Review of “A Cruel and Shocking Act”
Philip Shenon’s book “A Cruel and Shocking Act” is a detailed peek inside the inner workings of the Warren Commission. Mr. Shenon acknowledged in his book the JFK Assassination had not previously been of much interest to him when he was approached by a former member of the Warren Commission (whom I suspect was Arlen Specter for a variety of reasons) and Shenon’s lack of familiarity with the topic become obvious as one reads through the book.
During the publicity tour for the book, Mr. Shenon claimed to have uncovered new information not previously disclosed about the extent to which the FBI and CIA hid critical information from the Warren Commission staff. In particular, Mr. Shenon focuses on Lee Oswald’s trip to Mexico City in late September/early October, claiming that if certain key information had been disclosed to the FBI and secret service, the assassination may have been preventable. This of course, assumes Lee Oswald was the lone gunman- a view not shared by me.
Anyway, those of us who are well-versed in the assassination know that these so-called new facts that Shenon touts have been largely publicly available since the 1976 publication of the Church Committee Report written by Senators Gary Hart and Richard Schweiker (formally known as “The Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Performance of the Intelligence Agencies,” Book V, Final Report, Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations) along with the Lopez Report prepared for the House Select Assassinations Committee and the other numerous documents released by the National Archives following passage of the JFK Records Act.
To his credit, he did review an enormous amount of material not only at the National Archives but also papers stored at the LBJ and Gerald Ford Libraries along with personal papers of Earl Warren and Richard Russell, many of which are accessible by the internet. As a result, Mr. Shenon does provide some interesting factoids about how the Warren Commission functioned, including internal disputes and disagreements among the staff.
The major drawback to the book is that Mr. Shenon seems incapable of viewing ambiguous or conflicting information as evidence of possible conspiracy. Perhaps it was out of loyalty to his sources or perhaps unwilling to risk his reputation in the main stream media. In any event, whenever Mr. Shenon encounters evidence that presents a crossroad decision for him, he consistently opts for the lone gunman path. In doing so, he sometimes omits evidence to the contrary, overstates the evidence he relies on or uses the same approach of the Warren Commission and chooses to ignore or find such problematic evidence unpersuasive.
To assist readers, I have listed below 40 of the more egregious examples in the book where I would have expected more from a reporter of Mr. Shenon’s capability and reputation.
- Page 23: Shenon asserts that the testimony of the doctors at Parkland Hospital that they thought the throat wound was an entry bullet was because they did not know about the back wound. What he does not mention is that the doctors reached this conclusion based on the appearance of the wound and most of them continued to believe the throat wound was an entry wound until they died.
- Page 47: Shenon says Hoover was wrong when he told LBJ that the voice tape and picture taken of Oswald in Mexico City did not correspond to him. While it is true that the CIA later admitted it used the wrong photo, Shenon does not mention that the CIA translator who transcribed Oswald’s conversations said the person speaking spoke horrible Russian but good Spanish, which is the opposite of Oswald’s abilities. Moreover, FBI staff that listened to the tape agreed that the voice was not Oswald’s.
- Page 123: Shenon says Oswald was the only employee to leave the TSBD after the shooting. This is incorrect. The superintendent mention that Oswald was missing and claimed at one point all of his employees were accounted for but several others did not return, including a key witness Charles Givens.
- Page 197: Shenon misstates that ballistics and fingerprints conclusively demonstrated that Oswald fired the rifle. It is unclear if Shenon means the evidence established beyond a reasonable doubt which is the standard necessary for a conviction or if he merely means a preponderance of the evidence which is sufficient for establishing liability in a civil case but not for establishing guilt in a criminal case. In any event, the ballistics evidence was so poorly handled that it is hopelessly muddled and much of it would likely not be admissible in court as unreliable. As Henry Wade testified, the poor state of the evidence may have been an artifact of the way Captain Fritz ran the homicide unit. As Wade told the WC “Captain Fritz is about as good a man at solving a crime as I ever saw, to find out who did it but he is the poorest at getting evidence that I know…” Following are some examples that undercut Shenon’s statement on this page.
- Page 197-The paraffin test applied to Oswald’s cheek failed to detect any gunpowder residue. While paraffin test may not reliably detect gunpowder, the absence of such evidence casts doubt that the evidence “conclusively demonstrate” that Oswald fired his rifle.
- Page 197– No Oswald fingerprints were found on the spent shells or the rifle clip.
