🌊 Roca v. JFK Conspiracy

A special edition newsletter

Yesterday, we asked our Instagram followers to submit pictures of their Thanksgiving plates so that everyone could rate them. Submissions ranged from gourmet feasts on fine china to grease-stained boxes of Panda Express takeout — and we loved every one of them. So now we put the pressure on you: Send us a picture of your Thanksgiving plate for us to feature on Monday. Bonus points for uniqueness.

Given that there’s not much news on Thanksgiving and that this week marks the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, we’re doing a special newsletter today. It’s a multi-part deep-dive into the killing and the theories and facts that surround it. We hope you enjoy and have great weekends!

In today's edition:

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  • JFK Assassination: What really happened?

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🌯 Roca Wrap

Hours before being assassinated, John F. Kennedy remarked to his wife, Jacqueline, “You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a president.”

JFK had been elected in 1960 at age 43, making him the youngest elected US president

His youth, easy demeanor, fashionable wife, and two young children set him apart from previous presidents and made him a star. As president, JFK averaged a record 70.1% approval rating.

In 1963, JFK began a tour of US cities to kickstart his re-election campaign. On November 21, JFK and Jacqueline departed on Air Force One for a two-day, five-city tour in Texas. He needed to mend a rift within the Democratic party that risked costing him the state in 1964

On November 22, 1963, JFK and Jacqueline flew to Dallas, where they were greeted by Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie. The US’ first couple joined Texas’ first couple in an open-top limousine, with JFK and his wife sitting in the back row and Connally and his wife in the front. It was a bright and sunny Friday morning that was warmer than usual for late November.

The motorcade left the airport and traveled throughout downtown Dallas as crowds lined the street and waved at the Kennedys. Around 12:30 PM, the motorcade turned off Main Street and onto Dealey Plaza.

Suddenly, shots rang out.

One hit JFK in the neck, causing him to hunch over and grab his throat before a second struck him in the head. He was rushed to a local hospital, at which point he was already dead. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) took the oath of office at 2:38 PM on Air Force One.

Immediately after the shooting, police searched a building – the Texas School Book Depository, which overlooked the murder scene – and found a sniper’s nest and rifle. They zeroed in on a building employee named Lee Harvey Oswald as the prime suspect.

Oswald – 24 at the time of JFK’s death – was a former US Marine who embraced communism, defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, and married a Russian woman. Allegedly disillusioned with the realities of Soviet life, though, he had returned to the US in 196 and worked a series of odd jobs, ending up at the Depository in Dallas.

Oswald was seen leaving the Depository shortly after the assassination. He took a bus and then a cab back to his apartment, where he changed his clothes and grabbed a pistol. He proceeded to fatally shoot a police officer before being arrested while hiding in a movie theater.

Police charged Oswald for JFK’s murder, to which he pleaded not guilty. Then just two days later – before interrogators could get much information – a man named Jack Ruby shot Oswald on live TV. Oswald died from his injuries, taking his secrets with him.

Within days of JFK’s death and Oswald’s assassination, LBJ convened a committee to investigate JFK’s death. The Warren Commission, as it was known, included many of the US’ most powerful politicians.

Would it be able to solve the mystery?

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Part 2 of 4: The Warren Commission

Within days of JFK’s and Oswald’s deaths, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ)  convened a committee to investigate who had killed the president.

The committee – the Warren Commission – conducted a ten-month investigation, interviewing dozens of people. In September 1964, it presented a final, 888-page report. Its conclusion: Oswald acted alone; his motivations were impossible to determine; no foreign government played a role; and Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald, was motivated by a desire for revenge.

The report’s version of the assassination was that Oswald used a bolt-action rifle to fire three bullets at JFK from the Texas School Book Depository. 

The first missed; the second struck JFK in the neck, exited through his throat, and then hit Texas Governor John Connally, broke his rib and wrist, and lodged itself in his thigh; the third – the shot that is believed to have killed JFK – hit him in the back of the head.

Nearly every politician endorsed the Warren Report, but critics questioned its findings.

First, many doubted Oswald could have acted alone. He used a bolt-action rifle, meaning he would have had to have fired, reloaded, and re-aimed three times within 8.6 seconds. Hit two of three shots on a moving target at long range would have taken incredible aim.

Another criticism involved the “magic bullet.” According to the official account of events, the second bullet struck JFK before ricocheting and severely injuring Governor Connally’s rib, wrist, and thigh (the “single-bullet theory”) Yet pictures of the recovered bullet showed it in near-perfect condition with hardly a scratch.

In addition, the report failed to address why numerous bystanders – regular Americans with no reason to lie – had reported hearing a gunshot from a “grassy knoll,” or hill, next to JFK. A video taken by an onlooker near the knoll – the Zapruder film – that captures the instant of JFK’s death appeared to show the president’s head jerking backward, not forward, when he was hit. That suggests he was hit from the front, not the back, although many experts claim the Zapruder film is unreliable or that people interpret it incorrectly.

