By Jim Schultz - The Dallas Observer
Every weekend at Dealey Plaza, Robert Groden sells books and CDs based on the House Select Committee's finding that JFK was shot from the grassy knoll. Photo by Mark Graham
And they say Dallas has no focal point, no Central Park or Trafalgar Square. On this bright jewel of a Saturday in early April 2011, Dealey Plaza at the western entrance to downtown is the city's beating heart.
In a makeshift outdoor store at the far end of the pergola, Kennedy assassination author and conspiracist Robert Groden, who worked on the staff of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 and still owns a copy of the famous Zapruder film.
The city of Dallas has engaged in cyclical campaigns of law enforcement aimed at making Groden get out of Dealey Plaza. Groden says he has been ticketed 81 times and jailed twice in 12 years.
"Every single time, without exception, the judges have thrown it out of court," he says.
The most recent arrest and jailing, last June, resulted in a full-blown trial with legal briefs and arguments, after which a municipal judge—a city of Dallas employee—threw out the city's case against Groden, ruling he broke no law by selling his wares in Dealey Plaza. After that, Groden filed a federal civil rights suit against the city.
"I think until my generation passes on," City Manager Mary Suhm says, "we will always get that pain." She compares it to the effect Vietnam memorials have on those who were alive during the war, versus those born since. "I think it's a very similar thing," she says.
But then Dallas also is known for being easily embarrassed. That was clearly the case in March of last year when singer Erykah Badu stripped naked in Dealey Plaza for a music video. Responding to city council outrage, Dallas police, who had not witnessed the act, charged her retroactively with disorderly conduct. It was in fact after the Badu Dealey Plaza nakedness crisis that police began cracking down on Groden, which he sees as part of a larger conspiracy to crack down on all of the vendors in Dealey Plaza, including a sun-burned handful who wander the grass selling souvenir assassination newspapers from canvas shoulder bags. Groden says the city hopes to take him out, because he's "the most respectable" of the vendors in Dealey Plaza—an author and known expert, not just a guy with a shoulder bag.
"If they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone," Groden told Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer news blog, after his arrest a year ago. Dallas Deputy Police Chief Vince Golbeck gave credence to Groden's conspiracy theory when he told Unfair Park that the shoulder-bag vendors (but not Groden) were cursing and spitting on tourists, which Golbeck said was "not the image we want portrayed."
But if the shoulder-bag vendors were an image problem for the police, why did they arrest Groden? At 65, a bit heavier and rounder at the shoulder than he was in his bearded '60s days, Groden looks every bit the venerable author he is. His books include High Treason, a New York Times nonfiction best seller in 1992; The Killing of a President, published in 1993 by Viking with a foreword by Oliver Stone; and The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald in 1995.
Groden is difficult to shrug off when he talks about his work and a chapter many Americans have forgotten or never knew. People who know about the Kennedy assassination may also know of the Warren Commission, a special investigative body convened a week after the assassination. It sat for a year and issued an 888-page report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, acting alone, not as part of a conspiracy.
Groden sits before the picket fence on the grassy knoll, operating a kind of outdoor JFK conspiracy store. Photo by Mark Graham
But how many people remember the select committee report? The United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, convened 14 years later, found the Warren Report in error and issued a report saying Kennedy's death was the result of concerted actions by multiple conspirators.
Groden, now 65, served as photographic consultant to the select committee. Over the years he has had more to do than any other individual with bringing to the public eye one of the select committee's more important pieces of evidence—the full-length color 8 millimeter Zapruder film.
The late Abraham Zapruder, then a 58-year-old owner of a dress company, ignored the chaos around him when shots rang out on that awful day. He kept his famous spring-wound Model 414 PD Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series camera zoomed in tight on the death car for the entire ride down Elm Street. The existence and importance of the film were discovered within half an hour of President Kennedy's shooting. Zapruder's company was on an upper floor of the Dal-Tex Building a block east on Elm Street.
On that day in 1963, Zapruder stated: "I got film. I saw it hit him in head. They were going so fast. 1st shot he (illegible) over and grabbed. 2nd two shots hit him in head. It opened up. Couldn't be alive. She was beside him. After last shot she crawled over back of car."
Three words scrawled on that page are the reason for everything—why almost a half-century after the crime Groden still sits at a table at the end of the pergola on the grassy knoll selling wares that include gross autopsy photos of Kennedy's exploded head. The words are why the canvas shoulder-bag guys still sell newspapers, why National Geographic is here on a brilliant Saturday morning re-enacting the Zapruder film frame by frame by frame and why Dallas still can't fight its way out of a conspiratorial wet paper bag. The three words were: "It opened up."
