Bullet: Even More Magical Than We Knew?
Gary Aguilar and Josiah Thompson
Among the myriad JFK
assassination controversies, none more cleanly divides
Warren Commission supporter from skeptic than the “Single
Bullet Theory.” The brainchild of a former Warren Commission
lawyer, Mr. Arlen Specter, now the senior Senator from
Pennsylvania, the theory is the sine qua non of the Warren
Commission’s case that with but three shots, including one
that missed, Lee Harvey Oswald had single handedly altered
the course of history. [Fig.
Specter’s hypothesis was not one that immediately leapt to
mind from the original evidence and the circumstances of the
shooting. It was, rather, born of necessity, if one sees as
a necessity the keeping of Oswald standing alone in the
dock. The theory had to contend with the considerable
evidence there was suggesting that more than one shooter was
For example, because
the two victims in Dealey Plaza, President Kennedy and
Governor John Connally, had suffered so many wounds – eight
in all, it had originally seemed as if more than two slugs
from the supposed “sniper’s nest” would have been necessary
to explain all the damage. In addition, a home movie taken
by a bystander, Abraham Zapruder, showed that too little
time had elapsed between the apparent shots that hit both
men in the back for Oswald to have fired, reacquired his
target, and fired again. The Single Bullet Theory neatly
solved both problems. It posited that a single, nearly whole
bullet that was later recovered had caused all seven of the
non-fatal wounds sustained by both men.
Figure 1. CE #399. Warren Commission Exhibit #399, said
to have caused both of JFK’s non-fatal wounds and all five
of the Governor Connally’s wounds, is shown in two views,
above left. Arlen Specter theorized the bullet had followed
a path much like the one shown at right. (National Archives
But the bullet that was
recovered had one strikingly peculiar feature: it had survived all
the damage it had apparently caused virtually unscathed itself. The
shell’s near-pristine appearance, which prompted some to call it the
“magic bullet,” left many skeptics wondering whether the bullet in
evidence had really done what the Commission had said it had done.
Additional skepticism was generated by the fact the bullet was not
found in or around either victim. It was found instead on a
stretcher at the hospital where the victims were treated.
Mr. Specter’s idea was that,
after passing completely through JFK and Governor Connally, the
bullet had fallen out of the Governor’s clothes and onto a stretcher
at Parkland Hospital. But it was never unequivocally established
that either victim had ever lain on the stretcher where the bullet
Nevertheless, studies done at the FBI Laboratory seemed to
unquestionably link the missile to Oswald’s rifle, and the FBI sent
the Warren Commission a memo on July 7, 1964 detailing how it had
run down the bullet’s chain of possession, which looked pretty
solid. According to the FBI, the two hospital employees who
discovered the bullet originally identified it as the same bullet
six months later in an FBI interview
That a bullet, fired from
Oswald’s weapon and later identified by hospital witnesses, had
immediately turned up on a stretcher in the hospital where the
victims were treated struck some as perhaps a little too convenient.
Suspicions it had been planted ensued. But apart from its peculiar
provenance, there was little reason in 1964 to doubt the bullet’s
bona fides. But then in 1967, one of the authors reported that one
of the two hospital employees who had found the bullet, Parkland
personnel director O.P. Wright, had told him that the bullet he saw
and held on the day of the assassination did not look like
the bullet that later turned up in FBI evidence. That claim was in
direct conflict with an FBI memo of July 7, 1964, which said that
Wright had told an FBI agent that the bullet did look like
the shell he’d held on the day of the murder.
For thirty years, the
conflict lay undisturbed and unresolved. Finally, in the mid 1990s,
the authors brought this conflict to the attention of the
Assassinations Records Review Board, a federal body charged with
opening the abundant, still-secret files concerning the Kennedy
assassination. A search through newly declassified files led to the
discovery of new information on this question. It turns out that the
FBI’s own, once-secret files tend to undermine the position the FBI
took publicly in its July, 1964 memo to the Warren Commission, and
they tend to support co-author Josiah Thompson. Thompson got a
further boost when a retired FBI agent, in a recorded telephone
interview and in a face-to-face meeting, flatly denied what the FBI
had written about him to the Warren Commission in 1964.
