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The Howard Donahue theory on the JFK assassination

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 2 years, 5 months ago

One of my hobbyhorses and a page on the JFK shooting


See also The JFK shooting seen from 2022


It is often said, fact is stranger than fiction...

...and among those interested in the Kennedy assassination, there is a growing feeling that it may be a case in point. 


Howard Donahue (1922-1999) was a noted gunsmith, weapons examiner, gunshop owner, marksman, and an expert in the science of forensic ballistics. His expertise was mainly as one of the people who invented the science, although later in life he studied for but did not complete a Masters degree in Forensics. And he was very good at it, being regularly accepted by the courts as an expert witness, including before, during and after these formal studies.


And I admit he is one of my heroes. A man with proven expertise, he discovered something in his field that he thought it was very important that the American people should know, and he quietly and patiently went about telling them. And it was a thankless job, but he persevered, competently and diligently. His findings were published, first in `1977 in a newspaper, and then in 1992 in a book, Mortal Error.


Donahue's theory, in a nutshell: 


  • Lee Harvey Oswald fired only two shots at President Kennedy. The first missed, but a ricochet fragment hit Kennedy, inflicting a relatively trivial but painful scalp wound. The second hit and wounded both Kennedy (probably mortally) and Governor Connally.
  • The third shot, the bullet that then struck Kennedy in the head, was fired by George Hickey, a Secret Service agent riding in the follow-up car immediately behind Kennedy, and presumably fired by accident.


"Well, you know more about guns than do," he said. "But that would certainly explain the strange antics of the government." (Mortal Error p. 65, see my synopsis for the context and for many more quotes)  


Page Table of Contents


What the theory is not


Donahue's theory was not about conspiracies or even about cover-ups. Obviously if it's true, that implies that there was a very successful cover-up, and for most people the main problem with his theory is that they can't believe that such a cover-up would be possible, or even attempted. All Donahue established or even sought to investigate was who shot who and when. That was his area of expertise. He did speculate that the shot was fired accidentally, and that Robert Kennedy must have known the truth right from the start and had therefore been involved in the cover-up, but that's about it.  


While obviously the theory itself suggests that there was a cover-up of some sort, Donahue encountered much more such evidence of a cover-up in his efforts over twenty-five years to gain access to both the physical and testimonial evidence relating to the shooting. But that was not news. Before his investigation, and despite his misgivings about other government decisions, Donahue had believed, or perhaps assumed is a better term, that the Warren Commission had done a reasonably good job at getting to the truth of the matter. But polls had consistently shown that while he was not alone in this, a majority of Americans held the opposite view, supported by the authors of well over 1,000 other books. A google search on Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory now gets over a quarter of a million hits. The evidence that a cover-up of some sort was going on (and continues) is substantial. By 1977 the very phrase conspiracy theory had already come to mean one that disputed the the central finding of the Warren Commission, that Oswald acted alone.


So it's probably best not to call Donahue's version of events a conspiracy theory at all. But of course that's exactly what its critics do want to call it, because this then associates it with other theories that are speculative and/or politically motivated and/or quite incredible. These conspiracy theories can afford to be incredible, as some of the Warren Commission findings were themselves incredible. As Menninger and others have pointed out, Donahue's theory suggests a third possibility, neither swallowing the Warren Commission findings whole nor requiring that Oswald should have been part of a larger conspiracy. He might have been. He might not have been. Or as Menninger explicitly says in Mortal Error:


Donahue's understanding of the fatal shot in no way precluded the possibility that Oswald was involved in some kind of conspiracy... (p. 146)


And Donahue was not the first to suggest a second gunman. There had been many claims that a second gunman fired from a grassy knoll in front of the motorcade, and Cyril Wecht had testified to the Rockefeller Commission of 1975 that there must have been a second gunman, and even that this second gunman was behind the President, not on the grassy knoll. 


But Donahue's theory is unusual in several respects. One is that it is the result of an extensive and expert enquiry that started out to find the truth, rather than to support an existing position. Or at least, that's what it quickly became. What started out to be an article in support of the Warren Commission findings led, to Donahue's surprise, to a conclusion that this was impossible. Another is that it relies on physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and Donahue as an expert witness, rather than relying on other circumstantial evidence (see below for more on exactly what that means). It is worth noting that, by way of contrast, all the critics of Donahue's theory to date do rely either on circumstantial evidence from non-experts, or on what the publisher of Mortal Error called palpable nonfacts, or mostly on both.


Like any competent and diligent researcher, Donahue started with a survey of the existing literature. Mortal Error is worth reading for that survey alone. 




