Fifty years later, a retired FBI agent recalls the killing of JFK

11/09/2013 4:00 PM

11/09/2013 4:00 PM

Jim Graham’s story begins with him setting out to plant a tree, a Russian olive, on a Sunday afternoon in his front yard.

It gets better.

Because about the time that Graham goes to digging that hole, Jack Ruby pushes a pistol toward Lee Harvey Oswald. A shot rings out in that parking garage in Dallas, killing Oswald and making Graham’s phone ring a few minutes later in Overland Park.

Graham, an FBI agent, handed the shovel to a neighbor and took off for Dallas. For the next month, 10 hours a day, he worked the crime of the century.

So, Jim, coming up on 50 years and at least that many conspiracy theories later, who dunit?

Who is responsible for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

Graham, now 83, answers pointedly: “Lee. Harvey. Oswald.

“No doubt whatsoever. He acted alone and he would have told us why he did it if Ruby hadn’t killed him.”

Not many people left can tell a firsthand story of the Kennedy assassination. Graham, who was 33 back then, shied from it for years. Nothing could ruin a fine outing quite like people finding out he was an FBI agent on the case.

They pounced, with questions and often their own take on things — just what an off-duty agent wants to hear at a neighborhood barbecue or a function at his kid’s school.

When he and his wife, Marlene, who live at the Tallgrass Creek retirement community in Overland Park, once boarded a plane for a vacation trip, he told her: “If you tell anyone about Kennedy, I’m getting on another plane and going home.”

He’s mellowed now. He’ll talk about the case and will do so this week for residents at Tallgrass Creek during an anniversary event called “JFK Remembered,” in which those attending will share memories of that day.

Graham knows skeptics won’t like his belief that Oswald acted alone.

He gets it. He said the seed for a conspiracy theory that has obsessed a nation for half a century was planted by something the Secret Service did within hours of the president’s death.

“They stole the body,” he said.

Then he smiled.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Graham, assigned to the FBI office in Kansas City, was in his car when he heard on a radio that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

The radio was a Missouri Highway Patrol radio because they worked better than the bureau’s. Graham immediately called in to his office.

“They hadn’t heard about it,” he said.

But the assassination, at the time, was a Texas murder, nothing more than a state crime. That changed two days later when Ruby shot Oswald. The killing opened the door to the possibility of a conspiracy, which pushed the Kennedy investigation into federal jurisdiction.

That’s why Graham and other agents at FBI field offices across the country were sent to Dallas that Sunday. Much of what they uncovered and produced became part of the Warren Commission report.

Nearly five decades have passed, but Graham still tells the story like it happened yesterday.

Particularly about the Secret Service making off with Kennedy’s body.

According to Graham, the Secret Service was determined to get the new president, Lyndon Johnson, back to Washington as soon as possible after the assassination.

Jackie Kennedy was to go along on the same plane.

“But she wouldn’t leave Dallas without her husband,” Graham said. “So Johnson ordered the Secret Service guys to go get the body and get it on the plane.”

Johnson may have been unaware that the act would conflict with local law. That or, as the new president, he was ready to flex some muscle.

At the hospital, the agents encountered medical examiner Earl Rose, who made a vain attempt to thwart the removal by blocking the doorway. Rose has since died, but he told The Associated Press in 2003 that he and his staff should have done the autopsy because it was their jurisdiction.

“We had the routine in place to do it. … It was important for the chain of evidence to remain intact,” Rose told the AP. “That didn't happen when the body was taken to Bethesda (Naval Hospital).”

Kennedy top aide Kenneth O’Donnell, who accompanied the agents to the hospital, testified to the Warren Commission that the group encountered a judge or a justice of the peace who told them the body could not be moved.

“If my recollection is clear, he said something to the effect that as of now this was just a homicide case and there were certain things that had to be carried out, one of which I interpreted as an autopsy,” O’Donnell responded to questioning from counsel Arlen Specter.

“It was indicated to us that the president was dead and that the hospital had to perform certain functions and the law must be met, no matter who it is.”

O’Donnell went on: “I realized we were talking not about hours but perhaps even days, which was an impossible situation for Mrs. Kennedy.”

Some reports describe what happened next as a “scuffle.”

Graham said that had Jackie Kennedy shown a bit more patience and let the body remain in Dallas for the autopsy, maybe the world could have been saved from all the conspiracy theories. The moving of the body led to discrepancies between medical reports in Dallas and Bethesda.

For one thing, Graham said, doctors at Bethesda who performed the autopsy were unaware that a medical procedure in Dallas had concealed an exit wound in Kennedy’s throat. It didn’t help, too, Graham acknowledged, that Jackie Kennedy asked that certain evidence be hidden for her children’s sake.

If none of those things had happened, Graham said, maybe Oliver Stone would never have made the movie “JFK,” which pointed fingers at the mob, Cubans, extreme right wingers, unhappy generals and even Johnson.

“It made me mad that people paid money to see that thing,” Graham said.

Grassy knoll?

Rail yard just down below.

“There’s always smoke and noise coming from a rail yard,” Graham said.

Three shots in seven seconds — with a bolt-action rifle?

The clock starts with the first shot. So, really, it’s the two other shots in seven seconds.

“Not that tough,” Graham said.

Even for someone like Oswald.

“People like to make him out to be this great sniper,” Graham said. “Keep in mind, he missed the whole car on one shot.”

Over the years, he’s heard pretty much every theory about what happened that day in Dallas. None of them, he insists, survives investigative scrutiny other than that Oswald acted alone, which is exactly what the Warren Commission concluded.

The one thing he doesn’t know is why Ruby shot Oswald. But he knows how it happened. Ruby ran a nightclub, a setup joint, and knew many of the officers in that parking garage when Oswald was being moved.

“They just let him in,” Graham said.

Graham, who negotiated on a Kansas City commercial airline hijacking in 1977, retired from the FBI in 1980. He and Marlene have four children, like to travel and recently returned from Italy.

He’ll never forget those 30 days in Dallas. It was an exciting, and tiring, time.

He arrived back home in Kansas City on Christmas Eve, greeted by Marlene with boxes of Santa toys that had to be assembled that night. Including a scooter for his son. Lots of nuts and bolts.

His family found him asleep in a living room chair the next morning.


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