A Bullet is
Found at Parkland Hospital
The story begins in a ground
floor elevator lobby at the Dallas hospital where JFK and John
Connelly were taken immediately after being shot. According to the
Warren Commission, Parkland Hospital senior engineer, Mr. Darrell C.
Tomlinson, was moving some wheeled stretchers when he bumped a
stretcher “against the wall and a bullet rolled out.”
He called for help and was joined by Mr. O.P. Wright, Parkland’s
personnel director. After examining the bullet together, Mr. Wright
passed it along to one of the U.S. Secret Service agents who were
prowling the hospital, Special Agent Richard Johnsen.
Johnsen then carried the
bullet back to Washington, D. C. and handed it to James
Rowley, the chief of the Secret Service. Rowley, in turn,
gave the bullet to FBI agent Elmer Lee Todd,
who carried it to agent Robert Frazier in the FBI’s Crime
Without exploring the fact that the HSCA discovered that
there may have been another witness who was apparently with
Tomlinson when the bullet was found, what concerns us here
is whether the bullet currently in evidence, Commission
Exhibit #399, is the same bullet Tomlinson found originally.
The early history of
the bullet, Commission Exhibit #399, is laid out in Warren
Commission Exhibit #2011. This exhibit consists of a 3-page,
July 7, 1964 FBI letterhead memorandum that was written to
the Warren Commission in response to a Commission request
that the Bureau trace “various items of physical evidence,”
among them #399 [Fig.
2]. #2011 relates that, in chasing down the bullet’s
chain of possession, FBI agent Bardwell Odum took #399 to
Darrell Tomlinson and O.P. Wright on June 12, 1964. The memo
asserts that both men told Agent Odum that the bullet
“appears to be the same one” they found on the day of the
assassination, but that neither could “positively identify”
Figure 2. C.E. 2011. Chain of possession of #399 (FBI
Letterhead Memo Dallas 7/7/64)
Positive identification” of a
piece of evidence by a witness means that the witness is certain
that an object later presented in evidence is the same one that was
originally found. The most common way to establish positive
identification is for a witness to place his initials on a piece of
evidence upon first finding it. The presence of such initials is of
great help later when investigators try to prove a link through an
unbroken chain of possession between the object in evidence and a
Tomlinson nor Wright inscribed his initials on the stretcher bullet.
But that both witnesses told FBI Agent Odum, so soon after the
murder, that CE 399 looked like the bullet they had found on a
stretcher was compelling reason to suppose that it was indeed the
However, CE #2011
included other information that raised questions about the
bullet. As first noted by author Ray Marcus,
it also states that on June 24, 1964, FBI agent Todd, who
received the bullet from Rowley, the head of the Secret
Service, returned with presumably the same bullet to get
Secret Service agents Johnsen and Rowley to identify it.
#2011 reports that both Johnsen and Rowley advised Todd that
they “could not identify this bullet as the one” they saw on
the day of the assassination. # 2011 contains no comment
about the failure being merely one of not “positively
identifying” the shell that, otherwise, “appeared to be the
same” bullet they had originally handled. [Figs.
Thus, in #2011 the FBI reported that both Tomlinson and
Wright said #399 resembled the Parkland bullet, but that
neither of the Secret Service Agents could identify it. FBI
Agent Todd originally received the bullet from Rowley on
11/22/63 and it was he who then returned on 6/24/64 with
supposedly the same bullet for Rowley and Johnsen to
identify. Given the importance of this case, one imagines
that by the time Todd returned, they would have had at least
a passing acquaintance. Had it truly been the same bullet,
one might have expected one or both agents to tell Todd it
looked like the same bullet, even if neither could
“positively identify” it by an inscribed initial. After all,
neither Tomlinson nor Wright had inscribed their initials on
the bullet, and yet #2011 says that they said they saw a
Figure 3. Last two pages of 7/7/64 FBI memo to Warren
Commission, as published in C.E. #2011. Note that FBI states
that both Dallas witnesses said #399 looked like the bullet
they found on 11/22/63.
And there the conflicted
story sat, until one of the current authors published a book in
Different Accounts from One Witness
Six Seconds in Dallas
reported on an interview with O.P. Wright in November 1966.
