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."

West says that the Sixth Floor, which attracts only a quarter as many tourists as Dealey Plaza does, wants to put a kiosk on the plaza where it can sell film and maps and offer guided tours. But in fact, its intentions are more far-reaching than that. The Dallas County Historical Foundation, which runs the Sixth Floor Museum, wants to be "the exclusive manager" for the plaza, responsible for "operating, vending, leasing and servicing duties," according to documents the foundation filed with the city.

The Sixth Floor may want to rule the plaza, but not all the vendors believe the museum is responsible for instigating the ticketing. A small vendor faction, as well as some people associated with the museum, think that the complaints have been lodged from some jealous vendors intent on eliminating the competition. At least one vendor blames another vendor partial to the Oswald-as-lone-gunman theory of the assassination for siccing the police on the conspiracy theorists.

Regardless of what prompted the policing of the plaza, the vendors say the city is not playing fair. The Dallas City Code contains a confusing ordinance on street vendors that requires them to be permitted in certain circumstances.

However, the vendors claim they have had trouble getting straight answers from the city about how to go about obtaining a permit. While some see this as part of the conspiracy as well, it is probably more a function of bureaucratic ineptitude.

The city has instructed some of the vendors to contact the Health Department, which provides a limited number of vending permits for the Central Business District, including areas around the School Book Depository but not Dealey Plaza proper, which is governed by the Park Department. All of the Health Department permits available for this part of town, which is considered part of the West End Historic District, have already been issued.

The people who have contacted the Park Department have been given contradictory information. Some have been told they didn't need a permit to sell magazines or videos on the plaza, only to be ticketed anyway. Some were told they could sell printed materials without a permit, but not videos. Others were informed they couldn't sell anything without a permit, but when they inquired about getting one, they were told there weren't any available or were sent to the Health Department, where they came up empty-handed.

The Dallas Observer spent more than a day being transferred from one Park Department staff person to another trying to find someone who was in charge of issuing permits for Dealey Plaza. We finally found the right person--Ralph Mendez, assistant director for the eastern region of the Park Department, who says that the policy governing Dealey Plaza is still being worked out. According to Mendez, a potential Dealey Plaza vendor or tour guide has to submit to the Park Department a detailed proposal, which has to be approved by the Park Board and the City Council. So far the only people who seem to know about that policy are those who work for the Sixth Floor.

Even if the Sixth Floor and the city wanted to see the vendors gone, Jeff West thinks they are probably protected by the constitutional right to free speech. That point has actually crossed the minds of the people who run the Park Department. Not sure whether the city code gives them the right to stop people from selling certain material on the plaza, they recently asked the city attorney's office to research the matter, says Mendez.

Nevertheless, the police continue to roust the conspiracy theorists, even while the kinks in the ordinance are being worked out.

All of which leads to an interesting bureaucratic and legal Catch-22. The police are ticketing people for selling materials in Dealey Plaza without a permit, but the city is not even sure it has the right to issue such a permit. The saga of the plaza subculture is like everything else associated with the JFK assassination--neither simple nor sane. And there's a little bit of truth in all of it.

"Like the police have nothing better to do but police the plaza," says an indignant Brad Kizzia, a local lawyer with Strasburger & Price and a student of the assassination who has informally counseled some of the vendors who have been ticketed. "It's a misuse of our police and legal resources and an infringement on [the vendors'] constitutional rights. If it weren't so troubling and disturbing, it would be laughable."

Dan Hayden never intended to sell JFK assassination memorabilia for a living, but "it just gets into your blood," he says. "The grassy knoll is the vortex of the world."

A compact man of 40, Hayden sports a green "JFK Grassy Knoll Tours" shirt and a deep sunburn, earned from spending long days selling Robert Groden's magazine The Killing of a President and giving guided tours of Dealey Plaza. The magazines cost $5 apiece and his tours, depending on the length, average about $10. He gives free 15-minute talks to groups of schoolchildren.

