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November 2015

Books, Politics

Back And To The Left… Back And To The Left

November 20, 2015

“It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route…”
~ Sam Pate, Dallas Reporter, KBOX Radio

§ § §

Shortly after noon on Friday, November 22, 1963, the 35th President of the United States was being driven through the streets of Dallas, Texas in a black Lincoln Continental stretch limousine. He was accompanied by his wife Jackie, and the Texas governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. They were all on their way to a luncheon where the president was to deliver a speech at a gathering of the city’s business leaders.

Moments after their open-topped vehicle turned from Houston Street and onto Elm, John Fitzgerald Kennedy entered Dealey Plaza and the history books.

On this sequence of events, anyone who has ever dived into the deep end of the research pool regarding Kennedy’s murder agrees. However, it was from this point forward that doubt and certainty diverged, and fact and fiction became Siamese twins. Within hours of the shooting speculation and hearsay filled the airwaves, and rumor and guesswork dominated above-the-fold reportage in newspapers around the world.

Who killed JFK?

While doctors at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital attended to their mortally wounded president, city police, and the sheriff’s office scoured central Dallas for their number one suspect – their only suspect.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who had once defected to the Soviet Union and returned, was employed by the Depository where some witnesses reported three gunshots had originated. He was tracked, cornered and taken into custody in a movie theatre after a short struggle with law enforcement. By this point, barely 90 minutes after Kennedy was hit, Oswald was suspected of not only JFK’s assassination, but of also killing a Dallas police officer while escaping the scene.

On Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after the assassination, Oswald, too, lay dying, felled by a single bullet. Audiences around the world watched the shooting live on television. Jack Ruby, who at the time was considered not much more than a local strip club owner and minor mobster, was immediately arrested and charged with the homicide.

Three days later, The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy was launched by the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was put in charge.

The Warren Commission, as it was more popularly known, also included a future president of the United States, a retired banker, two senators, a congressman, and a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency that Kennedy himself had fired. They were tasked with an investigation that aimed to ‘solve’ the president’s assassination, and bring closure to a shaken public by underscoring the ‘official’ stance that Oswald had acted alone. But what appeared to some people as an open-and-shut case, was to others murky and misguided, and the Commission’s eventual conclusions positively erroneous. Regardless, the ‘Oswald Did It’ camp filled up fast. Even though many questioned and protested the Commission’s explanations of the entire scenario, with some suggesting a massive government cover-up was at play, the ‘lone gunman’ meme had already begun to take root.

Within a year of President Kennedy’s assassination the Warren Commission’s report was released to the public, its major thesis – Lee Harvey Oswald as lone assassin – was front and centre. As battle lines were drawn on one side and the other (he did, he didn’t) alternate opinions and conspiracy theories began to proliferate.

Was JFK trapped in the crosshairs of one crazed assassin firing from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository? (“I’m just a patsy!”) Or was he the victim of a conspiracy cut down by a cabal of a half-dozen hired guns firing from any number of hidden vantage points, including the equally infamous ‘grassy knoll’? (“Back and to the left, back and to the left…”) Those questions have been debated and fought over for decades by amateurs and professionals alike. The search for answers has become the Holy Grail of researchers and authors worldwide.

Hundreds of books, articles, documentaries, feature films, TV shows and websites have been devoted to ‘America’s loss of innocence’ that day in Dallas. Perhaps only the Bible has been more scrutinized. Every bullet and shell casing, each leaf and blade of grass, eyewitness testimony (both official and otherwise), photographs, films, charts, caskets, plane flights, recordings, admissions, rebuttals, reconstructions, dead ends, cul de sacs, hairpin turns, and divided highways… enough information has been collected and sifted to fill entire warehouses, and yet questions, doubts, and theories still remain. A CBS News poll asked Americans if they believed that Oswald had acted alone – 76% said they believed he had not. Some believe that’s the wrong question to ask, as it presupposes he acted at all.

‘Who killed JFK?’ became a mantra. More than fifty years later the chanting hasn’t stopped.

Into this decades-old riot of speculation and analysis comes author Barry Ernest and his book, The Girl On The Stairs – My Search For A Missing Witness To The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy.

