In the days, weeks, months, and even years following President Kennedy’s tragic murder in Dallas, a number of individuals not initially identified as witnesses have come forward to bestow such status upon themselves. Some sound reasonable enough and are widely accepted as genuine eyewitnesses, even if their accounts add little to our understanding of that day’s events; others make claims that can be harder to accept as authentic.
As author Richard Trask has observed:
There are numerous examples of various fakers, publicity seekers, and mentally imbalanced individuals who unfortunately often present themselves after the fact as legitimate spectators or even participants to history. With the development of rapid transportation and speedy communications, individuals can be at locations soon after a breaking news event or can at least quickly learn information about such events. In extreme cases one could fabricate a story, enabling him to fool others with passable knowledge of what actual witnesses did see.
The desire to be a part of exciting or historic events or to acquire a sense of importance can motivate people to say things that aren’t true. Sometimes this may manifest itself in relatively innocent acts of exaggeration, as may be the case with statements Dallas Morning News reporter Hugh Aynesworth heard in the chaotic moments that followed the shooting of President Kennedy. Aynesworth, who himself was an eyewitness to the assassination, began talking to other witnesses immediately, scribbling down notes on the backs of some envelopes he happened to have with him. He recalls:
I remember interviewing people that said they saw certain things; some did, some didn’t. Even then there were people making up things. Even then!
I remember interviewing a young couple where the guy was telling me that he had seen this and he had seen that, and his wife said, “You didn’t see that! We were back in the parking lot when it happened!” Even then! And, of course, we’ve seen that in abundance since.
In rare instances, of course, people may indulge in behavior that fulfills the definition of a full-blown hoax.
One of the first cases of this type to emerge in the wake of the Kennedy assassination is that of photographer Norman Similas, a 34-year-old resident of Ontario, Toronto, who was in Dallas on the day of the assassination, covering the annual American Bottlers’ Carbonated Beverages convention for the Canadian Beverage Review. Almost immediately Similas began claiming to have “witnessed from a distance of less than seven feet the assassination of President Kennedy” (“close enough to the car to have kicked the side of it”), from the south side of Elm Street, a “spot not far from the underpass.” His account included any number of implausible elements, including the claim that during the shooting, a Secret Service agent ran up to the President’s limousine, gun drawn, and opened the door, sending JFK “falling toward the pavement.”
Similas also claimed to have obtained sensational photographs of the assassination, including a shot of the sixth-floor “Sniper’s Nest” window of the Texas School Book Depository with two people visible inside, one of whom had been caught in the act of firing a rifle. Inspection of Similas’s photographs failed to bear out such claims; in fact, while he had obtained numerous shots of crowd-lined streets and possibly portions of the motorcade, none of his photos showed any evidence of having been taken in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination.
Similas later claimed that his most important photos were unaccountably missing, but newsmen who interviewed him described him as evasive and unbelievable. One of these men, Associated Press day photo editor Ray Jefferies, who studied Similas’s negatives and interviewed him the day after the assassination, commented that Similas “probably cooked up the story to make a fast buck.” A thorough investigation led authorities to agree.
In the wee hours of March 24, 1964, Duty Sergeant Patrick T. Dean received a collect call from Victoria, British Columbia, from a man who identified himself as Ralph Simpson. Simpson claimed to have been vacationing in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination and to have filmed the assassination from a vantage point that captured the Texas School Book Depository in the background. It was quickly determined that “Simpson” was actually one Ralph Henry William Smele, who admitted to Canadian authorities that he had never been to Dallas, had never had any film of the assassination, and had made the phone call to Dallas while watching television and drinking.
stated that on November 22, 1963, at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy, he was standing on the grass on the north side of Elm Street — on the slope approaching the triple underpass. He recalls only one shot and that immediately after the shot he ran up the slope toward the railroad tracks and was stopped by an unknown police officer who pointed a pistol at him and shouted, “Where are you going?” He then returned down the slope. [He] stated that he could hear very little out of his left ear and that he heard the shot with his right ear and in his opinion the shot came from his right which was the direction of the railroad tracks. He also stated that he saw a puff of smoke come from behind the fence near the railroad tracks. He stated he was so excited he doesn’t recall any additional shots. He further stated that at the time of the incident, he did not reveal himself and had talked to no one regarding this until the recent publicity. He states that he revealed himself and made a statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New York City.
