It’s an axiom of Nevada journalism that all big stories have a legitimate connection to Las Vegas. The 9/11 hijackers, the Oklahoma City bomber, the Manson murders — you name it, there’s a local angle.
And so it is with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A new Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans can’t buy the official explanation that solitary nutball Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president on his own, and that — coincidentally — a mobbed-up nightclub owner who gunned down Oswald two days later did so without any provocation or assistance.
On one level, I’m amazed such a large percentage of Americans don’t believe the Warren Commission fairy tale, given that every mainstream news outfit has produced and aired at least one JFK special which systematically steamrolls every JFK conspiracy theory.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a half-dozen or so essays from my media brethren who feel badly about the misguided minions who believe conspiracies are real or don’t buy the Warren Commission conclusions. Why do people search for the warmth of conspiracy theories, they ponder? It’s because “there is comfort in the search for unseen mainsprings,” one writer-slash-psychiatrist mused. Or that ”there’s a natural human instinct to fantasize about the hidden” or ”because it is less scary than the idea that some horrible things happen at random.” Oh yes. That’s it.
But there might be some who believe in conspiracies because conspiracies really do happen. A year ago, only a conspiracy nut could possibly believe a vast government surveillance network has been downloading every phone call, email, Tweet or text in the world, or that the NSA might strong-arm telecom companies into giving blanket access to their databases. And can anyone really believe shadowy agencies of the government would conspire with Mafia bosses to murder a political leader? Sounds preposterous, except we know for a fact that it happened, and it happened right here in our little town.
When former fed Robert Maheu agreed to act as the go-between for the CIA in its dealings with mob boss Sam Giancana and Mafia ambassador Johnny Rosselli, it was only natural they would meet here in Las Vegas to map out their plans for the assassination of Fidel Castro. Both Rosselli and Giancana had pieces of the action here. It happened, though Castro managed to foil at least five attempts on his life. When a congressional committee began investigating the CIA’s dealings with the mob to nail Castro, subpoenas were sent to Giancana and Rosselli, both of whom were subsequently murdered. I don’t think that particular conspiracy had a damned thing to do with the “human instinct to fantasize about the hidden.”
No matter what your viewpoint might be regarding the Kennedy murder, the road to truth leads through our town. One day after Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Oswald, our town was flooded with FBI agents who wanted to know if Ruby had spent any time in Las Vegas. Based on records I’ve seen, at least 16 locals were grilled by the G-men about Ruby. One reason for this intense interest is that the attorney general at the time was a man who might be considered the very first of the JFK conspiracy nuts. Robert Kennedy believed from the beginning that the CIA/Mafia plot to kill Castro might have had something to do with his brother’s murder, that the mob (aided by Robert Kennedy foe and Teamsters honcho Jimmy Hoffa) could have been involved. Robert Kennedy did not believe the Warren Commission’s eventual report, according to members of his family. He knew Ruby was owned by the mob so he sent agents to see if there was a Las Vegas connection.
The person who was the focus of the most intense questioning was a casino manager named Lewis McWillie, who was a close friend of Ruby’s. When the Warren Commission interviewed Ruby, he mentioned McWillie’s name 22 times. McWilly was a mob guy, like so many other casino execs at the time, but he told the FBI that Ruby had not visited our town in the recent past. (Ruby once bought four guns for McWillie and had them shipped to Las Vegas from Dallas.)
Others who were interviewed by the FBI here included Tropicana bell captain AJ Ricci, who told agents that he thought Ruby had recently stayed at the hotel and might have played a round of golf. A caddy master at the Trop told agents Ruby had, in fact, been to the course within the previous 30 days and that he had used different aliases. A TV newsman named Gordon Kent had reported on the air that Ruby was in town not long before the events in Dallas but Kent refused to give the FBI the name of his source or other substantiation..
Robert Kennedy wasn’t the only conspiracy theorist. His sister-in-law Jackie also doubted the official explanation. She thought that Vice President Lyndon Johnson had orchestrated the plot, with help from rogues within the CIA. Former President Richard Nixon likewise believed LBJ was involved, both in the murder and the cover-up. LBJ’s lawyer and his longtime mistress both say that Johnson hated the Kennedys and that he allegedly admitted having a principal role in JFK’s death.
How about Dorothy Kilgallen, the TV celebrity and newspaper columnist who snagged an exclusive jailhouse interview with Ruby. Kilgallen confided to friends that she was going to blow the roof off the JFK story but she never got the chance. She died soon afterwards from a suspicious drug overdose, just as Rosselli and Giancana and dozens of other potential witnesses died. But of course, the ones who were murdered by persons unknown were probably confused and looking for meaning in their shallow lives, and that’s why they were struck by bullets or killed in single-car accidents. No conspiracy here.
Unlike some of my media brethren, I do not believe the waters are too muddy for the JFK questions to ever be resolved. I think this is a solvable crime, even now. And I think the ultimate answers are right here in our backyard. The fact that so many Americans are unwilling to swallow a pile of unbelievable bullshit foisted on them by their government is not a sign that we all have emotional problems. To me, it sounds like a healthy impulse.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.