TAKE 5: Author: Accidental shot killed JFK
This week, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the shooting of President John F. Kennedy, we present an extended Take 5 interview with Bonar Menninger, the author of “Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK.” First published in 1992, “Mortal Error” chronicles the investigative work of a Baltimore ballistics expert named Howard Donahue, who in 1967 began a 25-year investigation into the events in Dallas of Nov. 22, 1963.
Donahue used existing ballistics and other physical evidence to reveal that the fatal shot fired that day came not from alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, but from the accidental discharge of a rifle by Secret Service Agent George Hickey, who was traveling in the car behind Kennedy’s. (See the sidebar, “About Mortal Error.”) A native of Topeka, Kan., Menninger is also featured in the new documentary film, “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” created by Australian crime investigator Colin McLaren, who wrote a book on the subject following his own cold case forensic analysis of Kennedy’s assassination, which built on the evidence presented by Menninger and Donahue. (The documentary will air on the Reelz Channel at 6 p.m. on Friday, the 50th anniversary of the shooting; for details and additional showtimes, go to www.jfkthesmokinggun.com.)
Menninger earned a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and has worked for a range of publications and organizations, both on staff and as a freelancer, since 1984. He’s done investigative reporting for the Kansas City Business Journal and the Washington D.C. Business Journal and also has covered business and health for numerous online and print publications. Menninger lives in Kansas City with his wife and daughter. He spoke by telephone with Herald Publisher Bill Horner III this week.
How did you become interested in Howard Donahue’s work on the Kennedy assassination?
Purely by chance. I was a reporter with the Washington (D.C.) Business Journal, and I had just come out from the Kansas City Business Journal … our company had just bought the Washington Business Journal, and I was among the reporters they sent to Washington.
I was doing a feature story about a private investigator in northern Virginia and his business, and he mentioned at the end of the interview that he’d also done some work relating to the Kennedy assassination with a gunsmith from Baltimore.
I figured I’d check it out, and I found an article about Howard Donahue’s work published in the Baltimore Sun magazine in 1977. I was pretty intrigued; it was nothing I’d heard before. I tracked down Donahue and went up and visited him. Talking with him quite a bit over the course of a couple of weeks or months, we both thought that writing a book made sense. It seemed like a pretty good topic to me.
Why do you think Donahue’s explanation never got widespread support, even after the publication of “Mortal Error”?
You know, a couple of things. The book came out in early 1992 and really got caught up in the prop wash of the Oliver Stone “JFK” movie. Maybe people perceived the book to be just a down-and-dirty, non-plausible “quick hit” designed to exploit the fact that the assassination was getting publicity. That might have been part of it. Part of it, too, was that it’s the “crazy uncle” of the assassination theories, 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.
It just never got traction … and not for a lack of effort on the part of the publisher (St. Martin Press). Remember, this was before the Internet, and things just moved slower. It just didn’t grab. Maybe the idea itself was too prosaic, too random, too ordinary. Perhaps people preferred to see a larger, darker tale in this tragedy. It just didn’t fit the bill and didn’t have a natural audience.
But Donahue’s theory did create a stir within the assassination-theory community . . .
One of the most fascinating aspects of this whole deal occurred following the publication of the Baltimore Sun article that described Donahue’s 10-year investigation and the conclusions he eventually reached. The story didn’t mention George Hickey by name. But at that point, Donahue had a gun store, and one day a customer came in and said to him, “One of my relatives just retired from the National Security Agency, and he told me after reading this article it was common knowledge among the upper echelon at the NSA at the time of the assassination that Kennedy had been killed by one of his bodyguards.”
There was also another customer who said his brother was friends with a Secret Service agent and was at a party, and the agent was really drunk and out of the blue casually mentioned that Kennedy was killed by a Secret Service agent. Maybe it was just the liquor talking, and until they read this article, he’d not given it much thought.
Obviously this is anecdotal and hearsay evidence, but it’s still significant to me because these were unsolicited comments. It’s certainly possible these guys came in and made this up. Still, it makes you wonder if there are other people in a position to confirm this. Maybe one day, someone might feel duty-bound to come forward and say something.
George Hickey died in 2005, but not before taking legal action in response to “Mortal Error.”
Almost three years after the book came out, Agent Hickey sued me, St. Martins Press and Howard Donahue. The suit was ultimately thrown out due to the statute of limitations, but at that point, there were indications Hickey’s lawyer would appeal. So St. Martins Press made a business decision to settle for an undisclosed, but I don’t think hugely significant, sum.
My thinking is — why did he wait so long to do this? But even more interesting, even more significant, to me anyway, is that as a reporter, I made multiple efforts to get in touch with him. I sent him registered letters and told him from the beginning, “You know your name is going to be in this book, and here’s your chance to talk about that and basically put it to rest once and for all. If it’s not true, people need to know that.” Howard and I even went to his house. He didn’t show, so we left him a note. The publisher also wrote him and said that if he had information that proved Donahue wrong, they wouldn’t publish the book.
So you have to ask yourself — what would you do if a reporter was sniffing around and was preparing to write [and] make an accusation like this? There’s a very good chance Hickey could have shut us down at the outset if he was willing to provide information that conclusively disproved what Howard was saying. He didn’t do that.
I wouldn’t have reacted in that way.
I think if the book had been a top-10 best-seller, perhaps St. Martins would have gone to the mat. But the book hadn’t sold a lot, and St. Martins wasn’t going to spend a lot of money and time to defend this, and who can blame them? It was just a business decision.
Your book did get the attention, though, of Colin McLaren, an Australian undercover operative and retired detective. He wrote a book SEmD “JFK: The Smoking Gun” SEmD and created the documentary of the same name, which has been showing on the Reelz Channel. How did your involvement in the film come about?
