Witness to History

Hugh Aynesworth Has Spent His Career Debunking JFK Conspiracy Theories

Hugh Aynesworth was present when President Kennedy was shot, when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, and when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. He has spent his life debunking assassination theories.

11.22.13 10:45 AM ET

Hugh Aynesworth has the strange distinction of being the only person present at the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the apprehension of Lee Harvey Oswald by Dallas police at the Texas Theater, and the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby two days later.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Aynesworth was a 32-year-old reporter for the Dallas Morning News. His beat was science and aviation, and he had no assignment that day. So on his lunch hour he wandered over to Dealey Plaza to see if he could see the presidential motorcade. When gunshots rattled across the plaza, Aynesworth went to work, interviewing bystanders and trying, like everyone else, to figure out what had just happened. He stayed close to a motorcycle cop and listened in on the police radio broadcasts. Hearing that a policeman had been shot and assuming that it might have something to do with the assassination, he headed off to hunt down that crime scene, winding up at the movie theater where he witnessed the police arrest Oswald. On Sunday morning, he got to the city jail shortly before Ruby shot Oswald.

In his latest book, November 22, 1963: Witness to History, Aynesworth vividly recreates that chaotic weekend and its ever more baroque outcome, and he does it so well that we forget we’ve been through this a thousand times. Not many of the 40,000 books published about the assassination can be called indispensable. This one can.

That weekend in 1963 irrevocably changed Aynesworth’s life. He would go on to become a Newsweek bureau chief and write books about serial killers, but after 1963, the assassination became the story to which he would return again and again. He has spent, by his own reckoning, almost half his career tracking down and debunking conspiracy theories.

Aynesworth’s legwork has led him to one conclusion. As he writes in his book, “Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and Jack Ruby was in no way connected with him. Moreover, and contrary to what you have heard or read or believe, there is nothing anywhere—no assertion, no alleged proof—that conclusively indicates otherwise.”

He goes on: “I have never disputed the possibility of a conspiracy, or conspiracies, behind the Kennedy assassination. Do not doubt that’s a story I would love to break. However the proof of such a plot continues to elude us. Like it or not, that leaves us with the record as it stands.”

The Daily Beast caught up with Aynesworth, who still lives in Dallas, by phone this week.

What percentage of your life have you spent chasing down conspiracy theories and rumors about the Kennedy administration?

God, I’m afraid to say, but I’d have to guess 30 to 40 percent. Far too much.

And in all that time, you never came across any conspiracies theories that you thought were valid?

Really, I have not. I’ve seen all kinds of mistakes made by officials, and I’ve seen all kinds of really weird claims that were nothing more than imagination. I did worry a little bit at first about how Oswald got back from the Soviet Union so easily and who paid for it.  And after a few days, maybe two weeks, I found out he didn’t get out very easily. He had to go to Moscow several times. He wrote many, many letters trying to get out. And his brother, Robert, paid $600 of his fare back, and the American Red Cross paid the rest. So then I wasn’t too leery of the whole deal. But all these others, my God, you wouldn’t believe—five people have told me they killed the president.

No kidding?

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Really. One was in a mental institution at the time, and another claimed his dad did it, and it just goes on. There’s a guy in prison in Illinois who says he did it. He was in prison then. It’s just amazing. We love a mystery, don’t we?

Do you have a favorite conspiracy?

I don’t really, no. You know, I say honestly about these conspiracy people, some of their own husbands and wives wouldn’t pick ‘em up at the airport. But they come up with a conspiracy theory and suddenly they are somebody. They get on television, they get in the newspaper. I’ve seen it so many times. And of course you look at our society today—every week or so you see somebody that wants to be somebody, and they kill somebody, they maim somebody, they bomb somebody. And our society’s like that, everybody’s a wannabe. Not everybody, but many losers who can’t make it otherwise, I guess.

Somebody actually came to you on Saturday, Nov. 23,  with a conspiracy theory explaining the assassination?

No, that Friday! As I came home that night, he was sitting on the steps. He thought that H.L. Hunt and some of the big companies there had been involved. He showed me a bunch of crap that was just ridiculous, and all crumpled up. He’d obviously been carrying it around for a long time. And I sent him to a friend of mine at the rival paper, the Times Herald. Because I told him I can’t do this, and he said, ‘Well, you obviously don’t know what you’re doing, I need someone more experienced.’ So I thought, OK, and I sent him to Bob Finley at the Times Herald.

