Three Shots, 50 Years of Questions: Retired Cop Doubts Warren Report
Joe Safranek in his office at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Nov 14, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Joe Safranek at his home in Newbury, Vt., on Nov 14, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »
Visitors look at a recreation of the "sniper's nest" used by Lee Harvey Oswald on display in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, in the former Texas School Book Depository that overlooks Dealey Plaza, on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (Associated Press - LM Otero) Purchase photo reprints »
Secret Service agent Clint Hill climbs into the back seat of the limousine a moment after President John F. Kennedy and Governor John Connally of Texas were shot in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963. Black arrow points to Mrs. Connally ducking bullets, and white arrow points out the agent's foot, mistakenly thought to be the president's when the photo first ran. (AP Photo) **NO SALES** Purchase photo reprints »
Newbury, Vt. — When the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was released in 1964, Joe Safranek believed it.
The 72-year-old Newbury, Vt., resident was in his early 20s and in the Air Force and had not yet begun his law enforcement career, which would last 24 years.
“I believe in the law, and if someone tells you something, I believe it,” Safranek said. “Well, I believed the Warren Commission when it first started. I mean, how could these people go wrong?”
But as Safranek moved up through the ranks of the New Haven (Conn.) Police Department and became a homicide detective, he began to look at the report more closely. As he worked on more than 400 homicide cases in the course of his career, his doubts grew. Now retired, he said he thinks the commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter is wrong, and he thinks the commission omitted physical evidence.
Safranek is in good company.
A recent Gallup poll showed 61 percent of Americans believe Oswald did not act alone. A History channel national survey was even more definitive: 80 percent of Americans polled believe that Oswald was a “patsy” and not the mastermind behind planning the crime, with 89 percent convinced we will never know the true story. Even Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a college student at the time of the assassination, recently told NBC’s Tom Brokaw, “To this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”
Hundreds of books have been written on the subject, some of them best-sellers, arguing the case for a dark plot — Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, Richard Popkin’s The Second Oswald, Penn Jones’ Forgive My Grief. Vincent Bugliosi’s rebuttal, Reclaiming History, appeared in 2007.
An Internet search for “Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories” brings up hundreds of thousands of results, with many alleging the assassination was the work of the CIA, the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, anti-Castro Cubans, the Dallas police, Lyndon Johnson’s Texas cabal, and others.
Safranek doesn’t claim to be an expert in the Kennedy assassination. But each November he finds himself more bothered by the commission’s findings. And with 18 years of experience as a homicide detective, SWAT team member and police sniper, he has his own theories — based on what he believes is the physical evidence — about how Kennedy was killed.
“I don’t have any privy information,” Safranek said. “I’m just a regular person who has experience with homicides.”
Safranek was about 20 years old and living on the Amarillo Air Force Base, about 350 miles from Dallas, when Kennedy was assassinated. He had been in the Air Force for about a year.
He was off duty on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and was working a part-time job at a small grocery store on the base when the manager ran in and said everyone needed to report to their units immediately.
Once there, the airmen were briefed that the president had been shot. Safranek was given a rifle, a flashlight, a canteen, extra ammunition and batteries. He spent the next 12 hours guarding a B-52 bomber. The sun set, and he was left alone with his thoughts.
“Every conceivable thought crosses your mind,” Safranek said. “You think of your family back home, what are they doing? Being in the dark was probably the worst thing. The president has been shot, is he going to make it? Is he going to die? What is going to happen to the country?”
About halfway through his shift, a sergeant arrived at Safranek’s post. He handed him a bag with a sandwich, an apple and juice and told him that the president had died. Safranek was told to stay at his post until he was relieved.
“Everyone was shocked,” Safranek said. “But we all went and did what we were told to do. You didn’t know how to feel. You were sad. You were numb. That day, I’ll never forget that day.”
Safranek finished his four-year tour in the Air Force, and then spent 24 years in Connecticut with the New Haven Police Department, 18 as a homicide detective. He spent 17 years on the SWAT team and the sniper squad. Now that he’s retired, he often works as a consultant for area police departments, including in Bradford, Vt., and the Capital Police in Montpelier.
During his years as a homicide detective, he learned about ballistics and the trajectories bullets take. He learned that physical evidence, properly handled, does not lie.
