THREE YEARS AGO, Vince Salandria got a phone call from Arlen Specter, a man he didn’t know. Salandria had been in the Senator’s company only once before, but that was almost a half-century earlier, at a public event. When he called, Specter wasn’t running for anything—he had recently been voted out of office. All he had was a simple request of Salandria, who was 83 years old, a retired Philadelphia school-system lawyer: Would you have lunch with me? They eventually met at the Oyster House, on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. The lunch would turn out to be one of strangest meetings of Salandria’s life.
Vince is a man of high energy; he’s still doing pro bono lawyering in labor relations for the city’s schools. He’s small—all of 137 pounds—with a large balding head that narrows toward his jaw. He has an impish smile, and it would be easy to call him cute. But he isn’t, by nature, impish or cute—Vince is intense. And that was especially true when, as a young man, he attended an event held in Arlen Specter’s honor.
In October 1964, the Philadelphia Bar Association invited Specter, then a young prosecutor in the D.A.’s office, to speak about his work as an investigator for the Warren Commission, which had been formed to come up with a definitive answer to who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Specter was assigned to figure out the basic logistics of the shooting: how many shots, how many gunmen, where did the bullets come from? The commission’s report had just come out, declaring Lee Harvey Oswald the lone killer, and the bar association had Specter address about 150 people one evening in a City Hall courtroom. Afterward, he asked if there were any questions.
Vince Salandria—who in 1964 was a history teacher at Bartram High School in Southwest Philly—stood up that night in City Hall and said he had some questions. Though really, his questions were more like statements. He said that Specter’s analysis—specifically, that a bullet had gone through the President’s neck and into Texas Governor John Connally in front of him, where it penetrated his back, smashed his right wrist, wounded his thigh, and then ended up on a gurney in a Dallas hospital in pristine condition—was a fabrication. An impossibility. An absurdity. A concoction that amounted to fraud.
Vince stood up and said that to Arlen Specter, back in 1964, before anyone else had. How could Specter come to a conclusion that was so clearly and patently wrong?
Specter was taken aback, though he remained calm. Things did get a bit testy when Vince said the commission owed it to the public to reenact “the performance of Oswald” with a rifle on moving targets; Arlen Specter wondered whether Vince would have them kill a man in order to perform a ballistics test. Vince ignored the joke; he didn’t find murder funny. Dummies, he said to Arlen Specter. Dummies could be used.
Some lawyers came up to Vince Salandria when it was over and told him he should write up his critique, that it might be important. If that bullet didn’t do what Specter said it did—travel through the President and then take a circuitous route in Connally—there had to be a second gunman, and the assassination was then a conspiracy. Which would make the Warren Commission’s lone-gunman conclusion utterly wrong.
Vince went home that night and wrote his analysis, and the first detailed critique of Specter’s Magic Bullet Theory appeared in Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer two weeks later.
That was just the beginning. Vince quickly became part of a small, loose collective of Warren Commission debunkers. He wrote more articles and shared his thinking with fellow researchers; Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney portrayed in Oliver Stone’s JFK, asked Vince to edit one of his books. Vince is front and center in Calvin Trillin’s 1967 New Yorker portrayal of conspiracy researchers. He made speeches. And if anything, his conclusion—what he surmised almost immediately when the President was murdered—has only grown firmer over the years: Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA and the U.S. military, not Lee Harvey Oswald.
Specter, meanwhile, went on to become … Arlen Specter. The bulldog senator who brought us the infamous battles over Robert Bork and Anita Hill. Specter never seemed to shy away from a good fight, and throughout his 30-year reign in the Senate, the Magic Bullet Theory followed him everywhere. It became theater at every public event and campaign stop where Specter fielded questions, the Senator pantomiming the movement of Commission Exhibit 399 through the President’s neck, out his tie knot in front and so forth. The questions never abated; his response was always the same: one gunman.
Specter would realize early on that he could thwart a lot of public animosity by asking a Magic Bullet skeptic if he had actually read the Warren Commission Report. Almost always, the answer was no.
But Vince Salandria had read it. He read the entire report—all 888 pages—within a couple of weeks of it coming out. So he was ready for Arlen Specter at the meeting in City Hall back in 1964.
