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Sunday, September 10, 2023

J.F.K. Assassination Witness Breaks His Silence and Raises New Questions - The New York Times

J.F.K. Assassination Witness Breaks His Silence and Raises New Questions

"The account of Paul Landis, one of the Secret Service agents just feet away from John F. Kennedy when he was struck down, could change the understanding of what happened in Dallas in 1963.

Paul Landis standing in front of his house in Cleveland, with an American flag in the background.
The account of Paul Landis, a former Secret Service agent, differs from the official version in at least one key respect.Amir Hamja/The New York Times

By Peter Baker

Peter Baker, who has covered the past five presidents, reported from Cleveland, where he interviewed Paul Landis.

He still remembers the first gunshot. For an instant, standing on the running board of the motorcade car, he entertained the vain hope that maybe it was just a firecracker or a blown tire. But he knew guns and he knew better. Then came another shot. And another. And the president slumped down.

For so many nights afterward, he relived that grisly moment in his dreams. Now, 60 years later, Paul Landis, one of the Secret Service agents just feet away from President John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas, is telling his story in full for the first time. And in at least one key respect, his account differs from the official version in a way that may change the understanding of what happened in Dealey Plaza.

Mr. Landis has spent most of the intervening years fleeing history, trying to forget that unforgettable moment etched in the consciousness of a grieving nation. The memory of the explosion of violence and the desperate race to the hospital and the devastating flight home and the wrenching funeral with John Jr. saluting his fallen father — it was all too much, too torturous, so much so that Mr. Landis left the service and Washington behind.

Until finally, after the nightmares had passed at last, he could think about it again. And he could read about it. And he realized that what he read was not quite right, not as he remembered it. As it turns out, if his recollections are correct, the much-discussed “magic bullet” may not have been so magic after all.

His memory challenges the theory advanced by the Warren Commission that has been the subject of so much speculation and debate over the years — that one of the bullets fired at the president’s limousine hit not only Kennedy but Gov. John B. Connally Jr. of Texas, who was riding with him, in multiple places.

Mr. Landis’s account, included in a forthcoming memoir, would rewrite the narrative of one of modern American history’s most earth-shattering days in an important way. It may not mean any more than that. But it could also encourage those who have long suspected that there was more than one gunman in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, adding new grist to one of the nation’s enduring mysteries.

As with all things related to the assassination, of course, his account raises questions of its own. Mr. Landis remained silent for 60 years, which has fueled doubts even for his former Secret Service partner, and memories are tricky even for those sincerely certain of their recollections. A couple elements of his account contradict the official statements he filed with authorities immediately after the shooting, and some of the implications of his version cannot be easily reconciled to the existing record.

But he was there, a firsthand witness, and it is rare for new testimony to emerge six decades after the fact. He has never subscribed to the conspiracy theories and stresses that he is not promoting one now. At age 88, he said, all he wants is to tell what he saw and what he did. He will leave it to everyone else to draw conclusions.

“There’s no goal at this point,” he said in an interview last month in Cleveland, the first time he has talked about this with a reporter in advance of his book, “The Final Witness,” which will be published by Chicago Review Press on Oct. 10. “I just think it had been long enough that I needed to tell my story.”

President John F. Kennedy, in a dark suit, shaking hands with a throng of supporters with outstretched hands.
President John F. Kennedy with supporters during his visit to Fort Worth, Texas, hours before he was assassinated in Dallas.Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press
John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade in Dallas headed down the street at the time of the shooting.
Seen through the limousine’s windshield, Kennedy appeared to raise his hand toward his head after being shot in Dallas. Paul Landis is the agent on the rear right running board turning around to look over his right shoulder.James W. Altgens/Associated Press

What it comes down to is a copper-jacketed 6.5-millimeter projectile. The Warren Commission decided that one of the bullets fired that day struck the president from behind, exited from the front of his throat and continued on to hit Mr. Connally, somehow managing to injure his back, chest, wrist and thigh. It seemed incredible that a single bullet could do all that, so skeptics called it the magic bullet theory.

Investigators came to that conclusion partly because the bullet was found on a stretcher believed to have held Mr. Connally at Parkland Memorial Hospital, so they assumed it had exited his body during efforts to save his life. But Mr. Landis, who was never interviewed by the Warren Commission, said that is not what happened.

In fact, he said, he was the one who found the bullet — and he found it not in the hospital near Mr. Connally but in the presidential limousine lodged in the back of the seat behind where Kennedy was sitting.

When he spotted the bullet after the motorcade arrived at the hospital, he said he grabbed it to thwart souvenir hunters. Then, for reasons that still seem fuzzy even to him, he said he entered the hospital and placed it next to Kennedy on the president’s stretcher, assuming it could somehow help doctors figure out what happened. At some point, he now guesses, the stretchers must have been pushed together and the bullet was shaken from one to another.

“There was nobody there to secure the scene, and that was a big, big bother to me,” Mr. Landis said. “All the agents that were there were focused on the president.” A crowd was gathering. “This was all going on so quickly. And I was just afraid that — it was a piece of evidence, that I realized right away. Very important. And I didn’t want it to disappear or get lost. So it was, ‘Paul, you’ve got to make a decision,’ and I grabbed it.’”

