Did a Secret Service Agent Kill JFK by Accident?
Three Secret Service Theories
The Secret Service, which spectacularly failed to perform its task of protecting President Kennedy in Dallas, was accused of active participation in the assassination:
- One of the earliest conspiracy theories suggested that the driver of the presidential limousine, a Secret Service agent named William Greer, shot JFK.
- Later theorists pointed to a number of witnesses who stated that the car stopped momentarily during the motorcade. It was claimed that the driver stopped the car deliberately to allow the fatal head shot to be fired by another conspirator, and that the Zapruder film was altered to conceal this event.
Both theories were ludicrous, and were easily disproved. Another theory emerged, however, which suggested that a Secret Service agent in the car immediately behind President Kennedy fired his rifle by accident, hitting JFK in the head.
Howard Donahue and the Ballistics Evidence
The theory was proposed by a firearms expert, Howard Donahue, whose interest in the ballistics aspects of the JFK assassination led him to point out several problems with the official account.
Two Types of Bullet Were Fired
As far as can be deduced from the poor state of the medical evidence, the damage to President Kennedy’s head appears to have been caused by one or more soft–nosed bullets, a type designed to break into fragments on impact. The wounds to Kennedy’s and Governor Connally’s torsos, however, were caused by metal–jacketed bullets, a type designed to remain intact on impact. The bullet and bullet shells that were discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository were of the latter type.
President Kennedy’s head wound cannot, therefore, have been caused by the rifle that was also discovered on the sixth floor. The nature of the head wound implies that more than one gunman took part in the assassination.
The Location of the Entrance Wound
The pathologists who conducted President Kennedy’s autopsy claimed that there was a bullet entrance wound low down on the back of the president’s head. The Warren Commission accepted their evidence, but failed to recognise that an entrance wound in this location, when combined with the much larger wound high on the skull that was presumed to be the point of exit, is incompatible with a shot from Lee Harvey Oswald’s supposed location, 60 feet (18 metres) above the road. Again, the implication is that the head wound was not caused by a shot from the sixth floor, and more than one gunman was involved.
The Revised Bullet Trajectory
The House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s arbitrarily moved the entrance wound up by four inches or ten centimetres, against the strong objections of the pathologists, so that the two wounds could now line up with the sixth floor of the TSBD. Donahue examined the work of Thomas Canning, the scientist who devised the new trajectory, and found that Canning’s assumptions about the angle of JFK’s head were poorly supported, and that the revised trajectory of the bullet was almost certainly incorrect.
The Secret Service Agent with the Rifle
Donahue looked around for a possible source of a bullet of the correct type that could have entered the back of President Kennedy’s head at a suitable angle. His solution was that the bullet had been fired by a Secret Service agent, George Hickey, who was riding on the back seat of the car immediately behind the presidential limousine.
Between Hickey and his colleague, Glen Bennett, lay an automatic rifle, a Colt AR–15, which was loaded with thin–metal–jacketed bullets. A photograph of the car, taken on Stemmons Freeway less than a minute after the assassination, shows Hickey standing up and holding the rifle. Donahue was impressed by the statement of a witness, Sam Holland, who claimed that a Secret Service agent in the car had stood up and raised his gun at about the time of the fatal shot.
Howard Donahue and Mortal Error
Donahue’s story was taken up by a journalist, Bonar Menninger, who published his account in a book, Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK (St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
Menninger gives his narrative a sense of drama by using short paragraphs and reconstructed conversations. Here is the passage describing our hero’s realisation that he has discovered the secret to the assassination:
God, Donahue thought. The left–rear seat! Here was the missing piece.…
“Find something interesting?” Minetree asked as he browsed amid the gun cases.
“Yeah, I did,” Donahue replied, numb inside. “Thanks a lot, Warner. This looks like a really good book.”
(Mortal Error, pp.101–102)
Although the majority of Mortal Error is written in a superficial, tabloid style, it also contains a postscript by the publisher, which discusses the technical aspects of Donahue’s work in detail and is worth reading.
Problems with Mortal Error
With the publication of Menninger’s book, several problems with Donahue’s account became apparent. Although Donahue was knowledgeable about ballistics, he appeared to be unfamiliar with much of the fundamental evidence to do with the JFK assassination. For example, he assumed that Oswald had been on the sixth floor of the TSBD during the assassination, that Oswald had fired three shots, and that the single–bullet theory was credible. All three assumptions are contradicted by the balance of the evidence and are accepted these days by very few specialists, although they still feature in media accounts of the assassination.
Two serious problems were pointed out with the book’s central claim:
- Dozens of witnesses were able to see George Hickey when the fatal shot was fired. None of the witnesses claimed that Hickey had fired the shot.