The two men had never discussed that night when Vince accused Specter of fraud—they had never even had a conversation before Specter called Vince out of the blue to ask him to lunch. They met in January 2012 at the Oyster House, one year after Specter’s five terms in the Senate were over. Later that year, Specter would be hit by a third round of cancer. By that October, he was dead.
At their lunch, Arlen Specter had a question for Vince Salandria.
ON NEW YEAR’S EVE 1963, Specter got a call from a Yale Law School classmate, Harold Willens. Willens, a Warren Commission staff member, was searching for lawyers to work on the investigation. Already known as a tough prosecutor in Philadelphia, Specter had caught the attention of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy when he sent local Teamster boss Raymond Cohen to jail. It didn’t take Specter long to say yes to Willens, and from that moment forward he was working for the American government, seeking not just the answer to who killed the President, but also for a way to assure the American people that what had happened in Dallas wasn’t a harbinger of the Cold War getting out of control, that the world order hadn’t suddenly gone haywire.
Vince Salandria’s take on the assassination—and his mission—was quite different. But JFK’s killing would become central to his life, perhaps just as much as it was to Arlen Specter’s.
When the President was killed, Salandria was sure of something immediately: If Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t make it through that weekend alive, it meant the U.S. government was complicit in the President’s murder.
Like the rest of the nation, Vince watched on TV as Jack Ruby shot Oswald that Sunday. “I realized then that we didn’t have a democracy, we didn’t have a republican form of government anymore,” Vince says now, 50 years after the fact. “I knew that no innocent government would have permitted Oswald to be killed. Because if he was in fact guilty, they would want the world to know about him, and he would be convicted with due process, and we would show off our democratic justice system. So I realized that … our government did it. At the very highest level.
“I realized that it was dreadful for the nation, and dreadful for me, because I felt that somehow or other I was fixated on it and would have to investigate it. Would I live through this?”
Vince Salandria was a busy man in 1963. He was 35, married, with a young adopted son, and teaching history at Bartram; he was also a Penn-trained lawyer who did legal work on the side. But Vince had a problem. He landed almost immediately, he says, on why he believed President Kennedy was murdered: The military wanted him rubbed out because he had started getting friendly with Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev after the two leaders’ flirtation with holocaust, and because Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam; both those things, from the military’s point of view, would be bad for business. So the CIA killed the President at the military’s behest.
Vince wasn’t so bold, though, as to think his investigation would lead anywhere. If his theory was true, he was fighting very powerful forces. And the Warren Commission’s conclusion that the assassination was the work of Oswald—and only Oswald—made the sledding that much tougher for Vince; in 1964, the American public tended to trust that big-name Washington commissions could find, and then would be willing to reveal, the truth.
Vince didn’t believe that, though, and he couldn’t stop himself. He had graduated from Penn Phi Beta Kappa in three years, then stayed to get that law degree at age 23, but he’s fond of pointing out that he comes from Italian peasant stock—his father emigrated from a Southern Italian village by himself at age 13—and that his conspiracy claims stem first from intuition and then from a review of the facts, which he insists in this case aren’t very complicated. As to why he’s so driven in the way he’s driven, that seems innate.
“I was born with an almost underdog complex,” he explains. “I identified with the underdog from the beginning.”
Vince grew up in a South Philly rowhouse across from St. Agnes Hospital, one of eight children. His job as a boy was to deliver clothes uptown for his father, who was a tailor. One day, when he was 13, Vince was cutting through the ghetto and came upon two white cops savagely beating a black man. Blood poured from the man, and the cops kept right on beating him.
“That shocked me,” Vince says. “Power can’t treat human beings like this.”
At the same age—in 1941—Vince would go to school one day in December and regale his math class with the real meaning of what had just happened in the Pacific: The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was orchestrated by the American government, he told his classmates. It was President Roosevelt’s way of drawing a reluctant nation into war. That’s the way Vince thought at 13.
It’s quite easy, in fact, to imagine him lecturing his young classmates about the nature of American power, because now, at 85—at the other end of his life—the passion and sureness still flare. There’s no doubting Vince’s sincerity, nor his rage: The President’s assassination scared him, he says, “and it angered me. Angered me! I was furious!”