Donahue's work was first published in two articles by Ralph Reppert writing in the Baltimore Sun in 1977. He and Donahue hoped to collaborate on a book on the subject, but Reppert's death ended that part of the project. Kennedy biographer John Davis then expressed interest, much to Howard's delight, but it was reporter Bonar Menninger who eventually wrote the book, Mortal Error, published in 1992. It's in the form of a narrative told by Menninger and describing Donahue's investigation. Pre-publication orders exceeded 100,000, which looked very promising at the time.


My copy is the paperback, printed in Australia,  ISBN 0-283-061136-7. The copyright notice reads Copyright 1992 by Bonar Menninger and Howard Donahue, the facing page reads Dedicated to Anne Cain and Katie Donahue, and the Acknowledgements reads in part Special thanks to.... Howard and Katie Donnahue for throwing their lot in with me. Menninger was always the sole credit as author, I guess that's because of the style of the book. 


But I was so fascinated by people challenging me on the copyright notice that I bought a second copy in 2013. It's on the left below, the ISBN is now 149095242X, the Acknowledgements section (and some of the photographs from the Zapruder film) is gone, there's a trivial change to the top of the cover adding  A ballistics expert's astoninshing discovery of and putting it in normal case not block, and sure enough, the copyright notice now reads 2013 by Bonar Menninger and Hunter's Moon (the publisher) and the dedication on the facing page now reads to Howard Donahue 1922-1999. But the page numbers seem the same. There has also been at least one other edition in the meantime, that's it on the right below.


In any meaningful sense. it's Howard's book too, and that's the way he and his family always thought of it.


My synopsis of the book has a page of its own.  It includes some of the highlights, and some interesting quotes. It's incomplete and no substitute for reading the book, of course. So please don't just read the synopsis and then claim or even imply that you've read the book. But it's a lot more than many of the book's critics seem to have read, as even a quick reading of the synopsis will make clear!


And the moral is, don't tell lies.




The book did not cause much of a stir in 1992. So little, in fact, that when later I first wrote an article on it for Wikipedia, it was twice proposed for deletion on the grounds that it wasn't sufficiently notable, and I and others had great trouble finding any mention of it on the Internet at all. I bought my copy in a fly-by-night clearance bookstall in Sydney, at a greatly reduced price.


And I was rivetted. Never much interested in the conspiracy theories that fascinated my contemporaries, I read its 361 pages in two nights. It's a really good read. 


The general reaction, however, seems to be "another conspiracy theory, ho hum". This fails to address the issues to the point that I wonder how carefully most of the reviewers have read the book, if they have read it at all. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species are like that too, in that most of the people who say they've read those books haven't really done so either. Or at least they may have skimmed the words but they've made absolutely no attempt to understand the points being made. More often, they've just read other people's comments. Is it over the top to compare Donahue to Darwin and Hawking, both acknowledged experts, both authors of landmark works? Consider this: Donahue is at the time of writing still the only ballistics expert to have published a reconstruction of the shooting. There have been other tests conducted, but the reports have been suppressed or lost or both, or the participants or procedures or both have been laughable. There was even a ballistics expert present at the Warren Commission hearings, supplied by the FBI. But he was not called to give evidence.


Hickey, backed by the Secret Service, twice sued the publisher. It never went to court either time. The first claim was dismissed as having been filed too long after publication. The second was settled on undisclosed terms, but which included an apology from the publisher. I have not located the text of this apology.


At least one reviewer complained that Mortal Error is not about a conspiracy theory at all, as it gives no explanation of the cover-up. At least they got that right, it's just about who shot who and when.


There are still many, many unanswered questions, certainly. The biggest unanswered question is of course, how could such a cover-up be possible?


The cover-up


My thoughts on the cover-up


Donahue and Menninger have said little on this. But if Donahue is right, then obviously there was a colossal cover-up, one that is arguably a bigger scandal than Watergate.


Donahue and Menninger do name one person who must have been involved, the then Attorney-General and White House advisor, and brother to the President, Robert Kennedy. He  was not yet a Senator or Presidential candidate, but it was already widely and correctly tipped that he would be both given time, and with JFK gone he was also the senior spokesperson for the Kennedy family.


But the rest of this section isn't Donahue's theory, or even Menninger's. This is my theory. It's not necessarily the only possible explanation, but what I'm hoping to show is that there is at least one possible explanation. It's my attempt to answer those who say that such a cover-up is simply unthinkable. There's not a lot of evidence, so it may or not be what happened, but it's what could have happened, and it's what I think probably happened. (While Donahue's theory is something that is very likely to have happened, and is supported by a great deal of evidence.) 


