The man on the phone speaks in conspiratorial tones. His name is Martin Barkley, a 40-something divorced father of two who has devoted so much of his life to a single purpose--proving that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository on November 22, 1963.
His research qualifications amount to having worked security for several large companies and spent time in Army intelligence. His personal link to the assassination was that his uncle was the longest-serving Dallas police officer when Kennedy was shot--and, of course, he whispered something conspiratorial at Thanksgiving dinner days after the assassination.
Barkley is a true believer, and he talks in elliptical phrases and vague pronouncements. On this day, he says he wants to share his theory that Dallas' powers-that-be are perverting the information presented in the Sixth Floor Museum, Oswald's alleged sniper's perch--and this city's biggest tourist attraction. Barkley argues that those in charge of the museum are toadies for the Warren Commission.
"The way to control an issue is to manage information on both sides so nothing gets out of control," he says, espousing a typically muddy slogan.
He says he will prove this all with a guided tour of the Sixth Floor, where he used to work as a security guard. Barkley was a seasonal hire two years ago and was laid off--ostensibly when tourist traffic slowed down, he explains. But he's convinced that he was, in fact, terminated because he answered visitors' probing conspiracy questions too honestly, too carefully, too knowledgeably. Of course, he can't prove it.
Barkley insists we meet late on a Sunday, when we would arouse the least amount of suspicion.
When he arrives that afternoon, he wears an overcoat over his tall frame and a fedora that doesn't obscure piercing blue eyes. Still, the disguise doesn't work: Two minutes after we step inside the building, security guards surround him and want to know why he's there.
"See what I mean," he whispers, as the guards escort us up in the elevator.
He reels off an enormous list of ways the museum subtly controls the mind of the visitor. He is suspicious of a sign that directs visitors to begin the tour with the panels and videos highlighting Kennedy's early years; Barkley believes the "flow" of the exhibit--which winds through Kennedy's all-too-brief presidency, his fateful visit to Texas, then the assassination--is intentionally misleading and exhausting.
"By the time the visitor gets to the end," Barkley insists, "he's too tired to read about conspiracies."
Barkley's rant is a fairly predictable and obvious one. Indeed, place a museum on the sixth floor of the old School Book Depository, and you're pretty much admitting you think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. It's not like the county opened a Grassy Knoll Museum.
Yet Barkley is not all hushed whispers and vague hypotheses.
Displayed halfway through the tour in the Sixth Floor Museum is one of the most famous windows in the world--the perch from which Oswald allegedly killed Kennedy with a cheap Italian mail-order rifle. Behind a thick wall of Plexiglass, the window has been exhibited here since 1995, and since then, more than a million visitors have scrutinized it, studied it, even venerated its tragic place in history.
The window, located in the southeast corner of the museum, sits only a few feet from where Oswald killed Kennedy--allegedly, of course. It bears the caption "The Original Window from the Sniper's Perch."
But is it?
Barkley believes the infamous perch that hangs in the museum is a fake...a fraud.
He may be right.
Just a cursory look at the window on display reveals that it differs significantly from pictures taken of the window moments after the assassination.
For instance, the window on display has a thick smudge of paint and putty on a pane of glass at its top half. But there is no such smudge on any pictures of the original sniper's perch. Also, old photos of the window--photos that are on display at the museum--show markings on the green wooden sash along the bottom portion of the window. The window encased in the Plexiglass exhibit has no such markings.
Of course, conspiracy theorists say they never believed it was the real window all along.
So here's one more riddle for the theorists to solve: If this isn't the real window, and it likely isn't, then where is it--and how did this impostor wind up enshrined in this museum? We're through the looking glass, as Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison drawled in JFK, where every answer spawns a dozen more questions.
"There is just no end to this," says Robert Groden, a prominent local conspiracy theorist who served as a photo analyst on the 1978 U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. "It's just mystery after mystery."
For more than two decades, the window--or what one man believed was the famous sniper's perch window--hung like a trophy, or a deer's head, in the banquet room of one of the wealthiest men in Dallas.