- A home movie by a spectator, Charles Bronson, shows that Hickey was neither standing up nor pointing his rifle at President Kennedy at the instant of the fatal shot.
Charles Bronson’s Home Movie
Charles Bronson had been standing on the concrete peristyle at the south–western corner of the junction of Houston Street and Main Street. When Bronson captured the head shot on film, he was about 60 yards from Kennedy, and almost directly opposite Abraham Zapruder. This portion of Bronson’s film lasts only two seconds, and is of inferior quality to the Zapruder film.
George Hickey is visible, on the third row of seats at the back of the Secret Service car. His gun is not visible. Immediately in front of Hickey was President Kennedy’s political associate, Kenneth O’Donnell. In front of O’Donnell was the driver, Sam Kinney. In front of Kinney, and extending beyond the top of Kinney’s head, was the car’s windscreen, with both visors raised. To shoot President Kennedy, Hickey would have had to stand up or raise his gun to at least the level of his head, and the film shows that he does neither.
The film is consistent with Hickey’s own account:
At the end of the last report [i.e. the final shot] I reached to the bottom of the car and picked up the AR 15 rifle, cocked and loaded it, and turned to the rear. At this point the cars were passing under the over–pass and as a result we had left the scene of the shooting. I kept the AR 15 rifle ready as we proceeded at a high rate of speed to the hospital.
The real significance of Bronson’s film is not that it disproves a far–fetched theory, but that another portion of the film depicts the sixth–floor window from which at least one shot appears to have been fired. This portion of film was taken about five minutes earlier, when the motorcade had been due to arrive and when Lee Oswald was seen on the first (i.e. ground) floor of the building. There is some debate about whether or not the film shows a moving figure, presumably a gunman, behind the window. For more about Charles Bronson’s film and his experience of the assassination, see Richard Trask, Pictures of the Pain, Yeoman Press, 1994, pp.278–304. Selections from Bronson’s film, including an animated GIF (1.9 MB) of the head–shot sequence, can be found at https://www.jfkassassinationgallery.com/thumbnails.php?album=15. The Mary Ferrell Foundation website gives links to online versions of all the known home movies of the assassination.
A Useful Coincidence
Even if Charles Bronson’s film did not exist, the notion that George Hickey killed President Kennedy accidentally could be dismissed simply on the grounds of its implausibility. As Professor Donald Gibson put it:
Were it not for the significance of the events, some discussions would just be funny (like Bonar Menninger’s 1992 book arguing that a Secret Service agent just happened to accidentally shoot Kennedy in the head while Oswald was coincidentally shooting at him, i.e., the only accidental discharge of a Secret Service weapon around a President in one hundred years would by chance hit the President in the head and would by chance occur in the six or so seconds during which someone else was shooting at the President).
(Donald Gibson, The Kennedy Assassination Cover–up, Nova Science Publishers, 2000, pp.229–230)
Gibson might have added a further coincidence: the fact that the accidental discharge just happened to cause a wound that could not have been caused by a lone gunman. By 1992, the lone–assassin hypothesis had been undermined by nearly three decades of criticism, culminating in Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, which had just been released. A politically acceptable non–conspiratorial explanation was required, and Mortal Error just happened to provide it.
A Discredited Theory
It is rare for any JFK assassination theory, no matter how outlandish, to be conclusively disproved. Even the theory that Lee Oswald played an active part in the assassination, which these days is believed by few serious researchers, and the theory that Kennedy was hit by a dart fired from a spectator’s umbrella, which is believed by almost no–one, have not been conclusively disproved. But the ‘Secret Service agent shot JFK by accident’ theory is most certainly wrong: there is actually a film of the agent not shooting JFK.
In short, President Kennedy was not killed by a Secret Service agent, deliberately or accidentally.
Legal Action by George Hickey
George Hickey, the Secret Service agent named as President Kennedy’s unwitting assassin, began a law suit against Donahue, Menninger, and St. Martin’s Press. Hickey claimed that the three parties had been shown Bronson’s film several months before the publication of the book, and that they were aware that the film conclusively disproved their theory.
Hickey’s lawsuit was rejected on the technicality that his claim had not been made within the time period required by law, but he was reported to have accepted an out–of–court payment for damages. For details, see:
- Michael James, ‘Lawsuit is settled in favor of former Secret Service agent; book claimed man accidentally fired bullet that killed Kennedy,’ Baltimore Sun, 3 February 1998; online (with geographical restrictions) at https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1998-02-03-1998034023-story.html.
- ‘Settlement for ex–agent blamed for shooting JFK,’ Chicago Tribune, 4 February 1998; online at https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct–xpm–1998–02–04–9802050400–story.html.
