Vince Salandria: The JFK Conspiracy Theorist

Fifty years ago Arlen Specter and the Warren Commission told America that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the assassination of JFL. Vince Salandria has spent a lifetime trying to debunk that conclusion. Shortly before his death, did Specter hint that Salandria just might be right?

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.