Although Baetz had not contacted the New York City FBI, as claimed, the FBI investigated and identified Wilfred H. Baetz as a Bronxville, New York, resident with a colorful past.
Born in Darby, England, on February 13, 1911, Wilfred Henry Baetz had, by his own account, lived in the United States since childhood. He had served in the U.S. Army in 1941-42 and subsequently received a medical discharge. He had once enjoyed a career as a radio scriptwriter and singer. In 1943, Baetz had been responsible for composing such patriotic ditties as “Stand By America” and “You Buy ‘Em We’ll Fly ‘Em.”
Before the war’s end, however, life for Baetz took a darker turn, as he embarked upon an arson spree that spanned at least seven years, resulted in several prison terms and at least one commitment to a mental hospital for observation, and was estimated by Boston police to have been responsible for “25 to 30 fires in Brookline, Allston and Brighton, Massachusetts.”
Contacted by the FBI on December 21, 1966, Baetz admitted to his arson record, as well as “a couple of drunk arrests in Brighton, and Boston, Massachusetts.” He stated that he had maintained no steady employment since suffering a heart attack two years earlier, had no children, and lived with his wife, Caroline, who was employed by the Time-Life Company. Researcher Debra Conway theorizes that Baetz’s call to Dallas was triggered by a reading of the November 25, 1966, issue of Life magazine, which featured prominent coverage of the assassination’s anniversary (possibly the “recent publicity” Baetz referred to in his phone call) and reports of evidence pointing to a possible grassy knoll gunman.
However, while it was confirmed that a twelve-minute call to the Dallas Police Department had been charged from Baetz’s home phone number, Baetz denied placing the phone call to the Dallas Police Department. He told the FBI that “on November 22, 1963, the date of President Kennedy’s assassination, he and his wife and his sister-in-law were at his residence and watched the details of the assassination on television. He stated that he was practically ‘glued’ to his television set for the next three days.” He added that “he knows nothing concerning the assassination of President Kennedy other than what he has observed on television or read about,” and suggested that someone must have charged the call to his home telephone as some kind of practical joke.
On December 5, 1963, a woman who refused to give her name phoned the Detroit office of the FBI and claimed that “she had taken 16 millimeter colored movies of the assassination” of President Kennedy, and that “these movies had turned out better than the pictures published in ‘Life’ magazine [from the Abraham Zapruder home movie].” She said she would “mail these movies” to the FBI’s Detroit office. An FBI report notes, “This woman advised that she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, working towards a Ph.D. degree. She said she is a State Department exchange student from West Berlin, Germany, and said that she was then leaving immediately for Germany. This unidentified woman also stated that she had a sister in Dallas that she had been visiting at the time of the assassination.”
The FBI attempted to identify and locate the woman with the assistance of the International Institute of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the Detroit office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, without success.
The same day the FBI received the anonymous phone call, a similar call was received by Robert Lubeck, Feature Editor of the Detroit News. The caller identified herself only as a “Mrs. Beck,” who said she was from Lincoln Park, Michigan, and a subscriber to the Detroit News. She said she had some 16 millimeter color “films of the assassination” taken from the overpass in Dealey Plaza, “which were better than the ones in ‘Life’ magazine.” She said she would deliver the film to the Detroit News personally.
If “Mrs. Beck’s” film existed, it would have been worth hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars; but neither this incentive, nor any consciousness of the potential legal and historical importance of such a film, ever motivated “Mrs. Beck” to make good on her claims. Neither the FBI nor the Detroit News ever received any such film, and “Mrs. Beck” was never heard from again. An attempt to identify the Detroit News caller through subscription records failed. According to those who witnessed the assassination from the railroad overpass, there were no women in that area.
