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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

JFK assassination witness breaks his silence and raises new questions

Paul Landis, one of the Secret Service agents just feet away from John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated, outside his home in Cleveland on Aug. 7, 2023.

By Peter Baker

He still remembers the first gunshot. For an instant, standing on the running board of the motorcade car, he entertained the vain hope that maybe it was just a firecracker or a blown tire. But he knew guns, and he knew better. Then came another shot. And another. And the president slumped down.

For so many nights afterward, he relived that grisly moment in his dreams. Now, 60 years later, Paul Landis, one of the Secret Service agents just feet away from President John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas, is telling his story in full for the first time. And in at least one key respect, his account differs from the official version in a way that may change the understanding of what happened in Dealey Plaza.

His memory challenges the theory advanced by the Warren Commission that has been the subject of so much speculation and debate over the years — that one of the bullets fired at the president’s limousine hit not only Kennedy but Texas Gov. John Connally, who was riding with him, in multiple places.

Landis’ account, included in a forthcoming memoir, would rewrite the narrative of one of modern American history’s most earth-shattering days in an important way. It may not mean any more than that. But it could also encourage those who have suspected there was more than one gunman in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

As with all things related to the assassination, his account raises questions of its own. Landis remained silent for 60 years, and memories are tricky even for those sincerely certain of their recollections. Elements of his account contradict the official statements he filed with authorities immediately after the shooting, and some of the implications of his version cannot be easily reconciled to the existing record.

But he was there, a firsthand witness. At age 88, he said, all he wants is to tell what he saw and what he did.

“There’s no goal at this point,” he said in an interview last month, in advance of his book, “The Final Witness,” which will be published on Oct. 10. “I just think it had been long enough that I needed to tell my story.”

What it comes down to is a copper-jacketed 6.5 mm projectile. The Warren Commission decided one of the bullets fired that day struck the president from behind, exited from the front of his throat and continued on to hit Connally, somehow managing to injure his back, chest, wrist and thigh. It seemed incredible that a single bullet could do all that, so skeptics called it the “magic bullet” theory.

Investigators came to that conclusion partly because the bullet was found on a stretcher believed to have held Connally at Parkland Memorial Hospital, so they assumed it had exited his body during efforts to save his life. But Landis, who was never interviewed by the Warren Commission, said that is not what happened.

In fact, he said, he was the one who found the bullet — and he found it not in the hospital near Connally but in the presidential limousine lodged in the back of the seat behind where Kennedy was sitting.

When he spotted the bullet after the motorcade arrived at the hospital, he said he grabbed it to thwart souvenir hunters. Then, he said he entered the hospital and placed it next to Kennedy on the president’s stretcher, assuming it could somehow help doctors figure out what happened. At some point, he now guesses, the stretchers must have been pushed together, and the bullet was shaken from one to another.

“There was nobody there to secure the scene,” Landis said. “I was just afraid that — it was a piece of evidence, that I realized right away. Very important. And I didn’t want it to disappear or get lost.”

Landis theorizes the bullet struck Kennedy in the back, popping back out before the president’s body was removed from the limousine.

Landis has been reluctant to speculate on the larger implications. He always believed Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. But now? “Now I begin to wonder,” he said.

In recent years, he confided his story with several key figures, including Lewis Merletti, a former director of the Secret Service. James Robenalt, a Cleveland lawyer and author of several books of history, has helped Landis process his memories.

“If what he says is true, which I tend to believe, it is likely to reopen the question of a second shooter, if not even more,” Robenalt said. “If the bullet we know as the magic or pristine bullet stopped in President Kennedy’s back, it means the central thesis of the Warren Report, the single-bullet theory, is wrong.” And if Connally was hit by a separate bullet, he added, then it seemed possible it was not from Oswald, who he argued could not have reloaded that fast.

Merletti referred Landis to Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University and a prominent historian, who helped him find an agent for his book. Gormley said he was not surprised a traumatized agent would come forward years later, comparing it to a dying declaration in legal cases.

“It’s very common as people get to the end of their lives,” Gormley said. “They want to get on the table things they’ve been holding back, especially if it’s a piece of history and they want the record corrected. This does not look like a play by someone trying to get attention for himself or money.”

Landis’ account varies in a couple of respects from two written statements he filed in the week after the shooting. Aside from not mentioning finding the bullet, he reported hearing only two shots. Likewise, he did not mention going into the trauma room where Kennedy was taken.

Landis said the reports he filed after the assassination included mistakes; he was in shock and had barely slept for five days.

It was not until 2014 that he realized the official account of the bullet differed from his memory, he said, but he did not come forward then out of a feeling that he had made a mistake in putting it on the stretcher without telling anyone.

Indeed, his partner, Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who clambered onto the back of the speeding limousine in a futile effort to save Kennedy, discouraged Landis from speaking out. “Many ramifications,” Hill warned in a 2014 email.

Hill, who has set out his own account of what happened, cast doubt on Landis’ version. “I believe it raises concerns when the story he is telling now, 60 years after the fact, is different than the statements he wrote in the days following the tragedy,” Hill said.

After Kennedy was elected, Landis was assigned to guard the new president’s children and later the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, alongside Hill. Because the first lady accompanied her husband to Dallas that fall day in 1963, Landis, then 28, was part of the motorcade, riding behind the presidential limousine.

At the first shot, Landis turned to look over his right shoulder in the direction of the sound but spotted nothing. Then he turned to the limousine and saw Kennedy raising his arms, evidently hit. Suddenly, Landis noticed Hill had leapt off their follow-up car and was sprinting toward the limousine.

He said he heard a second shot and finally the fatal third shot that hit Kennedy in the head. He knew instantly the president was dead. Hill, now on the back of the limousine, turned back and confirmed it with a thumbs-down.

Once they reached the hospital, Hill and Landis coaxed the distraught first lady to let go of her husband so he could be taken inside. After they exited the car, Landis noticed two bullet fragments in a pool of blood. He fingered one but put it back.

That’s when he said he noticed the intact bullet in the seam of the tufted dark leather cushioning. He said he slipped it into his pocket and headed into the hospital, where he planned to give it to a supervisor but in the confusion instinctively put it on Kennedy’s stretcher instead.

The hospital’s senior engineer later found it when he was moving Connally’s stretcher, by then empty, and bumped it against another stretcher in the hall, resulting in the bullet falling out.

The Warren Commission report said it “eliminated President Kennedy’s stretcher as a source of the bullet” because the president remained on his stretcher until his body was placed in a coffin.

Investigators determined the bullet was fired by the same rifle found in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. They concluded the bullet passed through Kennedy, then entered Connally’s right shoulder, struck his rib, exited under his right nipple and continued through his right wrist and into his left thigh.

Doctors concurred that the single bullet could have caused all the damage. But the bullet was described as nearly pristine and had lost only one or two grains of its original 160 or 161 grains in weight, causing skeptics to doubt it could have done all that the commission said it had. Still, ballistic experts using modern forensic techniques concluded the single-bullet theory was plausible.

Six months after the assassination, Landis left the Secret Service. He was generally aware of the conspiracy theories, yet never read a book about them — or the Warren Commission report, for that matter.

Then, in 2014, a local police chief he knew gave him a copy of “Six Seconds in Dallas,” a 1967 book by Josiah Thompson arguing that there were multiple shooters. Landis read it and believed the official account of the bullet was wrong.

That led to conversations with Merletti and Gormley and, eventually, his book.

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