So off he would go, to Dallas in the summer of 1964—even before the confrontation with Arlen Specter in City Hall—to see what he could learn.
Specter, meanwhile, was hard at work with the Warren Commission, upon which there was enormous pressure. President Johnson had played on the fear of a highly nervous time in wooing high-level Washington figures to join the investigation. Commission head Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, shared Johnson’s message with his staff: Conspiracy theories involving Russia, Cuba, the military-industrial complex, and even Johnson himself were already in play; if they were believed to be true, the President warned, the Kennedy assassination could lead America into a nuclear war that could kill 40 million people.
Lee Harvey Oswald panning out as a lone assassin would, of course, solve those problems. Earl Warren, even as he warned his commissioners that they weren’t advocates, that their conclusions would be based on wherever the evidence took them, had another directive: Make it snappy. The commission was under serious time and budget constraints. Warren would sit in on some testimony Arlen Specter would take from key witnesses, and he had an annoying habit: The Chief Justice would loudly tap his fingers, his signal to Specter to stop asking questions, to be done with it.
THE DEEPER HE DELVED into the assassination, Vince Salandria says, the more strange things began to happen to him.
In the summer of 1965, Vince made his second trip to Dallas, this time with Shirley Martin, a fellow assassination researcher who lived in Hominy, Oklahoma. He picked her up in his 1955 Buick one night, and the trip would immediately give them a harrowing sense that they weren’t traveling alone.
As they were leaving Hominy, with Shirley at the wheel, a local cop stopped them and wondered where they were going. On a trip, Shirley said.
“Watch your speed,” the officer told her. “Watch where you’re going.”
They drove all night, making it to Dealey Plaza in Dallas at about 6:30 the next morning. As they walked around the site of the assassination, a big man with a beard, wearing sandals, probably in his mid-50s, came out of a building and approached them.
“How’s Mark Lane?” he said to Vince. Lane, who would become well-known for his assassination research, had already written a few magazine pieces questioning the Warren Commission. Salandria and Lane had exchanged information.
Vince didn’t answer the man.
“Do you know what this is?” the man said, gesturing to the buildings around them. “It’s a WPA project. Tell Mark Lane to put in his next article that President Kennedy, a socialist president, was killed in a socialist plaza.”
The man moved off, leaving Vince with no idea how he’d known who Vince was.
Shirley and Vince next went to see Michael and Ruth Paine, a couple who had befriended Oswald in 1963. Michael Paine didn’t know Vince—and didn’t, Vince says, know he was coming with Shirley, who had set up the visit—but Paine immediately said to him, “Why don’t you continue your work in civil liberties and civil rights?” Vince had been a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU for a number of years. “Why are you doing this?”
Vince and Shirley drove to Fort Worth to see Marguerite Oswald, Lee’s mother.
“She made it quite clear,” Vince says, “that her son was a CIA agent—she was quite proud of it.” She said that she went to Washington after Lee had supposedly defected to Russia, visited the State Department, and they gave her the red-carpet treatment.
So Vince learned something important, but mostly what he took from this foray to Dallas was a message from, he believed, his government. “I got a thorough understanding of how impotent I was and how much in control they were,” he says.
Arlen Specter made his own trips to Dallas, to ask questions of a different sort.
Darrell Tomlinson was the senior engineer at Parkland Memorial Hospital who allegedly found on a stretcher the bullet that, Specter would argue, had hit the President and then Governor Connally—the Magic Bullet. But Tomlinson became a difficult witness when Specter questioned him under oath, saying he really wasn’t sure he’d found the bullet on Connally’s stretcher. After much back-and-forth over gurneys, Specter pressed:
SPECTER. Now, before I started to ask you questions under oath … I told you, did I not, that the Secret Service man wrote a report where he said that the bullet was found on the stretcher which you took off of the elevator—I called that to your attention, didn’t I?
TOMLINSON. Yes; you told me that.
SPECTER. Now, after I tell you that, does that have any effect on refreshing your recollection of what you told the Secret Service man?
