The Smoking Gun That Lied: a Review of JFK: The Smoking Gun

By Pat Speer

Above: Howard Donahue, who correctly noticed that the wound ballistics attributed by the government's experts to the rifle in his right hand (a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle) more closely resembled the wound ballistics of the rifle in his left hand (an AR-15).

Let's recall. Throughout November 2013, to capitalize on the attention given the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, an unprecedented number of television networks pumped out an unprecedented number of new programs on, yes, Kennedy's assassination. Now, most of these programs were fairly yawn-inducing, and went unnoticed. But for some reason, one of them, JFK: The Smoking Gun, rose above the crop, and caught the attention of the public.

Now, I have no idea how many watched the show, and how many came to accept the show's premise: that Secret Service agent George Hickey accidentally fired the shot that killed Kennedy while trying to stand up in the back seat of the follow-up car and return fire upon his wanna-be assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. But I do know that a half-dozen or more non-JFK buffs I've spoken to since the airing of the program on the ReelzChannel on November 3, 2013 have asked me if I believe Hickey did it, and no one has asked me about any of the other programs. And I do know they weren't joking--that viewing this program really got them thinking about the assassination, and wondering...

Now, I'll be the first to admit this is a good thing. People should wonder about the assassination. But I'm also of the firm mind that this is a bad thing. People shouldn't wonder if Hickey killed Kennedy, because we know--as much as we can know anything about the assassination--that he did not.

Well, how do we know? Well, the best way to "know" this is to examine what the program left out or deliberately omitted.

Now, this is the tricky part. The program is built upon the recent research of an Australian celebrity/ex-cop named Colin McLaren, which built upon the decades-old research of American gunsmith Howard Donahue. So, how is this tricky? Well, when the program is on shaky ground, the program's creators often fall back on "Donahue concluded this" and "Donahue concluded that." By doing so, they are simply reporting, you see, and not actually pushing these conclusions.

Except they ultimately do push these conclusions... At the end of the program, they use digital animation to demonstrate what Donahue, and McLaren, came to conclude actually happened. And this allows McLaren to assert that his study of the assassination was ultimately "about the truth, and supplying the American people an answer no more complex than a tragic accident coupled with a foolhardy assassination attempt."

He then suggests "Maybe it's time to see the smoking gun, and then to quietly close the door behind history's most talked about and debated crime scene."

Well, nice try. I'm sure many would love to conclude Kennedy's assassination was some sort of tragic accident, and then quietly shut the door. It's just that McLaren's "solution" to the crime is riddled with so many holes--and that some of them are big enough to hold both Ayers Rock and the Sydney Opera House, with plenty of room to spare.

I shall now illuminate these holes.

One of the less-noticeable holes in the program is its unfair treatment of not only George Hickey, but his boss that day on the Kennedy detail, Roy Kellerman. The program suggests that Kellerman knew Hickey killed Kennedy, and slipped immediately into CYA mode. It suggests that Kellerman was instrumental in both abducting Kennedy's body from Parkland Hospital in Dallas, and absconding with all the medical evidence, including the President's brain, after the autopsy of the President in Bethesda, Maryland. Pretty horrible, I admit. Except it just isn't true. The Kennedy detail forcefully removed Kennedy's body from the hospital at the request of the Kennedy entourage, with the blessing of the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson. And Kellerman's taking control of the medical evidence was performed under orders from the President's physician, George Burkley, almost certainly at the request of the Kennedy family.

And besides... The President's brain was retained after the autopsy for further study, after which Dr. Burkley, now working for President Johnson, gave it to the Secret Service Protective Research Section, in whose possession it remained until 1965. So yes, McLaren was unfair in accusing Kellerman of running off with the President's brain. Kellerman never had it in his possession.

If the program was unfair in its treatment of Hickey and Kellerman, however, this was far from an isolated incident.

Throughout the program, McLaren repeats like a mantra that if you study the statements of the eyewitnesses they will lead you to the truth. He even attacks the Warren Commission for its "unsummoned witnesses, unheard testimonies, unanswered questions, and unpresented evidence."

