying on the floor bore a partial heel print that was not linked with the deceased - described as a style used by the Goodyear Rubber Company. The print was photographed by the FBI “for possible future reference.”
“Examination of (the) paraffin cast reflected no substance characteristic of, or which could be associated with, gunpowder or gunshot residue.”
If Bill Pitzer committed suicide, could he have held the revolver in the other hand, consistent with Dennis David’s observation of him dealing cards with his left? Not so: the autopsy report is definite that the bullet entered on the right side of the head and exited on the left.
“… the gun could have been very close to the head, but not touching it but so close there would have been no time for the powder to have spread out after leaving the muzzle and thereby leaving no outside indicating (sic) of splatter burn or imbed powder particles around the wound.”
There was an area of “charring” around the wound that may be interpreted as a margin of soot deposit, yet the autopsy report describes the skin around the entry wound as having “no deposits of foreign material.” And there is no mention in the autopsy report of soot deposit around the defect in the skull bone, which would indicate a shot from very close range. Prosector Lt. Cmdr. J.G. Harmeling is reported by the FBI to have stated on 1 November 1966 that:
“(T)here was no evidence of powder burns on the right side of the head where entry was made... (He) explained that he could not say how far from the head the gun was held as he was no expert in this field.”
Subsequent FBI laboratory tests of the .38 Special showed that the gun would have to have been held at a distance of 3 feet or more to preclude powder burning of the skin.
In the 30 October interview, Lt. Cmdr. Lowsma stated:
“(T)he death was caused by a gun shot wound in the head from the right temple, exiting near the left temple…”
This seems peculiarly vague, “…exiting near the left temple.” In the autopsy report, Lt. Cmdr. Harmeling was precise: bullet entry was in the right temporal area, and exit was in the left parietal area, “5 cm. posteriorly in a diagonal from the attachment of the anterior helix.” In layman’s terms, the exit wound was behind the left ear. But, the autopsy report further states that internal examination revealed a defect in the left sphenoid bone and supra-orbital plate, i.e. at the left temple:
“After removal of the brain a third defect in the bony skull is encountered. This consists of a large defect in the left supra-orbital plate measuring 3.0 x 1.0 cm.”
Apparently, the autopsy doctors were unaware of this third head wound until the brain was removed - no corresponding wound is described as part of the external examination of the body. And yet, as stated on the Naval Certificate of Death, dated 1 February 1967 (why the three-month delay?), Naval Medical Officer Lt. Cmdr. Robert Steyn, when viewing the body in the TV studio twenty minutes after its discovery, observed a wound in the left temple:
“A left temple wound was visible, the right side of the head being hidden, lying against the floor…”
Why did the autopsy doctors fail to describe the external wound in the left temple that was seen by Steyn, but did describe a large internal defect in the skull bone at the same location? The path of the bullet through the brain is described in detail in the autopsy report, and there is nothing to suggest that the projectile fragmented, causing part of it to exit at the left temple. As verbalized by Lt. Cmdr. Lowsma:
“The bullet went on a straight line from one side of the head to the other.”
How, then, did Bill Pitzer come to sustain the third defect in the skull?
Dr. John G. Ball, the local Deputy Medical Examiner stated on the Montgomery County Death Certificate, dated 30 October 1966, that the deceased “shot self in head with 38 cal. pistol.” In an interview with the FBI on 2 November, Dr. Ball confirmed this:
“It was (Dr. Ball’s) opinion that death was caused by self-inflicted gun shot wound because when he examined the body on the night of November [sic] 29, 1966 in the TV Studio at the National Naval Medical Center, he observed powder burns on the head. From his observations on the situation in the room at the time he first observed it, and after having been advised that things were in the same condition as when the body was found, he concluded that PITZER was probably sitting in a chair and shot himself in the head...
...When he observed the wound in the head on the night of November [sic] 29, 1966, he observed muzzle marks around the wound and powder burns.”
Strangely, these descriptions of powder burns and muzzle marks are at odds with the autopsy report and the statements of the autopsy doctors. We are submitting an FOIA-release request for the autopsy photographs in the hope of resolving this issue and of understanding the nature of the wound in the left temple and its relationship, if any, with the third defect in the skull.
When Mrs. Pitzer requested the return of her husband’s wedding band, she was informed that his left hand was so mutilated that removal of the ring was impossible. She never did receive it. Yet, the autopsy report states that there were no wounds on the body other than those to the head:
“The upper and lower extremities are bilateral [sic] symmetrical and exhibit no remarkable gross lesions… No evidence of abrasions, contusions, or lacerations are noted in any other part of the body with the exception of the head wounds.”
Why did the US Navy apparently lie to a grieving widow, and deny her most reasonable request?
UNDER HIS WING
I. Crime scene investigation II. Interview with family members III. Medical examination and autopsy IV. Interview of associates and co-workers V. Deceased’s activities on October 29, 1966 VI. Psychiatric treatment of [name redacted] VII. Miscellaneous VIII. Investigation of deceased’s activities in Pensacola, Florida
The most heavily redacted section is VI, which deals with an enlisted man who had been under psychiatric treatment. When interviewed by the FBI on 1 November, 1966, a NNMC psychiatrist stated:
“In connection with the patient’s rehabilitation, he was placed under the supervision of WILLIAM PITZER at the National Naval Medical Center and with the cooperation of Mr. PITZER the rehabilitation of this patient worked out very well.
