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CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Bribery, Coercion and Opportunists in the "Big Easy" 
Excerpt and original text copyright 2003, Hugh Aynesworth


  
In my view, were it not for the pervasive influence of a handful of individuals, there would be no plague of conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination.

The first of these regrettable characters was Jack Ruby, who by stealing the executioner's role, created generations of doubters, and not unreasonably so. It was an audacious, desperate act that would seem to make sense only if Jack Ruby had a very powerful, rational motive for killing Lee Harvey Oswald.

The truth is that he did not; the hard evidence in the case supports no other conclusion.

Based on indisputable facts, I believe that Ruby acted spontaneously in the basement at City Hall. The opportunity to kill Lee Harvey Oswald suddenly presented itself, and Ruby acted accordingly. He could just as well have been driving home from the Western Union office at that moment.

The second key character was Mark Lane, for whose predations I must shoulder some blame.

Had I not foolishly given Lane a packet of then-secret witness statements in December of 1963, believing him when he said his single motive was to act as devil's advocate for Oswald ("I want to represent this boy," Lane told me. "I don't think he did it."), I wonder if people such as Lane, and later Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone, would be viewed today as brave souls who fought to bring the light of "truth" to the assassination story.

Lane, an attorney and one-term New York Democratic state assemblyman from the JFK wing of the party, in early December wrote a lengthy piece in The National Guardian laying out a litany of reasons that made him conclude Oswald could not have killed Kennedy. The story was published well before Lane ever visited Dallas, spoke to any witnesses or investigators or contacted me. It was riddled with inaccuracies and unsupported suppositions.

When he first called me in December, I told him I was very busy, but agreed to meet with him at my apartment the next evening.

"Do you know anybody who knows Jack Ruby well?" he asked. I said that I knew Ruby well enough to intensely dislike him. "Really?" Lane replied, his interest plainly apparent.

"Well, there's no doubt that he and Oswald were involved," he said, "but we don't know exactly how."

Then he mentioned he had an appointment scheduled for the next day with a Dallas business figure who had seen Oswald and Ruby plotting together, just a few weeks before the assassination. "I talked with him on the phone and he sounds like the real thing," Lane offered.

"How many people have you interviewed so far?" I asked.

"Well, you may be the first," he said. "Then this other source, this lawyer with an impeccable memory. Maybe I'll get to him tomorrow. But I will share it with you if you will help me."

"Who's footing the bill for your investigation?"

"I am, completely," he assured me. "I am certainly not in it for the money. This will cost me plenty, but I think it's very important."

Lane came by the apartment again the next evening. He said his good source, the one who could put Ruby and Oswald together in the Carousel Club, had bowed out, for the time being.

"He's had some threats," said Lane, "and he needs some time to think it over. We're going to talk again tomorrow."

At this point, I had not yet met Carroll Jarnagin. But I'd heard about him from Johnny King, who had said Jarnagin was "a nice-enough guy, but a bad lush" and that he thought I should talk to him eventually, if only to discount the story.

"He's told us other stories," King laughed. "One about LBJ that we would have loved to believed, another about John Tower. The guy gets around-especially in his own mind."

At this early stage in the story, I was still running down what at first often looked like great leads that connected Oswald with others in the shootings. It was too soon to dismiss possibilities. And under the general rule that even a blind pig can sometimes find an acorn, I was deeply curious to learn the identity of Lane's source, hardly guessing who he would turn out to be.

Lane tried to impress me with how much he knew about the assassination, which wasn't much at all. I'd recall this conversation three years later when I first sat down with Jim Garrison. The New Orleans DA didn't know much either.

Lane would mention this source or that eyewitness, and I would contradict him. "No, he didn't say that." Or, "She wasn't in a position to hear that."

"But how do you know?" he kept asking.

Because, I explained, in some cases I conducted the first interview with the individual in question, or knew something about them that called their word into question. A lot of them changed their stories as time passed, too.

"A few days after somebody got to them," Lane added, conspiratorially.

There also was another reason I was sure of my facts.

