The idea that President John F. Kennedy was allegedly shot accidentally by Secret Service Agent George Hickey was most recently presented in the film "JFK: The Smoking Gun". Bonar Menninger presented a former incarnation of the story in his book "Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK". However, the story was offered first to the media and then to the Federal Bureau of Investigation decades earlier by gunsmith Howard Donahue. The story when viewed with historical perspective and evidence has serious verifiable issues.
Howard Donahue contacted Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dudley Hodgson February 19, 1977. Donahue informed the Bureau agent that "... since the assassination of President Kennedy, he has been gathering bits and pieces of information..." Donahue told the Bureau a friend at White Laboratories contacted him to assist conducting tests of a prototype weapon similar to the Kennedy murder weapon. This offered Donahue a chance to speak with Secret Service and Bureau agents regarding the issue. Donahue "...continued his efforts to uncover the true circumstances of the assassination and during the course of time arrived at the theory that while Lee Harvey Oswald did, in fact, fire the 6.5 mm Carcano, the shot that blew off half of the President's head was fired by a high velocity small caliber weapon such as 223 Caliber M-16 typical of the weapons then being used by the Secret Service."i
Donahue "...is of the opinion that a Secret Service Agent named Kenneth O'Donnell who was situated in a car directly behind the President's car with a M-16 or the shortened AR 15 version of the M-16, and fired one or more shots directly ahead of his car in the general direction of the "Grassy Knoll" which was ahead of the Kennedy car. He further stated "...that O' Donnell is the Secret Service agent most likely to have fired the shots but that Secret Service agent George Hickey was also in the back seat with O'Donnell and may have fired the shots also."ii The story presents a significant problem during its first incarnation; Kenneth O'Donnell seated on the left jump seat was not a Secret Service agent but a Kennedy special assistant and notably was unarmed. We can safely put aside the initial primary suspect as a case of mistaken identity. This episode of changing suspects represents the first verifiable mistake that occurred.
Donahue asserts that Secret Service agent Emory Roberts "...heard and felt the shot go over his head and was heard by witnesses to exclaim "For Christ sake, if we haven't killed him already don't start now." Yet Roberts never confirms this statement. He never mentions it in testimony, nor makes any public statement alluding to the claim offered by Donahue. No verifiable group of witnesses around Roberts is offered to confirm this idea and no evidence is offered to support it occurred. Without verification, it is seemingly just rumor.
When Donahue had later realized O'Donnell was not a Secret Service agent, he settled upon Secret Service Agent George Hickey. Hickey emerged as Donahue's new prime suspect because he was seated behind O'Donnell in the left rear seat and employed a larger weapon near the time of the shots. Donahue offers some contending and imperfect trajectory ideas similar to some officials, and he seemingly attempted to fit the evidence to his idea. Not a single witness supports the shot required to prove these claims was ever fired.
Secret Service agents were positioned on all side running boards and were seated inside the car. Two Presidential aides were also in the car and none of these people support their vehicle was the origin of a shot fired. This includes Secret Service Agents Samuel Kinney, Emory Roberts, George Hickey, Glen Bennet, Clinton Hill, William McIntyre, John Ready, Paul Landis, and Special Assistants to the President Kenneth O' Donnell and Dave Powers.iii iv v vi vii viii ix x xi xii No immediate eyewitnesses within or outside the car indicates a shot fired by Hickey. Nor does any large group of witnesses in the crowd assert observing a shot fired at this location. Donahue's story has no repeated eyewitness statements to support it and Secret Service Agent William McIntyre stated explicitly "...no shots were fired by any agent."xiii
Additionally, none of the four motorcycle officers flanking this portion of the motorcade offer statements of a shot fired by someone in the follow up car. Two of these Dallas police employees offer the President's Commission testimony, Officers Bobby Hargis and B.J. Martin.xiv xv The remaining nearby motorcycle officers subsequently made statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation before the House Select Committee investigation began. Jim Chaney and Doug Jackson also never mention a shot fired from the car following the President's vehicle nor place the shot's origin near their immediate vicinity.xvi xvii
Agent Hickey retrieved the single AR-15 rifle from between the seats after the President was struck by gunfire. "All the occupants of the follow-up vehicle indicated they believed the shots were fired from the 'right rear' and Hickey stood up in the vehicle and faced in that direction. No verifiable shots were fired from the follow-up vehicle."xviii Fourteen eyewitnesses all support no shots were fired by Hickey from the left rear seat and he faced in the wrong direction to fire the shot alleged by Donahue.
The Bureau file additionally states "A review of the Zapruder film confirms that at the time of the head wound was inflicted, the grassy knoll was not 'ahead of the President' (as Donahue claimed) but at an elevated direct right angle to the Presidential vehicle. Additionally, the position of the President's head, turned to the left and slumped on his chest negates (Donahue's) theory of the fatal bullet being fired from the left rear." Officials also noted that the wounds on the President "are not consistent with the characteristics of a wound inflicted by a bullet fired from an AR-15."xix
The problems do not end with witnesses, ballistic interpretation, and mistaken identities. Perhaps the largest problem associated with this theory is the suggested large conspiracy required to cover-up the asserted shot. Donahue claimed, "...the Kennedy family was apprised of the truth of the matter and that it was decided by the highest officials of the country at the time that the truth should be covered up to spare the Secret Service the embarrassment..." This claim is highly improbable, it makes no sense that the Kennedy family would agree to such a deception. Donahue also claimed the cover up was created to "...spare the agent involved further pain and anguish as this individual reportedly had a mental breakdown following the incident and left the Secret Service." It is highly doubtful Kennedy loyalists and varied different officials would conspire to hide the true circumstances of his death if it was an accident. It is also highly doubtful they would never have been discovered or betrayed and would have risked their legacies on such a tale.