Some friend you were.

Oh, we always played tricks on each other. That’s one thing I miss about journalism today. I think people are more serious and don’t get together as much. It isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be, I don’t think.

In the long run, was the Warren Commission a help, a hindrance, or some of both?

There were several mistakes made. One, Lyndon Johnson wanted it out, wanted to be sure that nobody thought there was a Russian threat before the [1964] election. So they hurried it out too fast. Second, he named old cronies of his to the Warren Commission, some of whom didn’t want to serve, so they’d only show up half the time. They didn’t want to be there. These old senators, and these old retired guys, like Allen Dulles, they’d put in their years, they’d been working 50 years for the government, they didn’t want to spend another full year hearing all this. And then they didn’t go into certain things. They found out things that I and certain other reporters had already broken in the dailies here. Like the fact that Marina [Oswald] said that Lee had once threatened to kill Richard Nixon. They had asked her, did he threaten any other public officials or anybody famous? She said no. So they were pretty pissed when I wrote the story, and they called her back. This happened on many cases. The big conspiracy guy at that time was Mark Lane. They gave him a free ride. They did not question him, or the ridiculous things he was telling them. They just didn’t do their homework on things like that. I accept 90 percent of what’s in the report, but a lot of them didn’t do a very good job for a lot of reasons. They should have taken some time. They should have been given some more time.

What made you want to write this book now?

I just wanted to get it all down. I thought there were some important things that people should know. And I thought readers would enjoy the people in the story and how they acted. There’s a lot of that in the book.

As I read the book, it dawned on me that there is a difference between believing in conspiracies and believing that there are still loose ends and unanswered questions.

Sure, there are questions over the single-bullet theory. Everybody thinks that John Connally was sitting directly in front of the president, and of course he wasn’t. He was on a lower seat and a little to the left. There are still many questions. If it happened today, wouldn’t it be wonderful, we’d have 500 cellphones taking pictures. There would no questions about anything.

It’s tempting to say that Oswald’s death, not Kennedy’s, inaugurated the era of conspiracy, because when Oswald died, the chance to find out what he knew died with him. But then there’s that guy waiting for you the very day Kennedy was shot, and two days before Oswald died. So maybe there was just something in the water.

There’s a nut group out there. You see it even today, on many things. There are people who think we didn’t go to the moon. There are people who think 9/11 was a conspiracy. But see, they become somebody when they write this stuff. And they gather their ilk.

Was there much of that in the culture before the Kennedy assassination?

That’s when it really started. We were just beginning to distrust government, and that grew in the ‘60s. And we had all the civil-rights problems. But I think it started at that time. At least I didn’t notice it before that.

Can you envision a time when there will be clarity on this subject?

No. No. Not at all. Because we don’t trust anything anymore. Look at our government today. It’s so wild. Accusations of all kinds. Everything of any import. And they’re still arguing about the Lincoln assassination! And there’s another factor, too. As long as people can make money, they’re going to keep it alive.

Has the conspiracy world changed over the last half century, or is it just variations on a theme?

Oh, it’s just variations. But some do make up more than others. Some have a better imagination. And whenever anything happens, they can connect it to the Kennedy assassination.

Are there things in your career that you’ve covered—or uncovered—that you’re particularly proud of?

Well, yes, I’ve spent hundreds of hours with serial killers. Ted Bundy, more than 125 hours interviewing him. And I’ve done a couple of books on that. Once I exposed the leading citizen of Dallas, the very top guy, as a crook who had stolen money. He had left the Navy with a lot of people’s money, changed his name and come to Dallas. He pulled a gun on me and threatened to kill me. I finally got him out, but he put a lot of pressure on me. The Henry Lee Lucas case, I broke that. There were several. I’ve been very fortunate, very lucky.

Do they still have presidential motorcades?

You know, I haven’t seen any in many years. Really haven’t.

Are you going down to Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22?

You know, I’m not sure. I would have to stand for so long, I’m not sure. I’m 82 years old, and I don’t feel like standing for a couple hours with nowhere to sit. I’m just not sure.