Before any photos were shown or he was asked for any
description of #399, Wright said: “That bullet had a pointed
“Pointed tip?” Thompson asked.
“Yeah, I’ll show you.
It was like this one here,” he said, reaching into his desk
and pulling out the .30 caliber bullet pictured in Six
As Thompson described
it in 1967, “I then showed him photographs of CE’s 399, 572
(the two ballistics comparison rounds from Oswald’s rifle)
(sic), and 606 (revolver bullets) (sic), and he rejected all
of these as resembling the bullet Tomlinson found on the
stretcher. Half an hour later in the presence of two
witnesses, he once again rejected the picture of 399 as
resembling the bullet found on the stretcher.”
Figure 4. In an interview in 1966, Parkland Hospital
witness O.P. Wright told author Thompson that the bullet he
handled on 11/22/63 did not look like C.E. # 399.
Thus in 1964 the Warren
Commission, or rather the FBI, claimed that Wright believed
the original bullet resembled #399. In 1967, Wright denied
there was a resemblance. Recent FBI releases prompted by the
JFK Review Board support author Thompson’s 1967 report.
A declassified 6/20/64
FBI AIRTEL memorandum from the FBI office in Dallas (“SAC,
Dallas” – i.e., Special Agent in Charge, Gordon Shanklin) to
J. Edgar Hoover contains the statement, “For information WFO
(FBI Washington Field Office), neither DARRELL C. TOMLINSON
[sic], who found bullet at Parkland Hospital, Dallas, nor O.
P. WRIGHT, Personnel Officer, Parkland Hospital, who
obtained bullet from TOMLINSON and gave to Special Service,
at Dallas 11/22/63, can identify bullet … .” [Fig. 5 -
Whereas the FBI had
claimed in CE #2011 that Tomlinson and Wright had told Agent
Odum on June 12, 1964 that CE #399 “appears to be the same”
bullet they found on the day of the assassination, nowhere
in this previously classified memo, which was written
before CE #2011, is there any corroboration that either
of the Parkland employees saw a resemblance. Nor is FBI
agent Odum’s name mentioned anywhere in the once-secret
file, whether in connection with #399, or with Tomlinson or
Figure 5. Declassified
FBI memo reporting neither Tomlinson nor Wright could
identify “C1” [#399] as the bullet they handled on 11/22/63.
A declassified record,
however, offers some corroboration for what CE 2011
reported about Secret Service Agents Johnsen and Rowley. A
memo from the FBI’s Dallas field office dated 6/24/64
reported that, “ON JUNE TWENTYFOUR INSTANT RICHARD E.
JOHNSEN, AND JAMES ROWLEY, CHIEF … ADVISED SA ELMER LEE
TODD, WFO, THAT THEY WERE UNABLE TO INDENTIFY RIFLE BULLET C
ONE (# 399, which, before the Warren Commission had logged
in as #399, was called “C ONE”), BY INSPECTION (capitals in
Convinced that we had overlooked some relevant files, we
cast about for additional corroboration of what was in CE #
2011. There should, for example, have been some original
“302s ” – the raw FBI field reports from the Agent Odum’s
interviews with Tomlinson and Wright on June 12, 1964. There
should also have been one from Agent Todd’s interviews with
Secret Service Agents Johnsen and Rowley on June 24, 1964.
Perhaps somewhere in those, we thought, we would find Agent
Odum reporting that Wright had detected a resemblance
between the bullets. And perhaps we’d also find out whether
Tomlinson, Wright, Johnsen or Rowley had supplied the Bureau
with any additional descriptive details about the bullet.
Figure 6. Suppressed 1964 FBI report detailing that
neither of the Secret Service agents who handled “#399” on
11/22/63 could later identify it.
In early 1998, we asked a
research associate, Ms. Cathy Cunningham, to scour the National
Archives for any additional files that might shed light on this
story. She looked but found none. We contacted the JFK Review
Board’s T. Jeremy Gunn for help. [Fig.
7] On May 18, 1998, the Review Board’s Eileen Sullivan, writing
on Gunn’s behalf, answered, saying: “[W]e have attempted,
unsuccessfully, to find any additional records that would account
for the problem you suggest.”
8] Undaunted, one of us wrote the FBI directly, and was referred
to the National Archives, and so then wrote Mr. Steve Tilley at the
National Archives. [Fig.