TOMLINSON. No it really doesn’t—it really doesn’t.
A moment later:
TOMLINSON. I don’t remember telling him definitely—I know we talked about it, and I told him that it could have been. Now, he might have drawed his own conclusion on that.
Specter pressed a bit more, and got this response:
TOMLINSON. I’m going to tell you all I can, and I’m not going to tell you something I can’t lay down and sleep at night with either.
Nevertheless, that bullet, the commission concluded, was found on Connally’s stretcher.
Specter certainly won some points. He got Malcolm Perry, the Parkland Hospital doctor who cut into President Kennedy’s throat wound for a tracheotomy, to say that the wound could have been caused by an exiting bullet; it was crucial to Specter’s thesis that a bullet entering from behind Kennedy had come out his throat. Before Specter questioned him, Perry had already said publicly that the injury was an entrance wound, and years later he would regret his testimony to the commission, because he had no doubt: Kennedy had been shot from the front.
Specter was even accused by one witness of making outright threats. Jean Hill was sure she heard between four and six shots in Dealey Plaza, meaning there had to be more than one gunman. Specter, Hill wrote in a 1992 book with Bill Sloan about the experience, told her before he took her testimony that he knew all about her; Specter accused Hill of engaging in a “shabby extramarital affair” and said that unless she cooperated, she would be “very, very sorry.” She wrote that Specter threatened to make her seem as crazy as Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey’s mother. Hill’s testimony as released by the Warren Commission, which she claimed was inaccurate, is a study in ambiguity.
All this proves nothing one way or another, but Specter’s aggression is certainly quite … familiar. His Warren Commission work is an early glimpse—Specter was 33 when President Kennedy was shot—of the relentless prosecutor who would emerge onto a national stage three decades later in those Robert Bork and Anita Hill hearings.
Vince Salandria, though, sees Specter’s work for the Warren Commission as quite simple and clear: There was one intent, to prove that one loony gunman did it. To build a case. And Arlen Specter was brilliant at building cases.
GAETON FONZI, a writer for this magazine in the ’60s, had read Vince’s critique of Arlen Specter’s single-bullet theory in the Legal Intelligencer at the end of 1964. He thought he might write a short piece “about this crazy Salandria guy,” he later said. Fonzi, like most people in 1964, believed an official government report provided us with the truth.
Fonzi and another Philadelphia staff writer, Bernard McCormick, met up with Vince in a Wildwood motel room in 1966—the writers were working on a light piece about the Shore, and Vince was happy to make the trek down. McCormick remembers the meeting well (Fonzi died in 2012): “Vince was small and gaunt, and incredibly intense. He looked like a madman. I remember he kept saying, ‘Boys, don’t you see it? Don’t you see it?’ And within 45 minutes, just based on the physical evidence, he had convinced us the Warren Commission was bullshit.”
Vince would later have something else for them: a complete set of the Warren Commission report, all 26 volumes. Fonzi got hooked. Salandria would prep him for two long interviews with Arlen Specter the next year about the commission’s work; Specter’s evasiveness and inability to explain inconsistencies in the findings are chilling. (A recording of those interviews can be heard, here.)
The Warren Commission, for example, didn’t examine the Kennedy autopsy X-rays and photographs—supposedly in deference to the Kennedy family. That was crucial evidence, and Fonzi went right after Specter over not having seen it. From Fonzi’s Philadelphia story, published in August 1966:
“Did I ask to see the X-rays and photographs?” he [Specter] said, putting his head down, rubbing his chin and pausing for a long period to phrase his answer. “Aaaaah … that question was considered by me,” he finally said, “and … aaah … the commission decided not to press for the X-rays and photographs.”
He looked up. “Have I dodged your question? … Yes, I’ve dodged your question.”
He got up and paced behind his desk. Finally, he said quietly, “I don’t want to dodge your questions.”
Specter said that he had wanted to see the autopsy photographs and X-rays, but that “the commission reached the conclusion that it was not necessary.”
Fonzi asked Specter if he considered resigning over that.
“Absolutely not,” Specter said. “I would say absolutely not.”
But Fonzi would go on to dig deeper, talking to other commission staffers, and found out “that Specter was actually in tears when his argument [to see that evidence] was rejected.”
