[NOTE: This article is a condensed version of chapter two in my book COMPELLING EVIDENCE: A NEW LOOK AT THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY, Grand Prairie, TX: JFK-Lancer Productions and Publications, 1996.]
Research Note #8: The Grassy Knoll and Shots from the Front
Michael T. Griffith
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) formally concluded that at least one shot was fired at President Kennedy from the grassy knoll. The grassy knoll was to the right front of the limousine during the shooting. It was on the north side of Elm Street, which was the street on which the limousine drove when the assassination occurred. The Committee judged as credible the accounts of numerous witnesses in Dealey Plaza who said they heard shots fired from in front of the limousine. Most of these witnesses said shots came from behind the picket fence on the knoll, while others said shots came from the far west end of the knoll, next to the triple underpass. Let us now take a brief look at some of the evidence that has convinced so many people that shots were indeed fired at the President from the front.
Suspicious Events on the Knoll Prior to the Shooting
On November 22, 1963, Lee Bowers had an excellent view of the area behind the grassy knoll. He was positioned in a 14-foot railroad tower that was located behind the parking lot to the rear of the grassy knoll.
Bowers told the Warren Commission (WC) that three cars entered the parking lot behind the knoll about half an hour before the assassination. The cars appeared to be probing the area. The driver of the second car seemed to be talking into a microphone. Two of the vehicles bore Goldwater-for-President bumper stickers and had out-of-state license plates.
The area between the tower and Elm Street was "cut off" as of ten o'clock that morning. How, then, did these cars manage to cruise around in the parking lot behind the grassy knoll? What were they doing there? Who were the drivers? It is certainly not illogical to suggest that the drivers were scouts for the sniper team on the knoll, and that they were making sure the escape routes were clear.
Bowers also said he saw two men standing near the fence on the knoll minutes before the shots were fired. He said one of the men was young and was wearing a plaid shirt or coat. He described the other man as being heavy-set and middle-aged.
Julia Ann Mercer saw two men resembling this description near the knoll about an hour and a half before the shooting. As Miss Mercer was driving west on Elm Street, she got stuck in traffic that was congested because of a green Ford pick-up truck which had illegally parked in the lane on the far right. This vehicle was half on the street and half on the sidewalk. Miss Mercer pulled up behind the truck and stopped as she waited to pull out and pass. While she was waiting to pass, she saw a man at the back of the truck take what appeared to be a brown rifle case, which she described in considerable detail, from the tool compartment of the truck and walk up the grassy knoll. This man, she said, was white and was wearing a gray jacket, brown pants, and a plaid shirt. He was also wearing a stocking-type hat. As she drove around the truck, she took a look at the driver. He was a heavy-set white man with brown hair and was wearing a green jacket.
Realizing the implications of Miss Mercer's account, WC supporters have sought to discredit it. In so doing, they face a very difficult task. Miss Mercer reported her story to the Sheriff's Department within hours of the shooting. She had no conceivable motive to lie, was a person of good character, and gave a clear, detailed account of what she saw. Additionally, her description of the two men in the truck resembled the description of the two men later seen by Lee Bowers standing near the fence on the knoll. Both Mercer and Bowers described two males, one heavy-set and middle-aged and the other younger, and both said the younger man was wearing a plaid shirt.
In an obvious but flimsy attempt to discredit Miss Mercer's account, the FBI produced a questionable statement taken from Patrolman Joe Murphy, who was allegedly one of the three officers whom Miss Mercer saw on the triple underpass while she was stopped behind the truck. Murphy's statement wasn't filed until 17 days later. Why the delay? Murphy contradicted himself and vouched for things he could not have seen. Also, Murphy claimed he was "unable to recall" the name of the company for whom the men in the truck supposedly worked (he said they were construction workers). He did say, however, that they were working on the First National Bank at the time. But, neither the Dallas police nor the FBI bothered to call the bank to find out the name of the alleged company. Such information could have been easily obtained and would have enabled the authorities to corroborate Murphy's story. Once they had learned the name of the company, the FBI then could have obtained the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the men Murphy said were in the truck, and Miss Mercer's story could have been destroyed once and for all had the men proved genuine. "That this never happened," notes British scholar Matthew Smith, "would seem to dispose of the FBI report, which raises more questions than it answers, and strengthens Miss Mercer's claims" (Smith 81). Furthermore, why didn't the police or the FBI produce statements from the other two patrolmen who were with Murphy on the underpass?
