Discover more from Just the Facts with Gerald Posner
An Explosive JFK Assassination Tale From A Retired Secret Service Agent
My First Impression of Separating Fact From Fiction
Everyone interested in the JFK assassination has focused for years on the dwindling number of files still sealed at the National Archives. Many long time researchers hoped that revelations in those documents would provide big news for the upcoming 60th anniversary of the murder this November.
It turns out the development that will have assassination researchers buzzing was published today in a New York Times article by veteran reporter, Peter Baker. The startling new claims about the case come from a person, not something retrieved from old files.
At its center is an 88-year-old former Secret Service agent, Paul Landis, who was part of the motorcade that fateful day in Dallas. Landis, one of the agents assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy, was in the car directly behind the president. Landis’s extraordinary claim is that while at Parkland Hospital, where there was a frantic effort to revive the mortally wounded president, he found a whole bullet lodged into the back of the rear seat of the limousine, where JFK and the First Lady, had been riding.
In his Times piece, Baker quotes my initial skepticism: “Gerald Posner, author of ‘Case Closed,’ a 1993 book that concluded that Oswald indeed killed Kennedy on his own, said he was dubious. While he did not question Mr. Landis’s sincerity, Mr. Posner said the story did not add up.
‘People’s memories generally do not improve over time, and it is a flashing warning sign to me, about skepticism I have over his story, that on some very important details of the assassination, including the number of shots, his memory has gotten better instead of worse,’ he said.
‘Even assuming that he is accurately describing what happened with the bullet,’ Mr. Posner added, ‘it might mean nothing more than we now know that the bullet that came out of Governor Connally did so in the limousine, not on a stretcher in Parkland where it was found.’”
For those of you interested in the details about why I am “dubious,” read on.
Landis has put himself in the middle of the JFK assassination, and not simply for his claim that he found a bullet, but also for what he says he did with it. Adding to the controversy of his account, his memory has evidently improved over 60 years, and in his book, he dramatically alters and adds to two detailed statements he made four days and seven days after assassination. Finally, Landis goes a step further, speculating about second shooters, bullets with partial gunpowder loads, ballistics trajectories, all souped up to attract big sales when his book, The Final Witness, is published this October.
However, stripped of all his unverified conjecture, much of which is directly contradicted by the contemporaneous eyewitness accounts of others present that day, there still may be a kernel of truth in Landis’s account. In describing how he disposed of a single bullet, that he claims he saw and grabbed from the limo, he has provided a reasonable explanation for how a bullet ended up on a gurney in the hallway of Parkland Hospital. The bullet found on a Parkland stretcher was later made Commission Exhibit 399 and judged to have inflicted a series of nonfatal wounds on President Kennedy and Governor Connally. Conspiracy theorists had long speculated that the bullet – which ballistically matched to Oswald’s rifle to the exclusion of all other guns – was planted.
Now enter Paul Landis.
“When Mrs. Kennedy finally stood up, I looked down at the seat and saw a bullet on top of the tufted black leather cushioning behind where she had been sitting. It was resting in a seam where the tufted leather padding ended against the car’s metal body. It wasn’t a bullet fragment like the other two pieces. It was a completely intact bullet. It had been hidden behind Mrs. Kennedy all the time she was seated.” [excerpts I quote are from a pre-publication proofs]
Although the Times article notes that Landis was “never interviewed by the Warren Commission,” he did put on the record the details of what he witnessed that day in a 2-page, single-spaced, typewritten statement, made only 4 days after Dallas, and a more detailed 7-page statement made a week after the assassination. It was when his memory was fresh. No mention was made of finding a whole bullet.
He has also been interviewed over the years for a number of newspaper articles and a 2010 book, The Kennedy Detail: JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence, as well as a Discovery Channel documentary based on that book. He never mentioned or hinted at the big story he now spins about his role on the day of the assassination.
In his new book, he says repeatedly that when he allegedly found the bullet, he knew “This was IMPORTANT EVIDENCE.” [emphasis in original]
At one stage, he writes that “I had saved and prevented an important piece of evidence from becoming lost…”
Yet, at another point, he says that when he gave his contemporaneous statement about the assassination, “I never mentioned the bullet I had found on the seat of the presidential limo. It didn’t seem an important detail to mention at the time?”
