Libel suit filed over JFK shooting theory Former agent assails book's claim that he fired the fatal shot

August 22, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Time to bring back those memories of the Dealey Plaza motorcade. Rent a copy of "JFK." Re-read the Warren Commission Report. And get ready to rekindle the never-ending conspiracy theories surrounding the death of President John F. Kennedy.

Only this time, one of those theories will be played out in federal court in Baltimore, where a former U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to protect the president on the day of his death nearly 33 years ago is suing for libel.

A little-known book called "Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK" claims that the agent from Cecil County slipped and accidentally pulled the trigger of his high-powered AR-15 rifle, striking Kennedy in the head on Nov. 22, 1963.

It's a theory -- first advanced by a Towson ballistics expert -- that just won't go away.

"We're trying to stop this now while Hickey's still alive," said Mark S. Zaid, an attorney for former agent George W. Hickey Jr., now 73. "He doesn't want his grandchildren growing up and hearing other children say, 'Hey, your grandfather killed the president of the United States.' "

Hickey is seeking unspecified damages from St. Martin's Press in Manhattan. He also wants an apology, preferably printed in full-page ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post and The Sun, his lawyer said.

But it doesn't look like Hickey will see an apology any time soon.

"The case is utterly without merit," said David N. Kaye, chief attorney for St. Martin's.

Hickey's lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, says "Mortal Error" is simply false, and other Kennedy assassination experts agree. Published in 1992, the 350-page book recounts the day of the assassination and focuses on the actions of Hickey.

Kennedy cleared the way for Hickey to be assigned to the president's personal protection detail in July 1963, four months before the slaying in Dallas. Hickey was 40 at the time.

Written by Missouri-based journalist Bonar Menninger, the book claims that when Hickey heard the first volley in Dealey Plaza that day, he pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle while standing in a trailing Cadillac outfitted for the Secret Service.

The first shot by Lee Harvey Oswald hit the pavement. The second -- the so-called "magic bullet" -- struck Kennedy in the neck. At that point, Hickey lost his balance in the Cadillac, "Mortal Error" claims, and he accidentally pulled the trigger, hitting the president in the head.

The lawsuit -- which does not name Menninger as a defendant -- says "Mortal Error" is "replete with false and misleading defamatory statements and innuendoes." The suit says the book libels Hickey by accusing him of a crime -- negligent homicide for shooting Kennedy -- and by claiming that the agent has participated in a deliberate cover-up for three decades.

The lawsuit quotes numerous passages from the book, calling them libelous and saying they were published with "reckless disregard" of the truth -- a legal standard lawyers must establish to prove a libel case.

"So Hickey reaches down and grabs the AR-15 off the floor, flips off the safety and stands up on the seat, preparing to return fire," one passage reads. "But his footing is precarious. The follow-up car hits the brakes or speeds up. Hickey begins to swing the gun around to draw a bead on Oswald, but he loses his balance. He begins to fall. And the barrel happens to be pointing toward Kennedy's head. And the gun happens to go off."

Hickey, who lives in Abingdon, declined through his lawyer to discuss the case. Menninger did not return a call to his home in Kansas City, Mo. But Howard Donahue, the ballistics expert responsible for the theory, said yesterday that he stands by it.

Donahue's theory was published in 1977, when The Sun ran a two-part magazine article. Hickey was not named in the article, but Donahue's theory was discussed in detail. To this day, he says there is plenty of supporting evidence.

Donahue -- who was not named as a defendant in the suit -- says the entrance wound in Kennedy's head was slanted from left to right, precluding a shot from the Texas School Book Depository where Oswald took aim. He says the wound was a quarter-inch wide, an indication that the bullet expanded upon impact, as would the high-velocity, thin-jacketed projectile fired by an AR-15.

Donahue's theory has been questioned many times before.

Last year, Donahue settled a lawsuit filed by Hickey in Baltimore County after he recounted his theory on a public television show of which then-Congressman Kweisi Mfume was the host. Donahue declined to disclose the details of the settlement, but he said yesterday that he admires Hickey's heroism.

"He showed a great deal of courage and nerve to stand up during an ambush and try to return fire," Donahue said.

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