Some of the Witnesses
Abraham Zapruder: Zapruder was standing on the knoll itself and made the famous home movie of the assassination called the Zapruder film. He told the Secret Service on the day of the shooting that the assassin had fired from behind him.
James Tague: Tague was standing near the triple underpass and was in an excellent position to hear the shots. Tague stated that he heard shots fired from the grassy knoll. When counsel suggested he might have heard echoes, he replied, "there was no echo."
Jean Hill: Hill was standing on the south side of Elm Street and had an excellent view of the limousine and the grassy knoll in the background. "The shots," she said less than an hour after the shooting, "came from the hill--it was just east of the underpass."
Charles Brehm: Brehm was standing on the south side of Elm Street and was behind and to the left of the limousine when the fatal head shot occurred. Brehm saw a piece of Kennedy's skull blown backward and to the left by the fatal head shot. He told newsmen on November 22 that "the shots came from in front or beside the President."
William Newman: Newman and his wife were standing at the base of the grassy knoll and was therefore between the knoll and the limousine during the shooting. Both said the shots came from behind them.
Mary Woodward: She was to the left front of the grassy knoll. She said the shots came "from behind us and a little to the right," which would have been the knoll.
Maggie Brown: She, too, was standing to the left front of the knoll. The shots, she said, came from behind and to her right, i.e., from the knoll.
Jean Newman: Newman was standing between the Stemmons Freeway sign on Elm Street and the TSBD. She said, "The first impression I had was that the shots came from my right." The grassy knoll was on her right.
Aurelia Lorenzo: Like Brown and Woodward, she was standing to the left front of the knoll. She said shots came from a point to her right rear.
John Chism: Chism and his wife were standing beneath a freeway sign on Elm Street, with the grassy knoll behind him. He said that when the shots rang out, "I looked behind me." His wife, too, believed the shots came from behind them.
Bill Lovelady: Lovelady was standing on the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository Building (TSBD). He said sounds of shots came from "right there around that concrete little deal on that knoll." He told the FBI that he did not "at any time believe the shots had come from the Texas School Book Depository."
Sam Holland: Holland was standing on the parapet of the railway bridge that overlooked Elm Street. He said he was positive shots came from behind the wooden fence on the grassy knoll.
James L. Simmons: Simmons was on the triple underpass and thus was well positioned to hear the shots. Simmons said the sounds of the shots came "from the left and in front of us, toward the wooden fence" on the knoll.
Richard C. Dodd: Dodd was also standing on the triple underpass. Dodd said he heard shots come from the grassy knoll.
Lee Bowers: During the shooting, said Bowers, his attention was drawn to the area near the fence where he had seen the two men standing. Bowers reported that there was a "flash of light or smoke or something" that caused him to look at that spot.
O. V. Campbell: A TSBD employee. He said, "I heard shots being fired from a point which I thought was near the railroad tracks located over the viaduct on Elm Street."
Ron Boone: Boone, a deputy sheriff, searched the area behind the fence on the knoll a minute or two after the shooting because "several witnesses" had told him shots had been fired from that location.
Seymour Weitzman: Weitzman, another deputy sheriff, ran up the knoll moments after the shots rang out. A bystander told him that "a firecracker or shot had come from the other side of the fence" on the knoll.