The cover-up was ordered very early, as it had to be. The following morning Hickey issued a statement that he had fired no shots. This early denial is interesting on two counts. Most important, no person in his position in the organisation would be authorised to issue such a statement except on orders, so someone had issued these orders. It should also be noted that it would be more than ten years before anyone publicly contradicted this statement. Donahue was not the first to suggest a second shooter, but he was the first to suggest that any shot at all had been fired by the Secret Service. So, why deny what nobody was yet alleging? The only possible reason is that what is being denied is what had in fact happened.


Whether Robert Kennedy issued the initial cover-up order, one that then proceeded rapidly down the chain of command to Hickey and others, or whether he instead became involved only after a cover-up had already been ordered by those lower down, will probably never be known. Too many records have been destroyed or were simply never kept. Too many people have now died. But either way, once he was involved, the cover-up had great authority. Democrats would be most reluctant to oppose him, he was their future. Republicans would be equally reluctant to attack the Secret Service, and it was political suicide to slander the brother of the murdered and still popular President. And even if he inherited a situation where a cover-up had been ordered by someone else, it was still very hard for him to then call it off, and probably nobody else was in any position to call it off. And the longer he delayed doing so, the harder it became. 


And this didn't just apply to Robert Kennedy. There must have been many who knew or suspected, but the more time passed, the harder it was for any of them to rock the boat. It quickly becomes a conspiracy of silence, along the lines of the elephant in the room, and the Emperor's new clothes. It's easy to be critical, but how many of us can cast the first stone and say we've never been part of such a thing? How many would not be tempted, the morning after the murder of our own elder brother, to do something we might later regret, in order to protect the security of the country in whose service he had just died?


Arguably, the cover-up is now more about Robert Kennedy than about JFK. Perhaps it always was. After he was in turn assassinated, the hit single Abraham, Martin_and John linked him to JFK, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King jnr, confirming that he was one of America's heroes at the time. No politician of any pursuasion would lightly accuse him of deceiving the American public, before or after his own death.


And further along these lines, it should also be noted that the Kennedy shooting took place close to the height of the Cold War. At that time there were few words in the American vocabulary ruder than the word communist. But I'd like to suggest there was at least one that was even ruder, and that was un-American. They were almost synonyms, to the point that an anti-communist committee formed by the US House of Representatives in 1938 was called the House Committee on Un-American Activities.


Now there can be few things more un-American than shooting the President. But accusing the Secret Service of shooting the President would at least come close.


There were surprisingly few witnesses to the assassination. Of the six hundred people estimated to have been near the assassination site, two hundred made statements accepted by the Warren Commission. But most people seem to have dived for cover at the first shot. Of the eleven people who testified to the Warren Commission that they smelled gunpowder, no fewer than seven were Secret Service agents. Another was a policeman.


There are many small inconsistencies in the testimony of the various Secret Service agents, but that is normal when several independent witnesses describe the same event. If anything, it is the consistency of their statements that is suspicious. There is a strong feeling that there was collusion in writing them. and this makes sense too. Once Hickey had made his statement the morning after, one which all of the seven other agents with him surely knew to be false, the Secret Service had left themselves no other way out. And whatever their faults, the Secret Service rightfully pride themselves on being very good at two things: Keeping secrets, and following orders. And their unofficial motto is never off duty.


All US Government records relating to the assassination have now been released (with a few restrictions and redactions) except for those of the Secret Service. When the order to release their records was made, the Secret Service simply destroyed them all shortly before the order became effective.   


Similarly, the illegal removal of Kennedy's body from Dallas to Washington was a Secret Service activity. This is still more evidence that a cover-up of some sort had been ordered.


So then come the Warren Commission and subsequent enquiries. The people leading them are all political types, and all in a very tricky position. They must accept the Secret Service version, and somehow bring in a verdict consistent with it. But many of them either know or suspect that there's an extra bullet that simply must not be mentioned, and that any competent ballistics test risks revealing it. Hence the Magic Bullet. Those who concocted it were desperately trying to account for that extra bullet, the one that Hickey fired and Oswald didn't. Ironically, they got the trajectory of Oswald's second shot basically right. That one bullet did hit both Kennedy and Connally, but because their reconstruction was amateurish they got Connally's position wrong and so had to say that the bullet had swerved in mid-air. The alternative, in this flawed analysis, was for the wounds caused by this bullet to account for two of Oswald's shots, and that was unacceptable. So this Magic Bullet, which was completely unnecessary had they had competent advice, became the most obvious flaw in the entire Warren Commission report. 