- Page 197– All three shells had extractor and ejector marks, indicating that the cartridges had been loaded and extracted into a weapon multiple times. None of these marks had sufficient characteristics to link the marks to the so-called Oswald rifle found on the sixth floor. For the shell identified as CE 544 (FBI C7), one set of marks was linked to the chamber and another set of marks by contact with the bolt of the Oswald rifle. However, the FBI could not say if these marks were produced by one or two loading operations. The shell identified as CE 545 (FBI C8) had two sets of marks from the magazine follower (the spring-tensioned lever that pushes the last cartridge in the clip into place). Only the last shell in chamber will have a magazine follower mark yet a live round was found in the Oswald rifle.
- Page 197– Shenon fails to discuss the evidentiary problems with the condition of this third shell, referred to as CE 543 (FBI C6). According to the FBI, this shell had markings on it indicating it had been loaded and extracted from a weapon three times (not necessarily the MC rifle). It also had marks from the magazine follower. Again, since a live round was found in the rifle, the spent shell casing could not have been the last cartridge in the clip. CE 543 also had three sets of marks on the base that were not found on the other two shells which could be indicative of “dry firing” (loading empty shell into a breech). This suggests that this shell had been previously fired from the rifle, was recovered and then deposited on the sixth floor. Finally, this cartridge had a dent on its lip that would have prevented fitting a bullet into the opening. Several researchers including Josiah Thompson have shown this dent could not have been by the shell striking the floor following ejection but probably from dry loading (i.e., only the shell is in the breech).
- Page 197-While three shells were recovered from the TSBD, DPD Lieutenant Day testified that the evidence envelope sent to the FBI lab office the evening of November 22nd only contained two shells and that the third shell was retained by DPD homicide for several days before forwarding to the
- Page 197– Thanks to TV cameraman Tom Alyea who was the first civilian to reach the sixth floor, we now know that the photos taken of shells on the floor of the sixth floor were taken AFTER Captain Will Fritz picked them up. Alyea said he could not film the shells because the boxes of books were in the way so Captain Fritz picked up the shells to allow Alyea to film them. Alyea as well as deputy sheriffs Roger Craig and Luke Mooney said the shells were bunched together in a space with a width of about two feet and all facing the same direction. Alyea wrote that the police photo showing the shell casings lying next to the brick wall was staged. He said that Captain Fritz handed the shells to Det. Studebaker who tossed the casings on the floor and photographed them. Deputy Sheriff Mooney testified to the WC that Capt. Fritz picked up the shells. Alyea filmed the discovery of the rifle and disputes that anyone referred to the rifle as a Mauser when it was discovered.
- Page 197-Alyea also says that the sniper’s nest was originally no higher than four before it was dismantled by the police to search the boxes for fingerprints and other evidence. He (and other EC testimony corroborates) that the nest was reconstructed prior to photographers being allowed into the building. However, Alyea says the reconstructed nest was five feet high-perhaps to help explain why TSBD employee Bonnie Ray Williams did not see Oswald when Williams was eating his chicken sandwich at noon? If Alyea is credible, his comments would have undermined the admissibility of the evidence that Shenon claims conclusively demonstrated that Oswald fired the rifle in evidence. At the very least, it calls into question whether there was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt which is necessary for a conviction.
- Page 197-Shenon also does not mention that the FBI was unable to develop any evidence that Oswald purchased any of the ammunition that was used in the rifle. According to the testimony of the FBI’s firearms expert, bullets were usually sold separately in 20 round boxes. Clips could also be purchased separately. Shenon does not tell his readers that despite an exhaustive search, the FBI could not uncover any evidence that Oswald either bought bullets or clips for his rifle. FBI agents canvassed gun shops throughout Dallas. Only two gun shops sold the 6.5 mm ammo and both said they did not recall selling any ammo to Oswald.
- Page 197– Contrary to Shenon’s assertion, no Oswald fingerprints were found on the rifle. A partial and latent (old) palm print was lifted by DPD Lieutenant Day on the portion of the rifle barrel that is exposed only when rifle was dissembled. Interestingly, the FBI lab was unable to lift any prints and it was only after the rifle was returned to Dallas and Oswald was in the morgue that the palm prints magically appeared.
- Page 197– Shenon does not share with his readers police found a fingerprint and partial palm print of Oswald on found just one of the book cartons that made up the so-called sniper’s nest. The police did find numerous other fingerprints of other TSBD employees along with an unidentified set of prints. He does not explain that there were employees laying down floor tiles on the 6th floor that day and moving books around as they progressed across the floor. All that activity and moving boxes would have made it hard to hide a rifle under those circumstances.