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.

Mr. Landis has been reluctant to speculate on the larger implications. He always believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.

But now? “At this point, I’m beginning to doubt myself,” he said. “Now I begin to wonder.” That is as far as he is willing to go.

A native of Ohio and son of a college sports coach, Mr. Landis does not come across as a swaggering security agent. He had to stretch to meet the 5-foot-8 height requirement when he joined the service, and could no longer do so. “I’m too little now,” he said, to make it in today’s agency. He is quiet and unassuming, dressed in a coat and tie for an interview, his gray hair neatly trimmed. He has a little trouble hearing and speaks softly, but his mind is clear and his recollections steady.

In recent years, he confided his story with several key figures, including Lewis C. Merletti, a former director of the Secret Service. James Robenalt, a Cleveland lawyer and author of several books of history, has deeply researched the assassination and helped Mr. Landis process his memories.

The limousine carrying Kennedy raced toward the hospital seconds after he was shot, with a secret service agent, Clint Hill, riding on the back of the car.
Justin Newman/Associated Press
A police lieutenant holding aloft the rifle used in Kennedy’s assassination.
Investigators determined that the bullets were fired by one gun, a C2766 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Associated Press

“If what he says is true, which I tend to believe, it is likely to reopen the question of a second shooter, if not even more,” Mr. Robenalt said. “If the bullet we know as the magic or pristine bullet stopped in President Kennedy’s back, it means that the central thesis of the Warren Report, the single-bullet theory, is wrong.” And if Mr. Connally was hit by a separate bullet, he added, then it seemed possible it was not from Oswald, who he argued could not have reloaded that fast.

Mr. Merletti, who has been friendly with Mr. Landis for a decade, was not sure what to think about his account. “I don’t know if that story’s true or not, but I do know that the agents that were there that day, they were tormented for years by what happened,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Merletti referred Mr. Landis to Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University and a prominent presidential historian, who helped him find an agent for his book. In an interview, Mr. Gormley said he was not surprised that a traumatized agent would come forward all these years later, comparing it to a dying declaration in legal cases.

“It’s very common as people get to the end of their lives,” Mr. Gormley said. “They want to make peace with things. They want to get on the table things they’ve been holding back, especially if it’s a piece of history and they want the record corrected. This does not look like a play by someone trying to get attention for himself or money. I don’t read it that way at all. I think he firmly believes this. Whether it fits together, I don’t know. But people can eventually figure that out.”

Mr. Landis’s account varies in a couple of respects from two written statements he filed in the week after the shooting. Aside from not mentioning finding the bullet, he reported hearing only two shots. “I do not recall hearing a third shot,” he wrote. Likewise, he did not mention going into the trauma room where Kennedy was taken, writing that he “remained outside by the door” when the first lady went in.

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.”

Mr. Landis said the reports he filed after the assassination included mistakes; he was in shock and had barely slept for five days as he focused on helping the first lady through the ordeal, he said, and not paying enough attention to what he submitted. He did not think to mention the bullet, he said.

It was not until 2014 that he realized that the official account of the bullet differed from his memory, he said, but he did not come forward then out of a feeling that he had made a mistake in putting it on the stretcher without telling anyone in that pre-C.S.I., secure-the-crime-scene era.

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Landis said. “I was afraid. I started to think, did I do something wrong? There was a fear that I might have done something wrong and I shouldn’t talk about it.”

Indeed, his partner, Clint Hill, the legendary Secret Service agent who clambered onto the back of the speeding limousine in a futile effort to save Kennedy, discouraged Mr. Landis from speaking out. “Many ramifications,” Mr. Hill warned in a 2014 email that Mr. Landis saved and shared last month.

Mr. Hill, who has set out his own account of what happened in multiple books and interviews, cast doubt on Mr. Landis’s version on Friday. “I believe it raises concerns when the story he is telling now, 60 years after the fact, is different than the statements he wrote in the days following the tragedy” and told in subsequent years, Mr. Hill said in an email. “In my mind, there are serious inconsistencies in his various statements/stories.”

Mr. Landis’s rendezvous with history began in the small town of Worthington, Ohio, north of Columbus. After college and a stint in the Ohio Air National Guard, he was working in a clothing store when a family friend described his job in the Secret Service. Intrigued, Mr. Landis joined in 1959 in the Cincinnati office, where he chased thieves who swiped Social Security checks out of mailboxes.

A year later, he was sent to Washington where he joined the protective detail for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandchildren. After Kennedy was elected, Mr. Landis, code named Debut because of his youth, was assigned to guard the new president’s children and later the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, alongside Mr. Hill. Because the first lady accompanied her husband to Dallas that fall day in 1963, Mr. Landis, then 28, was part of the motorcade, riding the rear of the right running board on the black Cadillac convertible, code named Halfback, just feet behind the presidential limousine.