Similarly, Oswald had to fire at least three shots. As many as possible! Never mind that one of the three cartridge cases was bent and old. And again, better not to ask the experts, just in case they pointed that out, or questioned how when Oswald was firing rapid fire with an old bolt-action rifle, his second and third shots could be so impossibly close together. And this, rather than the Magic Bullet, was the real error in their version of events, according to Donahue.


The evidence in a nutshell


Again, better to read the book, or at least my synopsis of it. But here's a very potted version:


  • The bullet that struck Kennedy in the head didn't behave like the other rounds Oswald fired, or like the ammunition he was using would be expected to behave. It behaved exactly like a round from an AR-15 would behave.
  • The entry wound for the head shot is incompatible with the calibre of Oswald's rifle, but perfectly compatible with the calibre of the AR-15.
  • Hickey was carrying an AR-15 at the time, and one of the agents with him thought at first that he had fired, but later decided they were mistaken.
  • The fragments in Kennedy's skull were incompatible with the rounds Oswald used, but perfectly compatible with AR-15 ammunition.
  • The trajectory of the head shot is incompatible with one fired by Oswald, but perfectly compatible with one fired by Hickey.


Of course that's not all. That wouldn't fill one chapter, let alone the whole book. The Warren Commission evidence alone went on for twenty-six volumes, and Donahue sifted through them all, as well as the reports and where available the evidence presented to the several subsequent enquiries. He read the conspiracy theories and followed up the evidence they presented which was relevant to his own investigation, which wasn't much but did yield a few important leads. He spoke to everyone who would speak to him and might have known something useful, and some of them did. He examined the available physical evidence, such as the "pristine" bullet which he found wasn't pristine at all. And there were many other errors and inconsistencies in the evidence to be considered, such as the eyewitness who says he saw Hickey standing up in the President's car rather than the follow-up car, and the many problems with the autopsy evidence. 


Is this evidence all circumstantial?


Almost. Actually, all expert testimony is by its very nature circumstantial.  We need to be very careful with that term, and in earlier versions of this page frankly I wasn't.


One piece that isn't circumstantial is the testimony of Agent Winston Lawson that immediately after the shots, his first impression was that Hickey had fired one of them. I missed this point for ages and ages, and neither Menninger nor Donahue dwelt on it. I call it Alder's smoking gun. Another is the statement by Agent Glen Bennett that at the time of the head shot, Hickey was holding the AR-15.


This is eyewitness testimony.


And to repeat, we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss circumstantial evidence. It's a useful term to those who understand it. As a throw-away term used by those who don't (and I confess to often having been one of those) it's not helpful.


Two fascinating questions


There are two observations I would make, two puzzling questions that beg for answers, and for which the most likely explanation is that Hickey dunnit and that many people knew this quite early on.


The first is, why didn't Rose, commissioned by the Blakey enquiry to interview the agents involved, interview Hickey? He travelled around the country to do so, but ignored Hickey, who was in Washington and readily available. 


The second is, why didn't Hickey play his own role in the re-enactment conducted for the Warren Commission? He was there, but he drove the follow-up car. Surely, if the agent who had driven the car on the day wasn't available, someone else should have driven the car so that Hickey could re-enact his own role? 


These puzzles are both solved if someone wanted Hickey's role to be hidden.



But isn't this unfair to Hickey?


In a word, yes. It's unfair to him, to his friends and family, to everyone concerned.


It's very unfair to him if he didn't pull the trigger, and probably even more unfair to him if he did.


Hickey hasn't been allowed to put his side of the story, and it's now most unlikely that it will ever be heard. He was given every chance by Donahue and Menninger. He was given no chance at all by the Secret Service. Did he file a report? An internal one for the Secret Service I mean, not the public statement that he and the other agents were all told to prepare and release, and which shows some evidence of having been written for him? If not, why not? Did the seven other agents with him file such reports? These reports, if they existed at all, were among the records destroyed by the Secret Service.


But there's no evidence that Hickey or any of the other agents present didn't do their jobs as assigned in a commendable and even heroic manner. The problems, whatever they were, ran a lot deeper. The results of their efforts as a team were not good, obviously. That's not necessarily their fault. 


If he did


Of course, if Donahue is right then it's a tragedy for Hickey and his family. Enough of the truth will eventually come out for Hickey to be forever remembered as the man who shot Kennedy, probably long after Oswald and Ruby are forgotten. He lived and died with that hanging over him. But very little of that was his fault, and those whose fault it was have so far escaped completely, leaving him to take the rap alone.


Donahue didn't blame Hickey, and he explicitly said so, describing him as a brave man trying to do his job. And Mortal Error goes to some lengths to claim and justify the claim that even the best people have accidental discharges, and that Kennedy was already critically and probably mortally wounded by Oswald's second shot by the time Hickey fired the head shot. 


