Chapter 6, Part 1:
A Night at Bethesda

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

In February 1989, University of Wisconsin History Professor David Wrone showed this writer a draft of his own critique of David Lifton’s Best Evidence, entitled “Anatomy of the Most Successful Assassination Fraud.” Examining the movements of Kennedy’s casket from its arrival aboard Air Force One at Love Field, Dallas, to its arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, Professor Wrone painstakingly established the absence of any moment when the casket was left unattended by President Kennedy’s friends and staff or the Secret Service, and pointed to Lifton’s failure to demonstrate the existence of any mysterious helicopter that his plotters could use to kidnap the body at Andrews. Noting that Lifton’s two–casket theory was based on interviews with dramatis personae minor held sixteen and seventeen years after the event, Professor Wrone offered the professional historian’s perspective:

Evaluating witness testimony in a crime as complex and infamous as the assassination of President Kennedy calls for mature judgment associated with common sense and much experience. The mind through memory tends to expand time frames, collapse and even intertwine events often with selective enhancements and embellishments, to the absolutely convinced correctness of the individual.

As we have already seen in the cases of Paul O’Connor and John Ebersole, not every witness statement running against the official doctrine can be taken as “absolute truth”, to be pounded into a theory that pretends to reconcile all inconsistencies. It is unnecessary, however, to dismiss the witnesses whom Lifton interviews regarding the coffin movements (page 399 ff.) on the basis of the weakness of eyewitness testimony. It is Lifton’s use of their “testimony” itself that is outrageous, as shown by an objective appraisal of his alleged reconstruction of the casket switch through the use of a “decoy ambulance” at Bethesda. In this chapter, I illustrate Mr. Lifton’s use of the dispersal and juxtaposition of interview fragments throughout his text, which one must reassemble to make any sense of them.

Lifton tells us that two coffins were delivered to the Bethesda morgue. First, the President’s altered body arrived from parts unknown (presumably Walter Reed Army Hospital) in a pinkish gray metal casket. The bronze ceremonial casket that left Parkland Hospital bearing the President’s remains arrived later. It was allegedly empty. Through sleight of hand, the body was replaced in the bronze casket in which it left Dallas. That casket was taken outside the hospital and brought back in bearing the body. The two caskets were switched somewhere in the middle of this farce without anyone noticing. Integral to the plot, according to Lifton, was the alleged deception foisted upon the military honor guard that was supposed to meet the President’s casket at the hospital and carry it into the morgue. He alleges that, for a time, the honor guard lost track of their charge after the Navy ambulance that we all saw on television at Andrews Air Force Base arrived on the hospital grounds. The confusion allegedly resulted from the conspirators’ use of an unmarked black hearse to spirit the body into the morgue. Lifton implies that the honor guard erroneously regarded this as a decoy ambulance.

As author Thomas Powers succinctly noted about Lifton’s theory, “This is something he figured out.” (Powers, Thomas and Alan Rich, “Robbing the Grave”, New York Magazine, February 23, 1981, p. 46)

For simplicity’s sake, we might do well to first review the report of FBI Agents Sibert and O’Neill. They wrote:

On arrival at the Medical Center, the ambulance stopped in front of the main entrance, at which time Mrs. JACQUELINE KENNEDY and Attorney General ROBERT KENNEDY embarked from the ambulance and entered the building. The ambulance was thereafter driven around to the rear entrance where the President’s body was removed and taken into the autopsy room. Bureau agents assisted in the moving of the casket to the autopsy room. A tight security was immediately placed around the autopsy room by the Naval facility and the U.S. Secret Service. Bureau agents made contact with ROY KELLERMAN…

Liftonites, scrutinizing this passage microscopically, contend for a distinction in Sibert and O’Neill’s use of the words “body” and “casket”.

The Ambulance Chase

None of the witnesses Lifton cites in support of his decoy ambulance scenario remembers “the ambulance chase” in quite the same way. Lifton interviewed members of the casket honor guard with the following results:

Corporal Timothy Cheek had only a vague recollection of trying to find the ambulance and finally catching up with it at the morgue entrance. Lifton quotes him, but does not cite his account in direct support of his thesis.

James L. Felder echoes the decoy ambulance story, but he doesn’t remember which of the two ambulances was the decoy. All he remembers is following the first ambulance from the front of Bethesda around back, losing it, returning to the front, seeing a second ambulance, returning to the rear again and unloading a coffin. Lifton quotes him, but does not cite him in direct support of his thesis.