Critics also accused the Warren Commission of being biased toward the one-shooter theory. In one memo, the CIA director wrote that the public “must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.”

LBJ personally pressured politicians to join the Warren Commission by warning them that rumors of foreign involvement could start a war that would “kill 40 million Americans in an hour.”

In addition, while testifying before the Warren Commission, the heads of several intelligence agencies – including the CIA – said they knew little about Oswald before the assassination. That was untrue: The CIA and other agencies had tracked him extensively. In 2014, the CIA director called the agency’s official testimony from the time a “cover-up.”

A later declassified CIA report from 1966 cited the Soviets as believing that JFK’s assassination was “planned by an organized group rather than being the act of one individual assassin.” Several members of the Warren Commission later said they also doubted their own findings, with one saying he had “lingering dissatisfaction” with many of the conclusions.

Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother, privately expressed doubts about the single-shooter theory, while declassified phone calls suggest LBJ himself didn’t believe the “single-bullet” theory.

Doubt about the commission spawned countless conspiracy theories. In 1976, that led Congress to establish a new committee to investigate the killing. After two years, it came to a conclusion: JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.

Part 3 of 4: A Conspiracy

In 1979, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) released a report on the JFK assassination. Its conclusion: “Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”

The HSCA convened in 1976 amid growing public doubt about the JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. killings. After two years of investigating, the JFK subcommittee released a report upholding most of the Warren Commission’s findings.

It denied that the CIA, FBI, or foreign agents were involved; confirmed that Oswald fired three bullets at JFK, two of which hit him; upheld the “single-bullet” theory; and while Ruby killed Oswald, denied it was part of a conspiracy. Yet unlike the Warren Commission, it found that it was probable there were two shooters.

That conclusion was based almost entirely on a recording from the day of JFK’s assassination.

The tape was captured by a Dictabelt, a type of audio recorder, that was stuck in the “open” position on a police officer’s motorcycle radio. 

The HSCA hired several of the world’s leading acoustics analysts to analyze the recording. Those experts concluded “with the probability of 95% or better” that four shots – not three, as the Warren Commission claimed – were fired at JFK.. In sequence, two from Oswald, another shot, and then Oswald’s fatal shot. That third shot, the report concluded, was fired from the “grassy knoll” but missed JFK. Based on that, the HSCA ruled that there was a second shooter – thus, a conspiracy.

Yet some critics questioned the HSCA’s finding based on the Dictabelt analysis. The Justice Department commissioned the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a research institute, to analyze it. It unanimously found, “The acoustic analyses do not demonstrate that there was a grassy knoll shot, and in particular there is no acoustic basis for the claim of 95% probability of such a shot.”

Based on that and other conclusions, the HSCA’s acoustical evidence was largely written off.

But is that fair? Were the totality of the HSCA’s findings discredited? Roca interviewed a source with direct knowledge of the HSCA to learn more.

The source – who asked to remain anonymous – said the HSCA worked closely with forensic pathologists who examined X-rays and other evidence from JFK’s body. The HSCA confirmed the Warren Commission’s findings that JFK was shot twice from behind. Crucially, the pathologists also upheld the “single-bullet” theory, which claimed that a single shot fired by Oswald injured both JFK and Texas Governor Connally. While he admitted to being “very skeptical” of the single-bullet theory at first, he said medical experts’ analysis of evidence proved the theory “beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Yet he would not discredit the HSCA’s finding of a conspiracy.

He did not view the Dictabelt recording as having been “completely debunked,” describing those who reached the HSCA’s four-shot conclusion as the “leading experts of the time.”

In his view, based on the acoustical evidence, it remains “probable” that there were two shooters.

But why was a bullet never found?

Likely “because no one was looking for it,” he said, noting that the Warren Commission was not aware of the Dictabelt evidence and otherwise did not seriously entertain the idea of a second shooter. In addition, he said, the commission appeared to discount eyewitness testimony of a second shooter from the knoll. He didn’t know who the second shooter was and said Oswald may not have either.

Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who killed Oswald, may have had connections to organized crime, he said, but Ruby was reportedly unstable and erratic – the type of person to make a rash decision. He said HSCA found no convincing evidence that Ruby killed Oswald as part of a conspiracy and speculates he did so out of a desire for personal or financial gain.

The HSCA report could have been the final official word on the JFK assassination – except in 1992, Congress passed a law forcing the federal government to declassify all documents related to the assassination. Thousands of documents have since been declassified and proved the extent of a CIA coverup.

Part 4: Who is Oswald

While testifying before the Warren Commission, the CIA claimed to know practically nothing about Oswald. Declassified documents suggest that was not entirely true – and that the CIA had tracked Oswald for years.

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