Donahue didn't really blame anybody. As I said above, that wan't his area of expertise. 


The Secret Service have said they no longer use the AR-15 for these purposes. They probably still carry the shotgun that was also on board the follow-up car but was not brought out, and all of that information about the weapons carried was in testimony published by the Warren Commission, although the Secret Service subsequently refused to answer Donahue's questions on the matter and forced him instead to wade through the many volumes of evidence, which he did. The shotgun would at least be of some use in some credible scenarios. The AR-15 is great for prison wall towers and the guards at SAC bases, in competent hands it is a formidable weapon, but it was not a good choice for the Secret Service Presidential detail. Who made this choice? Who decided that the Presidential detail were competent to carry such a weapon? Was it supposed to be lying on the floor of the rear seat, loaded and cocked with a round up the spout and with the safety on? That would be regarded as unsafe and unprofessional by any machine gun instructor I've met (and I was trained to use a Bren gun once myself), but at least one agent testified that this is exactly what was meant by "ready to go" and that this is how the AR-15 was meant to be carried. Hickey on the other hand said he "cocked and loaded" the weapon after he picked it up. That's better. But didn't the other agents with him, who evidently thought themselves authorised to use the AR-15 too, also need to know that there was no round up the spout? What was their training? What were their procedures? Were there any?


"Hey guys, today you're going to be protecting the President, so I think you should take the machine gun. Doesn't really matter whether it's loaded or not, you're not going to be shooting anybody with it. But it looks really scary, that's why we chose it. With eight of you and an AR-15 on the ground, nobody's going to give us any trouble." Scary is right. And that's the level of organisation and competence we seem to be dealing with here. Thankfully, this was both the first occasion on which they carried an AR-15 in the follow-up car, and probably also the last.


But it wasn't the last time in this story they used fully automatic weapons. The leader of the Secret Service party that removed Kennedy's body from the hospital in Dallas, where it was legally required to undergo an autopsy, carried a tommy gun. Why? Were they intending to shoot their way out if stopped? Perhaps it's good we did not find out.    


In glorious hindsight, placing a machine gun in such hands in a public place was just needlessly endangering both the public and of course the President. Some of them talked about returning fire. In the circumstances, even a competent AR-15 marksman would have been doing well to hit the window that Oswald was firing from, let alone to hit Oswald, who had just demonstrated that he could hit Kennedy and them. And why was George Hickey the one called on to take on such an uneven duel? Simply because he was the only one of them who hadn't been out drinking late the night before, in direct and blatant violation of Secret Service standing orders. 


It's not Hickey's fault at all. Pinning it on him makes about as much sense as blaming the bullet. Less sense in fact. Far better to blame those who set up such a dangerous situation. And probably, they were all just as out of their depth in organising Kennedy's security as Hickey and his associates seem to have been in handling the AR-15. Where does the buck stop? There's at least a chance that it stops with JFK, which is itself a very good reason for the Democrats of the time to have wanted a cover-up. 


Donahue doesn't dwell on this either, instead pointing out what a security nightmare it was protecting JFK. His natural sympathies are very much with the Secret Service.


But it's likely that somewhere in the chain of command between Hickey and the President, there's someone who should have known better, perhaps even someone who did know better but decided that it wasn't in their interests to rock the boat. Maybe several people, maybe one in particular. And it would be only justice to identify them, wouldn't it? Justice to Hickey in particular. The writers of the Superman television show that was popular at the time told of his never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. And as Nelson Mandela was fond of pointing out, you can't ever get justice without truth. Well, truth and justice are still both lacking in the official version of the JFK assassination, and the American way is far more on trial here than George Hickey is.   


Hickey's job was as a driver. In the Warren Commission "re-enactment" he was even the one driving the follow-up car. The AR-15 probably shouldn't have been there in the first place, but even if it had to be here probably Hickey shouldn't have been the one in charge of it... except that it even seems quite possible that the rest of the detail, even when sober, were no more competent to use it than he was. Even if he did fire that shot, Hickey was far, far less culpable than many, many others in the Secret Service, and their subsequent behaviour makes perfect sense in the light of that. And it stinks. It really, really stinks.


And Hickey is not the only Secret Serviceman with reason to complain. We haven't heard from Winston Lawson, who was in charge of the Secret Service detail, for example. Did he have the resources and training that he needed? Did he have any way of appealing for more if not? Who was really responsible for providing Kennedy with effective protection?