- Page 197– Shenon fails to tell his readers that the boxes used to create the so-called sniper were moved around during the process of looking for shells and processing fingerprints. As Lieutenant Day testified, the boxes were not put back in any particular order so that the photos of the sniper’s nest do not represent the actual configuration of the boxes at the time of the alleged shooting.
- Page 197– In stating that ballistics conclusively demonstrate Oswald was lone gunman, Shenon fails to discuss that the lead analysis of the bullet fragments by the FBI known as Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) was said to be inconclusive. Both the NAA and spectrographic analysis written reports were not introduced into evidence. The testimony of the FBI firearms expert before the WC was that the composition of the fragments was chemically similar to the bullet supposedly recovered from the stretcher of Governor Connolly but could state conclusively that the fragments came from the same bullet.
- Page 197– Turning to other so-called evidence tying Oswald to the assassination, “a small tuft of textile fibers” were found adhered to a jagged edge on the left side of the metal butt plate on the Mannlicher-Carcano (MC) rifle. It is also true that the 11/23/63 FBI memo to Chief of Police Jesse Curry said the tuff included grey-black, dark blue and orange-yellow cotton fibers that were matched “in microscopic characteristics” the cotton fibers composing Oswald’s shirt. Shenon does not explain to his readers that Curry’s memo goes on to caution that ” fibers do not exhibit sufficient individual microscopic characteristics to be positively identified as originating from a particular source to the exclusion of all others.” This statement also applied to the “single brown viscose fiber and several light green cotton fibers” found adhering to the wrapping bag in which Oswald allegedly carried the MC into the building that day. There was no oil in paper bag that one would have expected from disassembled rifle.
- Page 197– Indeed, Shenon fails to share with his readers the fact that chief of police Jessie Curry said in 1969 that “we don’t have any proof that Oswald the rifle” and “No one has been able to put him in that building with a gun in his hand.” In chapter V of his book, Chief Curry writes: “The physical evidence and eyewitness accounts do not clearly indicate what took place on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository [at the time of the assassination…..]. He further states that “The testimony of the people who watched the motorcade was much more confusing than either the press or the Warren Commission seemed to indicate.”
- Page 246: Shenon states that the bullets found at the scene of the Tippit shooting precisely matched Oswald’s Smith & Wesson. There is some doubt about the shells that were found because the responding officers said they were from automatic and Oswald’s revolver was not an automatic pistol. Moreover, the chain of evidence was broken (an officer at the scene initialed shells but there are no initials on the shells put into evidence).
- Page 246: Shenon says Oswald ordered his pistol and rifle on the say day. Minor point but this goes towards the veracity or objectivity of his statements. Oswald ordered the pistol in January from a California gun shop and ordered the rifle from a mail order shop in March. Both arrived on the same day. He also does not mention that the Warren Commission used the serial number on the rifle as evidence that it was the rifle that was shipped from Klein’s to “A.J. Hidell” nor that the WC learned that multiple rifles were known to contain the same serial number. He also does not mention that the portion of the post office box application showing who was authorized to pick up deliveries was never produced. In other words, was someone other than Oswald able to pick up the rifle when it was delivered to the post office?
- Page 246– Shenon also does not mention that says Oswald ordered a 36-inch but the rifle recovered from the sixth floor was a 40.2 inch rifle. The HSCA discovered that Klein’s Sporting Goods placed scopes on the longer rifle but not the short rifle. Incidentally, both of the mail order shops were under investigation by the FBI and a Senate Committee chaired by Senator Dodd into illegal arms trafficking-part of an initiative to crack down on arms shipment to Cuban exile groups. This might explain why Oswald would have ordered weapons in a manner that would create a paper trail rather than simply walking into one of the numerous gun shops in Dallas.
- Page 247: In recreating Oswald’s movements, Shenon fails to mention that two TSBD employees who used the steps at the time of the shooting did not see Oswald run down the steps. Oswald was last seen on the sixth floor before the assassination at 11:45 by Charles Givens (the veracity of this statement is in doubt). He was also seen on the 2nd floor pantry seconds after the assassination. Then a secretary saw him with a Coke slowly walking out towards the front door.
