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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 9: Dealey Plaza (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 23

Dealey Plaza is a three acre green space and public square in Downtown Dallas where three parallel streets - Elm, Main, and Commerce - converge under a railroad bridge at the West end of the plaza. Imagine the bottom part of a peace sign. That’s what Dealey Plaza looks like. On the side of the Plaza closest to the Texas Schoolbook Depository, there is a hill with two small pergolas.[1]

As you continue Westward along the hill – or the Grassy Knoll as it came to be known - there is a fence that separates Dealey Plaza from the parking lot and railroad yard behind it.


When President Kennedy arrived in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, he was supposed to give a luncheon speech at the Dallas Trade Mart. On the way to that speech, as the motorcade slowly drove through downtown Dallas, the President, First Lady, Governor Connally, and Mrs. Connally, all waived to the well-wishers who lined the streets. When the motorcade reached Houston Street, which forms the Eastern border of Dealey Plaza, it made a right turn and then an immediate left turn from Houston on to Elm Street.[2] The Texas Schoolbook Depository Building is located there at the intersection of Houston and Elm.


Seconds after making that turn, as the motorcade continued down Elm Street into Dealey Plaza, the infamous shots were fired that mortally wounded the President and seriously injured Governor Connally.


In this episode, we do the first of several deep dives on what the witnesses saw in Dealey Plaza that day.


Where did the Dealey Plaza witnesses say the shots came from? Did anyone see anything suspicious near the Grassy Knoll?


Vincent Bugliosi captures the importance of the Grassy Knoll in his book, Reclaiming History. He writes:


Just as the validity of Christianity rises or falls on the Resurrection, the validity of conspiracy theories rises and falls on the grassy knoll…If it can be demonstrated that no shots came from that area, the very heart of conspiracy allegations and lore ceases to beat.[3]


That language is dramatic, but on point. Whether or not Oswald was involved in the assassination, the Grassy Knoll - and the parking lot behind it that is separated from Dealey Plaza by a stockade fence - have been the center of intrigue for over half a century.


I’m going to be going deep on all of the witness statements that support conspiracy arguments. But, first, I want to point out that there were plenty of witnesses in Dealey Plaza that day who are on record supporting the Warren Commission version of the story. Specifically, that they heard shots fired from the Schoolbook Depository Building and that they did not notice or hear shots coming from any other direction.


For example, Dallas postal inspector, Harry Holmes, watched the motorcade from his fifth floor office in the Dal-Tex building across the street from the Schoolbook Depository. From that vantage point with the aid of binoculars, he observed the assassination and then said this about the aftermath:


“I watched for hours from that vantage point up there with my binoculars, hoping I would see someone running across the railroad tracks, or maybe that I could get word to the police as to where they were, because it was like a birdseye view of the panorama of the whole area.


Holmes is then asked by the Warren Commission if he saw anyone run across the railroad track, to which he responded, “No. I saw nothing suspicious and I am a trained suspicioner.”[4]


One thing to consider about Harry Holmes testimony, however, is that he was later determined to be FBI informant T2.[5] If that sounds familiar, Holmes is the man who made the copy of Oswald’s outgoing mail to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Holmes also was also present at Oswald’s interrogation, and according to his Warren Commission testimony, he wasn’t invited to be there. He just showed up and was asked to join the interrogation. And the Dallas Police let him in. So, Holmes may be a little too close to the action to give an unbiased opinion on what went on in Dealey Plaza that day.


Directions of Shots


According to the Warren Report, there were three shots fired, all of which came from the Southeast corner of the 6th floor of the Schoolbook Depository– which was behind President Kennedy when he was shot. But, because there were so many witnesses who were on record saying the shots came from the Grassy Knoll – which was in front of President Kennedy - the Commission was well aware of those allegations. The Warren Report ultimately found QUOTE “no credible evidence exists that the shots were fired from the railroad bridge over the triple underpass, the nearby railroad yards, or any place other than the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building.”[6]


There were many witnesses in Dealey Plaza who believed the gunshots came from the Schoolbook Depository. For example, Officer Marion Baker, reporter Jack Bell, witnesses Howard Brennan, Jack Daugherty, and Amos Euins; Mayor Earle Cabell, and Gov ernor and Mrs. Connnaly, all noted the Schoolbook Depository was the sole source of the shots.[7] As we mentioned previously in this podcast, the evidence is overwhelming that shots were fired from the Schoolbook Depository. The real question is whether shots were also fired from the grassy knoll or somewhere else, in addition to the Schoolbook Depository.