If he didn't


And of course if Hickey did not fire the shot he has reason to complain too. But not just to Donahue, and perhaps not even to Donahue. Again, there are many more culpable. And many of them are again in the Secret Service. But again, perhaps we should not be too quick to cast stones. These are people who accepted as part of the job that they would be human shields for their charges. Clint Hill did exactly that immediately after the shots were fired. Donahue's description of Hickey was A brave man, trying to do his job (p. 237) and it should probably be applied to the whole detail.  


Heading the list of those Hickey might better complain about are of course those who destroyed the records that should have cleared him. That was done in 1995, three years after the publication of Mortal Error and almost a year after Hickey's first lawsuit, and a whopping eighteen years after the first publication of Donahue's theory and the associated first attempts to contact Hickey, and Hickey's first threats to sue. But the list doesn't end there. Those who put the weapon into his hands. Those who did their very best to compromise the autopsy. And those in and around the Warren Commission, the Rockefeller Commission, and the Select Committee, all of whom quite simply failed to conduct competent investigations. These are the ones who have most blackened Hickey's name, and that of the entire Secret Service. And it still stinks.


It stinks either way. And that's not Donahue's fault. 


either way...


Hickey's involvement is peculiar in a number of ways.


As noted elsewhere, he issued a statement the morning after, saying he had fired no shots. Why? Nobody at this stage had suggested he did.


In the "re-enactment", he drove the follow-up car. Why? At the time of the event he was in the back seat. Shouldn't he have been there for the "re-enactment"? Where was the agent who actually drove the car? And even if they weren't available, and the re-enactment needed to be compromised on that point, why further compromise it by taking Hickey away from the role that he had played in the actual event? Most peculiar.


And as already noted, why wasn't Hickey interviewed subsequently, when on behalf of the Select Committee, Rose traveled around the country to interview all the agents involved... except for Hickey, who was in Washington and could have been interviewed with no travel required?


Someone, somewhere, knew that Hickey should be kept out out of the spotlight. Having him absent completely from the re-enactment was probably considered and rejected as calling attention to him. Better to have him do the job he was supposed to have been doing. 


Conspiracy theory?


As I said above, it's probably best not to call this a conspiracy theory at all. Neither Donahue nor Menninger propose any conspiracy, and Menninger contrasts it to the conspiracy theories that contradict the Warren Commission basic finding that Oswald acted alone. In the context of the Kennedy assassination, that's what conspiracy theory normally means. And most if not all of them are incredible. Colin McLaren says in his recent book (see below) in the half a century that has elapsed since, not one trace of solid evidence has been uncovered to support or elevate any conspiracy theory to a level above tabloid splash. (JFK: The Smoking Gun, Kindle Locations 1596-1597 of 4447).


(And note that he is also using the phrase conspiracy theory here to mean something much more than just the cover-up of an accidental shot by a Secret Service agent. Scandalous as that may be, it's not what most people mean by conspiracy theory.)


Conspiracy theories are lunatic-fringe stuff... except many very reasonable Americans, many reasonable people worldwide, do give them credibility. Why? Simply because the Warren Commission's findings taken together are equally incredible. Before Donahue, there simply wasn't a third possibility.  


It is up to the conspiracy theorists to show evidence of any conspiracy beyond the obvious conspiracy of silence. Neither Donahue nor Menninger have proposed or supported such a theory, and their work does not provide any evidence in support of one either. On the contrary, it provides an alternative explanation of the evidence on which these theories tend to rely. But as Menninger explicitly pointed out in Mortal Error, it doesn't disprove the conspiracy theories either.


Menninger in a recent interview (link below) says explicitly that he doesn't have a view either way, but that he does think that perhaps the reason Donahue's theory had so few supporters was that it was equally disliked by both conspiracy theorists and supporters of the Warren Commission. There was no constituency for it, per se, except for people with common sense and willingness to examine the evidence with an open mind. Those people apparently were too few and far between in 1992.


And it's also up to those who want to discredit Donahue's work as just another conspiracy theory to justify this claim. And I wish them luck. Because as anyone who has read the book knows, that's exactly what it is not. It's just about how competent research can show who shot who and when. But it does explain very well why so many conspiracy theories have gained so much coverage. The party line simply does not fit the facts, and never did, so it provided fertile soil for all sorts of speculation, even to the point of a substantial number of Americans, perhaps even a majority, siding with the conspiracy theorists rather than the Warren Commission.


As Robert Heinlein is often quoted as saying (and might well have but probably didn't), Never attribute malice to what can be explained by incompetence. 


What now?


Most of the above is assuming, of course, that Donahue got it right. Which is my view, obviously.


There is still a deafening silence from ballistics experts. Donahue deserves an answer from them, surely?


Do any of them know of another case in which a 6.5 mm bullet has gone through a 6 mm hole?