- Page 249: Shenon downplays the evidentiary problems involving a key witness-Howard Brennan- who supposedly saw a gunman firing from the 6th floor window. Brennan was unable to identify Oswald at the police lineup. Shenon dismisses the significance of this, saying Brennan said he was afraid of identifying Oswald. Shenon does not find Brennan’s lying as impacting his credibility. Shenon also does not ask how Brennan could have identified the height and weight of the shooter since he would have had to be sitting down in sniper’s nest when firing since the window was low and only open part way. He also doesn’t mention that Brennan claimed to have seen the fire from the rifle and then turned to look at the President just as he was hit in the head. Either Brennan was gifted with remarkably strong neck muscles that allowed him to move his head at supersonic speed or that last shot was a rather lethargic bullet. We know that the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle has been criticized as a lousy weapon but no one has suggested that it fired bullets at the speed of the average major league changeup.
- Page 251: When discussing the key witness to the Tippit murder, Shenon does not mention the credibility problems associated with her testimony. She testified that she spoke to Tippit while the police responded to the shooting when it is undisputed that he never uttered a word after the final shot to his head. Indeed, she had to be administered meds to calm her down before she could appear at the police lineup and even then, gave very wishy-washy answers that any decent defense attorney would have used to destroy her usefulness as a witness.
- Page 260: Again discussing the neck wound, Shenon doesn’t mention that Dr. Carrico who assisted with the tracheotomy said on numerous occasions that he believed at the time and continue to believe the neck wound was an entry wound
- Page 261: Shenon discounts the report prepared by agents Seibert & O’Neil that quoted the autopsy doctors saying the back wound only penetrated the tip of the finger and there was no exit for the wound. Shenon characterizes the doctor’s statement as “Ill-informed speculation.” He says the report “stated flatly and incorrectly” the back wound. What he fails to tell readers is that the doctors were not engaging in “ill-informed speculation” but made the statement after probing the wound with an instrument.
- Page 267: Again, Shenon claims the views of the Parkland Hospital ER doctors that the neck wound was an entry wound was because they were not aware of the back wound. The doctors reached this conclusion because of the appearance of neck wound and most did not change their minds after learning of the back wound.
- Page 270: Shenon says scientific studies would validate the single bullet theory. What he does not say that the trajectory from the TSBD sixth floor does not match the trajectory in JFK’s neck. BTW- I do not necessarily disagree that a bullet could have passed through both men. It is possible that one bullet transverse the two men but the evidence is not as strong as either Shenon or the WC asserts. For an excellent discussion on the trajectory and other forensic issues, I encourage reading Sherry Fiester’s book “Enemy of the Truth”
- Page 319: In discussing Oswald’s marine shooting skills, he does not mention that second shooting test was lower than the first and that he achieved marksmen level by just one point-the lowest level available. He does not mention this test was with a semi-automatic M-1 rifle, that it was six years before he supposedly shot JFK, that the targets were stationary and larger than life, there is no credible evidence that he ever practiced using a bolt-action rifle, that there is no evidence he ever bought any ammo despite exhaustive canvassing of local gun shops, that the rifle sight was so wobbly the FBI had to insert shims before conducting rifle tests, the sight was mounted for a left-handed shooter yet Oswald was right-handed, and there is no explanation how the sight could have been aligned after he supposedly re-assembled his rifle when he brought it to the TSBD the morning of the assassination. My understanding is that a rifle needs to be fired a few times to align the telescopic sight after it has been assembled.
- Page 319: Shenon says Oswald was rarely seen in company of women but ignores that reports that he was spending time with the “hostess” of the Queen Bee-one of the three most expensive “nightclubs in Tokyo. The hostess was an expensive date. An evening with this Madame typically ran $60-$100. How did Oswald on his $85/month salary manage to regularly “date” this woman of the night?
- Page 319– In reconstructing Oswald’s military history, Shenon overlooks or fails to mention that Oswald worked as a radar operator at the Atsugi air force base where top secret U-2 flights originated. As radar operator, he had access to classified information such as altitude and flight patterns as well as call codes.
- Page 320: In discussing Paine family, Shenon does not mention the curious family background of Ruth Paine or that Michael Paine worked at Bell Helicopters
- Page 325: Shenon downplays the friendship of George de Mohrenschildt with Walter Moore, a CIA Domestic Contacts Division agent based in Dallas. Mr. De Mohrenschildt is on record of having said that Moore was aware of Oswald and told him it was ok to associate with Oswald. Moore admitted to periodic contact with de Mohrenschildt for “debriefing purposes”. In his last interview just before his alleged assassination in 1977, de Mohrenschildt said that Moore encourage him to keep tabs on Oswald. He also downplays the fact that Oswald associated with the White Russian community who were avid anti-communists. Odd associations for a supposed Marxist.