Really? Is that remotely credible?
In his November 30, 1963, statement, when describing the moments after the president’s motorcade arrived at Parkland hospital, he said, “By this time someone was lifting the President’s body out of the right side of the car. Agent Hill helped Mrs. Kennedy out of the car, and I followed. Mrs. Kennedy’s purse and hat a cigarette lighter were on the back seat. I picked these three items up as I walked through the car and followed Mrs. Kennedy into the hospital.”
In the 2010 The Kennedy Detail, Landis added a “bullet fragment” to what he claimed to have seen: “When Agent Paul Landis helped Mrs. Kennedy out of the car he saw a bullet fragment in the back where the top would be secured. He picked it up and put it on the seat, thinking that if the car were moved, it might be blown off. And then he saw a bloody Zippo lighter with the presidential seal on it. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. He picked up her hat and purse and brought them inside.
That was the first time Landis mentioned a “bullet fragment” in the presidential limo.
In his book to be released next month, with his memory somehow getting better with the passage of decades, he offers a more dramatic and detailed version: “Looking down at the seat beside Mrs. Kennedy, I saw two brass bullet fragments sitting in a pool of bright red blood. I could hardly believe it. They glistened like two gold nuggets in their blood-red surroundings. I bent over and picked up the largest of the two pieces. It was about the size of the end of my little finger. It looked like a small mushroom that had been squashed. I quickly examined it and replaced it exactly where I found it.”
What does all this mean for the case? What is true?
I address each in order.
Landis admits in his new book that he has not followed developments in the case very carefully. He never read the Warren Commission, he says. Only in 2014, did he finally read a 47-year-old-book, Six Seconds in Dallas, that made him think the official account was wrong.
Without knowing what had happened in the case and its subsequent investigations, Landis creates his own landmines. For instance, he cannot fathom that the bullet he says he found was in very good condition since it is the one the Warren Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and modern ballistics experts believe inflicted all the nonfatal wounds on the president and Governor Connally. Certainly, a bullet that caused all those wounds would be significantly damaged, Landis surmises. That makes Landis launch into speculation. According to the Times, “Mr. Landis theorizes that the bullet struck Kennedy in the back but for some reason was undercharged and did not penetrate deeply, therefore popping back out before the president’s body was removed from the limousine.”1
An assassin took some gunpowder out of one of the bullets so it would have just enough power to pop into Kennedy’s back and then back out? But the speculation is important because it is the launching pad for a new conspiracy theory. A Cleveland attorney, James Robenalt, who has long researched the assassination, helped Mr. Landis with the new book. “If the bullet we know as the magic or pristine bullet stopped in President Kennedy’s back,” Robenalt told the Times “it means that the central thesis of the Warren Report, the single-bullet theory, is wrong.”
To bolster the hypothesis that he found a bullet that was ignored in the official investigation, Landis makes a herculean effort to say that he disposed of the bullet by putting it on JFK’s stretcher. Here is why that is a big deal. In my 1993 book, Case Closed, I set out how the much-debated Commission Exhibit 399 was found [I used stretcher interchangeably for gurney]
“While the drama with President Kennedy unfolded, another life-and-death battle was being waged with Governor John Connally. He had bullet wounds in his right rear shoulder, under his right nipple, right wrist, and his left thigh. Dr. Robert Shaw, a thoracic (chest) surgeon, took over the Governor’s care at 12:45. Within forty-five minutes, Dr. Shaw had moved Connally to surgery and for nearly two hours sutured the Governor’s damaged lung and muscles. ‘His wounds were life-threatening,’ recalls Dr. Shaw, ‘and without prompt care he would have died.’ When Connally was moved from the trauma room to the operating room, he was transferred from the stretcher on which he had been brought into the hospital to an operating table. That empty stretcher was placed into an elevator by an orderly and then moved into a hospital hallway. Darrell Tomlinson, the hospital’s senior engineer, later bumped into it, and when he did, a 6.5mm bullet rolled onto the floor.”