Do any of them know of another case where a medium-velocity jacketed bullet has inflicted wounds like Kennedy's head wound? A wound that this ammunition is specifically designed to avoid causing? And a wound exactly like the high-velocity frangible bullets from the AR-15 were specifically designed to produce?


And that's not all the evidence by a long shot. The gunpowder fumes. The composition of the bullets. The claim that accidental discharges happen even to the best people. Read the book.


JFK: The Smoking Gun


The recent book and documentary JFK: The Smoking Gun by my fellow Australian Colin McLaren examines and supports Donahue's theory. A shortened version of the documentary screened in Europe as JFK'S Secret Killer: The Evidence. See JFK: The Smoking Gun for some quotes from the Kindle version of the book.


McLaren, like Donahue, is very good at what he does. He's a former police investigator, and one of the best. His book seems to have caused a bit more of a stir than the original book did, which is good. On the other hand, the two books could not be more different, and those who judge Donahue's theory by McLaren's book, let alone by his documentary, are missing out on a great deal. 


Menninger, for example, devotes pp. 335-350 to Notes, pages in which he gives his sources as referenced in the text, and pp. 351-361 to an index. McLaren doesn't have any endnotes, any bibliography, or even an index in the printed version according to Paul Monk in the SMH (in the Kindle version of course you don't need it as the text is searchable, but it has one anyway, but still no list of references of any sort).


McLaren focuses on eyewitness testimony. As a former police investigator, you can see him thinking, what will stand up in court? And as the Warren Commission showed so well, that's not always a good way to get to the truth. The highlights of the expert evidence are there, but overshadowed by speculative reconstructions of the backstory, to which the first few chapters are devoted with no indication of the sources of the material at all. It reads very like the thousand or so conspiracy theories already published, and that's not good at all.


Perhaps the most obvious difference between the books is in the mindset of the authors. McLaren is promoting his theories in a way that neither Menninger nor Donahue did. No doubt he's done a lot of investigation himself, and he's had some extra material to work with, but his investigations pale into insignificance compared to Donahue's, to whom he gives the minimum of credit possible... while at the same time dedicating the book To Howard Donohue, a man who epitomised the very reason we demand dedicated and precise forensic science at the forefront of unravelling complex crime. Despite his arduous 25-year study he was snubbed and ultimately silenced by official suits and lawsuits. His ballistic expertise, his astute opinions and his skill live on through my story.  (Kindle Locations 18-20 of 4447). 


On the plus side, in his book McLaren does cite a number of witnesses who thought at the time that the Secret Service had fired shots, while Donahue and Menninger found only one, a Secret Service agent who later changed his mind. And he focuses on evidence of a cover-up, for which Menninger and Donahue also provide evidence but they don't investigate it.




Polls and surveys have consistently shown that the majority of Americans do not believe that they are being told the truth on the Kennedy assassination, and this has been so ever since the Warren Commission report was published in 1964. But despite this, and despite the USA being a democracy, no US government has set up a competent enquiry. The ARRB of 1992-93 was a step in the right direction, except that it was so toothless that the Secret Service simply defied it and destroyed their records. The elephant is still in the room.


Donahue gives them a third alternative to the conspiracy theories and the Warren Commission. It doesn't explain everything, but it makes far more sense than any other yet published. He may have been wrong, either in the main conclusions or in the minor details or in both. But the evidence so far is very much in his favour. At the very least he deserves answers from equally competent people, and following McLaren's work may at last get them.


And Hickey deserves answers too.


It's a shame and a great injustice that they didn't get them while they were still alive. But better late than never. Watch this space.


Interesting links


http://www.lindastratmann.com/articles/mortal-error.aspx One of the few favourable reviews of Mortal Error. And she has certainly read the book.


http://www.philly.com/philly/news/Shooting_holes_in_theory_that_a_Secret_Service_agent_killed_President_Kennedy.html The most coherent of the many unfavourable reviews of The Smoking Gun.


http://22november1963.org.uk/did-a-secret-service-agent-kill-jfk-by-accident An impressive-looking unfavourable review of Mortal Error that is itself riddled with errors. For example, it criticises Donahue for assuming that the Warren Commission is right that Oswald fired three shots. Donahue actually concluded that the Warren Commission was wrong and that Oswald only fired two. The reviewer apparently does not realise that the documentary JFK'S Secret Killer: The Evidence is just a shortened edition of JFK: The Smoking Gun, which suggests that the writer has watched only one of them (at most) although reading the article you'd be forgiven for thinking that they are claiming to have watched them both. In short, another who quite possibly hasn't read the book that they are claiming to be reviewing.  