- Page 368: Shenon again incorrectly states Oswald’s “fingerprints” were found on the rifle and bullets (see comments for page 197)
- Page 386: Shenon refers to David Atlee Phillips, the CIA’s head of for western hemisphere at the time of the assassination, as saying LHO was Looney fellow who decided to shoot the president, and that there was no evidence to show Cubans or soviets put him up. What Shenon does not tell his readers is that Phillips later said just before he died that he thought JFK was killed by conspiracy, likely rogue elements of CIA.
- Page 387: Perhaps Shenon is aware of the Phillips statement fingering rogue elements of the CIA being responsible for the assassination because he then takes a swipe at Phillips, suggesting that at end of his life, Phillips appeared ready to capitalize on conspiracy theories when he left behind outline for novel. Why is this evidence of trying to profit on JFK’s grave? Perhaps wanted to tell the truth in the form of a novel- a classic type of plausible deniability.
- Page 410: Shenon tries to explain Oswald’s activities in New Orleans by suggesting he was trying to infiltrate exile groups in New Orleans to obtain intelligence for Castro. The more likely answer is the completely opposite-that he was working on behalf of the government to destroy the credibility of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). When Oswald was arrested, he asked to speak to an FBI agent and offered information he had developed. Shenon ignores that Oswald stamped the address of the side door to the office of private detective and former FBI agent Guy Bannister who was running a variety of anti-Castro operations out of his shop. Shenon also does not mention that the police officer who responded to the fight that led to Oswald’s arrest thought fight looked staged. He also fails to tell readers that at the time Oswald created his one-man chapter of the FPCC and garnered all kinds of negative publicity for the FPCC, the CIA had decided to launch propaganda initiative against the FPCC.
- Page 423: In explaining why Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade identified the so-called assassination rifle was a Mauser, Shenon states Wade was simply mistaken. It is not that simple, though. The two DPD employees who found the rifle, Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman, was a former gun shop owner, and Deputy Sheriff Boone identified it as a Mauser. The day after the assassination they signed affidavits that the rifle was a 7.65 Mauser bolt action rifle equipped with a 4/18 scope and a thick leather sling. Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig said the “Mauser” was stamped of the rifle’s receiver though the veracity of this statement is in question.
- Page 479: Here he discusses the taped conversation between LBJ and Senator Richard Russell who was a member of the Warren Commission and LBJ’s mentor. Russell told LBJ he did not believe the single bullet theory and thought that Governor was hit by a separate bullet. LBJ tells Russell that he didn’t believe it either. Shenon plays psychologist and explains without any supporting evidence that LBJ was simply reflecting respect to Russell and did not want to disagree with him because he needed his help with other matters.
- Page 501: Shenon again dismisses the report by O’Neill and Seibert report stating that the back would was shallow and had no exit as based on faulty speculation. In fact, they recorded the statement of one of the pathologists after exploring the back wound with a probe.
- Page 518: Shenon doubts that David Ferrie knew Oswald despite a volume of evidence to the contrary, including a photograph showing a teenage Oswald in the Civilian Air Patrol unit led by Ferrie.
- Page 519: In discussing the acquittal of Clay Shaw, he fails to tell his readers that members of the jury said they felt that Garrison had produced evidence of a conspiracy to kill JFK but just that there was insufficient evidence that Shaw was part of the conspiracy.
- Page 524: Shenon uses RFK’s public statements as support for the Warren Commission. In particular, he points to RFK’s supposed last substantive comments at San Fernando Valley State College in March 1968. What Shenon fails to tell his readers is that RFK said he would be willing to have the records released which shocked his aides such as Frank Mankiewicz, who took the statement as veiled intent to re-open the investigation. More importantly, he did tell aides at the SF Fairmont Hotel per notes transcribed by Richard Lubic that he would re-open the investigation after he became President. Two weeks later, he was dead. Shenon also fails to tell readers of RFK’s private investigations into the assassination and his private conversations with friends where he expressed disagreement with the Warren Commission. Indeed, RFK Jr confirmed these statements to Charlie Rose in January 2013. But those statements do not appear in Shenon’s book.
- Page 541-In discussing Cuban and USSR visits in Mexico City, doesn’t mention the imposter discussed earlier who was caught on audio tapes. He does not mention the curious coincidence that the person when Oswald received his tourist visa to Mexico, the person who received the next tourist visa was William George Gaudet, a known CIA operative. To obtain the next consecutive number, he would have had to be standing directly behind Oswald.