Dr. Charles Gregory, Connally’s treating physician at Parkland, was surprised during surgery not to find the bullet since he could tell instantly by the wound that it barely penetrated the skin of the thigh. It had, Gregory later said, ‘struck the thigh in a reverse fashion and shed a bit of its lead core into the fascia [a layer of fatty tissue] immediately beneath the skin.” He “suggested to someone to search the Governor’s belongings and other areas where he had been to see if it could be identified or found.”
Gregory did not think about looking at the stretcher on which the Governor had been wheeled into the hospital.
The idea that the whole bullet found on a hospital stretcher might have been planted was scientifically rebutted by neutron activation tests conducted for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s. Vincent Guinn, a University of California professor of chemistry, and an expert in neutron activation tests, explained why the science had advanced since the assassination and allowed him to draw a firm conclusion: “The stretcher bullet matches the fragments in the [Connally] wrist, and that indicates indeed that that particular bullet did fracture the wrist.”
If that is the bullet that Landis picked up from the limo, then he has provided at long last an explanation for how it ended up on the gurney in Parkland.
However, that is not enough for Landis. He wants more, a bigger role, a more notable place in the JFK assassination history books. Landis is adamant that he put the bullet on JFK’s stretcher after the president was declared dead and “people were starting to leave the room.”
“I carefully placed it on the white cotton blanket next to the president’s left shoe.” At another point, he writes, “This is where the bullet belongs. With the president’s body…. The last thing I wanted was for the bullet to get lost. I felt relief. I was certain at the time that I made the correct decision. I had saved an important piece of evidence and I had placed it where it belonged, with the president’s body.”
Is it possible that Landis believes that hiding a bullet from a presidential assassination with the corpse of the deceased commander-in-chief is somehow “where it belonged,” instead of turning it in as evidence to find the assassin?
Landis writes: “A doctor will find it and it might be helpful during the autopsy.”
Landis knew there would be no autopsy in Texas. By 1:40 that day, JFK’s corpse was in a casket and ready for transport back to Washington. However, Dallas city officials told the president’s staff that the body would have to remain in Texas, the place of the crime, for an autopsy. Secret Service agents drew their weapons and physically forced their way out of the hospital.
In his upcoming book, Landis adds a touching moment when he carefully places the bullet next to the president and claims that JFK’s body was still wrapped in bloody sheets.
The problem is that the accounts and testimony of the medical staff at Parkland report the president’s clothes were removed before he was wrapped in a new sheet and put into a coffin. If Landis had put the bullet where he now claims, it would have ended up in the laundry hamper.
If Landis did find a bullet and later placed it on a stretcher at Parkland, it could not have been JFK’s stretcher. Landis’s 60-year-old recollection is no match for the facts and contemporaneous testimony of others at Parkland.
For instance, he says, “In the aftermath of events, two gurneys with used sheets had been wheeled out of the two trauma rooms, one from Governor Connally’s Trauma Room #2 and one from President Kennedy’s Trauma Room, #1.”
That is wrong.
Connally had originally been wheeled into Trauma Room #2, but then he was taken to an upstairs floor for surgery. After the doctors transferred Connally from the gurney/stretcher onto a surgery table, the gurney — with sheets removed — was transported in the elevator back to the emergency ground floor and left outside the elevator.
As I note in Case Closed, there were “two stretchers in the hallway he [Tomlinson] passed through. Tomlinson was not certain from which one the bullet had dropped. But only one was connected to the assassination, as President Kennedy’s stretcher was never in that location.”
Moreover, all the sheets from the gurney that JFK was on were removed after he was placed in the casket.
Neither of the gurneys ended up in the hallway with “used sheets” on them as Landis writes.
Diana Bowron, one of the nurses, present during the treatment of the president and when the body was finally removed from the stretcher so it could be moved into a coffin, later testified to the Warren Commission about what happened with the sheets.
“The sheets that had already been on the stretcher when we took it out with the President on. When we came back after all the work had been done on him—so that Mrs. Kennedy could have a look before he was, you know, really moved into the coffin. We wrapped some extra sheets around his head so it wouldn’t look so bad and there were some sheets on the floor so that nobody would step in the blood. Those were put down during all the work that was going on so the doctors wouldn’t slip.”