He then cherry-picks the statements of these witnesses to present a shooting scenario totally at odds with what they actually said.

The First Shot Miss

To support that the first shot missed and hit the pavement, with a fragment then proceeding to hit Kennedy in the back of the head, McLaren relies upon the testimony of bystander Virgie "Rachey" and Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman. He has "Rachey" say she saw something hit the street and Kellerman say he heard Kennedy yell out "My God, I'm hit" after the first shot.

Well, this is misleading. Virgie Rackley, who testified before the Warren Commission as Mrs. Donald Baker, first spoke on the assassination to the FBI on 11-24-63, the Sunday after the shooting. The FBI report on their interview with her reflects that she told them "after the first shot she saw something bounce from the roadway in front of the Presidential automobile and now presumes it was a bullet bouncing off the pavement.” (CD5, p66-67) Yes, you got that right. The FBI claimed she originally said the bullet bounced in front of the limousine, and not behind. And this wasn't just a typo. She also told them she'd originally thought it was a firecracker thrown by some boys "close to the underpass." And this wasn't a mis-statement. She later testified that it “sounded like it was coming from—there was a railroad track…so I guess it would be by the underpass.” (7H507-515) She was then asked to mark Commission Exhibit CE 354, a photograph of Dealey Plaza, to show where she saw this firecracker or bullet ricochet. This mark is 70 feet or more further down the street than Kennedy at the time of the first shot proposed by McLaren.

And then there's Kellerman. While McLaren accepts that Kellerman, riding in the front seat of Kennedy's limo, heard Kennedy yell out "My God, I'm hit" and deduces from this that Kennedy was not hit in the throat by the first shot, this is just silly. No one else in the limousine heard Kennedy make such a remark. Governor Connally, after being hit by a shot he did not hear, but which came after he (and quite clearly Kellerman, who said the last shots came in in a flurry) had heard but one shot, yelled out, "My God, they're going to kill us all." Kellerman, no coincidence, failed to remember Connally making such a statement.

But as silly as McLaren's claims are about the first shot, they positively pale compared to what he pulls out next...

The Second Shot Miss

You see, McLaren, as Donahue before him, believes the second shot was a shot hitting both Kennedy and Connally, and accounting for all their non-fatal wounds. Yep, that's right. The program was yet another in what is by now a long line of programs "investigating" the Kennedy assassination and reappraising the Warren Commission's conclusions to both buy and sell what has got to be the weakest of the Warren Commission's conclusions: the single-bullet theory.

It does this through stealth, which is a nice way of saying that the program pushes what its creators ought to know is not true. When discussing the single-bullet theory, they re-enact Donahue's amazement at discovering Kennedy and Connally were really in alignment to receive their wounds from one bullet, once one takes into account their "actual" location in the limousine. Well, this conceals that Connally's "actual" location in the limousine, as "discovered" by Donahue in the 1960's, came courtesy Secret Service agent Thomas Kelley's testimony before the Warren Commission that Connally's seat was 6 inches inboard of the right door of the limousine. Kelley was wrong and quite possibly lying. The schematics for the limo published by the HSCA in 1978 proved it was but 2 1/2 inches inboard of the door.

And that's not the only problem with the single-bullet theory as pushed by Donahue. The trajectory through Kennedy's neck, as presented by the Warren Commission and accepted by Donahue in the 1960's, ran from the base of his neck out through his throat, when the actual trajectory, as concluded by the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel in 1978, and supported by the tracing of an autopsy photo published by the committee, ran from a location on Kennedy's back at the level of his first rib, and somehow made it around or over this rib, while exiting at a location on Kennedy's throat at the level of his first rib.

That this more recent update of the theory was not just problematic for Donahue's, and McLaren's conclusions, but fatal, was demonstrated, moreover, by the animation the program presents to support the theory. This shows the bullet hitting Kennedy at the base of his neck, where they ought to have known it didn't hit, an inch or so below his collar, where they ought to have known it didn't hit. I mean, McLaren supposedly studied this case for four years. How could he not know the holes on Kennedy's shirt and jacket were more than 4 inches below the base of his collar?

