The question of just who shot President John F. Kennedy has produced a bumper crop of speculative journalism: The Economist magazine recently listed the Kennedy assassination as one of the most enduring inspirations for conspiracy theories in history, noting, "If you don't know what is pictured in frames 112 and 113 of the Zapruder film, or wonder what the Grassy Knoll is, better stay quiet on the subject."
Now into the mix comes Bob Vernon, who has produced a three-part television series he hopes will spark attention this week at the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) meeting in the Morial Convention Center. The show is tentatively titled JFK: The Proof.
"We don't have any theories," Vernon bluntly states in a telephone interview. "Only facts."
One fact is this: Vernon and ex-FBI agent Zachary Shelton nailed down the story of James Files, who is reputed to be one of the men dismissed by the Dallas police department as a tramp seen congregating near the railroad tracks behind the infamous Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald was said to have aimed and shot his rifle on Nov. 22, 1963.
In the murky world of assassination conspiracies, there is always a lot of talk of someone who told somebody else something, and this is no different with Vernon's film. Shelton, in many ways the protagonist of the film, travels from city to city trying to unravel the mystery, saying he had a "case on Files" when Shelton was still working for the FBI. One man who acknowledged knowing Files was indicted by the FBI in Dallas; a man from Chicago also said he knew things about Files.
"The man told me that one day he and Files were driving by Dealey Plaza and Files remarked, ÔIf the American people really knew what happened here, they wouldn't be able to handle it,'" Shelton says. "And that's when I got to thinking -- why would Files say a thing like that?"
That question eventually led Shelton to the Joliet State Penitentiary in Illinois, where Files is serving a life sentence for shooting a police officer. "Files admitted that he is the guy who took a shot from the grassy knoll," Shelton says, adding that Files, who claimed he knew and hung around with Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans, was sent to Dallas to kill JFK by Mafia boss Sam Giancana, the Frank Sinatra pal who was incensed over the Kennedy administration's efforts to prosecute him. In carrying out his deed, Files said, he was acting with the full support not only of the Mafia, but of the Central Intelligence Agency.
"It is an extraordinary tale, and one that is still unraveling," says Shelton, who has been working on the Kennedy case since l992, when he first read an article about another investigator trying to piece together the Files-Giancana-CIA-Oswald-Kennedy story.
It is also a tale that inevitably runs through New Orleans, with enough local angles to make the unsuspecting think the entire city was at some point conspiring to kill Kennedy. The best known theory of all, made famous by Oliver Stone's film JFK, involves former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's sensational accusations that former International Trade Mart director Clay Shaw was a prime conspirator. (Shaw was twice acquitted.) Then there's Carlos Marcello, the boss of the local mob who was also angry that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was not only investigating him, but had actually had him deported for a brief period. Most notably, Lee Harvey Oswald lived on Magazine Street the summer before Kennedy's death and worked for a brief time in a French Quarter bar owned by Marcello.
In 1998, a Tennessee journalist said that Leander Perez, the former political boss of Plaquemines Parish, was someone who could have put up the money to have Kennedy killed. A brief report written by the Louisiana state police -- a report that has made the rounds for years in Kennedy conspiracy circles -- indicated that Perez met in downtown New Orleans two days before Nov. 22 with right-winger Edwin Walker. Months before Air Force One touched down at Love Field, Oswald tried to kill Walker; the report is cited as evidence of Perez's involvement in the Kennedy mystery.
Even Congressman Hale Boggs, the long-time JFK friend, plays a role in various theories. Boggs, in the summer of l963, returned to New Orleans and faced a storm of criticism for his moderate attitudes on integration. Back in Washington, he warned the president of the growing Southern hatred toward his civil rights policies. On the day of Kennedy's death, Boggs penned an emotional release, suggesting that because of the local hatred against the president, JFK could just as easily have been murdered in New Orleans, remarks he later downplayed. The congressman went on to prominently serve as a member of the much-maligned Warren Commission.
Given this local history, it's fitting that the team behind JFK: The Proof is tied to New Orleans. Producer Vernon was born and raised here and for a while worked as Fats Domino's manager. Shelton was born in Algiers; part of the movie shows Shelton returning to New Orleans.
Although Vernon is convinced that his film "conclusively connects Files to Kennedy's death," he has already been debunked by at least one fellow conspiracy theorist, Kenneth Rahn, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. On his "Academic JFK Assassination Web Site," Rahn describes Vernon as "brilliant," but says his Files theory doesn't hold water, stating that emails with Vernon lead him to believe Vernon "either does not understand or does not acknowledge the difference between physical evidence and other types." Rahn then lists the reasons why Files' story is likely false, piling on his own version of the evidence in classic conspiracy-theory style.
Meanwhile, Vernon, whose findings can be partially reviewed on his own Web site, www.JFKmurdersolved.com, says he is going to show a promo of JFK: The Proof to anyone who wants to see it at the NATPE convention. "It would be great for network television," says Vernon. "It can be one long show or broken up into three one-hour programs. I don't care. I just want it to get national exposure."