Bowron, and a fellow nurse, Margaret Hinchliffe, gathered all the sheets on the stretcher and on the floor and put them into a linen hamper. The stretcher was then “wheeled across into trauma room No. 2, which was empty,” testified Bowron. A thin rubber mattress was all that remained on top of the JFK stretcher. Did the two nurses see anything on it, such as the bullet Landis says he placed there? No.
Would they have noticed if anything had been on that stretcher?
“Yes, I think so,” Bowron testified.
The problem with Landis’s more grandiose account is not simply with the gurneys. There are issues with his credibility revolving around how he has put himself into a much more central role that day, one that is also contradicted by the contemporaneous testimony of others.
For instance, Landis claims for the first time that he was in the trauma room where doctors were trying desparetely to revive JFK.
“Once she was inside the room, Mrs. Kennedy stepped to her left and stood beside the entrance door while people continued to push and shove their way past her. As I entered, or more to the point was pushed into, the trauma room…”
Mrs. Kennedy was indeed inside the trauma room. Dr. Bill Midgett, an ob-gyn resident was the doctor who rolled a stretcher outside, not knowing the arriving patient was the president. He told me in 1992, “We put the President on the gurney and wheeled him into emergency room one. Mrs. Kennedy would not leave his side. She went in with us as the gurney was rolled into the hospital, walking right beside him, holding his hand.”
Landis, however, did not get “pushed into the trauma room.” Besides the Parkland medical staff, the only Secret Service agents who accompanied the gurney from the limo to the trauma room were Sam Kinney, Roy Kellerman, and Clint Hill.
One agent, William Greer, did walk into the trauma room with the gurney. In his Warren Commission testimony, Greer recalled what happened that day: “I helped pull it, take the stretcher into the emergency room that he was on. It is on wheels, and I helped to take that in, and I stayed inside the door of the emergency room most of the time while they were, the doctors were, working on the President’s body.”
Greer “stayed inside the emergency room door.” He testified that no other Secret Service agent was inside that trauma room when Landis now says he was present.
Landis, however, having put himself into the trauma room in his new version, expands what he claims to have seen there.
“[T]he president’s lifeless body was already being lifted off the gurney and being placed onto a white cotton blanket that covered the surface of a stainless-steel examination table in the middle of the room.
All sorts of medical apparatuses were at the end of the table where they had placed the president’s head. The gurney which had carried the president’s body into the room was then pushed aside…”
That never happened.
Eyewitness accounts and sworn statements from the treating physicians and medical staff in the room are unwavering that JFK’s body was never moved from the gurney to the examination table. I interviewed, in 1992, five of the primary treating physicians in that trauma room.2 They all that they did not do anything that might cost them precious seconds in what they realized instantly was a gravely wounded president.
Landis writes: “Everyone’s attention was focused on the president’s head, which doctors were already examining. It seemed like everyone in the room was craning their necks trying to see the president’s head wound.”
That “everyone was focused on the president’s head” is contradicted by the doctors who were there and trying to save his life.
For instance, according to the anesthesiologist, Dr. Pepper Jenkins: “When we decided to declare him dead, people just started to fade away. They just disappeared from the room. Out of respect, no one wanted to stay after that point. With Mrs. Kennedy there, we were not about to start examining the wounds or turning the body over. No one even lifted the head, although a few doctors passed by and quickly looked at the wound.”
Landis decided to write a book some time after 2017. Over time, Landis’s memory seemingly got incredibly better about that day. His recall was sharper. His story went from a generic one about putting the bullet on an empty stretcher in the hospital corridor, to putting it carefully as part of a personal tribute to the president. That, of course, had the benefit of opening the door to more conspiracy speculation in the death of JFK. It turned out to be a more salable story than simply coming forward after so many decades and admitting to having solved the last question around CE399.
