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.

"I don't make a lot of money doing this," says Hayden. "My personal gut feeling is that this is an open forum for opposing viewpoints, which is fundamental to a free society."

On weekends, as many as 14 different vendors swarm the plaza and grassy knoll, many of them congregating near the stone pergola on top of the knoll to escape the brutal sun. "Get the real facts about the assassination," they bark, as they brandish assorted shrink-wrapped magazines and newspapers tucked in cloth aprons tied around their waists. Competition is fierce and has led to fistfights in the past. One vendor even used pepper spray on another because he refused to front him newspapers. But Hayden and others say it has been quiet lately, ever since a particularly tough-guy distributor sold his business.

The periodicals vary in quality and content. JFK Today is a flimsy newspaper with grainy photos of the motorcade and ensuing pandemonium, as well as photos of noted right-wing fanatics and opponents of integration. The Questionmark Newspaper contains muddy Xeroxed photos of the usual suspects, hand-drawn diagrams of Kennedy's wounds, and assorted documents, such as a transcript of Dallas police initially dispatching officers to the grassy knoll. The slick magazine The Killing of a President has a detailed analysis of Kennedy's wounds, a lurid shot of Kennedy's bullet-pierced neck, plus a discussion of acoustical evidence of gunshots and medical testimony that Kennedy was shot from the front.

Perched most days at the corner of Elm Street and Houston, across from the Texas School Book Depository, Hayden attracts many of the tourists who have just finished touring the Sixth Floor Museum. The majority of them, he says, believe that Oswald did not act alone.

"When people come out, they are disoriented," Hayden says. "They have a lot of questions. They are not even sure where the grassy knoll is or where the motorcade was when the shooting started. I try to make it come alive for people."

Like many of the vendors on the Plaza, Hayden shies away from saying who he thinks was responsible for Kennedy's murder, but he peppers his tour with intriguing morsels of information implying a plot. He talks about the 76 witnesses who heard shots coming from the grassy knoll; the woman who saw Oswald eating in the depository lunchroom just minutes before the motorcade was supposed to be rounding Elm Street; and the improbability of two bullets causing eight injuries between Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.

Hayden usually ends his spiel by telling people the assassination was "the original nightmare on Elm Street." But lately, he and the other vendors have been living their own version of an Elm Street nightmare. For most of the past five years, Hayden worked here without incident. Since June, however, police have given him three tickets for vending without a license. His first court date is scheduled for November 5.

Hayden doesn't think the tickets and the Sixth Floor expansion plans are a coincidence. "I don't think the Sixth Floor wants a viewpoint down here that is different from theirs. I definitely think it is a conspiracy. There are a lot of other things I could be doing to earn a living," he adds. "But I think the truth needs to be known."

As with many of the people who fancy themselves assassination experts, Hayden is edgy and paranoid, not sure whom to trust. After our first interview, I learned one of the people he didn't trust was me. He was secretly recording the interview, his tape recorder hidden inside a duffel bag. I only learned about the clandestine taping after he had left and a colleague mentioned that he heard Hayden testing his recording equipment in the men's restroom.

The next time Hayden called, I nonchalantly asked him how the tape came out. I told him all he had to do was ask, and I would happily agree to be taped. He sputtered an apology, claimed it was someone else's idea, and swore he was going to burn it.

It's no surprise that people familiar with the plaza subculture think its inhabitants are their own worst enemy. In fact, the police claim the rash of ticketing this summer was spurred in part by tensions between two particular vendors--Robert Groden and Bud McCaghren. The nephew of an assistant Dallas police chief who was on the force at the time of the assassination, McCaghren sells a publication that claims Oswald acted alone. But that is not the only source of friction between McCaghren and the conspiracy advocate Groden. Groden alleges that McCaghren's publication includes some of Groden's photographs without permission. He says he has threatened to sue McCaghren and believes that in retaliation, McCaghren has complained to the police about him. (In an ironic twist, Groden is presently being sued for allegedly using unauthorized films in one of his videos.)

McCaghren could not be reached for comment.
"The two individuals have gotten into a little war, pointing the finger at each other and snitching on each other," says Lt. Jeff Cotner, the police officer in charge of the Central Business District. "We've been responsive to their complaints, but it has been challenging to make field decisions on First Amendment issues. Are they expressing their freedom of speech or are they selling commerce without a license?"

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