Kenny O'Donnell: A close friend and aide of Kennedy, O'Donnell was seated in the follow-up car. He told former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill during a private dinner that he was sure he had heard "two shots that came from behind the fence" on the knoll. When O'Neill noted that O'Donnell had not said this in his FBI statement, O'Donnell replied that he had in fact told this to the interviewing agents but that they reacted by saying he must have been imagining things. "So," O'Donnell continued, "I testified the way they wanted me to" (O'Neill 211). How many other witnesses were persuaded or pressured into "testifying the way they wanted me to"?
Dave Powers: Another Kennedy aide who was seated in the follow- up car. During the abovementioned dinner with Tip O'Neill, Powers confirmed O'Donnell's account of shots from the knoll.
Jesse Curry: Curry was the chief of the Dallas Police Department. Curry stated in his famous book on the assassination that he believed one of the shots came from in front of the limousine.
Gun Smoke on the Knoll?
During or immediately after the shooting, seven men who were standing on the triple underpass saw "a puff of smoke" above the spot on the grassy knoll from which so many witnesses said they heard shots fired. This area was just behind the wooden fence, about 10-20 feet to the right of the corner of the fence, and was slightly below and about 180 feet to the left of where the seven men were standing on the triple underpass.
WC supporter Gerald Posner disputes the witness accounts of smoke on the knoll. Posner says James Simmons said he saw "exhaust fumes" from the embankment on the knoll, not a puff of smoke (Posner 256). This is what the FBI claimed Simmons recounted. However, in a filmed 1966 interview, Simmons insisted he saw a "puff of smoke" that came from beneath the trees next to the wooden fence. Continuing, he said, "we ran around to the picket fence. . . . There was no one there but there were footprints in the mud around the fence and footprints on the two-by-four railing on the fence. . . ." (Marrs 58). Posner relies solely on Simmons' FBI statement and does not even mention his 1966 interview.
Railroad workers Nolan Potter and Richard Dodd also saw smoke off to their left, i.e., near the fence on the knoll (Marrs 58). Posner does not mention their testimony.
Finally, Posner notes that some of the people who were on the triple underpass with Holland did not see smoke (Posner 256). Given the fact that a number of witnesses who were standing next to each other noticed different things, it is not surprising that not everyone on the triple underpass saw the smoke on the grassy knoll. Furthermore, one cannot help but wonder if their statements were accurately recorded by the FBI agents who took them. Railroad worker Dodd's FBI statement says nothing about smoke on the knoll, but in a subsequent filmed interview, he insisted he saw a puff of smoke in the same area where other witnesses reported seeing it (Marrs 58).
Lone-gunman theorist Jim Moore thinks the smoke witnessed on the grassy knoll was automobile exhaust (Moore 31). Posner believes the smoke came from hot steam pipes located "at the top of the knoll where the smoke was seen" (Posner 256). Neither explanation is plausible (Scheim 27; Lifton 189-190). The steam pipes were too far away, and there is no evidence that a smoking car was idling near the wooden fence at the time of the shooting.