Col. D. Harold Byrd kept it in his University Park home as a souvenir, a tragic keepsake he ordered removed from the building on Elm and Houston streets that he owned and leased to the Texas School Book Depository. Byrd kept it there until his death in 1986, at which time it fell into the hands of his son Caruth--who, the story goes, kept the window out of public view for almost a decade.
Caruth Byrd wanted to keep the window buried, forgotten about. He rejected enormous financial offers from those who collect such morbid artifacts, and refused the requests from those who wanted to place the window in a Dallas museum commemorating the assassination--fearing the museum would be an embarrassment to the city. He preferred to keep hidden this reminder of Dallas' shame...until one day, in 1994, he had a change of heart and turned the window over to the Sixth Floor Museum.
On February 21, 1995--President's Day--more than 100 elected officials, members of the Dallas County Historical Foundation, and assassination eyewitnesses gathered at the Sixth Floor Museum for the window's dramatic unveiling.
"I thought and thought about what to do with it," the garrulous, barrel-chested Byrd told the assembled crowd during the unveiling ceremonies. "I've had offers for a lot of money for it, but I decided the best thing to do was bring it home where it belongs."
The window has remained on display here ever since, an authentic piece of history that offers its own special peek into a tragic day in this city's history.
At least, that's what half a million visitors a year believe.
There are those who doubt Byrd's tale--those who have photographic evidence right in the museum that proves the window on display is not the real sniper's perch, those who have spent months studying the discrepancies.
And there is at least one man who claims to own the window itself.
First, there is Barkley and his band of conspiracy theorists, including James Bagby, another former security guard at the museum. After overhearing some museum visitors question the authenticity of the window last March, Bagby studied the window for himself. He first noticed that the one-inch thick, salmon-colored smudge of paint and putty on the display window isn't apparent on an old picture of the real window.
The smudge, which is on what would have been the outside of the glass, matches the color of the wooden trim on the outside of the window. A note on the exhibit points out that the "paint on the exterior trim is original to the time of the assassination."
After studying pictures of the real window taken the day of the assassination, Bagby also noticed the distinct markings on the wooden sash along the bottom of the window that do not appear on the window on exhibit.
Bagby first brought these discrepancies to the attention of museum archivist Gary Mack eight months ago.
"'What you've discovered is quite important,'" Bagby says Mack told him. "'But I wouldn't be telling anyone about this.'"
Jeff West, executive director of the Sixth Floor, and Mack now admit they have questions about the authenticity of the window--no, make that doubts.
"We have concerns," West says. "It definitely bears scrutiny."
"It's a corner window," Mack adds. "Whether it's the window where shots were fired, we're not sure."
What makes all this speculation significantly more intriguing is that Conover Hunt, the museum consultant who helped put the Sixth Floor Museum together, knew from the beginning that there was someone else out there who claimed to own the real window.
His name is Aubrey Mayhew, a music producer from Nashville who may be the one person who can repair this jagged puzzle--or bust the whole thing into a million pieces.
The tale of the sniper's perch is not only a whodunit, but a whogotit. And with any mystery, perhaps it's easier to begin at the beginning, during those moments just as the echo of gunfire began fading in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, and Dallas police ran inside the brick building at the corner of Elm and Houston.
They were directed there by witnesses who thought they saw what appeared to be the barrel of a rifle jutting out of a half-opened window on the sixth floor of the building, which housed the Texas School Book Depository, one of two textbook distribution sites for the state.
On the cavernous sixth floor, filled with stacks of book-filled boxes, police said they found three shell casings in front of the open window in the southeastern-most corner of the building. They also claimed to find a rifle, which Oswald was said to have bought through mail order, stashed under boxes diagonally across from the window.
Until the end of the 1960s, the Texas School Book Depository Company remained in the building, which was owned by Col. D. Harold Byrd. Byrd was an oil millionaire and husband of Mattie Caruth, whose family once owned most of the land from downtown Dallas to Park Lane. The Caruth family, after whom Caruth Haven Road is named, donated all the land for Southern Methodist University and leased the land for NorthPark Mall.
Afraid that curiosity seekers would carve off pieces of the sniper's-nest window, Byrd instructed his employee, Buddy McCool, to remove the window six weeks after the assassination, according to interviews with McCool and Byrd filmed in the early 1970s.