"I know what they said to the cops, too, within hours of the shootings," I said. "They might have 'refined' the facts later, but I know what they originally said." "What makes you so sure?" Lane asked.

Like a dummy, eager to prove my point to this opportunist, I went into the next room, grabbed a stack of papers, came back and tossed them on the coffee table.

"There are the eyewitness accounts," I said, "made the afternoon of November 22nd."

"Where did you get these?" Lane was amazed.

I could not divulge my source, I said. But the reports were real and legitimate.

Lane began to read; we didn't speak for a long time.

"The only reason I'm showing you these," I finally broke the silence, "is that you made many, many misinterpretations in your article. If you are truly interested in giving Oswald a fair shake from a historical standpoint, I think you need to know what the investigation shows so far."

"Oh, yes," Lane agreed.

He glanced at his watch and asked, "Could I use your telephone? I was supposed to call Oswald's mother about now. I'm meeting with her tomorrow and don't want to miss her, or call too late."

"Are you representing her?" I asked, thinking back over my recent, testy confrontations with Marguerite.

"Not yet. But I intend to."

"Then be my guest," I said, pointing out the telephone resting on a table in the adjoining room.

We lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment at the time, so I couldn't help hearing Lane's conversation even if I tried, which I didn't. Three or four times he said to her, "I really don't think it will make much difference."

When he finished, I softly eased into the subject. "I couldn't help but hearing Mark, what was all that 'doesn't matter' stuff about?"

"Oh, she is quite an opinionated woman," he said. "She thinks Lee was a paid informant of the FBI and she asked how much difference that would make. I told her it probably doesn't matter either way."

He changed the subject.

"You know, you are an important contributor to the truth in this case," Lane said, exuding sincerity.

"Will you help me find the truth? I have to go back to New York in a day or so, and I was wondering if I could borrow these statements for a few days. I want to contact these people to see what, if any, pressure has been brought on them, and if they have something different to say now."

All these years later, I could still kick myself for this next sentence: "Of course. I'm not writing anything more about the witnesses, at least not for now."

I didn't even take the partial precaution of making Lane go photocopy the pages. In part, that was not so simply done in 1963 as it is today; public photocopy machines were not common. Plus, I had made good notes on all the most important witnesses.

Lane, despite his promises, did not return the witness reports to me immediately. But I was busy with other parts of the assassination story, and saw no reason to distrust the earnest young lawyer from New York. I did call his office a few times. He was never in.

Then I began seeing wire service stories from Europe, reporting the fund-raising activities of so-called "Who Killed Kennedy?" committees across the continent. The dispatches said that British philosopher Bertrand Russell was involved with the committees, and reported that Mark Lane was their executive director. I also read about Lane appearing at a press conference, waving a fistful of documents in the air, proclaiming that the papers proved that witnesses in Dallas contradicted the authorities.

I had made a horrific mistake.

A few days later came a telephone call from Bertrand Russell himself in London. "First," the old man said in an authoritative British accent, "I want to congratulate you on stealing all those statements from the Dallas police. I don't profess to understand how you did it, but you have done the world a great service."

Famous as he was, I confess to little detailed knowledge of Russell's thought processes. I knew nothing of his politics and I had no idea why he was calling me. I wasn't even positive, at first, that Bertrand Russell was really on the phone. Were it not for that aristocratic accent, I would have suspected some jokester at the paper. But nobody I knew could sustain such an accent for long.

I told Russell that I had not stolen anything from any investigative agency, and I didn't know where anyone would get that idea, surely not from me.

"Oh, Mr. Lane informed me you would say just that," he replied with a chuckle.

Russell said he had some questions for me "about some of the stories you have written." I advised him to submit his queries in writing and I'd be please to answer them as best I could. This did not please him. He seemed accustomed to people doing as he instructed them. The conversation soon ended.

Yet he did write me three times over the ensuing months, exploring all possibilities of official chicanery, falsification and the like. The only subject I wouldn't touch is one I still don't touch today. I do not know exactly how to explain Kennedy's and Connally's wounds. The Warren Commission might be correct or might be totally wrong about its much-maligned "Single Bullet Theory," the allegation that one shot careened through the president's back and throat and then into Gov. Connally.

