Howard C. H. Donahue, 77, ballistics expert, studied Kennedy's death

December 21, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Howard Charles Hinman Donahue, a retired gunsmith and nationally known ballistics expert who concluded that a Secret Service agent fired the bullet that killed President John F. Kennedy, died Thursday of complications of pneumonia at his Towson home. He was 77.

Mr. Donahue first came to national attention in 1967 when CBS television investigated the Warren Commission report and had several gunning experts test-fire the same make and model of the Mannlicher-Carcano Italian rifle that was used by Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot at Mr. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

FOR THE RECORD - Two rifles were misidentified in a photograph caption appearing with an obituary for ballistics expert Howard C. H. Donahue in yesterday's Maryland section. On the right in the photograph, Donahue held an AR-15 rifle and, on the left, a Mannlicher-Carcano Italian rifle, the type used by Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President John F. Kennedy.
The Sun regrets the error.

Under nearly identical conditions, Mr. Donahue became the only man on record to re-create the three shots that occurred within the much-debated 6.5 seconds captured on the famed Zapruder film.

"Did Oswald get off a third shot? If he did, it could have gone wild, and the sound of it could have blended with the sound of the shot [fired] accidentally by a Secret Service man from the following car," Mr. Donahue told The Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1977 interview.

While agreeing with the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone, Mr. Donahue said that an examination of the medical, ballistic and other evidence pointed to a bullet from the agent's AR-15 rifle that blew the president's skull apart.

"It is a ballistically unshakable fact that the fatal shot came from a position behind and to the left of the president. Since 1969, I have been unable to turn up evidence that shakes any part of my conclusion," he told the magazine.

Despite criticism from assassination buffs, Mr. Donahue was unwavering, repeating his findings to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977 and holding to them to his death.

In 1992, his analysis was included in journalist Bonar Menninger's "Mortal Error: The Shot that Killed JFK," published by St. Martin's Press.

According to his daughter, Colleen Donahue Lorenzen of Riderwood, Mr. Donahue was working on a related book at his death.

"He had discovered a TV tape in a German archive that showed the assassination from a different angle as well as a Secret Service agent standing up in a car," said Mrs. Lorenzen.

Born in Malone, N.Y., Mr. Donahue moved to Towson in the early 1930s. A neighbor who hunted and fished got him interested in firearms.

After graduating from Towson High School, Mr. Donahue attended the University of Maryland, College Park, leaving in 1943 to enlist in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was a pilot assigned to the 91st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force in Bassingbourne, England.

He flew 35 combat missions without being injured. On one mission, he safely returned a plane and crew after the pilot was seriously injured by a piece of flak.

Mr. Donahue's decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, seven Air Medals and six battle stars.

After the war, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in 1950 and worked as a salesman for several years before he established Donahue's Gun Specialties in the Dulaney Valley Shopping Center in Towson in 1969.

He closed the business in 1985 but continued working as a ballistics expert and firearms examiner.

Mr. Donahue also was an adviser for special effects and gun handling for Baltimore filmmaker John Waters' productions of "Pink Flamingos" in 1973 and "Desperate Living" in 1985.

He also researched and prepared reports on the forensic aspects of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the possibility of a bullet hole in the baby's head for a British Broadcasting Co. television special that was aired in 1978.

In an unaired segment in 1981, he demonstrated for ABC television how the AK-47, an assault rifle, was used to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat.

In 1949, Mr. Donahue married Catherine Ann Wood, who died this year.

He was a communicant of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., where services will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow in the chapel.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Donahue is survived by a brother, Douglas Donahue of New Holland, Pa.; a sister, Elayne Hendrickson of Towson; and two grandsons.

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