I was not aware of Colin’s investigation until I heard from the folks at Muse Entertainment. They said, “We optioned this work by a retired Australian detective, and we’d like you to be a part of bringing this thing to film …” Obviously I was interested in doing this. I read his book and was really impressed with what he was able to bring to the table in terms of additional evidence. He also had the credibility and skillsets of a veteran homicide investigator in terms of the process he went through to study the assassination. Muse Entertainment did an amazing job of putting it together. I think they did a really great work in presenting the evidence in a coherent fashion.
The new documentary, and the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, are bound to create a lot of discussion about your book, which has now been republished. What’s been the reaction so far?
The reaction has been largely positive, and everybody who’s communicated with the network and Reelz and Muse about the production has been really positive. About 4.1 million people watched the program through November 14, and I think that has exceeded expectations by a good margin.
In terms of mainstream press, there were some articles prior to the debut, but not much since. It really doesn’t surprise me. This theory has almost always been ignored or dismissed by the mainstream media. It’s never been something people have been inclined to discuss. Reporters are much more likely to dismiss it out of hand without considering the evidence we present. There hasn’t been a lot of ink.
The good news is that people are nonetheless getting an opportunity to watch the film and read the book and make their own judgment.
Anything new with the second edition of “Mortal Error”?
The second edition was published in September. It’s the same book (published in 1992) but for a few pictures we left out. The Zapruder frames are pretty pricey to license. But in terms of text, there are no changes. It’s nothing new, just like the original.
Maybe at some point, I’ll have an opportunity to write a foreword, or afterword, or an epilogue, bringing people up to date. I didn’t do that this time because, one, I just didn’t have the time, and two, it seemed premature, given the film hadn’t run it. There might be more to talk about in a year from now.
What do you think about when you reflect back on your time with Howard Donahue?
I think what he accomplished was remarkable and one of the great detective stories of all time. It was a great experience to write his story and to hang out with Howard and to become good friends with someone from a different generation. Usually when that happens, it’s a relative or a colleague, but we were buddies even though he was 30-40 years older than me. I loved hearing about his experience as a B-17 pilot. I couldn’t wait to finish up our work, then to go drink some beer and hear what it was like on those bombing runs. He and his wife couldn’t have been kinder to my wife and me.
That part alone was worth everything to me — that’s what I think about Howard and his wife, all the good times we had together. What would Howard say about the film? I think he’d be like me — extremely pleased. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as you can get in the time allotted. I just really feel gratified for him. And I’m so glad his daughter, Colleen, got involved in this, because she’s obviously a direct connection to him and his family back in Baltimore. It’s just a shame this couldn’t happen in 1993 or 1995. There was something about that time … maybe conspiracy theories had more currency back then … . It was the wrong time then, but maybe the right time now.
And your reflections now, 50 years after the event and 20-plus years after your book was first published?
I wasn’t there in Dallas, and I don’t know what happened, but I can honestly say this is far and away the most logical explanation based on the available evidence. There are so many theories that throw around disturbing details and troubling facts, but they never create a coherent narrative or scenario about how the events logically could have unfolded. Maybe there was a conspiracy … nothing about the “JFK: The Smoking Gun” film said there wasn’t.
We were focused on the head shot. I don’t know how Oswald would have been set up … , but setting that aside, there’s an argument to be made that Oswald was a low-level intelligence officer, a bogus defector, maybe an agent provocateur. He may have been some kind of a CIA asset who took it upon himself, without direction or authorization or approval, to kill the president.
The evidence supporting Donahue’s theory, in my opinion, is compelling: The trajectory of the bullet was not right to left and sharply down, as it would have had to be from the book depository, but left to right and shallow. The entrance wound on Kennedy’s skull was 6 mm in diameter. The bullets Oswald fired were 6.5 mm in diameter. [It’s] hard to see how you could put a 6.5 mm bullet through a 6 mm hole. In fact, bullets always make holes slightly larger than their diameter in the skull. The AR-15 .223 round was 5.56 mm in diameter. The bullet that struck Kennedy behaved not like a full-metal jacket round from a Carcano rifle, but much more like a frangible, explosive .223 round. A dozen people saw the agent with the rifle at or just after the time of the last shot. Nine people in the motorcade behind the follow-up car immediately smelled gunsmoke after the last shot.
If Donahue’s theory isn’t correct, then these facts need to be explained, and no one has done that as far as I’m concerned.
After “Mortal Error,” you wrote “And Hell Followed With It,” about Topeka’s F5 tornado. How did that come about?
I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and the June 8, 1966, tornado was a huge event in the lives of everyone who lived in the city. The tornado that struck that day was the first in history to do more than $100 million in damage and the first to devastate a large metropolitan area. In terms of storm preparedness, it also was historic: the fact that this F5 went right through a city, and only killed 17 people, was nothing short of a miracle. In the aftermath, the event was analyzed to see what lessons could be learned in terms of keeping populations safe from tornadoes.
I made it my mission to talk to as many people as I could. I probably interviewed 120 people. I just wanted to capture the absolute horror of a tornado event, which anybody who has ever been in one can attest to. There was a monster coming, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I tried to lay peoples’ stories down in a cinematic way so the reader could feel and see what they’re dealing with.
I got to know my hometown in a way I never had before, and I accomplished what I set out to do — which was to capture this historic event so that the details wouldn’t be lost to history. Tornadoes are terrible, but they’re also majestic, and I wanted to capture both the terror and the awe. You realize how vulnerable you are in a tornado warning. It’s like hunting season for humans.