But I do know that I heard three distinct shots that afternoon; so did several others whom I interviewed shortly thereafter.

On Feb. 7, Lane finally responded to my demands that he return the files. He also offered me a job as his investigator, assuring me in a letter that "our communications and contacts would be priviledged [sic.] and I need not divulge them to anybody."

I never answered his letter and thought I was through with him at that point. But less than a month later, Lane testified before the Warren Commission about his secret source: Carroll Jarnagin.

Lane told the commission that he considered his informant "a reliable and responsible" person who had been present at an assassination plot meeting at the Carousel Club attended by Ruby, Weissman, and Officer J.D. Tippit! The alleged session occurred a few days before the assassination.

The lawyer told the commission that he would try to convince his informant to testify. Of course that never happened. The commission pleaded with him and finally paid Lane's airfare from Europe to testify. Still he would not divulge his source.

Perhaps Lane knew of Jarnagin's attempt to sell his ever-changing story or had been told that he had miserably failed a polygraph given by the district attorney's office. For whatever reason, Lane resisted.

Chief Justice Warren didn't like it.

"We have been pursuing you…with letters and entreaties to give us that information so that we might verify what you have said-if it is a fact or disproving it if it is not a fact," Warren said.

The surprise to me was not that Lane would not back up his tale; he had made many, many assertions that were untrue to this point. I was more amazed at the commission's poor background investigation.

Several people in Dallas were well aware of Jarnagin's tale, and that he later admitted making it all up.

Henry Wade and Chief Curry testified before the commission, at length. No one thought to ask them about Jarnagin, even though Wade had personally arranged for Jarnagin's polygraph and later told me "it went off the charts-far off the charts."

This is the sort of evidence Lane typically produced in support of his various conspiracy theories of the JFK case and, later, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which he has argued was the work of off-duty FBI agents under J. Edgar Hoover's personal control.

To dismiss Lane's imaginative scenarios as rubbish, as I did at first, is to completely miss the point.

Lane found that he could make almost any assertion about the assassination-even under oath-with impunity. He almost single-handedly invented the lucrative JFK conspiracy industry.

No wonder he and Marguerite got along so well.

His book, Rush to Judgment, was a mishmash of unproven and unlikely allegations and off-the-wall speculations. Fifteen publishing houses turned it down, because they were too far behind Lane on the manufactured-controversy learning curve.

Only Holt, Rinehart and Winston guessed the true potential for profits in Rush. They issued the book as a $5.95 hardback in 1966 and sold 30,000 copies in just two weeks. It was a publishing home run, and it showed the way for legions of other buffs to get rich and famous.

In addition to Ruby and Lane, the third leg of the conspiracy stool was Jim Garrison, the unhinged New Orleans district attorney who by virtue of his office lent reassuring, mainstream legitimacy to the wildest theories-governmental sanction for just about any crackpot claim.

As Rush rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists in the autumn of 1966, Garrison happened to meet Louisiana senator Russell Long on an airplane trip from Washington to New Orleans.

Long, who always believed there had been a conspiracy behind the 1935 assassination of his father, Huey Long, the famous "Kingfish," harbored doubts about the Kennedy case too, and urged Garrison to look into the matter.

In late 1966, the district attorney began checking out volumes of the much-maligned Warren Commission report from his local library.

Fast forward to mid-January 1967. Jack Ruby had just died of cancer. I was just starting my new job at Newsweek in Houston, when I received a call from Garrison. He invited me over to discuss the Kennedy assassination.

"I keep running into your name." he said. "I think you have information that could help me in an ongoing investigation-and I'm very sure I have information you would consider more than just interesting."

Jim Garrison (originally Earling Carothers Garrison) at the time enjoyed a favorable press. A few months earlier Jim Phelan had published an admiring profile of the hulking one-time FBI agent in The Saturday Evening Post.

Garrison told me he was investigating the Kennedy assassination, and thought I could "fill in some holes" for him. Sensing this might be the start of a great story, I agreed to what would become a long series of encounters with Garrison.

 

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