During the late summer of 1965, WILLIAM PITZER told [name redacted] that he was having a problem” [approximately 50 lines redacted].
The following one and half pages are redacted except for three and half lines in which the psychiatrist states that Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer had never received psychiatric treatment nor had he ever shown any indication of mental disorder. The final page of this section has been withheld in its entirety, not only for protection of personal privacy, the rationale for the large majority of the many many redactions in the FOIA release, but also because it is:
“material reporting investigative efforts pertaining to the enhancement of criminal law including efforts to prevent, control, or reduce crime or apprehend criminals.”
On the day before he died, Bill Pitzer telephoned the NNMC psychiatric unit, to make arrangements for this enlisted man to be seen by a doctor early in the following week. Apparently, the FBI investigators saw this coincidence as significant, and suspected this individual of playing a role in the death of his benefactor.
“(A)n autopsy was performed on 30 October 1966, at the Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland, which disclosed the cause of death to be a gunshot wound in the head.”
The NNMC Informal Board of Investigation gave weight to the declaration of the Montgomery County Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Ball, that the deceased had “shot self in head with 38 cal. pistol.” It seems strange that they accepted this opinion without commenting on Dr. Ball’s other assertions vis-à-vis muzzle marks and powder burns that conflict with the autopsy report.
The FBI Report presented the physical evidence, but placed no emphasis on it, instead using reasoning similar to that in the NNMC Informal Investigation Report for the verdict of suicide: Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer had been so weighed down by overwork and personal problems that he reached a point at which he could tolerate no further burden. A difficulty with this theory is that none of the witnesses who attested to Bill Pitzer’s stress were of the opinion that he was likely to take his own life as a result. His troubles were no worse than those shouldered by huge numbers of Americans at one time or another.
He attended the funerals of two colleagues in the last week of his life, and commented to Mrs. Pitzer:
“That’s two this week, I wonder who the third will be.”
He then stated a wish for a military funeral. Certainly, such utterances may be made by those considering self-destruction. But then, who has attended a funeral and not contemplated personal mortality? And the popular notion that untoward occurrences run in threes may also explain the remark.
It was pointed out above that although Bill Pitzer (a habitual note-maker) had the opportunity and the wherewithal to write a suicide note, he did not do so. However, according to the FBI and the Informal Investigation Board, he did write a letter that afternoon. Apparently, he put it into the mail at the NNMC, and it was received in due course by an associate in Florida, with whom he had visited during a recent trip to Pensacola to provide audiovisual support at a lecture course at the US Naval Aerospace Medical Institute. Although the general tone of that short letter is positive with reference to his returning to Florida a few months later, there are two passages that give cause for thought, particularly since it appears that they were written within an hour or so of his death:
“I am in deep trouble at home”
“Until you hear from or of me, I am etc.”
It is understandable that the Informal Board of Investigation and the FBI Reports put emphasis on these phrases. On the other hand, the term “deep trouble” may be mere hyperbole to get a point across, and “until you hear of me” could be a reference to the fact that the associate moved in navy circles in Pensacola. Again, such statements might be made by someone contemplating suicide, but do they constitute proof in the absence of supporting physical evidence?
Although the FBI and Informal Board of Investigation Reports include various photocopied items, this putatively last letter by Bill Pitzer’s hand is included not as a photocopy of the original, but, instead, retyped. Given the importance of this item of evidence, this is surprising . Pitzer began his letter by acknowledging receipt of a letter “yesterday,” i.e. on Friday 28 October. However, according to the associate in Pensacola, that letter “should have arrived in Bethesda about 24 or 25 October,” i.e. on the Monday or the Tuesday. Pitzer’s letter, supposedly written on Saturday 29 October, was received in Florida on Monday 31 October. We suggest that he actually received the letter from Pensacola on Tuesday 25 October (the date on the postmark is stated to be illegible), wrote the reply on Wednesday 26 October and mailed it on Thursday 27. If not written during the last minutes of his life, this letter loses much of its possible significance as a suicide note.
If the soon-to-retire Pitzer had in his possession photographs and slides of John Kennedy on arrival at the Bethesda Naval Hospital morgue, and, perhaps more importantly, that he had in his possession a movie film of the autopsy procedures (or lack thereof), these materials might yet be in existence somewhere. And, the possibility remains that covert forces would, at any cost, have blocked the dissemination of such materials at a time of mounting controversy over the conclusions of the Warren Report and, in particular, its coverage of the president’s autopsy.
Of potential significance is the inclusion in the FBI Report of a whole section on a man in Pitzer’s command who had been under psychiatric treatment. Moreover, there is the coincidence of Pitzer’s phone call on the day before his death to an NNMC psychiatrist regarding this individual. Therefore, it is possible that the death had nothing to do with possession of photographs and film of the Kennedy autopsy. But why would the US Navy and the FBI cover up such an incident?