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April 13, 2010
Added September 23, 2010: endnote [21a].
James V. Rinnovatore
The conclusion of the Warren Commission Report [1, p. 117] includes the statement, "Since the preponderance of the evidence indicated that three shots were fired, the Commission concluded that one shot probably missed the presidential limousine and its occupants..."
The conclusion that three shots were fired was based solely on the discovery of three cartridge cases in the "sniper's nest" at the southeast corner of the sixth floor Texas School Book Depository. The conclusion that one shot "probably" missed was based on the fact that James Tague, a bystander on Main Street in Dealey Plaza, more than 200 feet from the president's limousine, was struck on the cheek from a bullet fragment that ricocheted from curbing about eight feet in front of him.
The missed shot was problematical because the Commission then had to explain how only two bullets caused all the wounds, not only to the president, but also to Governor John Connally. The problem was solved by the formulation of the single-bullet theory (SBT).
The SBT is the sine qua non of the Commission's conclusion that a lone assassin murdered President Kennedy. The Commission concluded that, of the three shots fired "in a time period ranging from approximately 4.8 to in excess of 7 seconds" [1, p. 117], one hit the president's head; one missed; and one entered his back, exited at the throat, struck Governor Connally in the back, exited his chest, entered and exited his right wrist and subsequently lodged in his left thigh. The governor's fifth rib was shattered in the process. [1, pp. 92-93]
The throat wound is the critical element in the formulation of the SBT. The Commission concluded that it was an exit wound. But was it?
Two of the first doctors to arrive at trauma room one at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Drs. Charles Carrico and Malcolm Perry, described the throat wound as having the characteristics of an entry wound: small and circular. Dr. Carrico said it was "probably a 4- to 7-mm wound...rather round...no jagged edges..." . Dr. Perry described it as about "5 mm" and "roughly spherical to oval in shape, not a punched out wound..." .
Dr. Perry made an incision across the bullet wound, just large enough to accommodate a breathing tube. During a phone conversation in 1966 with author David Lifton, Perry said the incision was "two to three centimeters" wide [4, p. 272]. Drs. Paul Peters and Robert McClelland, also present in trauma room one, said the incision was "sharp" and "smooth," respectively [4, p. 275]. After the breathing tube was removed, the incision closed, revealing the original wound in the throat, as described by Drs. Charles Crenshaw and Malcolm Perry. Dr. Crenshaw recalled, "When the body left Parkland there was no gaping, bloody defect in the front of the throat, just a small bullet hole in the thin line of Perry's incision" [5, p. 54] Dr. Perry described the bullet wound in the throat as "inviolate" [6, pp. 100-101].
In stark contrast, when the president's body was observed at the Bethesda Naval Hospital at 8:00 pm -- the start of the official autopsy -- the incision/wound in the throat was elongated and widened. The autopsy report [1, p. 540] described it as "a 6.5 cm long transverse wound with widely gaping, irregular edges." In his testimony to the Warren Commission, chief pathologist Dr. James Humes said that it was "7 or 8 cm" in the transverse direction  (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The "stare of death" photograph.
Clearly, the throat wound had been altered during transit of the president's body from Parkland Hospital at about 2:00 pm to the Bethesda morgue at 8:00 pm. But where and when was it altered?
In his recently published magnum opus, Douglas Horne proposed that the throat wound/incision was tampered with on Air Force One at Love Field, Dallas, just prior to takeoff. [6, p. 997]. Mr. Horne suggested that Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman was responsible for (1) transfer of the president's body from the ornamental bronze casket (in which it had been placed at Parkland Hospital) to a plain shipping casket (in which it arrived at Bethesda) [6, chapter 13; see also 8] and (2) tampering with the throat wound [6, p. 997]
In contrast to Horne's view that the original throat wound was altered on Air Force One, I believe that the throat wound was altered at the Bethesda morgue at the same time the president's head wounds were altered [6, pp. 1168-1171]. Eyewitness accounts are presented to support this thesis.
Mr. Riebe's description of head damage in the temporal region was not observed at Parkland Hospital. Neither was the throat wound as large at Parkland Hospital. And since his observations were made after he returned to the morgue, at about 8:30 pm in Dr. Finck's presence, I believe that the head and throat wounds were altered while he was absent from the morgue.
As explained by Doug Horne [6, chapter 13], Mr. Reed saw Dr. Humes use a saw to cut the president's forehead well before the official autopsy began, soon after which Reed was asked to leave the autopsy room.