Interviewed in 1971, Oliver “said she took a color movie at about where the ‘Babushka Lady’ was located but couldn’t pick herself out with any definiteness in . . . photos.” (Six years later, during a March 12, 1977, interview with representatives of the House Select Committee reinvestigating the assassination, Oliver was still unable to state whether or not the “Babushka Lady” in some Dealey Plaza photographs was her.) The next day, she said, she turned the “undeveloped film over to two agents who claimed to be federal, but who she said dressed like Texas Rangers.” She didn’t get their names or a receipt, and said she never saw film her film again.
“From the position that I was filming, I had the best shot of the assassination, and probably the only one that had a real good shot of the grassy knoll,” Oliver would later state. “And [there] probably would be a lot of unanswered questions answered if my film could be found.” FBI, CIA, and Secret Service records disclose no information whatsoever about the existence of any such film.
Oliver’s story later underwent any number of revisions, expansions, and embellishments. She initially claimed that she had filmed the assassination with a Super 8 Yashica movie camera; but the Super 8 camera was not marketed in the US until November 1965. Upon learning this Oliver began claiming that her camera had actually been an 8 mm foreign-made experimental model. In sworn testimony years later, she denied ever having identified the camera as a Yashica Super 8 model.
The day her film was confiscated was revised from Saturday, November 23rd, to Sunday, November 24th, then finally to Monday, November 25th. The men “dressed like Texas Rangers” who had taken her film were later described as simply agents in plainclothes, whom she believed were either FBI or Secret Service; or as men who “showed me some cards and introduced themselves, I don’t remember their names, but they said they were from the FBI and the CIA . . .”
In the late 1980s Oliver began making the startling claim that she had seen an actual shooter on the grassy knoll. “I know where I thought the shots came from was the picket fence area around that large tree,” Oliver states in the British documentary series The Men Who Killed Kennedy, “somewhere on the other side of those steps [indicating east of the steps leading to the pergola], but in the picket fence area. There was a figure there, and there was smoke there. I will always believe that the man that shot President Kennedy was standing somewhere in the picket fence area,” she adds somewhat incongruously, “and no one’ll ever convince me any differently.”
This was hardly the extent of her story, however. She also claimed to have been a close personal friend of Jack Ruby: “Jack was a very precious friend of mine,” she said. “I probably knew him as well as anyone on the face of the earth.” Yet, in all the thousands of available pages of statements and testimony from hundreds of Ruby associates and acquaintances, not a single one of them, friend or foe, mentions this heartwarming friendship between the 16-year-old beauty and the 52-year-old nightclub owner. On one occasion at Ruby’s Carousel Club, Oliver reported with a straight face, Ruby introduced her to a young man he identified as his friend, “Lee Oswald of the CIA.”
Oliver professed to have had a close friendship with stripper Janet Conforto, known professionally as Jada. According to Oliver: Jada had witnessed her meeting with Ruby and Oswald; she had spoken with Jada at the Carousel Club on the eve of the assassination; Jada told reporters about Oswald knowing Ruby; and the stripper soon mysteriously “disappeared.” Oliver kept silent about her story for so long, she said, because “I didn’t want to become a statistic” like Jada; “I didn’t want to become one of those people that shot myself in the back of the head with a shotgun.”
Actually, Jada had not worked at the Carousel Club for nearly a month prior to the assassination. She told reporters that, as far as she knew, Oswald and Ruby did not know each other. And she did not “disappear” or die mysteriously, but rather, moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
According to Oliver, another witness to her meeting with Jack Ruby and Lee Oswald was Carousel bartender Andrew Armstrong. Armstrong told the Warren Commission he had never seen Lee Oswald at the Carousel Club, and had never seen anyone who resembled Oswald.
Years after New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison made national headlines charging a New
Orleans man named David Ferrie with involvement in the assassination (but not while Garrison’s
investigation into the assassination was still active), Beverly Oliver began claiming she had seen
David Ferrie frequently at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club in 1963; that she had seen him there so
often, in fact, that she had believed him to be an assistant manager of the club.
But David Ferrie lived and worked in New Orleans in 1963, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he made any travels to Dallas. On the contrary, Ferrie friend Layton Martens told author Gus Russo that between himself and three other friends, “one or more of us were at Dave’s apartment [with Ferrie] practically every night that year.”