A hand of Paul Landis pointing to himself in a black-and-white photo of Kennedy’s funeral.
Mr. Landis identifying himself in a photo from the day of Kennedy’s funeral.Amir Hamja/The New York Times
Paul Landis sitting back to the camera in a chair, illuminated by the light from a window.
Mr. Landis left the Secret Service six months after the assassination.Amir Hamja/The New York Times

At the first shot, Mr. Landis turned to look over his right shoulder in the direction of the sound but spotted nothing. Then he turned to the limousine and saw Kennedy raising his arms, evidently hit. Suddenly, Mr. Landis noticed that Mr. Hill had leapt off their follow-up car and was sprinting toward the limousine. Mr. Landis thought about doing the same but did not have an angle.

He said he heard a second shot that sounded louder and finally the fatal third shot that hit Kennedy in the head. Mr. Landis had to duck to avoid being splattered by flesh and brain matter. He knew instantly that the president was dead. Mr. Hill, now on the back of the limousine, turned back and confirmed it with a thumbs down.

Once they reached the hospital, Mr. Hill and Mr. Landis coaxed the distraught first lady to let go of her husband so he could be taken inside. After they exited the car, Mr. Landis noticed two bullet fragments in a pool of bright red blood. He fingered one of them but put it back.

That’s when he said he noticed the intact bullet in the seam of the tufted dark leather cushioning. He said he slipped it into his coat pocket and headed into the hospital, where he planned to give it to a supervisor, but in the confusion instinctively put it on Kennedy’s stretcher instead.

The hospital’s senior engineer later found it when he was moving Mr. Connally’s stretcher, by then empty, and bumped it against another stretcher in the hall, resulting in the bullet falling out.

The Warren Commission report said that it “eliminated President Kennedy’s stretcher as a source of the bullet” because the president remained on his stretcher while doctors tried to save his life and was not removed until his body was placed in a coffin.

Investigators determined that the bullet, designated Commission Exhibit 399, was fired by the same C2766 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. They concluded that the bullet passed through Kennedy, then entered Mr. Connally’s right shoulder, struck his rib, exited under his right nipple, continued through his right wrist and into his left thigh.

The interior of the presidential limousine after the Kennedy assassination, the rear seat stained with blood.
Mr. Landis said he found the intact bullet in the seam of the tufted leather cushioning of the presidential limousine.Corbis, via Getty Images
Kennedy’s coffin, draped in an American flag, lying in state under a chandelier in the White House, surrounded by guards.
Kennedy’s coffin lying in state in the East Room of the White House.Associated Press
Three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluted his father’s casket in Washington on the day of the funeral.
Associated Press

Doctors concurred that the single bullet could have caused all the damage. But the bullet was described as nearly pristine and had lost only one or two grains of its original 160 or 161 grains in weight, causing skeptics to doubt that it could have done all that the commission said it had. Still, ballistic experts using modern forensic techniques concluded at the 50th anniversary of the assassination that the single-bullet theory was perfectly plausible.

Mr. Landis said he was surprised that the Warren Commission never interviewed him, but assumed that his supervisors were protecting the agents, who had been out late the night before socializing (Mr. Landis until 5 a.m., although he insisted they were not drunk). “Nobody really asked me,” he said.

Many pictures of those days of mourning show Mr. Landis at Jacqueline Kennedy’s side as she endured the rituals of a presidential farewell. Night after night, those seconds of violence in Dallas kept replaying in his head, his own personal Zapruder film on an endless loop. “The president’s head exploding — I could not shake that vision,” he said. “Whatever I was doing, that’s all I was thinking about.”

With Mr. Landis and Mr. Hill still protecting her, the former first lady was in constant motion in the months afterward. “She’d be in the back seat sobbing and you’d want to say something but it wasn’t really our place to say anything,” Mr. Landis recalled.

After six months, he could not take it anymore and left the Secret Service. Haunted, he moved to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, then New York, then Ohio near Cleveland. For decades, he made a living in real estate and machine products and house painting, anything as long as it had nothing to do with protecting presidents.

He was generally aware of the conspiracy theories, yet never read a book about them, or the Warren Commission report for that matter. “I just paid no attention to that,” he said. “I just removed myself. I just felt I had been there. I had seen it, and I knew what I saw and what I did. And that’s all.”

He did a few interviews in 2010 and thereafter, but never mentioned finding the bullet. Then, in 2014, a local police chief he knew gave him a copy of “Six Seconds in Dallas,” a 1967 book by Josiah Thompson arguing that there were multiple shooters. Mr. Landis read it and believed the official account of the bullet was wrong.

That led to conversations with Mr. Merletti and Mr. Gormley and eventually, after many years, to his book.

It was not easy. As he finished the manuscript, he stared at the computer screen, broke down and cried uncontrollably. “I didn’t realize that I had so many suppressed emotions and feelings,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop. And that was just a huge emotional relief.”

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last five presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He is the author of seven books, most recently “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” with Susan Glasser. More about Peter Baker"

J.F.K. Assassination Witness Breaks His Silence and Raises New Questions - The New York Times

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