So, yeah, chalk up yet another score for the animators. In the past two decades or so, they have made millions off the selling of the single-bullet theory, without once using the location of Kennedy's wounds as concluded by the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel. (If you have a problem with this, please show me where I'm wrong.)

Re-inspecting Number 2

I re-watched the program in 2018, and noticed a whole different set of problems with the program's propping up of the single-bullet theory. For one, the animation had Kennedy get hit as he was passing the first large sign along Elm before the freeway. This would be fine, except for one thing; they had this sign as the Stemmons Freeway sign, which was the second sign along Elm, not the first. The first was the Thornton Freeway sign. That's a pretty big oops.

They then showed the bullet enter Kennedy at the base of the back of his neck. This entrance was not as close to the collar as I remembered it. But there were other problems I hadn't noticed before. To compensate for the fact this bullet entered too low on Kennedy's back to exit his throat and proceed downwards into Connally's armpit, the animators had the bullet trajectory curve slightly upwards within Kennedy's neck.

Of course, this took the bullet off its trajectory towards Connally's armpit, so they then had the bullet curve back downwards upon exit from Kennedy's throat.

Of course this would lead the bullet through the fingers of Kennedy's right hand. So they have the bullet start to curve downwards as it leaves Kennedy's neck. And then finish its curve downwards after getting past Kennedy's hands. And no, I'm not joking. It's fairly impressive how they have the bullet just barely dodge Kennedy's hands.

They then had the bullet plow through Connally's right side and embed itself 2 inches deep in his leg. That a bullet embedded itself in Connally's leg is, of course, a canard, and a dead giveaway that the person claiming as much has not actually studied the statements of Connally's doctors, who said he'd received a surface wound to his thigh that required no stitches.

In any event, this is what they showed their audience at this time in the program.

They then stop and reveal that Mclaren's hero Howard Donahue had problems with the single-bullet theory until he realized Connally was sitting on a jump seat significantly lower and inboard of Kennedy's seat. They even steal a scam from, well, just about every other show with scam animation (scamination?) and give the audience an overhead view of the limo as the jump seats are slid six inches in from the door...which is a lie because the seats were only 2 1/2 inches in from the door.

They then reveal Donahue's other revelation--that Connally was turned to his right when hit. When this is taken into account, they claim, everything aligns.

And the trajectory, you guessed it, points back to the sniper's nest.

But this was all sleight-of-hand. Sliding Connally over a few inches in the car, and dropping him down a few inches, does nothing to solve the problem previously revealed...that for the single-bullet theory to work the bullet has to curve upwards upon impact with Kennedy's back, and then curve back downwards upon exit from his neck...on its sad descent to Connally's armpit.

The Third Shot Miss

This brings us, finally, to the third shot presented in the program. Here, in order to sell what is incredibly far-fetched, McLaren makes quite a stretch.

He takes two pieces of evidence: that some witnesses saw Hickey with an AR-15 rifle, and that some witnesses thought they smelled gunpowder at ground level, and pretends this is evidence Hickey fired the shot that killed Kennedy.

He avoids (or hides, let's be honest) much to pull off this trick.

First, there's the eyewitnesses. McLaren cites witness after witness as support for Donahue's theory, when an honest presentation of the witness statements would have, at the very least, called Donahue's theory into question.

    • He cites S.M. Holland's initial statement that "After the first shot the secret service man raised up in the seat with a machine gun and then dropped back down in the seat" as evidence Hickey shot Kennedy. He fails to tell his viewers that Holland also claimed to see "a puff of smoke come from the trees" after this first shot, and no other puff of smoke. That's right. The smoke observed by Holland and others while standing atop the railroad bridge came from behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll. So how can McLaren cite them as support a rifle was fired in the middle of the plaza? He can't. So he doesn't. He claims ten witnesses "at ground level" smelled gunpowder, but never lists them.