Donahue further asserted, "...The Attorney General of the United States, Robert Kennedy, was aware of all the facts relating to this incident and ordered the FBI and the Secret Service to cover the matter up as the tenor of the times would have made the story unbelievable and unacceptable to the majority of the American people."xx This seems a contrived attempt to buffer the natural doubts that should occur at the mention of such a problematic story. Indeed officials will underestimate the perception and understanding of the American people, but in this case, reasonable doubts stem from the lack of evidence.
It is also improbable that Robert Kennedy would conspire to protect the very agency that Donahue claims is responsible for his brother's death. To imagine that Robert Kennedy would orchestrate a large conspiracy and rely on J. Edgar Hoover, perhaps his greatest political enemy to help conceal it, offers a misunderstanding of the way in which our government functioned. Donahue's other motivations as well may be reflected by his claim to the Bureau that once featured in the press his story "...will be front page news in every major newspaper in the country."
The Bureau assumed that was the end of the matter and that Donahue's claims would be dismissed upon their own lack of merit. Donahue's story however did not appear nationwide but featured in the Baltimore Sun. In nineteen ninety-two, Bonar Menninger wrote a book supporting Donahue's theory, and Donahue died seven years later. Agent George Hickey finally tired of being labeled the accidental murderer of President Kennedy sued Menninger and his publisher. The case was reportedly settled out of court.xxi Yet so much time had passed, there was no legal remedy to correct these evolving claims.
Subsequently, George Hickey died and could no longer sue those who wished to present the old improbable theory with a modern spin. Enter the Reelz network who produced the film "JFK: The Smoking Gun", which lacks the definitive proof its name would imply. The film adds to Donahue's improbable claims because he also believed the diameter of the President's wound supported it was not a Carcano bullet. Yet as some medical experts on both sides of the case have often stated it was a gaping wound requiring interpretation and thus mistaken ideas could result. Donahue while a gun expert was not a medical expert and his access to primary evidence during the time he created his ideas was limited. A feasible conspiracy based on substantial evidence is possible, yet the ideas of Howard Donahue no matter in what medium they exist remain unproven.
i. Federal Bureau of Investigation, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Administrative Folder I6: Assassination Matters Volume VIII, Baltimore telephone call to Bureau, February 22, 1977, pp. 2-3
iii. President's Commission Hearings, Volume XVIII, Commission Exhibit 1024, Letter from the
Secret Service to the Commission with attached statements, Statement of Samuel Kinney, November 30, 1963, p. 731
iv. Ibid, Statement of Emory P. Roberts, November 29, 1963, pp. 734-735
v. Ibid, Activities of George A. Hickey, June 11, 1964, pp. 762-763
vi. Ibid, Protective Assignment of Special Agent Bennett, November 23, 1963. p. 760
vii. Assassination Records Review Board, Medical Document 50, Hill Warren Commission Testimony, March 9, 1964, pp. 134-139
viii. Pres. Com. Hearings, Vol. XVIII, Com Ex. 1024, Statement of John Ready, November 22, 1963, p. 749
ix. Pres. Com. Hearings, Vol. XVIII, Com Ex. 1024, Statement of Paul E. Landis, November 30, 1963, p. 754
x. Pres. Com Hearings, Volume VII, Testimony of Kenneth P. O' Donnell, p. 448
xi. Ibid, Affidavit of David F. Powers, p. 473
xii. FBI, President's Commission Liaison file, Warren Commission Headquarters File 62-109090, Section A6, Chicago Sun Times , "Denies withholding facts in JFK death", June 15, 1975
xiii. Pres. Com. Hearings, Vol. XVIII, Com. Ex. 1024, Statement of William McIntyre, November 29, 1963, p. 2
xiv. Pres. Com. Hearings VI, Testimony of Bobby W. Hargis, P. 295
xv. Ibid, Testimony of B. J. Martin, p. 289
xvi. House Select Committee on Assassinations, Administrative Folder I-8, JFK Motorcycle Officers Interviews, Statement of Douglas Lavelle Jackson, September 17, 1975, National Archives and Records Administration Identification Number: 124-10370-10000
xvii. Ibid, Statement of James M. Chaney, Sep. 17, 1975
xviii. FBI, Headquarters file 62-109060, Section 189, Memorandum from J.S. Peelman to Mr. Gallagher, February 25, 1977, p. 3
xx. FBI, HSCA, Admin. Folder I6: Volume VIII, Baltimore telephone call to Bureau, February 22, 1977, p. 4, NARA ID: 124-10370-10013
xxi. Peter Mucha, (November 12, 2013), Shooting holes in theory that a Secret Service agent killed President Kennedy, Philadelphia Inquirer, philly.com
Edited: December 2017
The Accidental Shot Reviewed