When Texas resident Ricky Don White came forward in 1990 to claim that his father, Roscoe, had been an assassin on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, Beverly Oliver supported White’s story, “remembering” that she had seen Roscoe White on the knoll just after the shooting. The Ricky Don White story was quickly unmasked as a fraud, one of the most notorious hoaxes in the history of the assassination inquiry. Later still, Oliver began claiming to have inside knowledge of an assassination plot that she says took the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though to some degree it may be coincidence, certain motifs seem to emerge in the claims made by these individuals. There are the frequent and tantalizing allusions to grassy knoll assassins; unseen photographic evidence of the assassination, sometimes described as better or more important than the extant photos and films; and, of course, references to sinister or suspicious police officers or federal agents, shielding the area behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll from prying eyes, or confiscating evidence from hapless eyewitnesses.
If it is a reasonably simple matter, however, to dismiss the claims of Norman Similas, “Ralph Simpson,” Wilfred Baetz, et al, it is still an indisputable fact that dozens upon dozens of spectators near the site of the assassination were never identified or interviewed by the local or federal authorities. Sooner or later, some of these witnesses are bound to come forward. If there is no solid evidence one way or the other, how is one to know if any of these latecomers is the genuine article or not?
In 1978, at a time when a House of Representatives Select Committee was stirring up public interest in JFK’s murder, some members of a Dallas jury panel, during a break in proceedings, began discussing the assassination. One member of the group, Gordon Arnold, volunteered the information that he had been an eyewitness in Dealey Plaza, but had never been interviewed by the authorities. His statements were brought to the attention of newsman Earl Golz, who first reported Arnold’s tale in the Dallas Morning News of Sunday, August 27, 1978:
Gordon L. Arnold, [a] former Dallas soldier, said he was stopped by a man wearing a light-colored suit as he was walking behind a fence on top of the grassy knoll minutes before the assassination. Arnold, now an investigator for the Dallas Department of Consumer Affairs, was not called by the Warren Commission and has not been interviewed by the House Assassinations Committee.
Arnold said he was moving toward the railroad bridge over the triple underpass to take movie film of the presidential motorcade when “this guy just walked towards me and said that I shouldn’t be up there.”
Arnold challenged the man’s authority, he said, and the man “showed me a badge and said he was with the Secret Service and that he didn’t want anybody up there.”
Arnold then retreated to the front of the picket fence high up on the knoll just to the west of the pergola on the north side of Elm Street.
AS THE PRESIDENTIAL LIMOUSINE came down Elm towards the triple underpass, Arnold stood on a mound of fresh dirt and started rolling his film.
He said he “felt” the first shot come from behind him, only inches over his left shoulder, he said.
“I had just gotten out of basic training,” Arnold said, “In my mind live ammunition was being fired. It was being fired over my head and I hit the dirt.”
Arnold, then 22, said the first two shots came from behind the fence, “close enough for me to fall down on my face.” He stayed there for the duration of the shooting.
His fence position, under the shade of a tree, may have locked away his story for 15 years as the Warren Commission and later other assassination researchers scanned photographs and movie footage of Dealey Plaza for witnesses to the shooting.
The first two shots that Arnold heard did not come from the Texas School Book Depository Building because “you wouldn’t hear a whiz go over the top of your head like that.” He said, “I say a whiz — you didn’t really hear a whiz of a bullet, you hear just like a shock wave. You feel it . . . You feel something and then a report comes right behind it. It’s just like the end of a muzzle blast.”
He said he heard two shots, “and then there was a blend. For a single bolt action, he had to have been firing darn good because I don’t think anybody could fire that rapid a bolt action.”
“The next thing I knew someone was kicking my butt and telling me to get up.” Arnold said, “it was a policeman. And I told him to go jump in the river. And then this other guy — a policeman — comes up with a shotgun and he was crying and that thing was waving back and forth. I said you can have everything I’ve got. Just point it someplace else.”
