Author says friendly fire killed JFK

February 23, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Staff Writer

It's a tale of two rifles.

It's a tale of three bullets.

It's a tale of a dead president, a still-grieving nation and a thousand unanswered questions.

But most of all it's a tale of a Towson man's obsession with finding the truth.

It's Howard Donahue's tale, contained in a soon-to-be published book titled "Mortal Error: The Shot that Killed JFK," by Bonar Menninger, which chronicles Mr. Donahue's long odyssey through the thickets of ballistic evidence, governmental obstructionism and what he views as media indifference.

The book embraces Mr. Donahue's conclusion that although Lee Harvey Oswald shot at and hit John F. Kennedy with a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, the fatal bullet that destroyed the president's skull came from another source.

Mr. Kennedy, Howard Donahue believes, was killed by friendly fire.

And in the book, he names the friend who fired, a Secret Service agent who was in the follow car in the Dallas motorcade and rose heroically to return fire on the assassin but instead accidentally triggered a round in the wrong direction.

This belief, needless to say, has invited immediate scorn. It puts Mr. Donahue at odds with both groups that have claimed proprietorship of the assassination.

David W. Belin, the former Warren Commission counsel who has emerged in recent years as the commission's most vocal defender, was quick to attack Mr. Donahue's thesis.

"The theory is, like all the others, just wrong. If you look at therecord as a whole, it's clear that Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president, just as we concluded."

The U.S. Secret Service and the two Kennedy aides in the car have denied that a rifle was fired. Bob Snow, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said, "If I used the word 'ridiculous,' that would be the mildest thing I could say. I haven't seen the book, but know the general thesis."

He would not give out any information on the agent in question or his service or whereabouts, citing employee confidentiality.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, Larry Howard, director of the JFK Assassination Center and a firearms consultant on the film "JFK," called the idea "absolutely ridiculous." He claims the president was hit by at least three riflemen and the killing shot came from the grassy knoll.

But Howard Donahue, 69, can only smile: At least people are paying him some attention, when for years he has toiled in obscurity.

A former World War II bomber pilot with 35 missions under his belt and 19 combat decorations on his chest, he graduated from the University of Maryland in 1949 and for many years was a pharmaceutical salesman before pursuing his true avocation, firearms. A dedicated hunter and firearms tinkerer, he operated a Towson gun shop for 12 years. In 1981, he closed the shop and has since earned his living as a firearms examiner, investigating gun accidents and testifying in court.

He has been pursuing his investigation since 1967, when he took part in tests with a Carcano rifle at the H. P. White Ballistics Laboratory near Bel Air. In that testing, filmed by CBS, he actually fired three times and hit three head shots on a moving target in less than the 5.6 seconds that most people take as the minimum time Oswald could have fired. But knowing how hard it was, he doubted Oswald, a mediocre shot, could have pulled it off.

Since then, Mr. Donahue has continued to amass information in support of his theory -- or to destroy it. "I'm the only firearms expert who's ever investigated this," he says. "Everyone else is either a lawyer or an engineer or just an amateur."

An early version of his theory was published in 1977 in The Sun Magazine, to minor local acclaim but no national interest. He's been routinely dismissed by, among others, the House Select Assassination Committee of 1978, "60 Minutes" and the Kennedy assassination community. But with the determination of the bomber pilot he once was, he has at last succeeded in bringing his ideas to a mass audience.

His 15 minutes are here. His day in court has arrived.

"If I profit from the book," he says with characteristic directness, "it's only after I tried to give it away. I didn't get a cent from [The Sun in 1977] and I've been talking at colleges and talk shows for next to nothing. I tried to appear at the House Select Committee on Assassination in 1978 and was fluffed off, ignored. I was naive enough to think the government was really interested in what happened. Dopey me."

Approaches to other authors and Kennedy assassination "experts" went nowhere, until Bonar Menninger, a Washington reporter who now lives in Kansas City, Mo., heard of Mr. Donahue from a friend and gave him a call.

Mr. Menninger is a former reporter with the Kansas City Business Journal and the Washington Business Journal.

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