November in Dallas: The JFK-Lancer Conference

by John Kelin

Hundreds of assassination researchers and other interested parties assembled in Dallas this past November, for the first of what is expected to be an annual conference sponsored by JFK-Lancer, publishers of the quarterly journal The Assassination Chronicles.

The conference was designed, of course, to coincide with the thirty-third anniversary of the JFK assassination. It was held in the Dallas Grand Hotel, some ten blocks from the assassination site in Dealey Plaza --- "Where an unrested spirit is still with us," said author and Chronicles editor George Michael Evica.

The conference, dubbed November in Dallas, was a wide-ranging event, with research presentations on topics such as medical evidence, the Zapruder film, forensic techniques, and new leads for further investigation.

A panel on the Jim Garrison investigation was scrubbed at the last minute when the scheduled speaker, former New Orleans District Attorney investigator Gary Raymond, failed to show up. Raymond was jailed last year for turning over the once-secret records from the Jim Garrison/Clay Shaw case to the Assassination Records Review Board. His boss, D.A. Harry Connick Sr., had ordered him to destroy these records. Lancer's Debra Conway cited an "unbelievably bizarre mixup" for Raymond's cancellation, adding, "I did speak with him and he sends his regards."

Another panel, featuring witnesses to the assassination, was severely curtailed due to several cancellations. Beverly Oliver, the presumed "Babushka Lady," and eyewitness Jean Hill, both cancelled due to illness --- in Oliver's case, the illness of her daughter. Marilyn Willis, Roy Vaughn, and Al Maddox were also unable to attend, for various reasons. Conway said later, "Our witnesses are getting old and in poor health and I think the continued reliving of their experiences is getting too painful and upsetting."

For me, the first day of the conference was marred by an incredible situation that had nothing to do with JFK-Lancer, yet still impacted on the conference. For whatever reason, the Dallas Grand Hotel was grossly overbooked for the night of Thursday, November 21; many would-be guests were forced to find other accomodations. Most were helped by the hotel; its staff performed admirably in dealing with a series of angry, frustrated people --- many of whom, myself included, had made reservations months earlier.

As a consequence of all this, I missed much of what was presented on the first day, including the official welcome and opening of the event, and the witnesses panel, which in any case was curtailed. One presumed witness who did make it was Ed Hoffman. I missed his presentation but did catch some interesting back-and-forth during a question and answer period that followed it.

Hoffman says he was along the Stemmons Freeway at the time of the assassination. Speaking through his American Sign Language interpreter Ron Friedrich, he said he saw several cars drive through the railroad yard behind the grassy knoll area.

These could, perhaps, be the same vehicles reported by Lee Bowers. But Bowers said he saw an Oldsmobile, a Ford, and a Chevrolet. Ed Hoffman said, "There was a Rambler, it was green --- I think it was green --- that for some reason drove in around this area." Here he indicated a point on a chart. This could perhaps be the suspected getaway vehicle seen by Sheriff's Deputy Roger Craig some ten minutes after the assassination, in which Lee Oswald or a lookalike escaped the scene.

Speaking for himself, Ron Friedrich referred to Hoffman's 1985 interview with author Jim Marrs, during which an uncertified signing interpreter was used. Friedrich said this person made a number of errors interpreting Hoffman's story, including a reference to a coat worn by one of the apparent gunmen seen by Hoffman.

"I have a videotape of that question being asked by Mr. Marrs," Friedrich said, "asking Mr. Hoffman, 'Was the man wearing an overcoat?' Unfortunately, in sign language, there's no distinction in the way the sign is made for a suit coat, or an overcoat, or a jacket. One sign covers all. Marrs asks, in English, 'Was the man wearing an overcoat? The interpreter signs, 'Was he wearing a coat?' Ed answers, 'Yes, a coat --- a nice s-u-i-t [spelling it].' The interpreter voices, 'Yes, he was wearing a nice overcoat.' Marrs, not knowing what had happened, put it to print. Interpreter error." There were other, similar errors in this interview, Friedrich said. As Hoffman repeated his story over the years, discrepancies inevitably arose, and Hoffman found himself accused of changing his story.

Next was a "Forensic Techniques" panel that included presentations by Margaret and Art Snyder, which I missed, and Craig Roberts. Mr. Roberts is a former Marine sniper and author of A Sniper Looks at Dealey Plaza and other books. He said he made a close study of the Zapruder film, "And I'll tell you what I saw --- as a sniper --- through the eyes of a sniper ... I saw a guy hit from the right front, with a frangible mercury bullet." Such a bullet, Roberts continued, will do its destructive work, and essentially disintigrate.

Sherry Gutierrez, a court-certified crime scene analyst and expert in blood stain pattern analysis, also spoke. Based on her own experiments and analysis of the Zapruder film, Gutierrez concluded that "the head injury [sic] to President Kennedy was the result of a single gunshot fired from the right front of the President."

Thursday evening concluded with a panel called "Representing the JFK Research Journals," which consisted of George Michael Evica of the Chronicles, Dr. Jerry Rose of The Fourth Decade, and Ian Griggs of the Dealey Plaza Echo.

Professor Evica read a portion of his work-in-progress, The Iron Sights, called "Why the Mannlicher-Carcano was Found in the Book Depository." (In the conference program, this title read "Why Was the Mannlicher Carcano Found...")