ARNOLD TOOK his film from the canister and threw it to the policeman. “It wasn’t worth three dollars and something to be shot. All I wanted them to do was to take that blooming picture (film) and get out of there, just let me go. That shotgun and the guy crying over there was enough to unnerve me for anything.”
Two days later, Arnold was on a plane reporting for duty at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He hadn’t given police in Dealey Plaza his name and never told his story to authorities, “because I heard after that there were a lot of people making claims about pictures and stuff and they were dying sort of peculiarly. I just said, well, the devil with it, forget it. Besides, I couldn’t claim my pictures anyway; how did I know what were mine?”
Arnold never was interviewed by the House Select Committee reinvestigating the case, but he told much the same story to author Henry Hurt in May 1982, adding, “If I could have dug a hole and crawled in, I would have, because there was more than one shot fired. It was like a crack, just like I was standing there under the muzzle. One shot went past my ear, and the other went over me.” “I thought they were shooting at me,” he said.
Interviewed by Jim Marrs in 1985, Arnold related his tale again, adding that he spoke briefly with the Secret Service agent a second time (after departing the area of the railroad bridge, “I could feel he was following me and we had a few more words”), and adding further details about his encounter with the two policemen: “One of them asked me if I had taken any film and I said yes. He told me to give him my film, so I tossed him my camera. I said you can have everything, just point that gun somewhere else. He opened it, pulled out the film, and then threw the camera back to me. All I wanted to do was get out of there. The gun and the guy crying was enough to unnerve me.”
Arnold is best known, however, for his appearance in Nigel Turner’s 1988 documentary series, The Men Who Killed Kennedy — the first and last time Gordon Arnold would be interviewed on film.
Over footage of the former soldier walking through the parking lot behind the stockade fence, Arnold says:
On that particular morning, what happened was I came downtown and I thought there was going to be a parade. So what I did, I parked my vehicle back here in this parking lot, and I intentionally walked to this particular corner because I wanted to take pictures of the parade off of the railroad bridge.
Well, this is about as far as I got because what happened is when I got my leg to about this position [lifts his right leg over the steam pipe], a man came around the corner, off the bridge, had a suit on, and he turned around and told me I was not going to be there. And I guess I was younger and more spunky at that time because I told him, “You and who else is going to keep me off the bridge?” And he pulled out [an] identification card and said, “I’m with the CIA,” and I said, “Well, that’s enough muscle. I’ll leave.”
So I turned around and brought my leg back over like this, I walked down the fence line here, about halfway. And I was looking over the fence to see if I could get a good shot of the parade, and he come back up and told me, he says, “I told you to get out of this area.” And I said, “Okay.”
So I walked the complete length of the fence, got around on the other side. That’s when I started to line up my frames so that I could take a picture of the parade. I had been panning shots through here so that I could get whatever was going to come down the street, and I saw that it was the President of the United States.
And as I was panning down in this direction, just as I got to about this position, a shot came right past my left ear, and that meant it would have had to have come from this direction. And that’s when I fell down, and to me it seemed like a second shot was at least fired over my head. There was a bunch of report [sic] going on in this particular area at that time.
And what happened was that while I was laying on the ground, it seemed like a gentleman came from this particular direction [points behind him to the east]. And I thought it was a police officer because he had a uniform of a police officer, but he didn’t wear a hat, and he had dirty hands. But it didn’t really matter much at that time because, with him crying like he was, and with him shaking when he had the weapon in his hand, I think I’d have gave him almost anything except the camera because that was my mother’s.
And literally what the man did was kick me, and asked me if I was taking a picture. I told him that I was. And when I looked at the weapon, it was about that big around, and I decided that I would let him have the film. I gave it to him, and then he went back off in this direction, I went off in this direction; three days later I was in Alaska, and I didn’t come back to the United States for about eighteen months. . . .
The training that I had just finished, they were shooting live ammunition over us, and when a bullet goes past your ear and your eardrum feels like it’s coming out the other side of your head, it’s close. That’s why I thought I was shot.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I was there and it did occur.
Was Gordon Arnold really in Dealey Plaza? Did events occur as he described them?
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