- The legal ruling, available online at https://casetext.com/case/hickey–v–st–martins–press–inc: “The bottom line is simply that plaintiff did not act timely in seeking recompense for allegedly defamatory statements contained in Mortal Error.”
- The text of Hickey’s claim used to be available online at http://spot.acorn.net/jfkplace/00/hickey.lawsuit, but this link does not appear to be valid at the time of writing.
The Media and the Secret Service ‘Assassin’
The Promotion of Mortal Error
Not only did publication of Bonar Menninger’s Mortal Error go ahead, but the book was widely and sympathetically reviewed in the press. As is usually the case with books about the JFK assassination, almost none of the reviewers had sufficient knowledge of the assassination to identify the book’s fundamental weakness.
JFK: The Smoking Gun
Two decades later, and just a couple of years after George Hickey’s death removed the threat of another legal challenge, a film company decided to cash in by reviving Howard Donahue’s discredited theory.
JFK: The Smoking Gun was one of many pot–boiler films released in time for the fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The film is at least partly fictional, using CGI animations that are based on incorrect data, and features the work of a police detective whose powerful investigative skills allow him to solve the crime of the century. Our master sleuth deduces that … wait for it … JFK was shot accidentally by a Secret Service agent in the car behind him!
Again, wide–eyed newspaper commentators treated it as though it were a credible explanation of the assassination. Few journalists seemed to be aware that the theory had been suggested and debunked twenty years earlier. Nor was any comment made about the well–supported observations that led Donahue to propose his theory:
- the presence of two types of bullet, which implied that at least two gunmen were involved;
- and the nature of President Kennedy’s head wounds, which implied that the fatal shot came from somewhere other than the sixth floor of the TSBD.
JFK’s Secret Killer
The same thoroughly discredited theory popped up again in a television programme called JFK’s Secret Killer, which may have been a renamed version of JFK: The Smoking Gun, and which apparently dealt with the inconvenient evidence of Charles Bronson’s home movie in the safest way possible, by simply ignoring it.
JFK’s Secret Killer was the only programme on British television during the week of the fiftieth anniversary which offered any analysis of the shooting. Observers who are familiar with the media’s coverage of the JFK assassination were, as usual, appalled but not surprised. Viewers who were unfamiliar with the facts of the assassination were, as usual, misled.
The Media’s Message
Much of the early PR puff about JFK: The Smoking Gun repeated a line that had been used when Mortal Error came out, and which acknowledged that the news media’s promotion of the lone–nut hypothesis has failed to convince a large majority of the general public:
Forget about those silly conspiracy theories! Even if you suspect that the lone–nut theory is nonsense, there is now a perfectly good non–conspiratorial explanation for the assassination. It was just an accident!
The narrator of JFK: The Smoking Gun gave its viewers the same message: “Maybe it’s time … to quietly close the door behind history’s most talked–about and debated crime scene.” The comedian, Bill Hicks, made the same point more succinctly: “Go back to bed, America.”
The media’s institutional subservience to power is surely the fundamental reason why it has repeatedly promoted this particular discredited theory. To the average newspaper editor or television scheduler, the ‘Secret Service agent killed JFK’ theory is an acceptable explanation for the assassination because:
- it does not challenge the official doctrine that Lee Harvey Oswald played a part in the assassination and did not have accomplices;
- it provides a plausible explanation for the Warren Commission’s inability to make a convincing case against Oswald as a lone assassin;
- and it allows the media to continue to ignore the evidence of Oswald’s impersonation in Mexico City, the event which prompted the adoption of the lone–nut hypothesis.
For a comprehensive demolition of JFK: The Smoking Gun, see https://www.patspeer.com/the-smoking-gun-that-lied-a-review-of-jfk-the-smoking-gun, which details the film’s misuse of witness testimony and its misrepresentation of the medical evidence. Speer correctly concludes:
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.
Speer also covers the rest of the media’s 50th anniversary output.
For more about the media’s uncritical reporting of JFK: The Smoking Gun, see http://jfkfacts.org/stupidity–goes–viral–lame–jfk–conspiracy–theory–spreads–around–the–world/. The wording of the URL is mistaken: the lame stupidity in question has gone viral precisely because it is not a conspiracy theory. The article includes a splendid remark by Mark Zaid, who represented Hickey in court:
I have been involved in research and issues involving the JFK assassination for almost 40 years …. I have represented numerous JFK authors/researchers, given numerous speeches and media appearances, and helped secure the declassification of thousands of records. This is one of the most BS theories that has ever been promoted and anyone who believes it is a complete moron.
For a discussion of Mortal Error’s place in the JFK literature, see Fiction, Propaganda and the Media.