Over the years researchers have compiled quantitative data to determine the exact percentage of people who identified the gunshots as coming from either the Schoolbook Depository or the Grassy Knoll. The amount of people who heard shots come from the grassy knoll ranges from 52% - according to conspiracy leaning researcher Josiah Thompson - to as low as 31% according to Warren Report defender John McAdams.[8]Bugliosi says that of the 88 witnesses who expressed an opinion, 40 thought the shots came from the grassy knoll, 41 thought the shots came from the Schoolbook Depository, and 7 from other directions.[9]


But whether the number is 52% or 31% doesn’t really matter. If at least a third of the witnesses said the shots came from the Grassy Knoll, that’s at least worth looking into.


Now, it is true that there is a serious echo within Dealey Plaza that makes it difficult to accurately hear the direction of the shots. And most of the witnesses ascertained the location of the shooter from hearing the shots. But, that’s not true for all witnesses. Some people had reason to believe that shots were fired from the grassy knoll based on what they saw.


Moorman and Hill


At the time the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza, Jean Hill was standing on the south side of Elm Street looking towards the grassy knoll with her friend Mary Moorman. Hill told the FBI that she heard four to six shots, which she said came from “a spot just west of the Schoolbook Depository Building.”[10] It’s not clear from the FBI report whether Hill meant the shots came from the Depository or the grassy knoll - because the grassy knoll itself is “just west of the Schoolbook Depository.”


Hill also says that after the shots were fired she saw a white man wearing a brown rain coat and hat running from the back of the Schoolbook Depository toward the railroad tracks. The man was average height with a heavy build. She was focused on this man because he was the only one she saw who was running away. Everyone else was standing still and in shock.[11]


Earlier this season, we talked about a man that witnesses saw departing the Schoolbook Depository after the shooting in a brown or tan sport coat. Is the man Hill saw in the brown rain coat the same man who other witnesses in Dealey Plaza saw fleeing from the Schoolbook Depository wearing a tan or brown sport coat? Sure, a rain coat isn’t a sport coat and brown isn’t the same thing as tan. But, it’s close enough to make a mental note for further examination.


Jean Hill came to see the motorcade with her friend, Mary Moorman, who brought along her polaroid camera. Moorman took a photo of President Kennedy at about the same time as the shots were fired. Her famous black and white picture shows the grassy knoll in the background after Kennedy had been hit, but before the fatal head shot.[12]


Moorman told conspiracy researcher and attorney Mark Lane what she saw in Lane’s 1966 Documentary, Rush to Judgment:


“I took the picture at the same instant the president was hit and that does show in my picture.” Did you realize what happened when you first heard the shots? “No I didn’t. There was 3 or 4 real close together. It must have been the first one that shot him because that was at the time I took the picture. And after that time I took the picture the shots were still being fired and I decided I better get on the ground. I was no more than 15 feet from the car in the line of fire evidently.” The picture you took, I understand the FBI has it now. “Yes, that’s right.”[13]


Some conspiracy researchers say that analysis of Moorman’s famous picture shows a man with a badge holding a gun at the moment the shots were fired. And I am not ruling that out as a possibility. This “Badge Man” idea was popularized in Nigel Turner’s documentary series, The Men Who Killed Kennedy. You can watch the video where the experts break down a computerized blow-up of a very small section of an old grainy polaroid and then conclude that the grassy knoll shooter is in there somewhere. But, the Moorman photo just doesn’t provide enough proof for me. The photo analysis ends up feeling pretty much like a Rohrshach test, where you can see or not see whatever you want.[14]


But Mary Moorman took another important photo - a lesser known one that shows the Schoolbook Depository in the background. That photo was never published or referred to in the Warren Report. While the FBI returned the famous Grassy Knoll facing picture to Moorman, the photo that Moorman says was confiscated and showed the Schoolbook Depository in the background has been lost to history. There is some debate about whether this photo ever existed because the FBI says it returned all of the photos to Moorman.[15]


The evidence shows that the this second photo most likely did exist. First, a report filed by Deputy Bill Wiseman states, QUOTE “I got all these pictures and looked at them and in one picture Ms. Moorman had taken a picture of the lead motorcycle officer, in the background of this picture was the Sexton building and the window where the gunman sat when doing the shooting.”[16] (The Schoolbook Depository was previously called the Sexton building.)


Second, another report by FBI agents Gemberling and Ferryman states that Moorman had taken a picture of the lead motorcycle officer and in the background the Schoolbook Depository building was visible.[17]


If the background of one of her photos had the Schoolbook Depository and the alleged sniper’s nest window in it, how could that not be included in the Warren Report? And why was the photo never returned to Mary Moorman? especially when her other photos were returned.


SECRET SERVICE IN DEALEY PLAZA?


According to the Warren Report, QUOTE “Secret Service agents assigned to the motorcade remained at their posts during the race to the hospital. None stayed at the scene of the shooting…Forest V. Sorrels, special agent in charge Dallas office, was the first Secret Service agent to return to the scene of the assassination, approximately 20 or 25 minutes after the shots were fired.”[18]


If that is true, then the testimony of the next few witnesses raises some troubling questions for the Warren Report.


