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March 22, 2009

Also published in JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly July 2009.

The Untimely Death of LCDR William B. Pitzer:
Forensic Experts Examine the Evidence

-- by Allan Eaglesham

Lieutenant Commander William Bruce Pitzer’s death -- by gunshot wound to the head -- occurred in the television studio of the Naval Medical School, part of the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, Maryland, at approximately 4 PM on Saturday, October 29, 1966. His body was found at around 7 PM after his wife called the NNMC concerned that her husband had not returned home.

Nine years later, the May 1, 1975, edition of the Waukegan, Illinois, News-Sun, contained an article titled “Another Link in JFK Death?” that stated in part:

A Navy technician who filmed the autopsy of President John Kennedy may have been an early victim of a mysterious death syndrome that has been a bloody footnote to the assassination…The death of the technician*, Lt. William Pitzer, should be an early addition to that list, believes a Lake County man who worked at Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital in 1963. The Lake Countian does not want his identity made public… “He was shot with a .45 calibre pistol and was found with the gun in his right hand,” he said. “But, he was left-handed. If he would have used a weapon he would have used his left hand.” The technician had filmed in detail the Kennedy autopsy. Just before he was due to retire, ending 28 years in the service, he was found dead. “I’ve always believed he was murdered,” the former hospital worker said.

(*Officially ruled a suicide–AE)

Thus, Dennis David (the “Lake Countian”) stepped forward to reveal what he saw as the suspicious circumstances of William Pitzer’s death, albeit with several inaccurate statements:

  • Pitzer did not film the official autopsy on the president’s body. (A discussion of this issue may be found at [1].)
  • Pitzer held the rank of lieutenant commander. (However, he was a lieutenant when Mr. David last had contact with him in December, 1965.)
  • Pitzer was right-handed.
  • The weapon, found beside the body, was a .38 caliber revolver.

    Mr. David thought that Pitzer had filmed the official Kennedy autopsy because, according to his account [2], within a few days of the assassination, he found Pitzer in his office sitting at a reel-to-reel film editor, working on a 16-mm movie that showed President Kennedy’s corpse. Pitzer also had some 35-mm color slides and black-and-white prints of the slain president. The film and still images showed what appeared to be a small bullet-entry wound above the right eye, near the hairline, and a large exit wound in the rear of the head; the two men concluded that the president had been shot from the front [3].

    David’s misgivings over how William Pitzer died -- arising from his mistaken impression that his friend had been left-handed [see 10] -- led him to think that Pitzer had been murdered because he (WBP) knew that President Kennedy had been struck from the front, whereas the Texas School Book Depository (the sole source of the shots according to the Warren Report) was behind the president when the shots were fired. William Bruce Pitzer’s name is on a list of people connected with the Kennedy assassination who met a violent or suspicious death [e.g. 4].


    LCDR Pitzer’s death and its implications have been the focus of six articles in JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly [5–10]. The first three [5–7] discussed new information obtained from several sources, and described efforts to have the case reopened in view of indications of homicide. The fourth [8] described the release (via the Freedom of Information Act, in 2004) of photographs taken at the autopsy on Pitzer’s body, a breakthrough in the case. The fifth and sixth articles included:

  • re-examination of six aspects of the evidence that had indicated homicide,
  • description of a meeting in 2002 with Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent David DiPaola at the NNMC at which a death-scene photograph (also released via FOIA, in 2000) was discussed,
  • description of the wounds seen in the autopsy photographs.

    This author stated a change of opinion, i.e. LCDR Pitzer killed himself:

    [M]y meeting with SA DiPaola, viewing of the autopsy photographs, and reconsideration of the available information…have brought me to the belief that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted. In my opinion, there is no physical evidence indicative of homicide…[10]

    However, the most important operative words in that statement were, “In my opinion.” I was well aware that the autopsy photographs might show something of significance -- implying homicide -- to a forensic expert that wasn't obvious to me. Unfortunately, at the time of writing the fifth and sixth articles, the autopsy photographs were not in my possession; I had viewed them only briefly on three occasions.