Douglas Mayfield (BE, page 408) tells about chasing an ambulance around back, losing it, returning to the front and picking it up again. (He doesn’t speak in terms of two ambulances, and Lifton doesn’t say whether he asked Mayfield about a second — or decoy ambulance.) Lifton quotes, but does not cite Mayfield in direct support of his thesis.

Notice Lifton’s persistent questioning and his highly suggestive, leading questions to Hubert Clark (BE, page 409). Clark says there was a decoy ambulance, but his recollection is vague, even under Lifton’s prompting. Lifton does not cite him in direct support of his thesis.

Richard Gaudreau (BE, page 414) does not have an independent recollection of there being more than one ambulance until Lifton prompts him. He clearly cannot remember the details. Lifton quotes, but does not cite Gaudreau in direct support of his thesis.

From General Godfrey McHugh, Secret Service Agent William Greer and the presidential physician, Dr. George Burkley, Lifton produces nothing in support of his scenario.

Another witness not interviewed by Lifton on his theory of an ambulance chase was Sorrell L. Schwartz. Schwartz was a pharmacologist at the Naval Medical Research Institute, a component of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. On the night of November 22, 1963, he was recruited to serve with the duty officer. He wrote to Time Magazine (Time, February 16, 1981, p. 4):

[W]e did not lose track of the ambulance containing the bronze casket after it arrived at the medical center. On that night there were a large number of spectators around, and our intention was to get the ambulance to the morgue before the crowd gathered. The honor guard, along with a Navy enlisted–man driver, the other duty officer and me, rode to the morgue on the guard truck at high speed, believing that the ambulance was following. When we got there, the ambulance was not seen. Since the Secret Service driver was unfamiliar with the grounds, we decided he was lost. Retracing our path, we found the ambulance still at the front of the hospital amid many onlookers. In our haste we had left without confirming that the ambulance was behind us. On the second try we did it right.

At no time was the ambulance out of sight of at least several hundred people, from its arrival at the center until the bronze coffin was unloaded at the morgue.

David Lifton and Dennis David

Lifton’s star witness is Dennis David, whom he interviewed in 1979.

David says the first “ambulance” came onto the grounds of the hospital from the back gate, bearing the body (BE, page 571). He describes the first “ambulance” as an unmarked black Cadillac (i.e., a hearse) not a gray Navy ambulance (BE, page 575). David says the casket it carried was plain gray metal (page 579). The second ambulance was the empty one arriving with the official motorcade (BE, page 571). He did not, however, witness the arrival of the “second ambulance” at the morgue (BE, page 573). David says that, after the black hearse arrived, he went to the front of the hospital. He then went up to the balcony to the rotunda. From there he witnessed Jackie and Bobby’s arrival. (BE, page 576)

Although he tells Lifton that he supervised the entry of a casket, unloaded from the first ambulance by a group of sailors (BE, page 571), he admits that he has no personal knowledge that the body was in the first ambulance (BE, page 581); he simply alleges he was told this by Commander Boswell, one of the autopsy pathologists (BE, page 573). Furthermore, while Lifton cites his interview with David as support for the fact that Humes, Boswell, Admiral Kenney (Surgeon General of the Navy) and Captain Stover were in the morgue when the first casket arrived (BE, page 580), it is not until a full nine pages later, however, that Lifton discloses that David “had emphasized that he had never entered the autopsy room itself.” (BE, page 589)

It is on the basis of such testimony by a man who knows nothing, and for whose tale no corroboration is offered, that Lifton makes his case.

The Back Gate and the Recollections of Dr. Russell Madison

Dennis David told Lifton that the first “ambulance” came onto the hospital grounds from the back gate. According to Dennis David, it was allegedly an unmarked black Cadillac. (BE, p. 575) This is the one he says had the body. (BE, p. 571)

On the day of the assassination, Dr. Russell Madison was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force attached to the Air Force Radiological Institute, a satellite unit of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology operating at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Madison always drove to and from work. He was accustomed to using the back gate of the hospital grounds at the end of each day because it was the closest gate to the radiological research unit where he worked. It was also closer to his home, and enabled him to avoid heavy rush hour traffic on Wisconsin Avenue.

The night of the assassination was different from all other nights in Madison’s experience. He left work at approximately 6:30 p.m., but when he headed for the back gate, “It was locked, because I’d usually go out that way and I couldn’t get out.” Also, no guard was posted at the gate. Madison turned around and drove out the front gate of the Medical Center grounds. He did notice that the helipad at the rear of the hospital was lit. Did he see any activity that aroused his interest? “Absolutely not, there was nobody around.” It was the only time that he was unable to use the back gate. (Author’s interview with Russell Madison, May 25, 1993)

According to the report of the casket team leader, the casket team unloaded the casket into the morgue at 8:00 p.m., one hour and five minutes after the Secret Service reported it had arrived at the front of the hospital. (BE, p. 406). According to Humes, he received the body at 7:35 p.m., so Lifton's question is: What did the casket team carry in? Sibert and O’Neill say that the preparations for the autopsy began at 7:17 p.m., and the autopsy itself began at 8:15 p.m. (BE, p. 484) These are the bases for Lifton’s finding time unaccounted for (approximately 45 minutes) and concluding that there were two separate casket entries.