Gordon Arnold, a 22 year old army private just out of training camp brought a movie camera to Dealey Plaza to film the presidential motorcade and thought the railroad bridge over the triple underpass would give him the best vantage point.[19] Arnold started to walk behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll to get to the railroad bridge and encountered a man in a suit who told Arnold he was with the Secret Service and did not want anybody up there.[20] Arnold then walked back towards where he came from and stopped halfway down the fence.


Once again, the same man came back and said “I told you to get out of this area.” Arnold then walked all the way around the fence and stood near the top of the grassy knoll with his back to the fence, which was about 3 feet behind him. He began filming and then heard shots fired.


“That’s when I started to line up my frame so that I could take a picture of the parade. As I was panning down this direction, just as I got to about this position, a shot came right past my left ear, and that’s when I fell down. And to me, it seemed like a second shot was fired over my head. There was a bunch of report going on in the area at this particular time. As I was laying on the ground, it seemed like a gentlemen came from this particular direction. He had a uniform of a police officer, but he didn’t wear a hat and he had dirty hands. With him crying like he was and shaking when he had the weapon in his hand, I would have gave him almost anything except the camera. The man kicked me and asked if I was taking a picture. I told him I was, and I let him have the film. He went in that direction, I went in this direction, 3 days later I was in Alaska and I didn’t come back to the United States for about 18 months.”[21]


Arnold’s testimony is notable for several reasons. 1) It tends to support the idea of shots coming from the front, 2) It involves video evidence being confiscated, 3) It alleges that a man in a suit coat standing near the Grassy Knoll said he was Secret Service before shots were fired, and 4) it alleges that a man in a police uniform with dirty hands was on the grassy knoll immediately after the shooting. If true, Arnold’s testimony opens up a lot of issues.


But Gordon Arnold’s credibility has been called into question by Warren Report defenders who argue that no other witnesses saw Arnold at the time. Many people believe that Arnold fabricated the entire incident and was not even present in Dealey Plaza that day.


They also say that Arnold is not visible in the photographs that were taken of the grassy knoll at the time.[22]In the documentary, The Men Who Killed Kennedy – the first film where Arnold appeared on video, director Nigel Turner claims that analysis of the Mary Moorman grassy knoll photo proves that Arnold was on the grassy knoll where he says he was.[23] Now, just like with the Badge Man photo analysis, I couldn’t make heads or tales of it . Maybe it’s Arnold. Maybe it’s just a black cloud with a vague outline.


If all secret service agents stayed with the motorcade until 20 minutes after shots were fired, as the Warren Report states, then Arnold’s story about seeing a secret service agent on the Grassy Knoll after the shooting must be false. Unless, there are others who also saw it? Did anyone else see secret service agents on the Grassy Knoll?


The quick answer is Yes.


Dallas police Officer Joe Marshall Smith was one of the first people to rush up the grassy knoll and behind the stockade fence. He said he “smelled gunpowder right away.”[24]


Smith told the Warren Commission that when he encountered a man in the parking lot behind the fence, QUOTE “I pulled my pistol from my holster and I thought, this is silly, I don’t know who I am looking for, and I put it back. Just as I did, he showed me that he was a Secret Service agent.”[25] Smith said he “had seen those credentials before and that satisfied [him] that the man was actually a Secret Service agent.[26] Smith also said that the man he encountered QUOTE “had on a sports shirt and sports pants. But he had dirty fingernails, it looked like, and hands that looked like an auto mechanic’s hands. And afterwards it didn’t ring true for the Secret Service.”[27]


So, Officer Joe Smith is on record saying that he also saw a man who claimed to be a Secret Service agent in the same place that Gordon Arnold saw the man – near the grassy knoll and the stockade fence. And Officer Smith also corroborates Arnold’s story about the man’s dirty hands.


But Smith isn’t the only law enforcement officer who saw secret service on the grassy knoll, Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman did as well. After Weitzman heard the shots fired, he immediately ran towards the stockade fence at the top of the grassy knoll and jumped over it. He said that he encountered other officers and a Secret Service agent there and turned over a portion of the president’s skull that he found on Elm Street to the Secret Service agent.[28] Weitzman did not provide a description of the alleged Secret Service agent (or agents) he met. The skull bone never appeared in the records for the Warren Commission.[29]


Author Michael Canfield says that Weitzman DID identify this supposed grassy knoll secret service agent to him in Canfield’s 1975 book, Coup D’état in America.[30] Canfield says he visited Weitzman in a home for aged veterans and interviewed him. During this interview, Canfield showed Weitzman photos of some men that he considered to be suspects, including recent Watergate burglars – E Howard Hunt, Frank Sturgis, and Bernard Barker. And, sure enough, Wetizman identified Bernard Barker as the man he saw impersonating a Secret Service agent on the grassy knoll.[31]


This is salacious stuff! No Doubt about it. But, apparently, Weitzman had a nervous breakdown in 1972 and lived in government facilities after that. This makes the credibility of Weitzman’s statement to Canfield under those circumstances not very reliable. Weitzman was not willing to sign a statement implicating Barker. I do not ultimately put much stock in this statement by Weitzman. But, it’s definitely interesting enough to include here.