In his deposition to the ARRB, Reed said he was asked to leave the morgue right after he assisted in removing the body from the casket [12, p. 32 ]. When asked to describe the president's wounds, he said that he did not see any wound in the back of the head. He said the scalp in that region was intact and described the major damage to the head as located in the "temporal parietal region, right side." He estimated that the wound in this location was big enough for him to insert four fingers [12, p. 27 ] and described the throat as having "a large gaping wound [a]pproximately seven centimeters...in length...[a]nd about two centimeters in width" [12, p. 29].
His descriptions of the head wound were much different from what was seen at Parkland. Hence, it had been altered -- just as for Riebe -- while he was absent from the autopsy room. Since his description of the throat wound (which he observed at the same time as the head wound) was made after he returned to the morgue, I believe that this wound was also altered during his absence from the morgue.
In his deposition to the ARRB, Mr. Custer indicated he had already taken a set of x-rays before observing the "presidential party" enter the Bethesda Hospital [14, pp. 33, 34]. According to SSA Clint Hill, Mrs. Kennedy and her entourage arrived at the Bethesda Hospital at about 7:00 pm .
When asked by the ARRB's Jeremy Gunn to describe the appearance of the president's body, Custer said there was a plastic bag wrapped around his head, with sheets around the bag, and he "was still dressed in a suit" [14, pp. 80-81]. At this point, prior to taking any x-rays, he was asked to leave the morgue and he said he returned about one hour later [14, p. 83]. He described the throat wound as a "typical bullet hole...a little bit bigger than my little finger...(in) diameter." After he was asked if he had observed a long incision or cut on the throat, Custer replied, "Not at that time, I didn't" [14, p. 90].
After he had described the throat wound, he referred to schematics of the skull, saying that there was damage in the parietal temporal region with a "king-size hole" in the occipital region, into which two hands together would fit [14, pp. 92-94]. Also, he indicated that a section of skull between the temporal bone and parietal bone was "flapped out...as if they had sawed it" [14, p. 96].
Mr. Custer's description of the throat wound indicated that at some point it was a small wound, similar to that observed at Parkland. But, later, it must have appeared to be much different. His statement, "Not at that time, I didn't," suggests that he observed different wounds at different times. I believe that the small wound corresponds to when the president's body arrived in the shipping casket and that alterations were done on this wound as well as on the head wound, while he (as well as Reed and Riebe) were absent. Thus, after the re-entry of the president's body into the morgue at 8:00 pm, via the bronze casket , everyone observed a grossly altered trach incision.
In an interview with author William Law [16, p. 115], Custer described the throat wound as a "big gaping hole." Unfortunately, Law did not ask at what stage of the autopsy Custer made that observation. There is no doubt that Custer did, in fact, see a grossly altered throat wound as is depicted in Figure 1.
Mr. Custer's timeline of when he was in the morgue and made the observations of the president's throat wound can be deduced from the following. Dr. Finck told the HSCA Medical Panel that he arrived at the morgue after the autopsy had begun, at about 8:30 pm [10, p. 70]. In a letter to Gen. J.M. Blumberg, Director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Finck stated that he received a call from Dr. Humes at 2000 hours (8:00 pm) and arrived at the morgue at 8:30 pm, at which time head and chest x-rays had been taken. [17, p. 1]. In a summary report on the autopsy, dated 25 January 1965, Dr. Finck wrote that he arrived at the morgue at about 2030 hours (8:30 pm) at which time "[t]he radiologist had studied the radiographs of the head..." . Custer stated that five x-rays of the skull were the first to be taken. [14, pp. 86-88].
If x-rays had been processed and examined by 8:30 pm, when were they taken? Shortly after the 6:35 pm arrival of the shipping casket or after the 8:00 pm arrival of the bronze casket? [See 8 regarding casket arrival.] Custer estimated that about 30 minutes were required to develop five x-rays and return to the morgue [14, p. 104]. In view of the fact that some time was required for preliminary examinations of the body before x-rays were taken, it was not possible that x-rays were initiated shortly after the body arrived at 8:00 pm in order for Dr. Finck to view them at 8:30 pm. Moreover, when Dr. Humes called Dr. Finck at 8:00 pm, it is likely the pathologists had already examined the skull x-rays. Thus, the first set of x-rays must have been taken before 8:00 pm, likely at about 7:00 pm, approximately the time at which Custer observed Mrs. Kennedy entering Bethesda Hospital while he and Reed were returning to the morgue with the first set of unexposed x-ray film in hand. If Reed's account is more accurate than Custer's regarding how long he and Custer were out of the morgue before they took the first set of x-rays, i.e. 15 minutes, then Custer was in the morgue early as he claimed, at the 6:35/6:45pm timeframe. This also confirms his account to David Lifton of when he observed a shipping casket and a body bag.