Besides the extraordinary tale about finding a bullet and hiding it on JFK’s deathbed gurney, Landis also has decided it is time to change his story about how many shots he heard while driving through Dealey Plaza. He was on the car directly behind the presidential limousine. In his November 30, 1963, statement, Landis recounted hearing only two shots (he was one of only a handful of earwitnesses who heard 2 or fewer shots). “I do not recall hearing a third shot,” he said on November 27, only four days after the event.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Landis thought the first shot might have come “from behind me over my right shoulder” [the direction of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald was left alone on the 6th floor half an hour earlier by his coworkers]. The second shot, which he identified as the fatal head shot to the president, he thought “came somewhere toward the front, right-hand side of the road.” That is where he said he saw “a Negro male in light green slacks and a beige colored shirt running from my left to right, up the slope [near the Grassy Knoll]….He was bent over while running and I started to point to him…”
In his new version, Landis, with his improved memory, says he distinctly heard three shots. He claims that when he heard the newly discovered second shot, he thought “the shot had missed.” That is necessary because he has to account for the undercharged bullet he thinks caused JFK’s back wound. The book leaves out any mention of the black man he described in his contemporaneous statement.
There are other credibility problems, contradictions and omissions or changes in Landis’s accounts over the years. These do not mean automatically that he is lying in his new book but cumulatively, they do raise significant concerns about his accuracy and the degree to which his recollection is malleable on key issues. On almost every critical matter, Landis writes about them for the first time in his 2023 book. People’s memories do not get better over time. He does not explain how he recalls some new details that are so far removed from his 60-year-old memories. (I will review some of Landis’s other credibility issues in a future Substack).
Notwithstanding all the problems in Landis’s account, I am open to believing that he did find a bullet that day and made the terrible decision to get dispose of it on an empty hospital gurney. After JFK was officially declared dead, there was a rush to get out of the hospital with the coffin and Mrs. Kennedy. It was not until Parkland’s chief engineer later bumped into one of 2 gurneys in the hallway that a 6.5mm bullet dropped on to the floor. Landis and the presidential entourage were already on their way back to Washington when that happened. One of the two gurneys there had earlier been used to carry Connally into the hospital and then to surgery. The other, which had some sheets and towels on it, belonged to a young boy who had been brought in around the same time.
Tomlinson was not certain from which gurney the bullet fell. The Warren Commission defaulted to the Connally stretcher, figuring the bullet must have worked its way out of his thigh when he was moved from the stretcher to the operating table. The Warren Commission never considered whether the bullet could have been hidden in the towel and sheets on the other gurney since it had no connection to the assassination. How could it have been on that gurney? Landis provides an answer. In his rush to leave Parkland, did he leave it in a hurry on a gurney with sheets and towels? He might have even mistaken that for JFK’s gurney.
Everyone is jumping to the conclusion that Landis’s account means the single bullet is now thoroughly discredited. I am sure I am in a minority, but I can see how it actually wraps up the full tortured story of that bullet.
What I do not find credible is the grander package of Landis’s recollections: him in the JFK trauma room, putting the bullet on the deceased president’s stretcher, and his new memories about the number of shots. Those are contradicted by the evidence or his own contemporaneous statements.
Maybe his memory was affected by his lack of sleep that day? He admitted years later that the night before the assassination, he and some other agents were at a Dallas 24-hour club, The Cellar. Landis was the last to leave, at 5:00AM, although he is adamant he drank no alcohol. The agents had to be on duty by 8AM, breakfast was at 6AM. A couple of hours of sleep, at most, could not have helped Landis’s reaction time or his judgment that day, much less his subsequent detailed recall of the traumatic events.
I have no doubt that many assassination researchers will jump on the Landis story and turn it into another leg of conspiracy speculation that will outlive some future release of the last file from the National Archives. For me, it might be the answer as to how CE399 was discovered. I doubt, however, that will suffice for those who want to believe there was more to the murder of President Kennedy than a just-turned-24-year-old assassin looking for his place in history.
Ballistics experts, starting in 1992, conducted tests not available to the FBI in 1963, and determined that the single bullet that inflicted all the wounds on JFK and Governor Connally slowed as it went through both men. It was traveling at only 400 feet a second when it came to rest in Connally’s left thigh, having lost more than 80% of its speed from when it left Oswald’s Mannlicher Carcano rifle. Although it was a spent bullet by then, its remaining velocity was – according to a leading ballistics expert who studied the case - “just enough to break the skin and imbed itself into his thigh.”
Among other medical staff at Parkland, I interviewed Drs. Pepper Jenkins, Ron Jones, Paul Peters, Charles Baxter, and Malcolm Perry.