If you’ve paid any attention over the years to the wealth of material available on the subject of the assassination, you’ll probably agree that the majority of it falls into three basic categories:

  1. The sixth floor, southeast corner window of the Texas School Book Depository and Lee Harvey Oswald;
  2. The Grassy Knoll;
  3. Cubans, Communists, Cosa Nostra, CIA, and Co-Conspirators.

With few exceptions, much of the assassination canon digs in its heels on one of these major points, sometimes just trolling around the edges. Mr. Ernest, however, followed a different path. A long and winding path, as it turned out, and the result is one of the best books available on the topic.

He has done something with his book that few before him have accomplished successfully. While many other authors have relied on brute force attacks of the entire Warren Commission Report, challenging its evidence, methodology and conclusions at every turn, Mr. Ernest has instead dug deep – very deep – into a mostly forgotten corner of the investigation: the secondary witnesses. One in particular.

That one witness is ‘the girl on the stairs’, a young woman by the name of Victoria Adams.

Why she’s the focus of Mr. Ernest’s book – why she matters at all – is quite the well-told story and a terrific read. The author spent the better part of forty years attempting to locate Vickie Adams to confront her face-to-face about her Warren Commission testimony, and to try and find corroborating evidence to support and justify her claims. His journey is fascinating, and his storytelling simple, clean and exciting. His conclusions offer a compelling and disturbingly accurate narrative account of one of the darkest days in human history told from a different perspective and observed through a unique lens.

The story begins with a bombshell comment to the Commission that almost no one grasped the significance of at the time, and most researchers have failed to recognize since.

On 22 November, Vickie was working for a small company that was a tenant in the Texas School Book Depository building. That day was special because it wasn’t every day one got to see the President of the United States and his beautiful wife Jackie. Ms. Adams and a couple of co-workers spent part of their lunch hour huddled in a stairway near a window that afforded a perfect view of Dealey Plaza and the presidential motorcade that was going to pass right by the building.

Everyone who worked inside the Depository and who was present that fateful day in 1963 was interviewed under oath by a Warren Commission investigator. According to the author’s research, witness testimony would be carefully transcribed and checked for accuracy against the stenographer’s record, and then a draft copy would be sent to the interviewee so they could check it themselves and make corrections before signing off. Vickie found some errors in her testimony, corrected them, and returned the document.

Ms. Adams thought that was that, and like most Americans got on with her life.

Some time later, after the Commission’s report was released, she decided to check her testimony within one of the twenty-six volumes of evidence while visiting a local library. According to Vickie and the author, what she read in the official record, was not what she had said to the Commission. Not only had they misstated crucial parts of her testimony, they hadn’t included the corrections they themselves had asked Vickie to supply. To make matters worse, the official record stated that her recollection of events was inaccurate and her details wrong. Vickie was horrified. She dropped out of sight and never spoke of her experiences again. Until Barry Ernest finally found her.

What had she said to the Commission?!

The issue was a not-so-simple matter of timing. She testified that she and one of her colleagues had been on the stairs of the fourth floor of the Depository watching the President drive by smiling and waving at the crowd. Then, they heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. People in the plaza started running or laying on the ground as if they were hiding. Realizing that something terrible must have occurred, Vickie and her friend ran down the stairs to the ground floor and out of the building to find out what had happened. She was quite specific in her testimony as to the time of day, their location on the stairs, and the amount of time it took for them to race down those stairs to the main level of the building. She was also very specific, under direct questioning from the investigator, about who she did and did not see during this time.

Ms. Adams’ testimony was a problem for the Commission. These were the same stairs they said Oswald himself had come down after shooting the President from the sixth floor – it was his only means of escape. Except Vickie and her friend had neither seen nor heard anyone else on those stairs within the timeframe she had testified to.

Why is Victoria Adams’ memory of those events – her official, detailed testimony, and the subject of this book – important? If she’s correct, Lee Harvey Oswald could not have been on the sixth floor of the Depository at all, as he was discovered in the second-floor lunch room by a police officer mere minutes after the shooting, and again, within Vickie’s testified timeframe. If Oswald wasn’t on the sixth floor that means he couldn’t have pulled the trigger. He could not have shot the President.

