By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Byrd obviously took it on face value that he had the right one. He decorated the bottom half of the window with newspaper clippings of the assassination and postcard pictures of Kennedy, Dealey Plaza, and the book depository; then he had the whole thing framed.
He hung it in the banquet room of his Vassar Street mansion--later bought by oilman T. Boone Pickens--next to photos and mementos of his long, colorful career, which included co-founding the Civil Air Patrol, drilling numerous wildcat oil wells in East Texas, and funding the Antarctic explorations of his cousin, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who named an Antarctic mountain range after the Texas colonel.
Byrd held onto the former book depository building until 1970, when he auctioned it off to a Nashville music producer named Aubrey Mayhew. Mayhew was a Kennedy memorabilia collector who planned to turn the structure into a commercial museum commemorating Kennedy's life. Still reeling from the fallout of the assassination that branded Dallas as "The City of Hate" and placed the blame for Kennedy's murder on Dallas' hostile environment, local city fathers recoiled at the idea of a museum that would consecrate the town's darkest hour. They also found Mayhew's intention to profit off the tragedy distasteful.
Mayhew tried several times to get city permits to start building his museum, but he was repeatedly turned down. A group called Dallas Onward, formed to protest turning the building into a national Kennedy landmark, helped thwart Mayhew's efforts.
By 1973, Mayhew defaulted on his loan, and Byrd repurchased the building after the bank foreclosed on it. He immediately put it back up for sale, this time asking $1.2 million for it. At the time, he said, he hoped whoever purchased the site "would use the building in a way that would not be a slam on Dallas...that would not blame Dallas for having the right environment for causing Kennedy's death," according to a filmed interview with Byrd.
The city passed an ordinance preventing the building from being torn down. Several city leaders, including real-estate developer Ray Nasher, were conducting their own campaign to create a private, nonprofit museum and monument to Kennedy on the site.
In 1977, Dallas citizens voted to use bond money to purchase the building from Byrd. The first five floors were refurbished for Dallas County administrative offices.
But little did anyone know that before Aubrey Mayhew vacated the premises, he hired two carpenters to remove two windows from the southeast corner of the sixth floor and replace them with windows from the north side of the building. He says he sneaked off with the sniper's-perch window--"the ultimate piece of Kennedy memorabilia"--while no one noticed.
Or so he claims.
If there is anyone to blame for this predicament, perhaps you should look no further than Conover Hunt.
A museum consultant from Marshall, Hunt first got involved with converting the sixth floor into a museum in the early 1980s. Hunt immediately noticed the sniper's-perch window was missing.
The entire casement that contained the two windows on the southeast corner had been replaced with windows from the north side of the building. She wasn't sure she would ever get her hands on the real ones.
Then, in 1987, two men contacted her, both claiming to have possession of the sniper's perch window. Caruth Byrd called Hunt and told her he had inherited the window from his father, who had died the previous year. Caruth said he stashed it behind some drawers in his house on a sprawling ranch in Van, just east of Canton. Hunt says she asked Byrd to send her proof that he had it, but he wasn't forthcoming.
Still, Hunt says she was inclined to believe Caruth, because she knew several people, including Joe Dealey Sr., late publisher of The Dallas Morning News, who had seen the window hanging in Colonel Byrd's house.
Caruth Byrd eventually allowed Hunt to see the window, which he moved to a vault in Inwood Village. But he refused to donate it or loan it to the museum. The Sixth Floor Museum was still two years away from opening, and Byrd, echoing concerns his father had uttered years earlier, was afraid the museum would be tacky and an embarrassment to the city.
Not long after Byrd met with Hunt, Aubrey Mayhew sent Hunt a letter. He, too, said he had the window--both windows, in fact--from the sniper's perch, and he wanted $250,000 for them. Hunt says she asked Mayhew to send her a picture and measurements of the windows.
"He never did," says the whiskey-voiced Hunt. "I was naturally cautious. If someone wants to sell it, the least they can do is send a picture and the exact measurements."
Hunt explains that she never flew to Nashville to see Mayhew's windows because she couldn't justify the expense without first having some proof that Mayhew actually had the windows.
In 1994, Caruth Byrd suddenly changed his mind about burying the past and let the museum know he was willing to loan out the window. Hunt retrieved it from Byrd's ranch and analyzed it. She says the paint color matched the other windows along the southern wall, and the shape led her to believe it was one of the two corner windows that were missing.