Conspiracy Theory

JFK assassination buffs who peddle their wares on the grassy knoll think there's a plot to put them out of business. They may be right.

Robert Groden, JFK assassination researcher, has had way more than his 15 minutes of fame. In the mid-1970s, he painstakingly created an enhancement of the Abraham Zapruder film that landed him a high-profile appearance on Geraldo Rivera's Goodnight America television show. The film showed in gruesome detail President Kennedy's head snapping back with extreme force after it was struck by a bullet--suggesting that he might have been shot from the front, a direct contradiction of the conclusion reached in the controversial Warren Commission Report.

Some people--even the folks who run the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza--credit Groden's work on the Zapruder film with helping spur creation of the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.

Groden served as a staff photographic consultant to the House Select Committee for three years, went on to write several books on the assassination--some of them best-sellers--and wound up as a technical consultant to director Oliver Stone on his 1991 movie JFK.

But in recent years, the bearded, bespectacled, 51-year-old Groden has fallen on hard times. He suffered seven strokes after he fell in an icy parking lot and hit his head. The strokes have impaired his memory and limited his job opportunities. Except for the occasional stint as an expert witness in a court proceeding--Groden testified in O.J. Simpson's civil trial that the infamous photograph of Simpson wearing Bruno Magli shoes was a fake--there isn't much full-time work for photographic and assassination experts these days.

For the last year, Groden and his wife, Diane, whom he met on the grassy knoll four years ago during a memorial service commemorating the 30th anniversary of Kennedy's murder, have eked a living peddling videos and magazine-sized condensed versions of his pro-conspiracy books to the two million tourists who flock to Dealey Plaza each year.

The Grodens are members of a strange subculture that has inhabited the plaza and grassy knoll for at least the past five years. For the most part, they see themselves as champions of the First Amendment, providing a valuable public service by offering walking tours of the area and selling newspapers, magazines, and other material with a strong pro-conspiracy slant.

They are an important counterpoint, they say, to the Sixth Floor Museum, housed in the former Texas School Book Depository from which Oswald shot Kennedy, which gives short shrift to the multitude of assassination theories that have sprung up over the years. In fact, many in the pro-conspiracy camp claim that the Sixth Floor experience supports the Warren Commission conclusion that Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman.

The Dealey Plaza vendors, who have been known to engage in some nasty turf battles among themselves, have plenty of detractors. Even a few members of the assassination community think the carnival atmosphere the vendors create cheapens the seriousness of their purpose. But whether they are viewed as crass commercial exploiters of a national tragedy or men on a mission, one thing is clear: Their presence on the plaza is under attack.

Since June, the Grodens and several other Dealey Plaza vendors have been ticketed repeatedly by Dallas police for a number of infractions, primarily vending without a license. Although none of the cases has come up for trial yet, these Class C misdemeanors, punishable by fines of up to several hundred dollars, have had a chilling effect on a group of people who, by their nature, are suspicious of authority, the establishment, and even each other.

Not surprisingly, this group believes there is a conspiracy to silence them, to shut them down and shut them up.

What has fueled this latest conspiratorial thinking is the timing of the police crackdown. The police began ticketing the vendors, some of whom had been working the plaza for years without receiving so much as a warning by the authorities, shortly after The Dallas Morning News announced that the Sixth Floor Museum was planning to "take control of Dealey Plaza."

Since last May, the Sixth Floor has been working with the city's Park and Recreation Department to develop an agreement for the museum "to manage Dealey Plaza," Jeff West, executive director of the museum, told the Morning News. He was then quoted as saying, "We hope our presence will rid the plaza of most of the conspiracy theorists and others of that kind there."

That last statement was all the evidence the vendors needed to believe that the Sixth Floor was somehow behind the sudden police presence on the plaza and their own mounting legal problems. Although West claims he was misquoted--"I never said it publicly or privately," he says--and insists his operation has not instigated the ticketing of the vendors, he makes no bones about the museum wanting its own presence on the plaza.

"We have had complaints from visitors about being harassed, accosted, and just confused by who these vendors are," West says. "At the museum, we strive to portray balance. The challenge in the plaza is that they are presenting only one point of view. We want to provide some balance out there as well."

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