On Mr. Tilley’s behalf, Mr.
Stuart Culy, an archivist at the National Archives, made a search.
On July 16, 1999, Mr. Culy wrote that he searched for the FBI
records within the HSCA files as well as in the FBI records, all
without success. He was able to determine, however, that the serial
numbers on the FBI documents ran “concurrently, with no gaps, which
indicated that no material is missing from these files.”
10] In other words, the earliest and apparently the only FBI
report said nothing about either Tomlinson or Wright seeing a
similarity between the bullet found at the hospital and the bullet
later in evidence, CE #399. Nor did agent Bardwell Odum’s name show
up in any of the files.
Figure 7. Letter to Assassinations Records Review Board
requesting a search for records that might support FBI’s
claim that hospital witnesses identified #399.
Figure 8. ARRB reports that it is unable to find records
supporting FBI claim Parkland Hospital witnesses identified
Figure 9. Letter to National Archives requesting search
for additional files on C.E. #399.
Figure 10. Letter from National Archives disclosing no
additional files exist on C.E. #399.
[editor's note: Dr. Aguilar
followed up in 2005 with the National Archives, asking them in
March 2 and
March 7 to search for any FBI "302" reports that would have been
generated from CE399 being shown to those who handled it. On
March 17, 2005 David Mengel of NARA wrote back reporting that
additional searches had not uncovered any such reports.]
Stymied, author Aguilar
turned to his co-author. “What does Odum have to say about it?”
“Odum? How the hell do I
know? Is he still alive?”
“I’ll find out,” he promised.
Less than an hour later,
Thompson had located Mr. Bardwell Odum’s home address and phone
number. Aguilar phoned him on September 12, 2002. He was still alive
and well and living in a suburb of Dallas. The 82-year old was alert
and quick-witted on the phone and he regaled Aguilar with fond
memories of his service in the Bureau. Finally, the Kennedy case
came up and Odum agreed to help interpret some of the conflicts in
the records. Two weeks after mailing Odum the relevant files – CE #
2011, the three-page FBI memo dated July 7, 1964, and the “FBI
AIRTEL” memo dated June 12, 1964, Aguilar called him back.
Mr. Odum told Aguilar,
“I didn’t show it [#399] to anybody at Parkland. I didn’t
have any bullet … I don’t think I ever saw it even.” [Fig.
11] Unwilling to leave it at that, both authors paid Mr.
Odum a visit in his Dallas home on November 21, 2002. The
same alert, friendly man on the phone greeted us warmly and
led us to a comfortable family room. To ensure no
misunderstanding, we laid out before Mr. Odum all the
relevant documents and read aloud from them.
Again, Mr. Odum said
that he had never had any bullet related to the Kennedy
assassination in his possession, whether during the FBI’s
investigation in 1964 or at any other time. Asked whether he
might have forgotten the episode, Mr. Odum remarked that he
doubted he would have ever forgotten investigating so
important a piece of evidence. But even if he had done the
work, and later forgotten about it, he said he would
certainly have turned in a “302” report covering something
that important. Odum’s sensible comment had the ring of
truth. For not only was Odum’s name absent from the FBI’s
once secret files, it was also it difficult to imagine a
motive for him to besmirch the reputation of the agency he
had worked for and admired.
Figure 11. Recorded interview with FBI Agent Bardwell
Odum, in which he denies he ever had C.E. #399 in his
Thus, the July 1964 FBI memo
that became Commission Exhibit #2011 claims that Tomlinson and
Wright said they saw a resemblance between #399 and the bullet they
picked up on the day JFK died. However, the FBI agent who is
supposed to have gotten that admission, Bardwell Odum, and the
Bureau’s own once-secret records, don’t back up #2011. Those records
say only that neither Tomlinson nor Wright was able to
identify the bullet in question, a comment that leaves the
impression they saw no resemblance. That impression is strengthened
by the fact that Wright told one of the authors in 1966 the bullets
were dissimilar. Thus, Thompson’s surprising discovery about Wright,
which might have been dismissed in favor of the earlier FBI evidence
in #2011, now finds at least some support in an even earlier,
suppressed FBI memo, and the living memory of a key, former FBI
agent provides further, indirect corroboration.