Whether McCool removed the right window is the question at the heart of this mystery.
The location of the sixth-floor sniper's perch is among the most infamous points of interest in the whole world. Yet it's conceivable that six weeks after the assassination, Byrd's lackey could have been confused about its exact location. There is no one alive who can verify which window McCool took out that day.
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.
"And the provenance--the history of ownership--was excellent," she says. She admits she did not compare Byrd's window with pictures of the original.
Although the window on display touts it as "The Original Window from the Sniper's Perch," leading visitors to believe it was the window through which Oswald allegedly shot Kennedy, Hunt also admits that she was never certain of that. "There were two windows missing, so there was a 50-50 shot that this was the one through which the gunman fired."
Now that questions are being raised about the window's authenticity, Hunt defends herself by claiming that both windows are historically significant--even though there's a good chance the museum isn't advertising the truth.
"Until you have both windows together and have them professionally examined, you won't have an answer," she insists. "The fact that people are studying the window, examining the evidence, is healthy. These things happen all the time in my business."
It's now early November 1997, just weeks before the 34th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, and Caruth Byrd has no idea the Sixth Floor Museum has any concerns about the window he loaned them.
A Confederate flag and a flag of John Wayne fly over his 150-acre ranch in Van, the Caruth Byrd Wildlife Compound. A large man with white hair and bulging blue eyes, Byrd divides his time between his private wild kingdom, where more than 3,000 exotic and endangered animals roam, and his Hollywood home next to Gene Autry, where Byrd produces movies and TV specials.
"Watch out for the kangaroo shit," he warns as we approach the front porch of his house, which resembles a huge dude-ranch lodge. He and the kangaroo, he explains, shared a morning doughnut on the porch.
A self-professed mortician, veterinarian, gourmet cook, and "the best organ player in the world," Byrd is a hard man to characterize, at once grandiose and earthy. He describes himself as a man "who was born with a silver spoon up my ass," but who despises the phony airs of the Dallas rich. His main residence on his compound, where he lives alone, is covered with hundreds of pictures of him with such Hollywood notables as Burt Reynolds and Lee Majors.
Among the photos lining the walls is a picture of him donating the window to the Sixth Floor Museum. Byrd launches into the story about how his father ordered an employee to remove it, and he rolls a videotaped interview with the worker that confirms his story.
Byrd says he decided to loan the window to the Sixth Floor after he got a call from The Smithsonian Institute, asking him to donate it to the Washington museum. "I decided if it went anywhere, it should stay in Dallas," Byrd says of his decision.
He has no doubts that his window is the real sniper's perch, and he is shocked to learn that the people running the Sixth Floor now have questions about its authenticity.
The name Aubrey Mayhew makes Byrd bristle. "He's a nut who tried to buy the building from my dad," Byrd says. "If he says he has the window, then where in the hell is it? He can't produce one."
Mayhew is the equivalent of the sniper's-perch second gunman, the man who may or may not hold the answer to the mystery of the missing window. But if he does possess the proof, making him produce it may be impossible.
Mayhew is a bitter fellow who believes a cabal of powerful Dallasites conspired to take away from him the building that houses the Sixth Floor Museum. Mayhew claims he lost everything in pursuit of creating a Kennedy museum here--his livelihood, his wife and two children--and he blames Dallas for those losses.
So it's not surprising that when finally reached in Nashville, Mayhew almost explodes when asked about the authenticity of the window on display in Dallas.
"Of course it's not the real window!" he bellowed over the phone. "I've been telling you people this for 30 years. I'm really a low-profile, non-publicity guy. All I can tell you is that Mr. Caruth Byrd is an idiot, and his father is an idiot and a thief."
Mayhew went on to insist that he still has the real window in storage in Detroit. When asked why he never showed it to the people at the Sixth Floor when they asked, he shot back: "I don't have anything to prove."