Kennedy's head opened up. In horrifying detail the Zapruder film shows Kennedy's head exploding as he is hurled backward in the famous 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible limousine, as if shot from the grassy knoll ahead of the car, not hurled forward as if shot from the sixth-floor sniper's nest window behind the car.
According to Groden the bullet that blew up Kennedy's head was a fourth shot, not fired by Oswald but fired by someone a few feet from where he sits today on the Grassy Knoll. On this Saturday a fluctuating crowd of half a dozen to two dozen tourists gather at his table, some chatting quietly with him while he autographs DVDs and copies of a magazine titled JFK: the case for conspiracy, which spells out what he says is the evidence to be found in the Zapruder film.
Groden's speech bears traces of his upbringing in a nice part of Queens, New York. On the day John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Groden was at home celebrating his 18th birthday by playing hooky from Forest Hills High School, where Simon and Garfunkel had attended a few years ahead of him. His sister, Susan, also at home that day, rushed into the room and shouted that the president had been shot in Dallas. For the next three days Groden remained mesmerized, glued to the tube following every moment of the grim live coverage of Kennedy's death, then Oswald's murder by Jack Ruby. Groden remembers those days as the point when his own life became deeply and personally bonded to the life of JFK. "Since it was my birthday, there was this weird strange connection of sorts at some weird level. When the president's death was announced it was as if the world had switched the lights off. "We watched, and we watched, and we watched. I had no idea how it would affect my whole life. I started saving and collecting everything I could on the assassination."
Before the assassination, Groden was already compulsively fascinated with what he calls "questions of history, unsolved crimes, things of that nature." There was the story of Jack the Ripper, an unidentified serial killer in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888, or the brutal unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947 in a case dubbed "The Black Dahlia murder" by the press. But from November 22, 1963, to today, exposing Kennedy's real killers has been the single and consuming purpose of Groden's life.
In 1967 just after the eternal flame and other architectural features of the JFK grave site were completed in Arlington National Cemetery, Groden, then 21 and just back from a tour in Germany as a GI, stood for hours in a snaking line at Arlington to gain his own private moment before the sepulcher.
"I made a promise to President Kennedy at his graveside that day that I would do everything in my power to try to find the truth, no matter how long it took and no matter what it cost me. And I have kept my word to him."
And speaking of weird connections: After Groden's military service he returned to New York City where he became a technician in a motion picture processing lab that offered special expertise in blowing up 8 millimeter home movie film to 35 millimeter suitable for theatrical distribution. In 1969 Groden says the company did a massive job for the makers of the film Woodstock, which came out in 1970. Because of that work, he says the company won a bid to do the same kind of blow-up of the Zapruder film for LIFE magazine, which had acquired a copy. Groden worked on the Zapruder project.
"And let's just say," Groden just says with a sly nod, "an extra copy was made."
He kept it. But he says he sat on his "extra" copy for four years. "The Zapruder film, when you see it, you realize the president was shot from the front, the exact opposite of what the Warren Commission was trying to tell everybody. I realized that what I knew was potentially extremely dangerous to myself and anyone else I may have shown it to. So I kept very quiet about it from 1969 to 1973."
There was also the fact that the film did not belong to him. LIFE had paid Zapruder for the rights. Groden's copy was unauthorized. He says now he kept a copy and held it secretly for years in the interest of history.
Convinced that LIFE was going to sit on the film forever, Groden says he presented it in 1973 to a national symposium of Kennedy assassination researchers at Georgetown University. It was, he claims, the first time anyone outside the Warren Commission saw the full film. In a description that still feels just barely inappropriate for the subject matter even these many years later, Groden says, "It was the incredible high point of the entire symposium."
But if Zapruder was the hit of the symposium, Groden was the star, and his star kept rising in the coming years. In 1978 he was called to Washington to consult with the House Select Committee on Assassinations. By the late 1980s he was the premier technical consultant for investigative documentary films about JFK, doing work for Oliver Stone on his feature film JFK, shot in Dallas with Kevin Costner and released in 1991.
During those years Groden lived with his wife, whom he married in 1968, in a small town near Philadelphia. He returned alone to Dallas in 1995, leaving his wife and four children at home in the East. Groden speaks warmly of his wife and describes their long-distance separation as painful. He says he ekes out a modest living selling his wares at Dealey Plaza.
But he hints of darker reasons for his decision to return to Dallas: "Within a very short period of time a lot of people here in the Dallas area who were working on my side of the case started to die. We lost about a dozen of them in about 18 months.
"The other side was winning by default. They had the Sixth Floor Museum that was lying to everybody who walked in the door, and still does. My wife and I felt there needed to be a voice of reason here."
Enter the final conspirator — The Sixth Floor Museum.