Timing. Mr. Ernest contends that she is correct.

It would be easy to disregard this book as just another unsubstantiated theory based on ephemeral allegations or as another attempt to cash in on the JFK conspiracy cottage industry that has grown like an ignored weed since 1964. Easy, except for Mr. Ernest’s astonishing discovery of corroborating evidence supporting Ms. Adams’ claims, and the re-emergence of the subject herself. Vickie speaks at length about her experiences and responds candidly to the author’s detailed examination.

Whether, through absentminded omission or calculated design (Mr. Ernest believes the latter), the Warren Commission disregarded crucial details within Victoria Adams’ sworn statements; details that would have cast, and perhaps now does cast, doubt on the conclusions of its Report. It’s not the first book to do so, nor is this an isolated example, sad to say.

I’ve absorbed the vast majority of credible JFK assassination literature over the years – certainly dozens of books, perhaps more than fifty. I’m always curious to see what each new book brings to the table, or what a new documentary might reveal. Is it something new, or merely a rehash of old theories…? A fresh perspective, or a stale reimagining…? “The Girl On The Stairs” is the real deal – new, fresh and, perhaps most importantly, illuminating.

With the entire Warren Commission library now online (yes, including the 26 volumes of evidence from which the story of Victoria Adams eventually revealed itself), as well as the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) report, perhaps we’re not done yet. Maybe there are other ‘clues’ hiding in plain site.

For some readers, perhaps, the revelations in this book will be summarily disposed of with the wave of a jaundiced hand (“Nothing to see here – move along, Johnny.”) Do we really need more independent analysis, more investigations, more articles, another documentary, another book…? As a teacher once said to me: An open mind is a terrible thing to waste.

§ § §

The Girl On The Stairs – My Search For A Missing Witness To The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy (ISBN: 978-1460979372)
is written by Barry Ernest and available in various forms from Amazon and the other usual suspects.

Personal, Photography

I Go Hoosegow

November 10, 2015

“Well, if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I’d move out over, a little
Further down the line,
Far from Folsom Prison,
That’s where I want to stay,
And I’d let that lonesome whistle,
Blow my Blues away.”
– Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash

§ § §

The old British Columbia Penitentiary stood in the city of New Westminster for over a hundred years.

After prison riots that occurred throughout the middle to late 1970s caused the closure of the by then infamous B.C. Pen, I started polling local and regional politicians requesting access to the jail so I could photograph it. I was turned down repeatedly. Various excuses, both official and anecdotal, were given for the refusal, but I persisted.

The prison, it was said, remained in a state of total disrepair and decay after a particularly nasty riot which resulted in its population being transferred to other correctional facilities across the country. In fact, if reports were to be believed, everything was left where it fell that final day before the prisoners’ relocation. The Pen was officially closed for good in 1980 and all but forgotten. The subject came up in the press once in awhile as to what would be done with the structure and land it sat on, but no one ever seemed to agree on the proper approach.

My photographic interest was historical, certainly. But the Pen was rife with stories about its sordid past, its attempted break-outs and even it’s cemetery which still exists to this day. A young woman who worked at the prison, Mary Steinhauser, was shot and killed by the Emergency Response Team during a hostage taking in 1975. The press had had a field day with that, speculating that perhaps she had been targeted because of an affair she may or may not have had with an inmate.

Sure, all of that was in the back of my mind. But I was also gripped by an intense child-like curiosity. How cool would it be to roam through this giant granite castle taking pictures? Cool. Very cool.

It was late January the year after its closure that I received a phone call from the mayor’s office of New Westminster. Had I received the letter, I was asked. The letter arrived the next day.

In it, I was told that a decision was being made as to the Pen’s future and the first phase of that decision was to turn control of the prison “…and its contents” over to Public Works Canada. If I really wanted to “…go inside and take your pictures…” I’d best do so within the next two weeks. After that, no one would be allowed to go inside and the Pen’s systematic ‘devolution’ would commence; this was as close to ‘permission’ as I was going to get. I seized the opportunity.