The transfer of the president's body from the bronze casket to a body bag was a dangerous act in itself. (This is when Kellerman could have gotten blood on his shirt.) Carrying this one big step further by performing crude surgery on the throat wound on Air Force One [as suggested in 6, p. 997] is difficult to conceive, especially by Secret Service Agent Kellerman, who was clearly not trained to remove (a) bullet(s) or fragment(s). In order to be as inconspicuous as possible, it would be more logical for the conspirators to make the alterations on (i.e. extract evidence from) the head and throat wounds at the same location such as at a morgue which would not raise suspicion; such activity would be interpreted as part of the normal autopsy.
In a telephone interview in 1997 with Doug Horne, who was working at the ARRB at that time , Mr. David said William Pitzer showed him a 16-mm black and white movie, 35-mm color slides, and 3x5-inch black and white prints of the president's wounds. Mr. Horne wrote that Mr. David observed a gaping wound in the right rear of the president's head; a small round wound in the right temporal area; the top of the president's head intact; and a gaping wound in the throat. The rear head wound resembled that observed at Parkland Hospital.
In an interview with William Law [16, p. 17], David said that he was not sure that he had seen the large throat wound at the time he was viewing the film and photographs shown to him by Lt. Pitzer.
In a conversation on body alteration, Allan Eaglesham told me that he and Dennis David spent an evening together about ten years ago during which Eaglesham showed David copies of the autopsy photographs and asked him specifically about the throat wound; i.e. what he had seen in the Pitzer movie. Eaglesham was surprised when David said that he had no recollection of the grossly exaggerated throat wound, as depicted in the "stare of death" photograph (Figure 1). Therefore, Mr. David's accounts to Eaglesham and Law regarding his observations of the throat wound in the Pitzer film and photographs were at odds with what was written in Doug Horne's summary of their unrecorded telephone conversation .
In a telephone conversation on March 18, 2010, I asked Mr. David to clarify the apparent differences in his recollection of the throat wound. He responded as follows:
When I asked him how sure he was about not telling Horne that he had seen the "throat gash" in Pitzer's photographs and film, he replied, "I'm positive" (however, see [21a]).
Joe O'Donnell [21b]
O'Donnell's description of the small wound above the right eye is consistent with that described by Dennis David, based on his observations of the film and photographs shown to him by William Pitzer.
When shown an autopsy photograph depicting a "gaping gash type" wound at the throat (e.g. Figure 1), she said she did not see that in any of the negatives she developed. She made no comment about the top of the head because it wasn't visible in the negatives she developed.
Ms. Spencer's observations of the rear head wound and the throat wound conform to the observations at Parkland Hospital. That she failed to notice a throat wound is explainable in terms of the small trach incision made at Parkland Hospital having closed after removal of the breathing tube (per the accounts of Crenshaw and Perry [5, p. 54; 6, pp. 100-101]).
I believe that the negatives she developed were taken at Bethesda before any alterations were made. Moreover, I believe that the photographs seen by Dennis David, Joe O'Donnell and Saundra Spencier were taken by William Pitzer in the Bethesda autopsy room. In his interview with William Law, Jerrol Custer said that William Pitzer was "taking movies" [16, p. 116] and in his ARRB deposition, he identified the person taking movies as the "gentleman that had committed suicide" [14, p. 40]. It is also possible that Lt. Pitzer made photographs from frames of the movie.
One could postulate that the negatives Spencer developed were taken after reconstruction of the president's body. Her observations of negatives depicting a very clean body and a brain laid next to the president's head appeared to Doug Horne to be consistent with a time after reconstruction [based on a conversation with this author, December 2009]. It should be noted, however, that the president's body was washed at Parkland Hospital and both his head and his body were wrapped with sheets prior to being placed inside the bronze casket. Even though it is likely that some blood seeped from the president’s head during travel from Parkland Hospital to the time of the arrival of his body at 6:35/6:45 pm, this blood could easily have been cleaned up at that time for photographs to be taken. There is no obvious explanation for why a brain (which clearly was not the president's) should have been placed next to the president's head and a photograph taken at either 6:35/6:45 pm or after reconstruction. Most of the president's brain was observed to be missing by autopsy technician Paul O'Connor [24, p. 2].
I discount the possibility that the negatives Spencer developed correspond to after reconstruction because the gross wound at the throat was sutured and wax was put over the suture to seal it at that time by the morticians. I do not believe she would have missed seeing that restoration. Her descriptions of the throat wound are clear: it resembled the post-tracheotomy wound observed by the doctors at Parkland Hospital.
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