Opening in 1989, the Kennedy assassination museum is on the sixth floor of what is now the Dallas County Administration Building. Soon after its initial launch, author and Dallas native Lawrence Wright told The Independent, a British newspaper: "Dallas has struggled clumsily and slowly to heal itself. Before the museum opened, people had nowhere to unload their feelings. Going to The Sixth Floor was a cathartic moment for me and I'm sure it's the same for others. It's a form of worship, really."
The museum is now a mainstay of city tourism, attracting more than 325,000 paying visitors a year, according to its website. It maintains a busy bookstore and curio shop on the first floor of the Administration Building which refuses to sell any books which even suggest the possibility of a conspiracy.
And then you have what the city has done to Groden. In the past the police ticketed him repeatedly, and then the city prosecutors failed to succeed in prosecuting any of the tickets. But last summer they hit harder. On June 13 Dallas police hauled Groden to a patrol car waiting at the curb in Dealey Plaza.
"I was thrown in the back of a police car very unceremoniously with handcuffs," he says. "I was forced to sit on the handcuffs even though I had damaged my wrists severely in a car accident some years ago."
For a soft-spoken author in his mid-60s with health problems, it was rough. He wound up spending nine hours in the county jail, even though his lawyer raced to the jail and posted his bond immediately.
Of course, getting tossed in jail is important to anybody, because it's getting tossed in jail. When Groden got out, he struck back. He went to municipal court to fight the tickets, and he filed a federal lawsuit for damages from the city, arguing that the city was violating his civil rights with its endless campaign of police harassment.
He says the civil suit—"on hold" while his attorneys attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate with the city—is now "back on."
In his brief in Groden's defense on the tickets, lawyer Bradley Kizzia painted the city's actions against his client as brutally absurd. First, he argued, the city had charged Groden with selling magazines under an ordinance that specifically allows selling magazines. Then realizing the mistake, Kizzia said, the city changed the charge against Groden to a violation of a different ordinance prohibiting sale of merchandise in a city park without a permit. Two problems: Dealey Plaza is not a city park. And the city doesn't offer (or require) any permits for selling merchandise in parks anyway.
In an order last December 16, Municipal Court Judge Carrie Chavez recited Kizzia's arguments point for point, agreeing with all of them and agreeing with none of the city's arguments. She ruled, "Therefore the court grants the defendant motion to quash, and this case is hereby dismissed."
The city appealed and since has steadfastly refused to return to Groden his bond money or books, magazines, a table and other equipment seized at the time of his arrest. Kizzia says the city has offered to give Groden his property if he will sign an affidavit admitting his guilt, even though the charges against him have been dismissed by a judge.
Kizzia thinks the city feels boxed in by Groden's federal lawsuit. "In the past if you look at what has happened over the years, when they have started up these campaigns of harassment against him periodically, they ticketed and tried to prosecute him and then the Judges consistently dismissed every one of the 81 charges. They didn't successfully prosecute him even once.
"On none of the prior occasions when those tickets were dismissed did they appeal. But this occasion is different. I think because Robert filed his civil action against them, now they have decided, 'Oh, well, we've got to fight this tooth and nail.'"
But Kizzia wonders why the city ever got into a tooth-and-nail situation with Groden in the first place. "What is the city's compelling interest in trying to keep Robert from doing what he's done for 15 years to the harm of nobody and to the benefit of many?" And for that answer, we must return to Dealey Plaza.
After the Kennedy assassination, Dallas was called "City of Hate" by people around the world who hated it for what happened in Dealey Plaza. And as City Manager Suhm says, Dallas still owns that pain. That does not mean, however, that Dallas owns Dealey Plaza. Conover Hunt, a museum and historical consultant in Virginia who was one of a handful of experts and activists who designed the Sixth Floor Museum before it opened, says Dealey Plaza belongs to the world. "Dealey Plaza doesn't really belong to Dallas," she says. "It belongs to everyone. And not necessarily just the American people."
The city's pain, shame and chagrin were much more tangible in the late 1980s when the museum was being planned. From the very beginning one mission of the museum, Hunt says, was to expiate those terrible feelings in the only way possible—by bringing them back to daylight and handing the event itself back to history. "There will always be in any of our tragic historic sites where major history was made," she says, "a sense of collective ownership. It's neutral ground. "People will go there, they'll go to Gettysburg, they'll go to Mount Vernon, to the Washington Monument, to these battlefields, the good history and the bad, and they will ponder the meaning of life, the meaning of government, and they will talk about it. "These places are like debate parks," Hunt says, "where you can engage in the discussion and feel the power of history under your feet."
Even though they don't know it, visitors can thank official Dallas, the cops, the museum, the people who want to have Groden arrested, who want to run off the shoulder bags and offer only "tasteful reflections." In a marvelous joke of unintended consequences, their efforts have helped make Dealey Plaza what it is on this brilliant Saturday—a black hole of conspiracy drawing every possible plot to its breast.