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?

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?”