A 70-year-old music publisher who once worked with jazz great Charlie Parker and produced and co-wrote songs with outlaw country singer Johnny Paycheck ("Take This Job and Shove It"), Mayhew said over the phone that he was planning to come to Dallas the following week to see some of the songwriters with whom he still works. It was just a coincidence, he said, that it would be the day before the 34th anniversary of Kennedy's death, and he promised to call when he got to town.
He phoned a few days later and agreed to meet, but warned he might not have much to say. Three hours into a meal of coffee and apple pie at the Grand Hotel, he was still talking.
A short man in a windbreaker, Mayhew says he is "neither rich nor crazy." He explains that he was a coin and metal collector in the early 1960s when he became fascinated with all the metal objects that were created with Kennedy's likeness after his death. He produced a book on the subject, then went on to collect all manner of Kennedy memorabilia. It's a hobby he likens to a disease.
He was in search of more memorabilia when he came to Dallas in 1970 and attended an auction of 20 parcels of D. Harold Byrd's real estate, including the building leased to the Texas School Book Depository. He wasn't even a registered bidder, he says, but wound up offering $650,000 for the property. He claims he beat out two other bidders, including an entrepreneur who was going to raze the building and sell it off at a dollar a brick.
"It was just a piece of real estate everyone wanted to forget," Mayhew says.
Mayhew explains he wasn't sure what he was going to do with the building--or how he was going to pay for it. At the time, he says, he was making $100,000 yearly working for a music company. He eventually seized on the idea of turning the building into a "first-rate museum."
Shortly after he bought the building, the Texas School Book Depository moved out. But not before one of their employees gave him an affidavit, he says, confirming that D. Harold Byrd had instructed a workman to remove a window from the Sixth Floor. But "he went to the wrong side of the building," Mayhew claims, "and took it from the southwestern corner."
Afraid that a vacant building was more susceptible to vandals, Mayhew says he hired two carpenters to remove the two windows and the surrounding casement that comprised the sniper's nest and replace them with identical windows from the building's north side. Mayhew says he stored the original windows in Dallas for 20 years.
Mayhew insists that several wealthy Dallasites, whom he refuses to name, initially backed his plans for a museum. He quit his job to work on it full-time, spending weeks on end in Dallas and living in the building, where he began housing assassination artifacts. He claims to have spent more than $10,000 on architectural renderings of the proposed museum.
But the city hated his idea. The Dallas Times Herald, he says, ran a full-page cartoon lampooning his idea with a caricature of a museum showing a neon arrow pointing up to the sixth floor sniper's perch. Esquire magazine chided his plans in its annual Dubious Achievement Award issue, asking who was going to get the JFK chicken franchise.
Mayhew says that while the local campaign against him raged, he was also fending off an attempt by the state's Commission to Commemorate JFK to get the Texas Legislature to seize the building from him. Meanwhile, Mayhew recalls that city planners repeatedly rebuffed his attempts to get building permits, once claiming that the building's wooden interior was not fit for refurbishing.
His backers eventually pulled out, and he was hard-pressed to find new ones. He was falling behind on his $6,000-a-month payments, but he claims that the president of Republic National Bank was going to give him an extension. He says he vowed to fight foreclosure on the grounds that the building was his homestead.
"I had no income, a building producing no revenue that was costing me $6,000 a month, and all I ever received was constant blows from the city and state," Mayhew says. "The pressure was mounting."
In the summer of 1972, a small fire broke out in the building. The police charged one of Mayhew's employees, Winfred Anderson, with arson. Anderson pleaded guilty and received probation; he also implicated Mayhew as the person who was behind the fire--which Mayhew vehemently denies. The police, Mayhew insists, let him know that they would arrest him if he set foot in Dallas County again.
Not only does Mayhew profess his innocence, he claims he was framed in a convoluted plot to keep him away from Dallas so he would lose the building. Two weeks after the fire was set, the bank foreclosed on the building, which D. Harold Byrd promptly re-purchased. The city, Mayhew says, confiscated Mayhew's memorabilia left inside the building.
Mayhew says he went back to Nashville a broken man. His wife left him and took his two children to live in New York. He still nursed his idea of building a museum: A year or two later, he hooked up with Gerald Jay Steinberg, a Washington, D.C.-area dentist who claimed to have the largest Kennedy collection in the world. Together they opened an antique store in Georgetown, while they set about cataloging their combined collection for future display. On weekends, Mayhew says, he commuted by bus to New York to try and patch up his marriage--to no avail.