    • He cites Jean Hill's statements as evidence a member of the Secret Service fired a weapon. He fails to tell his viewers that Hill thought the first shot hit Kennedy in the head, and that she thought some or all of the shots she heard after he was hit in the head may have been fired by the Secret Service in retaliation.

    • He wonders whether Hugh Betzner's recollection he saw "a flash of pink" wasn't a reference to the muzzle blast from Hickey's rifle. He fails to read the whole sentence in Betzner's statement. It reads like this: "Then I saw a flash of pink like someone standing up and then sitting back down in the car." McLaren's cherry-picking of Betzner's words avoids the obvious: that the flash of pink which Betzner observed, while standing 200 feet or so back behind the limousine at the moment of the head shot, was the pink-suited Mrs. Kennedy climbing out onto the back of the limousine, and then crawling back to her seat.

    • He also wonders about the statement of Mrs. John Chism, in which she said "the two men in the front of the car stood up, and then when the second shot was fired, they all fell down and the car took off just like that." Strangely, he wonders whether she meant to say that it was two men in the back of the follow-up car that fell down. He even complains that the Warren Commission never questioned her to find out if she was really talking about the follow-up car. He says "We'll never know." Uhh, yes we will know. And do. There's no basis whatsoever to "wonder" if someone describing activity in the front of one car was really describing activity in the back of another car, particularly when no one else noticed this activity in the back of this second car. Mrs. Chism is alive, by the way, and would almost certainly have talked to McLaren should he have tracked her down. But he didn't even try.

    • There's no evidence, in fact, that McLaren tried to talk to even one witness in his supposed four year investigation of the shooting. He could have talked to Bill and Gayle Newman, who witnessed the shooting from 20 feet or so behind and to the right of Kennedy, and were about the same distance to the right of Hickey. The sound of a shot from Hickey's position would have come straight to their left ears. And yet they thought this shot came from behind.

    • He could also have talked to Dave Powers, or at least to people who knew Powers, who passed away between the time McLaren first took an interest in the case and the advent of his four year investigation. Powers was a good friend of Kennedy's. He was sitting less than two feet from the muzzle of the AR-15 at the time Donahue claimed it was fired. Powers was consulted for the book Mortal Error, the book on Donahue's research McLaren found so inspiring. In the book, Powers is quoted as follows: “Someone a foot away from me or two feet away from me couldn’t fire a gun without me hearing it.” This, no surprise, is never mentioned by Colin McLaren in JFK: The Smoking Gun.

And then, of course, there's the ultimate witness: the Bronson film. This film shows Hickey and the members of the back-up car at the time of the fatal head shot. The film was taken from across the plaza, and lacks clear detail. And yet, no sudden movement on Hickey's part is noted in the film. More clearly, he appears to be sitting down. An honest presentation of Donahue's theory would have shown the film, and studied the film. But no, this is a program not just examining Donahue's belief Hickey shot Kennedy, but pushing it. The film is never mentioned.

So, yes, it's true. Colin McLaren, the man who criticized the Warren Commission for its "unsummoned witnesses, unheard testimonies, unanswered questions, and unpresented evidence" made them look good when given the chance. The program on his "investigation" out-"un"ed the Warren Commission by a mile, and actually presented him dismissing that a shot came from the overpass by noting that there were twelve witnesses on the overpass and none of them thought a shot came from there, while pushing a theory in which George Hickey shot Kennedy from the follow-up car, without noting that there were DOZENS of witnesses in the area, and NONE of them thought the fatal shot came from the car behind Kennedy.

Oh, the irony... Oh, the waste of money, and public attention...