http://www.thecultden.com/2013/11/jfksecret-killer-evidence-review-steve.html Favourable review of JFK'S Secret Killer: The Evidence.


http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/did-a-hungover-secret-service-agent-accidentally-shoot-jfk/article15198269/ Another review of The Smoking Gun.


http://www.sbs.com.au/thesmokinggun/ Perhaps a proper enquiry will now occur. Most Americans seem to want one.


http://www.sanfordherald.com/x2082482323/TAKE-5-Author-Accidental-shot-killed-JFK Excellent and recent independent interview with Menninger. Unfortunately it probably gets a date wrong, and if so it's partly Wikipedia's fault for not correcting the vandalism sooner, but mainly the reporter's fault for not checking the Wikipedia article's edit history before relying on it. As I said above, I love Wikipedia. But as with any source, you need to follow some rules to use it responsibly! See this disclaimer for more on this.


http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/JFKhickey.htm A short biography of Hickey. Gives his name as George W. Hickey, Jr.


http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/unusual-suspects-in-the-endless-theories-about-jfks-assassination/story-fn9n8gph-1226759260572 Convened in haste, and well aware a lone gunman verdict would be the best result for national security, the commission seemed to bend over backwards to reach that finding. The early cliche was its report was a whitewash. For a long time, no self-respecting free-thinker would be caught dead believing Oswald had acted alone, or perhaps at all. Woody Allen used to joke, in the mid-1960s, that he was writing "a nonfiction version of the Warren report”.


https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/276333.Mortal_Error In crisp, rapid-fire prose, Menninger relates one of the greatest true-life detective stories ever told. More important, he offers solutions to questions that have haunted America for nearly thirty years.


http://www.amazon.com/JFK-Smoking-Gun-Colin-McLaren-ebook/dp/B00D7J2FIQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1385980961&sr=1-1 Preview of JFK:The Smoking Gun by Colin McLaren. The Solution is far more disturbing than any fanciful conspiracy could ever be.  


http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/smoking-gun-documentary-seeks-to-answer-the-question-who-shot-jfk/story-fn9n8gph-1226750428615#mm-premium Article in  The Australian on the McLaren documentary:  McLaren's investigation, in fact, parallels and shadows that of Howard Donahue, a Baltimore gunsmith, marksman and firearms expert who spent 25 years conducting his own inquiry into Kennedy's death. With Bonar Menninger, a Kansas City journalist, he published the book Mortal Error: The Shot that Killed JFK about his research and findings.  


http://www.smh.com.au/comment/stuffing-up-the-mother-of-all-jfk-conspiracy-theories-20131106-2x1kk.html The idea that the American president was shot by mistake is complete rubbish. Paul Monk in the SMH, and not the most sympathetic review, obviously. Focuses on the Smoking Gun documentary, but refers to the earlier work... This is not a new idea. It was advanced 21 years ago by Bonar Menninger in Mortal Error. It has been ridiculed by every serious analyst, when they bothered to address it at all. He doesn't quote any of these serious analysts, but he does quote a Secret Service agent, repeating a quote from Menninger's book (which he does not credit for the quote). Actually, such a bad review probably deserves its own page, see The SMH vs Donahue.  


http://www.sbs.com.au/thesmokinggun/ SBS Australia website on the documentary. Very comprehensive.


http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11272217.htm Commentary on the SBS/REELZ website. Very positive.


http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2945784/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl IMDB entry on The Smoking Gun


http://www.dallasnews.com/news/jfk50/explore/20131116-jfk-conspiracy-theories-abound-despite-a-lack-of-evidence.ece Article supporting the Warren Commission but contains a number of factual innacuracies.


http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mortal-error-bonar-menninger/1001857240?ean=9780312080747 But what separated him from other amateur sleuths, and even the Warren Commission experts, was a lifetime's experience with guns and ballistics. In the years ahead, these two attributes, plus bulldoglike tenacity, would carry Donahue on a spellbinding journey back to that tragic day in 1963. Thanks to his understanding of ballistics--and some remarkable luck--Donahue was able to spot discrepancies in the evidence that had been missed both by the Warren Commission experts and by critics of the Commission's Report. So he kept digging, trying to understand. And finally Donahue pieced together the facts and came to a shocking conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald could not have fired the shot that shattered Kennedy's skull, and, in Donahue's judgment, only one other person could have.


See also


The JFK shooting seen from 2019


The Alder theory on the JFK assassination


The SMH vs Donahue


JFK: The Smoking Gun some quotes from McLaren's book


Synopsis of Mortal Error including some quotes


JFK: The Enquiries looks at the various US Government enquiries


The gun looks at some details of the AR-15 used 











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