A part-time house painter, Hayden got interested in the assassination in the early 1980s, when he moved here from East Texas. He spent a lot of time browsing the library archives and eventually started selling newspapers on the grassy knoll in 1992, from sunrise to sunset, six or seven days a week.

"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?"

The vendor war only accounts for some of the ticketing. Cotner admits that the police have become more vigilant since the area achieved landmark status in 1995. "It's got a pretty high profile," he says.

Regardless of why the police have started to enforce the Dallas City Code ordinance on street vendors, the question remains whether the vendors are really violating it.

While the ordinance requires vendors who want to sell their wares in a city park to seek permission from the director of the Dallas Department of Park and Recreation, there is a legal exception that Hayden and others believe cover their activities.

Vendors are permitted to sell non-commercial printed material on city property without a license. The ordinance defines commercial printed material as reading material that has advertising or is essentially an advertisement, and is distributed for the private benefit of the advertiser or distributor.

Tracy Pounders, assistant city attorney, says he thinks the vendors might be violating the ordinance, because they are selling their periodicals for private gain. But a close reading of the ordinance seems to indicate that the city will first have to prove that what the vendors are selling contains, or is essentially, an advertisement. Unfortunately, several of the vendors, including Hayden, will be at a disadvantage. They cannot afford to hire legal representation.

Pounders says it is now up to a court to decide whether the vendors are violating the law, but that hasn't stopped the police from continuing to issue tickets.

Lawyer Brad Kizzia thinks even the video vendors, whose products contain historical footage and interviews with assassination witnesses, have a good chance at beating the tickets. "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that you cannot ban commercial freedom of speech," says Kizzia. "I think this ordinance amounts to such a ban. The legal basis of the ordinance is so vague and ambiguous, you have a First Amendment rights argument."

Dallas criminal attorney Stuart Parker reviewed the ordinance for the Observer. "It would take me a month to sit down and analyze how bad this ordinance is," says Parker. "My reading of the ordinance is that it may be an offense if a vendor selling goods on a public park fails to get permission from the director. Unless you qualify for one of the exceptions, such as selling non-commercial printed material. But the exception is described as a defense to prosecution. That only means that at trial you are entitled to put forth a defense. In other words, the violation has to be disproved.

"I think they still have an issue with the First Amendment," Parker adds. "It's pretty obvious they're just trying to get these guys gone. This is a real shit thing to do."

There is no question that the city has been troubled by the presence of the grassy knoll vendors for some time. City records obtained by the Observer show that as early as 1993 the Downtown Improvement District, headed then by David Biegler, organized a meeting with city officials on what to do about "the influx of unauthorized vendors" at Dealey Plaza.

In spring 1994, Paul Dyer, director of Dallas Park and Recreation Department, contacted Sixth Floor Museum executive director West about the Dallas County Historical Foundation's interest in "enhancing concession promotions at Dealey Plaza."

"It would greatly benefit the city of Dallas to provide patrons with an authorized vendor to supply food and drink, memorabilia, and a neutral interpretation of information regarding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy," Dyer wrote in a letter to West.

This May the Dallas County Historical Foundation submitted a draft of a management agreement to the Park Department. Under it, the city would agree to retain the services of the foundation as exclusive manager and agent for the plaza with responsibilities for managing, operating, vending, leasing, and servicing duties relating to the plaza.

A few weeks later, a Park Department supervisor wrote Pounders seeking his assistance in obtaining city ordinances and city permit information concerning commercial activities on the Dealey Plaza.

"This park site reflects poorly on the city of Dallas as it is constantly barraged with vendors and so-called historians who conduct commercial sales of newspapers, magazines, videotapes, and perform on-site tours, all in relation to the John F. Kennedy assassination," the supervisor wrote. "These vendors have been using the First Amendment as their 'permission' to conduct these activities on Park/City property at this location."