Fonzi left Specter’s office after those interviews with an entirely different level of trust in the U.S. government. But his devastating piece on Specter speaks, once again, to the acute pressure the commission felt—pressure that fell on Specter in particular.
Meanwhile, through the ’60s, Vince Salandria kept at it. His home, then on Delancey Street, was something of a meeting place among conspiracy theorists: Mark Lane, Fonzi, anti-war activist Dave Dellinger. Benjamin Spock showed up one night. Norman Mailer sent Vince a note on behalf of another researcher, requesting that Vince hear him out. Marie Fonzi, Gaeton’s widow, can still remember Vince at the center of it all: “He was like Sophocles,” she says, in the way he could make a case that not getting to the bottom of the assassination spelled doom for all of us.
Yet there was a cost to Vince. He left his true calling, teaching, in 1967, because his fellow teachers at Bartram High School stopped talking to him; they couldn’t abide his conspiracy theories, which Vince shared openly and constantly with his students. The administration wasn’t the problem—Vince was shunned by his colleagues. So off he went, into administrative work.
Vince began to feel his safety was at risk—he had doubled his life insurance before taking his mid-’60s trips to Dallas. He would eventually learn the FBI created a file on him. The most daunting warning came, as Vince would tell a writer chronicling conspiracy theorists, after a panel discussion with Yale professor Jacob Cohen, who supported the Warren Commission, in Boston in 1966.
Late that night, there was a knock on Vince’s hotel door. It was Cohen. “I feel horrible,” he told Vince. “I feel like a crumb. Debating the assassination is horrible.”
Vince told him that all he wanted was for the case to break. “We need to become more American,” he said. “We need to stop trying to act like a police state and go back to some of our original virtues, like skepticism of government and power. I can’t live in a police state—not Russian, Cuban or American.”
“It’s not a question of whether you want to live in a police state,” Cohen said. “You’ll have to be killed.”
This idea didn’t sound, to Vince, like an intellectual exercise. It sounded like Cohen was telling him something.
But in a curious way, it was a warning that reassured him. “If the government wants to kill you,” Vince says now, “they don’t tell you about it. You’re dead.”
Vince also says Cohen, who now teaches at Brandeis and didn’t respond to requests for comment, told him something else—that Arlen Specter had said to him, “What am I going to do about Vince Salandria?”
ON JANUARY 4, 2012, Vince Salandria and Arlen Specter met at the Oyster House for lunch. It was scheduled for noon, but Specter got there first and was seated; Vince came in and waited in front. Finally, after 40 minutes or so, Arlen Specter came out and found him.
They sat down. There was no one sitting near them. Specter was smiling and pleasant.
He had contacted Vince out of a random connection through mutual friends. Specter got Vince’s number and made the call, asking him if he’d have lunch.
But it was Vince who started talking, and kept talking. Specter listened.
Vince told Specter that he wanted him to know that if he had been assigned to work for the Warren Commission, as Arlen had been, and understood what he did now, that he, too, would have taken the assignment. He thought that Specter had a job to do as a lawyer.
Specter didn’t respond.
Vince said that not to do the work of the Warren Commission would have invited domestic disorder, and perhaps a dictatorship. The generals would have killed Vince, he told Specter, as quickly as Stalin would have. Specter probably saved his life.
Specter was quiet. His demeanor remained pleasant.
Vince explained what he hadn’t realized back in 1964: that the American people weren’t prepared to accept that military intelligence had assassinated the President in a coup. Vince added that his wife, a bright and rational woman, didn’t support his obsession with the assassination.
Vince told Specter his rationale for the assassination—he had read correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev and concluded they were very fond of each other and were seeking to end the Cold War. The assassins wanted to continue the Cold War and to escalate the war in Vietnam. Vince told Specter he believed Kennedy was killed by the CIA with the approval of the military.
Specter took this in without comment.
Vince told him that he understood it was a conspiracy when Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, and that no guilty government would tell us the truth about an institutional killing of the President.
Vince went on in this vein a bit longer, explaining more of his insights about the assassination. Specter asked him—the first time he had said anything in some time—whether Vince spoke frequently to Mark Lane. Vince said no, he didn’t.