Paul O’Connor and the Musical Caskets

Paul O’Connor (interviewed by Lifton on August 25, 1979) (BE, p. 598), stated he saw a gray shipping casket enter the morgue at 8:00 p.m. Lifton arbitrarily concludes that O’Connor was describing events he witnessed at least an hour earlier, and that his testimony dovetails with that of Dennis David (BE, p. 605), except that O’Connor said he thought the body was brought in by helicopter, one that may have landed in the rear of the hospital (id.). Lifton quotes O’Connor in his book, but does not use him in direct support of the musical caskets thesis. When I questioned O’Connor, he stuck by his original story notwithstanding Mr. Lifton’s revision, saying that, at about 8 o’clock in the evening, the back door of the hospital burst open and six men came in carrying a “pinkish gray, nondescript, cheap, shipping casket.”

Lifton does rely upon O’Connor for the allegation that the President’s body was in a combat–style body bag. According to one of Mr. Lifton’s own witnesses, Hospital Corpsman James Metzler, there was no body bag. (Livingstone, Harrison, High Treason 2. Carroll & Graf, New York: 1991, p. 89) Before it left Parkland Hospital, the President’s body was wrapped in rubberized plastic sheeting, besides a hospital bed sheet, to protect the O’Neal Funeral Home’s casket from seepage. When the casket was opened in the Bethesda morgue, the plastic stuck against the President’s throat and the back of his skull. (Bishop, Jim, The Day Kennedy Was Shot. Funk & Wagnall’s, New York: 1968, p. 452)

Donald Rebentisch and the Decoy Ambulance

For Donald Rebentisch, a petty officer who was stationed at Bethesda on the night of the autopsy, there was no big secret. Rebentisch was studying dental and medical equipment repair at the hospital at the time. According to Rebentisch, two ambulances carrying two caskets were employed — one of them empty and one with the body of Kennedy — in a deliberate charade to slip the President’s body into Bethesda Naval Hospital. Rebentisch says his commanding officers told him the secrecy was planned to avoid the media and other onlookers. The empty casket was brought in the front door while the casket carrying Kennedy’s body was driven in a 1958 Chevrolet hearse to the back of the hospital where medical officials were to perform an autopsy:

“It was about 4:30 p.m., when our chief petty officer came to me and about five other petty officers and told us to go to the back of the hospital. I’m talking about the loading ramps where they used to bring in supplies.

“He told all of us that we were going to be there and we were going to bring the President’s casket into the mortuary. We were told not to leave our posts.

“The chief said we got all the … ghouls and reporters and the TV and everybody at the front of the hospital. He said there would be an empty casket in the ambulance. He said the President’s body would really come in the back.

“This made sense to me. I felt there was nothing wrong with this. I just bought it, as did the rest of us.”

Rebentisch said he and five other officers took the President’s casket out of the black hearse and pushed it through a rear freight entrance, 35 or 40 minutes before another coffin was taken through a mass of reporters and photographers at the front door. “Rebentisch said he doubted most of Lifton’s claims.” (The Associated Press, January 23, 1981, AM Cycle) Robert Muma, who was a Bethesda staff dental technician, corroborated Rebentisch’s account:

“There were two ambulances that came in. One was lighted. It came up to the front door. The second one they kept dark and it went around to the back. That was the one that had Kennedy in it. It was common knowledge that there were two caskets.”

(The Associated Press, January 23, 1981, AM Cycle)

Another of Rebentisch’s associates, Paul Neigler, also corroborated the former petty officer’s story. (United Press International, January 24, 1981, AM cycle)

In an “Epilogue” to his Dell and subsequent paperback editions of Best Evidence, Lifton refers to Donald Rebentisch surfacing after the initial publication of his book. He chortles at the notion that a mere security measure might have been employed. Nevertheless, he omits to mention the front entry of the bronze ceremonial casket, and he also fails to grapple with the fact that Rebentisch and his colleagues were stationed at the back of the hospital from 4:30 p.m. that afternoon until they carried the casket containing the President’s remains. None of them mentioned the comings and goings of more than one vehicle or more than one casket.

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Roger Feinman: Between the Signal and the Noise

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