I supplemented my one camera and 50mm lens with a rental agreement from a local camera shop and a week later presented myself at the formidable oak front doors of the Pen’s Gatehouse. Struggling with a second camera body, three extra lenses including an 18mm Fish Eye, two bags containing lights, reflectors, a Megablitz electronic flash with battery belt, and a portable power supply, I was met with a hearty laugh when I introduced myself to the two Commissionaires who had been assigned to guard the complex.

“Didn’t they tell you?” one asked. “There’s no power,” said the other. “Been shut off for more than a year. No heat either,” he continued. “No prisoners – no point,” said the first. “I hope you brought gloves and a warmer coat.” I hadn’t.

Official-looking papers were arranged on the one desk that sat in the corner of a small anteroom in the gatehouse. The Commissionaires continued joking while I stuffed the two bags of useless equipment under the desk for safe-keeping. At least they had a small portable heater and a radio powered by a gasoline generator to keep them company. After a hundred years of ‘top security’ and dozens of personnel carrying weapons, the Pen was now guarded by two men without so much as a pocket knife between them. The irony was not lost on me.

After I signed a sheet that said I was to hold all and sundry harmless from any responsibility should I disappear down a rabbit hole or some such, I was given a short lecture about the dangers I was facing by “…traipsing about the grounds of a former maximum security facility…” by myself.

“By myself…?” I said out loud, perhaps a little too high pitched.

“Don’t worry,” said the officer. “The sun’s coming out. Once your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll be fine.”

Right. No power – no heat – no light. No warmer coat: check. No gloves: check. No flashlight: check. Wonderful.

The second officer handed me a massive ring of keys, just like the kind you see in the movies. And damned if there weren’t several old-style skeleton keys on it.

“Just for show,” he said. “Used to work on some of the interior doors a ways back apparently, but once the prison was modernized…” He allowed his voice to trail off, perhaps realizing that the term ‘modernized’ in this context was entirely pointless. The prison in fact had changed little since the day it had opened in 1878.

“This one unlocks the main door,” the first officer said pointing to a key painted red. “Most other doors work off the master, and that would be this one,” he said pointing to a key that looked like the twenty-odd other ones on the ring.

The two officers looked at each other in a sort of ‘anything else you can think of’ kind of way. Then, “Okay – that’s it. We’re done at five. Make sure you’re back here by then.”

“Yeah,” said the second officer. “Or you’ll have to sleep overnight in one of the cells!” They both laughed. This was no place for a child-like imagination.

I grabbed a couple of lenses from the big bag and walked outside into the prison yard. The large oak doors creaked and then slammed behind me.

It was early February. Snow was on the ground, and my breath froze in the air. I made the hundred meters from the gatehouse to the main door in short order. I put the red key in the lock and turned. The door opened with ease.

I was going to prison, and that’s all there was to that.

§ § §

I survived my day in prison wandering the halls, and cell blocks of the old B.C. Pen and the stories all turned out to be true. It was still in the exact same state it was left in after the final riot and relocation. I had been told the only things that had been removed were the mattresses and linens, but there were stacks of them stuffed into one very smelly room. Dampness and mold had taken over.

As a sidebar story to this, I had a robbery in my apartment less than two weeks after doing the tour and taking the pictures. According to my insurance adjuster, about $20,000 worth of ‘household’ items had been stolen, including three large binders of contact sheets and negatives. I mourned the loss of the B.C. Pen materials whenever I thought about it too long. Then, a couple of years later during a move to a new apartment, I discovered a handful of plastic sleeves containing mostly negatives of the B.C. Pen under a large Indian area rug I had inherited.

The pictures aren’t the best quality, unfortunately. With no power and no flashlight, many of the shots were taken in darkness, if not pitch black. I would fire the Megablitz strobe that I had attached to one of the cameras just to see where I was going at times, and this was frequently my only source of instantaneous light when ‘setting-up’ a shot.

Although the pictures aren’t the best, they are still the only ‘officially unofficial’ photographs in existence of the inside of the B.C. Pen before the place was razed and turned into condo units.

The majority of stills from the B.C. Pen can be seen HERE (Part 1) and HERE (Part 2) at my dedicated photography site, Enjoy.