The Whole Program Miss

In sum, then, the program was deceptive and embarrassing--the information in it was often outdated, and just as often biased. Beyond that the Bronson film strongly suggests Hickey didn't fire the fatal shot and that Howard Donahue's theory was wrong, Donahue's theories were built on long-discredited information regarding the back wound, and more recently called into question information about the head wound. His Hickey did it theory is reliant upon the bullet entering Kennedy's cowlick, 4 inches higher than where the entrance wound was measured at autopsy. He relied upon the word of Dr. Russell Fisher to come to this conclusion. Well, that was part of the problem. As Fisher would later admit, he was hired by the Justice Department to re-examine the medical evidence and see if there was a way to refute some of the "junk" in the conspiracy books--including that the trajectory for the head wound made little sense. This led him to find a new location for the bullet entrance--a location where those actually seeing Kennedy's body swore there was no entrance wound.

Now, for several years, Fisher's "find" had some support in the medical community, but that day has long-since passed. Of those viewing the original autopsy materials since late 1993--Dr. David Mantik, Dr. Gary Aguilar, Dr. Douglas Ubelaker, Dr. John Fitzpatrick, Dr. Robert Kirschner, Dr. James Humes, Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, Dr. Pierre Finck, Dr. Chad Zimmerman, Larry Sturdivan, and Dr. Peter Cummings--only one has supported Fisher's finding the entrance wound was in the cowlick, where Donahue's theory needs it to be.

While trying to impress the government, Fisher made a bad call--that can now be revealed as a politically-influenced bad call. Howard Donahue's reputation was but collateral damage.

And now we can add Colin McLaren to the list of Fisher's victims...

Shall we tell him?

Post Script:

On December 10, 2013, I received a nice friendly email from Colin McLaren. Here it is:

I doubt whether you will post this comment on your website, however I will continue. First of all I have to say your website is a disgrace. Anyone looking, searching for real answers to who or how JFK was killed will find an empty vessel in your site. It's obviously a site run by an angry man. You seem to spit vitriol to all and sundry. Why? Do you have a self righteous complex? You have obviously not read my book, nor have you taken the time to understand my argument, my conclusion. Instead, you just launch into a diatribe of insults and attacks. An odd way to conduct a cyberspace debate.

I come to the study of JFK execution with years of law and detective studies, years of crime scene analyses. Years of working as an investigator; in search of the truth. I follow well honed crime crime principals and procedures, I understand the rules of evidence and follow them closely. My analyses is underpinned with such protocols. Yet, you select your own snippets, your own 'cherry picking' of facts to cast criticism. Such as the 'smoke' witnesses. There are 22 witnesses that either see or smell gunsmoke / smoke / cordite at street level, either near to the follow up car or close by. That's the forensic point! You might not be able to grasp that point but if you assume the 22 don't know each other, never been 'together' before, not collaborated on this fact and.....they saw or smell the same smoke in the same 5.6 seconds, then isn't that amazing? It would be amazing if the total number of witnesses were only ten.

And whether the smoke is actually around the follow up car, or the 19 kilometres-an-hour wind had pushed it towards the grassy verge, known as the grassy knoll, is irrelevant. It's at street level. Being pushed around by the strong wind, until it dissipates, into the atmosphere. That means, there has to be one other shooter! Get it? Mr Hard-nose.

And when you study the testimonies or affidavits of the 48 witnesses that heard two shots simultaneous, that's a salient point in establishing whether we have one or two shooters. Clearly, using the 48 ear witnesses testimonies is crucial to confirm the existence of a second shooter.

And on the evidence goes. Overwhelming. But, you need to read over 10,000 pages. And you won't.

Yet, conspiracy theorists, particularly in the USA, doggedly proffer their own silly theories that are blatantly remiss of any evidence, any principals of any kind. With you, you just lambast, to the point that you lose all credibility. You take on a superior position, judging the earnest endevours of others. Yet, you can't pull together an articulate argument yourself. There are so many like you, cyberspace pests that have either made a living from the the death of a great Statesman of the 20th century or denigrated those that have genuinely tried to bring an articulate position to the table, to help those searching for the truth, the reason behind the killing of the 35th president of the United States. It's shameful that such pests are allowed to exist. It's ABSOLUTELY why the doubt still prevails over who killed JFK.

I feel saddened by this mess. It could only happened in the USA. Where the assassination of a president becomes cannon fodder for nutzos. Feel embarrassed Pat Speer.