Dr. Rose presented a list of twenty "unresolved issues of fact" relating to the JFK case. "A satisfactory explanation of any one of them would be a major research contribution," Dr. Rose said. Here is a sampling of his unresolved issues:

  1. What was the role of Edward Jay Epstein in relation to the "suicide" of George DeMohrenschildt in Manalapan, Florida in 1977?

  2. Why did Captain Will Fritz of the DPD decide to pursue an arrest of Oswald on the afternoon of November 22nd even though Oswald was only one of a large number of "missing" employees of the Texas School Book Depository?

  3. Why was Ruth Paine "expecting" law enforcement officials to come to her home in Irving on the afternoon of November 22nd?

  4. Why did not the Dallas police search Oswald until 4:00pm, two hours after he was brought into headquarters under arrest?

  5. Why was the Secret Service searching on November 22nd for a cancelled check for Oswald's 1962 income tax refund?

Ian Griggs delivered the final presentation of that first evening. Mr. Griggs is a former policeman and a leading British researcher; he is also the Secretary to the JFK research group Dealey Plaza UK, and an occasional contributor to Fair Play. He delivered his research paper, "The Paper Bag that Never Was." His thesis is that the paper bag the Warren Commission said Lee Oswald wrapped a Mannlicher-Carcano in --- which the suspect allegedly said contained curtain rods --- never existed. "I believe it was 'made up' by one of the law enforcement agencies," Griggs wrote, "when it became obvious that some means of getting the rifle to the scene would need to be presented. It concerns me that this paper bag was assigned two Exhibit Numbers (CE 142 and CE 626) and somebody also felt it necessary to construct a replica bag (CE 364)." Griggs' overall conclusion, he said, is that Oswald did not fire a rifle at anyone on November 22, 1963.

The first panel on Friday morning was called "Explorations in the Medical Evidence." It began with presentations by Dr. David Mantik and Joseph Riley, Ph.D. Dr. Riley's presentation was based on his article "What Struck John," which appeared in Issue #5 of Fair Play.

David Lifton, author of Best Evidence and a forthcoming biography of Lee Oswald, rounded out this panel. He related the story of one Leonard Saslow, a research chemist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at the time of the assassination. Saslow has only recently come forward with his story; Lifton believes it sheds important new light on one aspect of the case.

According to Lifton, Saslow saw Dr. Pierre Finck, one of the JFK autopsists, in the AFIP cafeteria not long after the autopsy. Dr. Finck was seated at a nearby table with several other officers, having lunch, when he spoke loudly of the autopsy assignment at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Lifton quoted Saslow as saying Finck stated that he had made "copious" notes about the autopsy, but that these notes mysteriously vanished the very same night. He was forced to reconstruct his notes from memory, which he did immediately; it was these that went into the official record. Lifton likened this incident to the burning of autopsy notes by Commander James J. Humes, another of the autopsy doctors.

Mr. Lifton concluded his talk with a call for an extension of the Assassination Records Review Board --- a call that was repeated by him and others throughout the conference weekend.

Around 11a.m., conference proceedings came to a halt, and everyone began making their way down to Dealey Plaza for the 33rd anniversary observance of the assassination. There were hundreds of people on hand for this observance, which led COPA's John Judge to remark, "It's heartening to see that the numbers continue to grow and that they haven't killed the memory of John F. Kennedy as well as the physical body. They've certainly done what they can to kill the reputation of Kennedy, and continue to do that, in a sort of second assassination."

Judge was one of many speakers to address those assembled along the grassy knoll area. Others included George Michael Evica, David Lifton, Charles Drago, Ian Griggs, and Russell McLean.

A symposium on the Zapruder film was held on Friday afternoon. In what is sure to continue an ongoing debate, convincing (though not conclusive) evidence that this film was tampered with was presented by Dr. Mantik, David Lifton, Jack White, Chuck Marler, Noel Twyman, and James Fetzer, Ph.D.

On Friday night I attended a meeting of the Coalition on Political Assassinations held at the Dallas County Courthouse adjacent to Dealey Plaza. The highlight of this evening was a "Two Oswalds" presentation by John Armstrong. It seems most unfortunate that COPA and Lancer were unable to hold a joint conference of some kind. For whatever reason, there seems to be a rift between the two groups. Neither organization has commented for the record about this situation.

Saturday began with an excellent panel called "New Leads in Files and Documents." It featured presentations by Joseph Backes on the ARRB, Nancy Wertz on Ruth and Michael Paine, Anna Marie Kuhns-Walko on Roger Craig and other subjects, and Martin Shackelford with an overview of releases.

The main attraction for the day, however, was the Gerry Patrick Hemming Panel. I looked forward to this panel with great anticipation, but felt a little let down by it; in my opinion nothing much of substance was said --- nothing that wasn't already known, anyway. Lancer's Debra Conway observed later, "Getting a straight answer from him was like nailing jello to the wall."

The conference concluded that evening with the presentation of awards to researchers past and present. Closing remarks were delivered by legendary archivist Mary Ferrell, for whom one of Lancer's top awards is named.

"For all of our differences," she said to this gathering of the research community, "we remain united in our conviction that there was a conspiracy to murder the President of these United States, and another conspiracy to hide that fact from the American people. This conviction will keep us marching toward our goal --- a goal which can be summed up as an unshakeable will to focus the government's attention on the outrage we suffer regarding the still-secret data relating to the murder of President Kennedy."

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