The HSCA studied the witness accounts and cautiously concluded that the smoke they saw above the identified firing point on the knoll could indeed have been gun smoke (12 HSCA 24-25; cf. 1 HSCA 485)
The Scent of Gunpowder on the Knoll
Right after the shots were fired, several witnesses reported smelling gunpowder on or near the grassy knoll. British journalist Anthony Summers:
Three witnesses in the motorcade--the Mayor's wife, Mrs. Cabell, Senator Ralph Yarborough, and Congressman Ray Roberts--all later mentioned the acrid smell in the air. It is highly improbable that any of these people--sweeping past in the motorcade--could have picked up the smell of gunpowder from a sixth-floor window high above them. It is remarkable too that they could have smelled it from the grassy knoll, but it seems it was in that general area that they did notice it. Police Officer Earle Brown, on duty at the railway bridge, and Mrs. Donald Baker, at the other end of the knoll, reported the same distinctive smell. Another policeman, Patrolman Joe Smith, was holding up traffic across the road from the Texas School Book Depository when the motorcade passed by. He heard gunfire, and when a woman cried out, "They're shooting the President from the bushes!" Smith ran to the grassy knoll, the only bushy place in the area. In 1978 he still remembered what he reported shortly after the assassination, that in the parking lot, "around the hedges, there was the smell, the lingering smell of gunpowder." (Summers 29)
The Man Seen Fleeing Behind the Knoll
J. C. Price was watching the motorcade from the top of the Terminal Annex Building in Dealey Plaza. From that location, he had an excellent view of the plaza and of the area behind the grassy knoll. Immediately after the shots were fired, Price's attention was drawn to the area behind the grassy knoll. He saw a man running across the railyard, toward "the passenger cars on the railroad siding." Price said the man "was running very fast, which gave me the suspicion that he was doing the shooting." This man, Price added, "was carrying something in his hand," which "could have been a gun" or "a head piece" (a hat).
Jack Lawrence and His Borrowed Car
About a month before the assassination, a man named Jack Lawrence was hired at Downtown Lincoln-Mercury, a Dallas car dealership that was only two blocks from Dealey Plaza. Lawrence got the job by providing job references from New Orleans. These references were later found to be phony. Lawrence was known as an ardent right-wing speaker, and reportedly had been an expert marksmen in the military. The night before the assassination, Lawrence borrowed a car from the dealership, saying he needed it for a date.
Lawrence did not show up for work in the morning. However, thirty minutes after the shooting, he came hurrying through the company's show room. He was pale and sweating and had mud on his clothes. He rushed into the men's room and threw up. He claimed he had been ill, and that he had tried to return the car but was forced to park it because of traffic. His co-workers became suspicious and called the police. Later, the car Lawrence had borrowed was found--it was discovered in the parking lot behind the wooden fence on the grassy knoll (Marrs 339-340; Groden and Livingstone 133-134).
Lawrence was arrested by the Dallas police that evening. However, like other potentially important suspects who were arrested that day, he was released in short order and with little or no investigation into who he was or what he had been doing at the time of the shooting. Lawrence left Dallas as soon as he was released.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SUGGESTED READING
Groden, Robert and Harrison Livingstone, HIGH TREASON, New York: Berkley Books, 1990.
Lane, Mark, RUSH TO JUDGMENT, Thunder's Mouth Press Edition, New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992.
Lifton, David, BEST EVIDENCE, Carroll & Graf Edition, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1988.
Marrs, Jim, CROSSFIRE: THE PLOT THAT KILLED KENNEDY, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1989.
Moore, Jim, CONSPIRACY OF ONE, Ft. Worth: The Summit Group, 1991.
O'Neill, Tip with William Novak, MAN OF THE HOUSE: THE LIFE AND POLITICAL MEMOIRS OF SPEAKER TIP O'NEILL, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Posner, Gerald, CASE CLOSED: LEE HARVEY OSWALD AND THE ASSASSINATION OF JFK, New York: Random House, 1993.
Scheim, David S., THE MAFIA KILLED PRESIDENT KENNEDY, London, England: Virgin Publishing Ltd, 1992.
Smith, Matthew, JFK: THE SECOND PLOT, Edinburgh, England: Mainstream Publishing Ltd, 1992.
Summers, Anthony, CONSPIRACY: THE DEFINITIVE BOOK ON THE JFK ASSASSINATION, Updated and Expanded Edition, New York: Paragon House, 1989.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew. He is also a two-time graduate of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and holds an Occupational Instructor Certificate from the Community College of the Air Force. He is the author of the book Compelling Evidence: A New Look at the Assassination of President Kennedy (Grand Prairie, TX: JFK-Lancer Productions and Publications, 1996). His articles on the assassination have appeared in several journals that deal with the case. In addition, he is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts.
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