    With much gratitude to a source who wishes to be anonymous, I now have copies of fifty-plus color photographs taken at LCDR Pitzer’s autopsy at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda.

    I put together a twenty-five page document, titled Murder or Suicide? (available here**) containing the salient features of the case, including the seventeen most-informative autopsy photographs. The contents of this document are:

    The death scene
            Head enlargement**
            Ladder leg and floor enlargement
    Investigators’ sketch
            Sketch enlarged and annotated
    Interview with autopsy doctor 1***
    Interview with autopsy doctor 2***
    Interview with the medical examiner***
    Fingerprint analysis
    Paraffin-cast analysis
    Autopsy protocol
    Left-hand enlargements**
    Right-hand enlargements**
    Autopsy photographs**

    **As a condition of their release to me, I am not at liberty to share the death-scene or autopsy photographs on this webpage.
    Investigators are welcome to view them by prior appointment.

    ***Interviewed by FBI investigators within a few days of the death.

    Forensic experts Herbert L. MacDonell and Cyril H. Wecht agreed to examine this document and provide opinions on a pro-bono basis. Harold A. Rydberg, who has a master’s degree in forensic psychology, offered to do so also.

    Professor MacDonell provided a formal report (available in full here), in which he stated:

    The four basic rules I follow in cases where there is a question of homicide vs. suicide in a gunshot wound to the head are:

    1) Location of the wound The choice of suicide gunshot wounds is most often the temporal region; right side for right-handed and left side for left-handed individuals.

    2) Discharge distance for suicides is most often contact Charring around Commander Pitzer’s entrance wound, the absence of powder residue, and the apparent muzzle imprint (at 10:00 which is explained in 4 below) characterize this as a contact wound...

    3) Trajectory of suicide gunshots is most often upward and backward That is the case with the Pitzer gunshot wound...

    4) Rotational attitude of the muzzle to the temporal area ...In this case that angle can be established from the apparent front sight imprint. I have attached an enlargement of Autopsy Photograph #9 to show how the rotational attitude is established. It is a 26-degree angle (see here), which is in the middle of the range of what is called the “comfort angle” for holding the revolver when committing suicide.

    Based upon the agreement of the four above points, I conclude that William Bruce Pitzer’s death was the result of a self-inflected gunshot wound. It is almost impossible that someone could have shot him and accidentally done so within the above considerations.

    With respect to item 4 above, prior to submitting his report Professor MacDonell requested more information on the weapon in question. Available information was sent to him. As he expected, the revolver in question had an aiming sight at the muzzle, matching the imprint of the muzzle on LCDR Pitzer’s right temple. The imprint of the aiming sight shows that the revolver was held at an angle of 26 degrees above horizontal.

    Dr. Wecht did not submit a formal report. Instead, we discussed his findings on the telephone. The conversation was recorded, and a transcript is available here. He summed up the situation as follows:

    [T]he important point here is that you are looking into this as a suicide or a homicide—anybody can shoot somebody in any way, whether by calculation, design or good luck, good fortune, but you have to know what you are doing if you are going to stage it like that. I’m just saying that this has all the characteristics of a suicidal wound.

    Mr. Rydberg’s report is available here. As with MacDonell and Wecht, nothing in the document gave him cause to favor homicide over suicide:

    I stand by my theory [11] [that] loss of identity with upcoming retirement from the military, and complications of his making [led to suicide]. He was a walking poster for the military. He was looked up to by all who knew him.