But the newly
declassified FBI memos from June 1964 lead to another
unexplained mystery. Neither are the 302 reports that would
have been written by the agents who investigated #399’s
chain of possession in both Dallas and Washington. The
authors were tempted to wonder if the June memos were but
expedient fabrications, with absolutely no 302s whatsoever
backing them up.
But a declassified routing
slip turned up by John Hunt seems to prove that the FBI did
in fact act on the Commission’s formal request, as outlined
in # 2011, to run down #399s chain of possession. The
routing slip discloses that the bullet was sent from
Washington to Dallas on 6/2/64 and returned to Washington on
6/22/64. Then on 6/24/64, it was checked out to FBI Agent
12] What transpired during these episodes? If the Bureau
went to these lengths, it seems quite likely that Bardwell
Odum, or some other agent in Dallas, would have submitted
one or more 302s on what was found, and so would Agent Elmer
Todd in Washington. But there are none in the files. The
trail ends here with an unexplained, and perhaps important,
gap left in the record.
Figure 12. FBI routing slip. Note that #399 was sent
from Washington to Dallas and back again, and that FBI agent
Todd checked out the bullet on 6/24/64, the day it was
reported the Secret Service Agents told Todd they could not
identify #399. [See Fig. 5 (page
page 2) and
Fig. 6.] (Courtesy of John Hunt)
Besides this unexplained gap,
another interesting question remains: If the FBI did in fact adjust
Tomlinson and Wright’s testimonies with a bogus claim of bullet
similarity, why didn’t it also adjust Johnsen and Rowley’s? While it
is unlikely a certain answer to this question will ever be found, it
is not unreasonable to suppose that the FBI authors of #2011 would
have been more reluctant to embroider the official statements of the
head of the Secret Service in Washington than they would the
comments of a couple of hospital employees in Dallas.
In a memo to the Warren
Commission [C. E. #2011] concerning its investigation of the chain
of possession of C.E. #399, the FBI reported that two Parkland
Hospital eyewitnesses, Darrell Tomlinson and O. P. Wright, said C.E.
#399 resembled the bullet they discovered on the day JFK died. But
the FBI agent who is supposed to have interviewed both men and the
Bureau’s own suppressed records contradict the FBI’s public memo.
Agent Odum denied his role, and the FBI’s earliest, suppressed files
say only that neither Tomlinson nor Wright was able to
identify the bullet in question. This suppressed file implies the
hospital witnesses saw no resemblance, which is precisely what
Wright told one of the authors in 1967.
What we are left with is the
FBI having reported a solid chain of possession for #399 to the
Warren Commission. But the links in the FBI’s chain appear to be
anything but solid. Bardwell Odum, one of the key links, says he was
never in the chain at all and the FBI’s own, suppressed records tend
to back him up. Inexplicably, the chain also lacks other important
links: FBI 302s, reports from the agents in the field who, there is
ample reason to suppose, did actually trace #399 in Dallas and in
Washington. Suppressed FBI records and recent investigations thus
suggest that not only is the FBI’s file incomplete, but also that
one of the authors may have been right when he reported in 1967 that
the bullet found in Dallas did not look like a bullet that could
have come from Oswald’s rifle.
The eighth wound, JFK’s head wound, accounted for one of the
bullets. And evidence from the scene and from a home movie taken of
the murder by a bystander, Abraham Zapruder, suggests that a third
bullet had missed entirely.
Josiah Thompson. Six Seconds in Dallas. Bernard Geis
Associates for Random House, 1967, p. 161 – 164.
The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F.
Kennedy – Report. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing
p. 81. See also
6H130 – 131.
18H800. See also: Thompson, J. Six Seconds in Dallas. New
York: Bernard Geis Associates for Random House, 1967,
See Ray Marcus monograph, The Bastard Bullet.
Text of email message from Josiah Thompson to Aguilar, 12/10/99.
Thompson, Josiah. Six Seconds in Dallas. New York: Bernard
Geis Associates for Random House, 1967, p. 175.
5/11/98 email message from Eileen Sullivan re: “Your letter to
Jeremy Gunn, April 4, 1998.”
Personal letter from Stuart Culy, archivist, National Archives, July