Home-grown celebrity crime writer Colin McLaren has had a lot of publicity for his new book on the JKF assassination. Some have described it as a new theory – a claim not made by McLaren. In fact it’s a restatement (perhaps with some new evidence we have yet to see) of a theory developed by US journalist Bonar Menninger who in turn based it on the work of Howard Donahue, a ballistics expert. It was first published in 1992 as ‘Mortal Error: The shot that killed JFK’.
It’s an accidental cause theory, rather than a conspiracy theory. It doesn’t contradict the ‘Oswald lone nut gunman’ theory put forward by the Warren Commission (later thrown into doubt by the House Select Committee on Assassinations) so much as helpfully supplement it by providing an innocent second gunman to tidy up some of the more egregious improbabilities and defiances of the evidence, promoted by the notorious Warren Commission.
Essentially the Menninger version has it that President Kennedy and Governor Connolly were hit by Oswald firing from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository. This, however, wasn’t the shot that actually killed the president. The fatal shot was fired, accidentally, by Special Agent George Hickey, who was riding in the back seat of the follow-up security vehicle.
Menninger summarised his theory like this: “Hickey reaches down and grabs the AR-15 off the floor, flips off the safety and stands up on the seat, preparing to return fire. But his footing is precarious. The follow-up car hits the brakes or speeds up. Hickey begins to swing the gun around to draw a bead on Oswald, but he loses his balance. He begins to fall. And the barrel happens to be pointing toward Kennedy’s head. And the gun happens to go off.”
What did Hickey have to say about the events? Here’s his statement, made the day after the assassination:
“Just prior to the shooting the Presidential car turned left at the intersection and started down an incline toward an underpass followed by 679X [the follow-up car in which Hickey was riding]. After a very short distance I heard a loud report which sounded like a firecracker. It appeared to come from the right and rear and seemed to me to be at ground level. I stood up and looked to my right and rear in an attempt to identify it. Nothing caught my attention except people shouting and cheering. A disturbance in 679X caused me to look forward toward the President’s car. Perhaps two or three seconds elapsed from the time I looked to the rear and then looked at the President. He was slumped forward and to his left, and was straightening up to an almost erect sitting position as I turned and looked. At the moment he was almost sitting erect I heard two reports which I thought were shots and that appeared to me completely different in sound than the first report and were in such rapid succession that there seemed to be practically no time element between them. It looked to me as if the President was struck in the right upper rear of his head [this is the shot that Menninger believes Hickey himself fired]. The first shot of the second two seemed as if it missed because the hair on the right side of his head flew forward and there didn’t seem to be any impact against his head. The last shot seemed to hit his head and cause a noise at the point of impact which made him fall forward and to his left again. Possibly four or five seconds elapsed from the time of the first report and the last.
“At the end of the last report 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.”
In other words – giving Hickey the benefit of the doubt – he never actually got the rifle up into a shooting position until the follow-up vehicle was under the railway overpass – which was long after the instantly fatal, head shot – and then he turned to the rear, away from the presidential limousine.
Hundreds of bystanders witnessed the events but did anybody else see Hickey stand up with the AR-15 in his hands until after the third shot? Well, no. One credible streetside witness – SM Holland, whose account tallies well with Hickey’s – believed there were four shots of which at least two came from the grassy knoll in front of the President’s car. He said he saw Hickey stand up, but didn’t report seeing a gun in his hands. Another, Senator Yardborough, riding in the car following the President’s, smelled gunpowder shortly after the shooting and two other witnesses thought the shots came from near the presidential limousine but these observations are consistent with a gunman on the grassy knoll.
McLaren’s new-old theory provides a sort of useful fallback position for the lone gunman theory, but frankly, I don’t think it’s got legs.