Then Specter asked Vince what he remembered about their 1964 confrontation at the bar association event in Specter’s honor. Vince told him he had attended with his copy of the Warren Report. Specter
wondered how long the report had been available—he thought it had been out only one week. Vince thought it was a couple of weeks. Specter seemed impressed with
how quickly Vince had digested the report.
Then Specter said: “You charged me then, at that meeting, with fraud.”
That was true. As Vince laid out his case in his first article, the Warren Commission’s work was speculation conforming to none of the evidence, without the slightest credibility, with errors in logic and contrary to the laws of physics and geometry. He was charging Specter with corruption. Of perpetrating a fraud.
And now, at lunch, Arlen Specter had a request. “Instead of calling me corrupt,” he said, “can you change it to incompetent?”
Almost a half-century had passed since the Warren Commission’s work had been made public; almost a half-century since the event at City Hall at which Vince Salandria stood up and asked his pointed questions. During that time, Arlen Specter was forever being asked about the Warren Report and the Magic Bullet. He was laughed at over his theory. Oliver Stone made a movie in which Specter was mocked, and the running joke in the Specter household was that his epitaph would lead with the Magic Bullet.
He had lived with the assassination, and his role in solving it, forever. And he hadn’t stopped living with it, upholding his responsibility to explain. Arlen Specter, those close to him say, believed in that responsibility. He told friends he was looking forward to 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination, because it was an opportunity to speak about solving the murder of the President yet again, to engage the issue once more. Specter, they say, hadn’t backed off one inch.
Vince Salandria, too, had lived with the assassination for a long time, and he, too, had paid a steep price. He says now that teaching is far and away his most important life’s work, his true calling, yet he taught at Bartram High for only eight years before his conspiracy theories made him an outlier among his fellow teachers. He’d end up spending three decades as a school-system lawyer. He did well. It was work he believed in. But it wasn’t the same as teaching.
Long ago, Vince Salandria said: “No matter what comes of this work”—the assassination research he and fellow obsessives kept plugging away at—“we have involved ourselves in the worthiest cause of our lives.”
He says he still believes that. “Until we really come to grips with the true meaning of the assassination—i.e., the coup, by military intelligence services of the country—civil liberties are necessarily restricted,” he says. “Every president since Kennedy knows what happened to him and why. Therefore, every president knows he’s circumscribed in terms of what he can do and who he can oppose and how much he opposes them.”
When Arlen Specter asked Vince Salandria to change his opinion of him from corrupt to incompetent, Vince told him that he couldn’t change it. He told Arlen Specter he knew from the public record that the Senator was quite competent then—in 1964—and that he was, at all times, competent. He had never considered Specter incompetent. And he wasn’t incompetent now.
Specter had no reaction to that, just as he hadn’t reacted to anything else Vince said.
Perhaps Specter, in asking Salandria to change his opinion, was admitting that the Warren Commission got it wrong, that the Magic Bullet and a lone gunman really don’t wash. Or perhaps it was simpler than that, a moment between two men who had lived with the same profound event for so long, who played such important and different roles in our understanding of what happened and, well … did Vince’s opinion have to be so harsh? Perhaps, in other words, it was merely a personal moment. Whatever he was up to, Arlen Specter certainly opened the door a crack to yet another debate about what he really believed.
He would ask Vince another question: Do you think the Warren Commission was a setup? That is, did Vince think Earl Warren was told that Lee Harvey Oswald had to be their man before there was any investigation at all?
Yes, Vince said.
Arlen Specter had no reaction to that, either, and remained pleasant to the end, even though, Vince is sure, he’d arranged lunch in order to hear one thing: that Vince could come to a new opinion about Specter’s work for the Warren Commission. Whatever personal redemption Specter may have been seeking, he left without it.
Though he didn’t leave empty-handed. On the way out of the Oyster House, Vince handed Specter a copy of James Douglass’s book JFK and the Unspeakable, published in 2008. The book is dedicated to Vince and another conspiracy theorist. Vince told Specter it was the best work ever written on the assassination.
First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.