CONCLUSION


To summarize, so far, we have three witnesses (Gordon Arnold, Officer Joe Smith, and Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman) who say that they saw a Secret Service agent near the grassy knoll fence immediatelyafter the shooting. On the other hand, the Warren Report says all Secret Service agents were accounted for and remained with the motorcade.


There is one more man who claims to have seen a Secret Service agent near the top of the grassy knoll – Malcolm Summers. Here’s what he told the PBS documentary series NOVA that he saw:


After the motor van had passed, I waited about a minute. Then, I came running across to the knoll. When I got here, I was stopped by a person in a suit with an overcoat throwed over his arm. He also had a gun under his arm. It looked like a little machine gun to me. A small machine gun.[32]… and his comment was don’t yall come up here any further. You could get shot or killed. One of those words.[33]


So who was the man holding himself out as Secret Service, with an official secret service badge, standing near the stockade fence behind the grassy knoll immediately after the shooting if he wasn’t really a secret service agent? We now have four people who say they saw this man.


We also have one more person who claims to have seen a Secret Service agent after the assassination. But not at the stockade fence on the grassy knoll like the others. Sargeant DV Harkness said that at 12:36 – 5 minutes after the shots were fired – he went to the back of the Book Depository to seal it off. He told the Warren Commission quote: There were some Secret Service Agents there. I didn’t get them identified. They told me they were Secret Service.”[34]


So, with the testimony from Sargeant Harkness, we now have 5 people who claim to have encountered Secret Service agents – and three of them were law enforcement officers. Either they were all mistaken and invented this story – or there was someone (maybe multiple people) posing as Secret Service agents in Dealey Plaza that day.


Next time on Solving JFK: We continue looking at the Dealey Plaza witnesses, including Ed Hoffman, Tom Tilson, the Railroad Overpass witnesses, Lee Bowers, and injured by-stander James Tague.

[1] Gerald Posner, Case Closed at 219. [2] Sixth Floor Museum - https://www.jfk.org/the-assassination/motorcade/ [3] Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History at 846. [4] Harry Holmes, Warren Commission Testimony - https://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh7/pdf/WH7_Holmes.pdf [5] Assassination Archives and Research Center - https://aarclibrary.org/select-fbi-cryptonyms/ [6] Warren Report at 61. [7] http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/earwitnesses.htm [8] http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/shots.htm [9] Bugliosi at 847. [10]FBI Report Re: Jean Hill, CE 711, March 18, 1964 https://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=11109&search=mary_moorman+fbi+report#relPageId=4&tab=page [11] Jean Hill, Warren Commission Testimony - https://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh6/pdf/WH6_Hill.pdf [12] https://spartacus-educational.com/JFKmoorman.htm [13] Mark Lane, Rush to Judgment (1966) at 1:08. [14] Posner at 253. [15] FBI Report of April 7, 1964 https://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=62320&search=mary_moorman+fbi+report#relPageId=59&tab=page [16] https://jfkassassinationfiles.wordpress.com/2016/05/ [17] https://jfkassassinationfiles.wordpress.com/2016/05/ [18] Warren Report, at 52. [19] Earl Golz, “SS Imposters’ Spotted by JFK Witnesses,” Dallas Morning News (August 27, 1978), p 1A. [20] Id. [21] The Men Who Killed Kennedy, Part 2, at 8:00 [22] https://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/arnold3.htm?fbclid=IwAR32uyaZ0R4PkYOILvSCcMYy-aYa_N6QQcryehh9shZRoIgWe2kTXskKN0o [23] The Men Who Killed Kennedy, Part 2 at 9:30 [24] Interviews of Joe Marshall Smith by Anthony Summers, Conspiracy, p 50 [25] Joe Smith Warren Commission Testimony - https://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh7/pdf/WH7_JoeSmith.pdf [26] Id. [27] Anthony Summers, Conspiracy, p 50 [28] http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh7/pdf/WH7_Weitzman.pdf [29] http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh7/pdf/WH7_Weitzman.pdf [30] Steve Cameron, The Deputy Interviews at 124. [31] Id. at 125. [32] PBS Nova Documentary Clip at 0:32 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-MFIcCwcv0 [33] Id. at 02:17 [34] Warren Commission Testimony of DV Harkness, https://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh6/pdf/WH6_Harkness.pdf

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