    This article is the culmination of effort spanning more than a decade. At first I was strongly of the opinion that LCDR Pitzer had been murdered, hence my involvement. Here was a “mysterious death” of particular importance, appearing to have been covered up by the US Navy and by the FBI. With release of the death-scene photograph, which showed an apparent bullet-entry wound in the left temple, I was all but convinced of homicide. However, my meeting with SA DiPaola, who provided contrasting views, and seeing the autopsy photographs, which revealed a single, close-contact shot to the right temple, and blow-back blood spatter on the left hand, led me to favor suicide. The unbiased opinions of Drs. Wecht and MacDonell, each with a wealth of experience in analyzing crime-scene evidence and autopsy information, serve to provide certainty beyond a reasonable doubt: William Pitzer’s problems weighed so heavily upon him that he saw no solution other than self-destruction. This was not the conclusion I expected at the outset, but, throughout, I felt that if the ultimate outcome was removal of LCDR Pitzer’s name from the “mysterious death” list, then that would be worth the effort.

    The conclusion of suicide beyond a reasonable doubt represents resolution for me. It will be welcomed mainly by those who deny that President Kennedy died as a result of conspiracy.Unfortunately, denial of another kind is common: some will reject the “suicide” scenario, not because their interpretation of the evidence differs from that of the forensic experts, but because, in ignorance of that evidence, they are reluctant to entertain any explanation that does not indicate conspiracy. I've been asked, “How do you know that Pitzer wasn’t drugged, the revolver placed in his hand and held to his temple and the trigger pulled?” My answer, of course, is that there is no certainty that such a scenario did not occur, but there is zero evidence that it did. I've been assured that I am naïve in trusting documentary and photographic evidence released by the government under the Freedom of Information Act. In other words, FOIA-released information is believable, if, and only if, it supports the appropriate agenda. A few weeks ago, I was informed by email that anyone who believes that William Pitzer committed suicide “is either a moron or a disinformation agent.” I invited this “investigator” to tell me (i) which category I fall into, and (ii) what aspect of the evidence he feels most strongly indicates homicide. He declined to answer these questions, and pointed me to James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable, published in 2008, which devotes six and a half pages to the death of LCDR Pitzer, underpinned by forty-five source notes. Douglass reveals a firmly pro-conspiracy agenda, avoiding the critical issue of the autopsy photographs brought to light in 2004 [8, 12]. Accordingly, the homicide theory will continue to have currency -- a house of cards founded on an unfortunate, erroneous impression that William Pitzer was left-handed.

    I thank Herbert MacDonell, Cyril Wecht and Harold Rydberg for giving generously of their time and expertise, and I thank the donors of the photographs for their trust.

    [1] The Putative Pitzer Movie: A Discussion (http://www.manuscriptservice.com/WBPmovie/)
    [2] ARRB MD 177—ARRB Call Report Summarizing 2/14/97 Telephonic Interview of Dennis David. (http://www.maryferrell.org/mffweb/archive/viewer/showDoc.do?docId= 708&rel Page Id=1)
    [3] Livingstone HE (1992) High Treason 2. New York: Carroll & Graf.
    [4] Marrs J (1990) Crossfire. New York: Carroll & Graf.
    [5] Eaglesham ARJ Palmer RR (1998) The untimely death of Lt. Cmdr. William Pitzer: The physical evidence. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 3(2) 6–16.
    [6] Eaglesham ARJ (1998) Interpretations of new information in the Pitzer case. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 3(3) 15–20. (http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/Article-2.html)
    [7] Eaglesham ARJ (1999) Pitzer: An update. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 4(3) 19–30. (http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/Article-3.html)
    [8] Eaglesham A Hersh KF (2004) The Pitzer case: Autopsy photographs released. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 9(2) 22–24. (http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/Article-6.html)
    [9] Eaglesham A (2005) The untimely death of LCDR William Pitzer: A reappraisal (Part 1) (2005) JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 10(3) 30–36. (http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/reappraisal-2.html)
    [10] Eaglesham A (2005) The untimely death of LCDR William Pitzer: A reappraisal (Part 2) (2005) JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 10(4) 26–35. (http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/reappraisal-2a.html and http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/opinion.html)
    [11] Mr. Rydberg's previous comments may be read at http://www.manuscriptservice.com/Pitzer/opinion.html.
    [12] Law WM Eaglesham A (2004) In the Eye of History, page 330. Southlake, TX: Lancer.


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