Pounders says he thinks the Park Department is within its authority to license vendors in Dealey Plaza. "You don't want unlimited vendors. It looks junky and impedes pedestrians," Pounders says.

Although the Park Department is still exploring the issue, it maintains that all the vendors operating in the plaza are unauthorized and therefore operating unlawfully, according to assistant park director Mendez, whose east region has jurisdiction over Dealey Plaza.

"If these vendors were really interested in doing the right thing," says Mendez, "they would put in a request for proposal to get a license."

That the Park Department isn't even sure they can license the newspaper and magazine vendors doesn't seem to concern him.

"The issue is how can Dallas put its best foot forward on a national landmark," says Mendez. "At some point in time we will also have to give consideration to the quality of products sold. Over the years, we have gotten complaints from visitors about the gruesomeness of the material. But who decides quality--that's a kettle of fish."

The Park Department is presently considering turning the whole matter over to the Dallas County Historical Society's Sixth Floor Museum. If the department approves the Sixth Floor's contract to manage Dealey Plaza vendors, people fear that they will present a sanitized view of the assassination--which may be exactly what the city wants.

The Park Department already has received several letters from citizens concerned about the plaza's management being turned over to the Sixth Floor. "I believe the plaza should remain a totally open and free area for congregation, dissemination of information, and the selling of ideas and merchandise of any nature, and that you should do whatever is within your power to ensure that it remains so," wrote Pennsylvania resident Theodore Torbich Jr. in a letter he sent last June to Dallas City Council members.

Dyer addressed Torbich's concerns about the Sixth Floor's pending management contract. "Our purpose is not to restrict any freedoms; rather it is to be in compliance with regulations that protect the facilities and history of Dealey Plaza."

Kizzia is also concerned about what turning over Dealey Plaza to the Sixth Floor would mean for a balanced representation of the controversial issues surrounding the murder of JFK. "I don't think the Sixth Floor provides a balanced viewpoint," says Kizzia. "A substantial part of the exhibit space is devoted to the official view, which is the Warren Commission view. If they gave a balanced view, the vendors wouldn't feel such a need to be there."

Jeff West has heard all the criticisms before and denies that the museum supports one particular theory over another about the assassination. "I think we piss off as many people on both ends of the spectrum," he says.

As for the museum's interest in controlling the plaza, he says, "It is not our intent to remove the vendors from the plaza at all, and it never has been. It is part of our mission statement to maintain the plaza. It is a way to give tourists the historical validity and accuracy of the plaza."

Mark Oakes is a little embarrassed to be considered a street vendor, especially one who has been ticketed by police.

A former quality control engineer at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, he prefers to be called a JFK assassination historian/researcher, which is what is printed on his business cards.

For the last decade, the 47-year-old Oakes has been locating witnesses to JFK's murder and interviewing them on videotape. Some of them had never told their stories before. For example, he has an interview with a former Dallas deputy sheriff who says his late partner discovered a bullet in the grass after the murder, but the FBI never entered it into evidence.

Oakes was also the first person to get Patty Paschall to tell her story. From an open window in the old Dallas County courthouse overlooking Dealey Plaza, Paschall shot a four-minute film of the motorcade before and after Kennedy was shot. The film captures what appears to be smoke on the grassy knoll and some movement behind the stockyard fence atop the knoll. Paschall told Oakes during the interview that she thought at least some of the shots were fired from the knoll.

The interviews are contained in three separate videos that Oakes has been selling for the last several years on the grassy knoll, as well as through The Conspiracy Museum several blocks away and at the JFK Lancer Bookstore in Grand Prairie.

"I tell people what my work is about is capturing the history of their community," says Oakes. "I believe that, or I couldn't look at myself in the mirror in the mornings."