Mayhew's relationship with the dentist soured after just five months. Both men accuse each other of stealing a chunk of their respective collections. Steinberg says that Mayhew claimed to have the sixth-floor window back then, but Steinberg says he never saw it.
Mayhew went back to Nashville to begin rebuilding his music career. He also says he opened a small but classy JFK museum that was eventually burglarized. In 1987, "in a moment of weakness," Mayhew says, he wrote to Conover Hunt, who was organizing the Sixth Floor Museum.
"I told her I had the window and wanted $250,000 for it," Mayhew says. "I just wanted to recoup just some of the money I felt this city owed me."
He is asked why, then, he didn't send Hunt the pictures and dimensions she requested.
Mayhew claims it wasn't that simple. He says Hunt didn't respond to his letter for some time, and that when she first contacted him, she really didn't seem interested. He felt she was just blowing him off.
And maybe she had good reason. After all, he never offered one bit of proof that he has the windows. If there's any reason at all not to dismiss Mayhew, it's the simple fact that the window on display on the Sixth Floor is not the real deal. Maybe, just maybe, Mayhew's telling the truth.
"We know there are two windows, and you've proven that one's not it," he says. "So you take it from there."
For the last decade, Mayhew has had no contact with the Sixth Floor Museum. Then, several months ago, he says he received a letter from the museum's archivist, Gary Mack, a former Dallas television station announcer and JFK researcher--and one of those who isn't sure anymore that the window on display is so authentic. Mayhew says Mack told him he was interested in his collection.
"He said things had changed, and he understood the difficulties I had in the past," Mayhew says. "He said he wanted to come to Nashville and see my collection and that maybe we could join forces."
Mayhew says he eventually responded to Mack's letter, writing that perhaps they would meet if the museum had indeed changed. Mayhew says he wants the museum to acknowledge that he once owned the building: A plaque on the outside of the building only mentions Byrd. He also wants the museum's historical information to mention him and acknowledge that he saved the building from being destroyed. Mayhew believes that had the other bidders gotten the building instead of him, they would have torn it down.
At the bottom of the letter, Mayhew added: "P.S. In case we do join forces, I get the chicken franchise"--a reference to the Esquire Dubious Achievement Award 25 years earlier. Mack never responded to Mayhew's letter.
Marian Ann Montgomery's title at the Sixth Floor Museum is--no kidding--director of interpretation. All that means is that she's the museum's chief curator, but it's still a creepy job description to put on one's resume. Maybe the conspiracy theorists are right; maybe we're not paranoid enough.
As visitors stream into the Sixth Floor Museum, looking at the window they assume is real, Montgomery must now consider that someone has interpreted this relic all wrong.
"Well, obviously there's some difference between the window and pictures of it," Montgomery says. "We're in the process, as museums always are, of checking to see if we need to change the caption."
This included Montgomery phoning Caruth Byrd a few days ago and asking him some pointed questions about the window that once hung in his father's house. Montgomery asked Byrd if he had any explanation for why there were no marks on the bottom of the window.
"Hell, maybe my father had it cleaned up," Byrd says he told her.
During our conversation, I mentioned to him that another concern was that smudge of paint and putty that appears on his window, but is not on the window photographed after the assassination.
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"Maybe my dad broke the glass and it was repaired," he offers this time.
Byrd is clearly agitated by this line of inquiry. "Hell, if they don't want it at the museum, I'll take it back," he barks. "I'll sell it to someone. I'll sell it to Michael Jackson."
Montgomery also contacted Mayhew by phone. Montgomery says that Mayhew had "some relations with the museum that were less than friendly before. We have to rebuild that relationship before we can get close to him."
She told him she was coming to Nashville and wanted to see his collection and his window. He told her she couldn't come.
"They just want to use me," Mayhew says. "They don't have anything I want."
But this man from Tennessee might well have something the Sixth Floor folks want--them, and the millions who only think they've seen, and seen through, a little bit of history.