Forty years ago, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. Did suspected gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, a former defector to the Soviet Union, act alone? Or was Oswald part of a conspiracy variously involving the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, anti-Castro Cubans or the KGB -- as some allege?
Washington, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At 12:29 p.m. on 22 November 1963, the motorcade of U.S. President John F. Kennedy approached the intersection of Houston and Elm streets in Dallas, Texas, near a building called the Texas School Book Depository.
The handsome Kennedy and his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, smiled and waved to well-wishers from the backseat of a long convertible limousine. In front of them sat Texas Governor John Connolly and his wife.
What happened next changed history, yet remains shrouded in mystery to this day. A radio reporter following the motorcade describes the scene.
"It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route. I repeat, something has happened in the motorcade route. There are numerous people running up the hill alongside Elm Street there by the Stemmons Freeway. Several police officers are rushing up the hill at this time."
According to various accounts, at least two, possibly three shots had rung out from the direction of the Book Depository.
According to four U.S. government investigations, as well as separate inquiries, one shot pierced the back of Kennedy's neck, sailed straight through his throat and Connolly's shoulder and arm before lodging in the governor's leg.
This shot would later become known as the "magic bullet," a theory embraced by the Warren Commission, the government's official probe into the assassination, but derided by critics as implausible.
A second or so later, another shot hit the right side of Kennedy's head, mortally wounding him. Pandemonium ensued. The motorcade sped toward Parkland Hospital in Dallas. A TV news reporter outside the hospital delivered the news.
"The President of the United States is dead."
Kennedy was declared dead at 1 p.m. Connolly survived his wounds.
Fifty minutes later, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in the Texas Theater after he was spotted slipping into the movie house without a ticket. Police later found the rifle allegedly used to kill Kennedy on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. It turned out to be the same rifle Oswald had purchased through the mail and contained his fingerprints.
Who Oswald was remains a central and unsolved question in the mystery that remains Kennedy's murder. A former defector to the Soviet Union, Oswald claimed to be a Marxist and had lived and worked in Minsk for three years before returning with his Belarusian wife, Marina.
Speaking to reporters at the Dallas jail after his arrest, he said.
Oswald: "These people have given me a hearing without legal representation or anything."
Reporter: "Did you shoot the president?"
Oswald: "I didn't shoot anybody."
Oswald's history is riddled with enigmas. Born fatherless, he had served in the U.S. Marines. He had backed Fidel Castro's communist takeover of Cuba. And he reportedly also had ties to anti-Castro Cubans and the Mafia, though that has never been clearly established by any of the formal probes.
Oswald's background has spawned a wealth of conspiracy theories. Did Oswald act alone or was it an organized effort? Or was he simply a patsy, a scapegoat manipulated by murky powers that he only vaguely understood?
Perhaps the only one who knew the answer was Oswald himself. But as he was being transferred two days after his arrest, Oswald's voice was forever silenced.
"He's been shot! He's been shot! Lee Oswald has been shot!"
The killer was Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner with alleged ties to the Mafia. Ruby and his motive for murdering Oswald only added further questions to a case that was already becoming hard to explain.
Was Ruby a mentally disturbed man who lost control of his emotions after Kennedy's assassination? Or was he a Mafia hit man out to silence Oswald and stop him from telling investigators more than he should?
While the answers remain unclear, new light is being shed on the Kennedy murder. In the early 1990s, the government -- in a bid to dispel conspiracy theories fanned anew by Oliver Stone's 1991 film "JFK" -- declassified millions of pages of top-secret documents on the Kennedy probe by the Warren Commission and of White House audio tapes of Kennedy and his closest associates.
The Warren Commission, named after its chairman, Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, conducted hearings in 1964 on the assassination and concluded that Oswald, alone and unaided, killed Kennedy. It also found that Ruby's murder of Oswald was not part of any conspiracy.
Max Holland, an author and journalist with the University of Virginia, has spent the last eight years combing through the released papers at the U.S. National Archive. Next year, Holland will publish his findings in a book called "A Need to Know: Inside the Warren Commission."
Asked if the truth behind Kennedy's assassination is any closer to being known today than it was in 1963, he tells RFE/RL that it depends on one's point of view.
"We're as close or we're as far away as we've ever been. I am writing a history of the Warren Commission, and I think they established beyond a reasonable doubt that Oswald killed the president, that [there was no] information available to them that established a foreign or domestic conspiracy. But I think it was Oswald's death by a vigilante that has led to 40 years of doubts and theories," Holland said.
A new documentary aired last night on U.S. public television says that through a computer modeling analysis carried out for the American Bar Association, the "magic bullet" theory so derided by critics of the Warren Commission is technically feasible. It also shows that the shots fired at Kennedy probably came from the sixth floor of the Book Depository.
But that finding, which matches analyses by the Warren Commission and a House of Representatives probe, is unlikely to silence the conspiracy theories, which are alive and well.
In fact, a new Gallup poll shows that 72 percent of Americans believe there was a broad conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
Historian Peter Kuznick of American University in Washington is one of them. He says the Warren Commission's findings are not credible and that too many questions remain unanswered. He says questions remain about Oswald's background, his time in Russia, and his possible contacts with the Mafia, which had allegedly helped Kennedy win election but felt betrayed by his subsequent crackdown on organized crime.
"We know that there were many people in the CIA who hated Kennedy. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy said he was going to shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces. And Kennedy fired [CIA chief] Alan Dulles and two other top CIA leaders. We know that the CIA had a potential motive. The FBI: we know that [FBI chief] J. Edgar Hoover hated Kennedy. There was a possible motive there. There was certainly a possible motive from the pro-Castro Cubans because Kennedy was involved in Operation Mongoose in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro," Kuznick said.
In his film "JFK," director Oliver Stone tries to suggest that a vast conspiracy was launched against Kennedy by rogue elements of the U.S. national security establishment, also known as the "military industrial complex."
Their motives, apparently, would have been multiple and may have overlapped with those of other groups, such as anti-Castro Cubans. Possible shared motives include that Kennedy allegedly wanted to end the Cold War, appease the Soviet Union, pull out of Vietnam, and make peace with Cuba.
Oswald's Russian experience has also been touted by some as a clue to possible Soviet involvement. Norman Mailer, the American novelist and author, investigated this charge and gained access to the KGB files on Oswald in Minsk. Holland commented on the file.
"It showed that they thought that he was an American spy and he was kept under surveillance for every minute up to the second that he left the Soviet Union. And that they were glad to get rid of him because he was a pain in the ass and watching him for two and a half years took a tremendous amount of manpower and expense. So if he wanted to leave, they were glad to get rid of him," Mailer said.
Holland said much of his work is on how the Soviets, concerned that the specter of nuclear war with Washington would emerge if they were suspected of having a hand in the killing, launched a systematic propaganda campaign in Western Europe and the United States that sought to tie the CIA and other "reactionary" U.S. elements to the assassination.
Still, according to other new research, it appears clear that while the CIA has long denied any dealings with Oswald, there are written records of him being debriefed by CIA agents, as well as other discrepancies.
G. Robert Blakey was the chief counsel on the House Select Committee's investigation of the murder. He recently told public television that the key question that remains is not whether Oswald killed Kennedy -- but whether he acted alone.
Blakey says it remains impossible to answer that question definitively, but he believes a "probability" exists in the evidence that suggests Mafia involvement. But he adds it's not the kind of evidence that could prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.