Oakes was still in St. Louis when he made these videos, but was interested in moving to Dallas. He desperately wanted to convince Patty Paschall to let him see a first edition of her film that had never been shown to the public. So he quit his job, put his seven-year engagement on hold, and moved here, hoping to support himself by selling his videotapes. For several months, he was doing a brisk business. But Paschall hadn't yet let him see the film, and he was getting homesick. He told her he was moving back, and she finally relented.

Oakes has been here ever since. His fiancee dumped him as he set out to help Paschall promote and eventually sell her film. But before they could find a serious buyer, Paschall and Oakes had a falling out. Oakes was left with little alternative but to try to support himself again by hawking his videotapes on Dealey Plaza. But this time it was a tough go, so seven months ago he got a job in a telephone company collections department. He sets up shop on the plaza only on weekends now, but he worries that soon he won't have that option either.

He was ticketed for vending without a license on June 19. If he paid the ticket right away, it would have cost him $150, but since he plans to fight it--his court date is scheduled for November 17--the penalty jumps to $225 if he loses. He plans to represent himself because he can't afford an attorney.

Oakes says he called City Hall seeking information about licensing before he ever moved here. "I talked to seven people before I finally got to a person who knew what they were doing," says Oakes. "I asked how would I go about getting a permit to sell historical documents in Dealey Plaza. The person said that the only permits were for food vendors and all the available permits were taken. I asked him how the people who sell books to tourists get away with it. He said, 'If no one complains, they probably won't do anything about it.'"

Not long after Oakes moved here, he says, someone from the Park Department confronted him at his stand and told him he wasn't allowed to sell videos. The other vendors, the Park Department staffer told him, were selling printed materials, which was permissible.

From that point on, Oakes thought he could get around the ordinance by selling customers photocopied pages of historical documents--the FBI report that verifies that Paschall had submitted her film to the bureau, for instance--and giving the videos away.

The policeman who ticketed him apparently didn't go for the ruse. "No reasonable person would spend $20 for a package of Xeroxed material, thus I'm issuing a citation," police officer C. Amadon wrote on the ticket.

When Oakes read in the Morning News that the Sixth Floor was negotiating a management contract with the city, he was convinced it was behind the ticketing. "I would bet my life on it. They want to rid the plaza of the conspiracy theorists. I think part of it is legitimate. There are a lot of idiots out there who fight constantly--or at least they were until six or eight months ago. It's been a lot more civilized lately."

Oakes thinks that another motive might be "to stop Robert Groden." Of all the people out there, he clearly is the most reputable and respected member of the assassination research community and certainly the most well known. He is even on the advisory committee to the Sixth Floor. Two of the three videotapes he sells include all the available film footage and photos taken of the assassination, including the frame-by-frame enhancement of the Zapruder film, which suggests that the shots fired at Kennedy were fired too quickly to have come from Oswald's gun.

"One of the most common complaints I hear from tourists after they've toured the Sixth Floor is that they didn't get to see anything," says Oakes. "The only film they show is half the Zapruder film [it stops before the fatal head shot]--that's it. You can't have the word getting around that Groden is selling a video that shows 100 films for $29. Doesn't that look bad?"

The way Groden sees it, it doesn't matter who is trying to get rid of the vendors on Dealey Plaza. The fact is, once the Sixth Floor takes control of the park, the vendors will be gone.

"The problem is the Sixth Floor is the presence the city wants down there," says Groden. "They claim they are neutral, but they strongly imply Oswald was the lone assassin--the official fiction. I've been supportive of them and their erroneous point of view. They've promised for years to carry my books and videotapes. But they will not carry anything I do."

Groden is tired of the ticketing, the harassment, and especially of the Sixth Floor. "They left everyone alone before Groden tried making a little bit of money," he says. "It makes me extremely angry. There will be no credible voice to present an alternative to the official fiction. I'll say this now. What it comes down to is I have 34 years into this. If anyone has a right to be down there expressing their point of view, it's me. Whether it's political or financial, someone doesn't want us down there.

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