Two decades after publication, an author shares his thoughts
In 1967, Howard Donahue of Baltimore began investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Like many Americans, Donahue was fascinated by the events surrounding Kennedy’s death in Dallas. But what separated him from other investigators, including experts interviewed by the Warren Commission, was Donahue’s experience with guns and ballistics.
In “Mortal Error,” published in 1992, author Bonar Menninger chronicled Donahue’s 25-year investigation of President Kennedy’s death, which came to the conclusion that the fatal bullet didn’t come from the gun of supposed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, but from an accidental shot fired by a Secret Service agent.
Donahue was drawn into the national spotlight in 1967 when CBS television investigated the Warren Commission report. In a televised segment, CBS had several marksmen test-fire the same make and model of the Mannlicher-Carcano Italian rifle that was used by Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. Donahue was the only shooter able to re-create three shots within the much-debated 6.5-second time frame captured on the famous Zapruder film.
Donahue was subsequently asked to write a magazine article supporting the Warren Commission’s findings about Oswald. He agreed, but during his research, he found that an examination of the medical, ballistic and other evidence pointed to something unexpected: while a shot from Oswald did hit Kennedy, the bullet which struck the president’s skull could only have come from a gun held by Secret Service Agent George Hickey. Donahue theorized that Hickey, traveling in the car behind Kennedy’s, and carrying an AR-15 rifle, fired accidentally in the aftermath of the motorcade’s response to Oswald’s shots. In short, the fatal shot was a horrible accident.
“It is a ballistically unshakable fact that the fatal shot came from a position behind and to the left of the president,” Donahue later said. “Since 1969, I have been unable to turn up evidence that shakes any part of my conclusion.”
In 1992, Donahue and Menninger collaborated on “Mortal Error,” in which Menninger spelled out Donahue’s research and conclusions.
“Despite criticism from assassination buffs,” the Baltimore Sun wrote upon Donahue’s death in 1999, “Mr. Donahue was unwavering, repeating his findings to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977 and holding to them to his death.”
Hickey died in 2005, having retired from the Secret Service in 1971.
Among the evidence Menninger presents in “Mortal Error”:
• The trajectory of the bullet which caused the rear entrance head wound is incompatible with a shot from the location from which Oswald supposedly fired, a corner window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building.
• The bullet which struck Kennedy in the head didn’t behave like the medium-velocity non-frangible ammunition in Oswald’s rifle, but rather like a high-velocity frangible bullet, the kind used in an AR-15 rifle.
• Hickey possessed and was seen and photographed holding an AR-15 rifle at around the same time the head shot was fired.
• No traces of blood or human tissue were found on bullet fragments from the assassination, yet the Warren Commission claimed those fragments came from the bullet which struck Kennedy.
According to Donahue, as outlined in “Mortal Error,” Oswald did indeed fire at Kennedy, but likely only fired two shots. The first shot hit the road near the limousine and showered the car with fragments, some of which lightly injured Kennedy in the head. Oswald’s second bullet, Donahue insisted, hit the president in the back of the neck and then went on to cause all of Texas Gov. John Connally’s wounds.
Seconds later, the fatal shot was fired.
Menninger’s book was also used in a cold case forensic analysis of Kennedy’s assassination conducted by Colin McLaren, a retired Australian homicide detective. Like Donahue did back in the 1960s and 1970s, but using modern technology, McLaren studied all the ballistic evidence and witness testimonies in order to uncover the truth. McLaren presented his case in the recently-published book “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” and also created a documentary film by the same title currently showing on the Reelz Channel.
The documentary will air tonight at 6. For additional showtimes, go online to 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.
The following is an excerpt from a telephone interview:
Q: How did you become interested in Howard Donohue’s work on the Kennedy assassination?
Menninger: 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 Donohue 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.
Q: Why do you think Donohue’s explanation never got widespread support, even after the publication of “Mortal Error”?
Menninger: 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. 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. 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.
Q: But Donahue’s theory did create a stir within the assassination-theory community.
Menninger: 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.
Q: George Hickey died in 2005, but not before taking legal action in response to “Mortal Error.”
Menninger: 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. The publisher also wrote him and said that if he had information that proved Donahue wrong, they wouldn’t publish the book.
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.
Q: Your book did get the attention, though, of Colin McLaren, an Australian undercover operative and retired detective. He wrote a book — “JFK: The Smoking Gun” — 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?
Menninger: 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 skill sets of a veteran homicide investigator in terms of the process he went through to study the assassination.
Q: 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?
Menninger: The reaction has been largely positive. In terms of mainstream press, there were some articles prior to the debut, but not much since. It really doesn’t surprise me. The good news is that people are nonetheless getting and opportunity to watch the film and read the book and make their own judgment.
Q: Anything new with the second edition of “Mortal Error”?
Menninger: 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.
There might be more to talk about in a year from now.
Q: And your reflections now, 50 years after the event and 20-plus years after your book was first published?
Menninger: 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. 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 smell 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.
Bill Horner III is publisher of The Sanford Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.