Safranek acknowledges that he’s not an expert on the Warren Commission Report, but he said he’s read material on the assassination and seen interviews on television.
He believes the Warren Commission, chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren, omitted physical evidence from its report.
“I started reading whatever I could read about the Warren Commission, and that’s when I started to say, wait a minute, there’s something wrong here,” Safranek said. “These people who are saying there’s conspiracy, they have a leg to stand on.”
(For those who want to read for themselves: The Government Printing Office released the official, digital version of the report on Monday. The release includes the 888-page report as well as the 26 volumes of hearings conducted by the commission. Available at http://gpo.gov, the report contains photographs, maps and diagrams from the scene in Dallas where Kennedy was slain. Portions of the report have been digitized before, but Monday’s release marked the first time the complete, official version has been made available.)
Safranek agrees with the Warren Commission that there were three bullets: one that hit the ground, one that hit Kennedy and then Texas Gov. John Connally, and then a third, fatal bullet that hit Kennedy in the head. He agrees with the commission’s report that the first and second bullets were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was positioned at a window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building.
But he thinks the third bullet came from somewhere else.
The bullet that hit both Kennedy and Connally stayed intact, Safranek said, meaning it likely was a “full metal jacket” round — a projectile of lead or another soft metal encased in a hard metal shell.
But the bullet that hit Kennedy in the head was a “fragmented” b ullet, Safranek said. The third bullet wasn’t just bent or distorted, but instead it disintegrated into 30 or 40 particles, Safranek said, adding that he learned of this evidence from various news articles he has read.
“These are not my own thoughts because I wasn’t there,” Safranek said. “Basically it’s all of what I’ve read or from a show on television that brought up the evidence.”
Two different bullets suggests two different weapons, Safranek said.
Another piece of evidence: bullets travel in a straight line.
The second bullet, which hit Kennedy in the back and exited through his throat before hitting Connally, traveled in a straight line down from Oswald’s hiding place and hit the president at street level while he was riding in his motorcade.
Safranek argues that the bullet that hit Kennedy in the head came from a different angle — farther to the left and angled up. Safranek said he heard this piece of evidence about 15 years ago when a Navy corpsman, who was in the autopsy room with Kennedy, did a television interview and said the trajectory of the bullet was at the bottom of his skull and going upward. Safranek said he’s heard this piece of evidence numerous other times when watching interviews regarding the assassination.
His best guess: a Secret Service agent behind Kennedy heard the shots, panicked, and accidentally shot the president in the head.
Safranek also said that when a bullet hits an object, the entry hole is the shape of the bullet but the exit hole usually is bigger. Safranek believes that the entry wound in the president’s skull was half the size of the wound in his back, which Safranek believes shows there were two different weapons.
Then there’s the question of the shell casings found in the room where Oswald was positioned. Investigators found two shell casings right next to each other. A third shell casing, damaged and distorted, was found six feet away, Safranek said.
Two shell casings would be consistent with Safranek’s belief that Oswald fired two shots.
When shell casings are ejected from a rifle, they land in about the same place, Safranek said. They might move a few inches, but not six feet. And that distorted shell casing tells Safranek that it probably wasn’t fired, but was probably used to keep the chamber clear.
“These are all the pieces of a puzzle,” Safranek said. “When you do a case like this, you have a million little pieces and you have to put every single one into perspective. You don’t force it to fit with your agenda. It has to fit naturally.”
The Warren Commission was made up of politicians, not homicide detectives, Safranek said, and politicians don’t know what to look for in a homicide case. The commission should have been made up of big city homicide detectives, Safranek said, as well as the country’s top forensic experts and scientists who were experts in trajectories.
“I think they had an agenda,” Safranek said. “They had a shooter in Oswald, and I think they listened to all the evidence that pointed to Oswald, but they didn’t listen to any other evidence that pointed to another direction.”
The Warren Commission report still bothers him, and even with all the subsequent investigations, including the Church Committee in 1975 and the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976-78, along with the release of nearly 5 million previously classified documents since 1992, Safranek said he thinks the country needs to put together a team of forensic experts to find out what really happened.
“I think somewhere along the line, someone has to put all this stuff together and end it,” Safranek said.
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.