Without Smoking Gun, 2004.
LCDR William Bruce Pitzer was a World War II veteran, a talented and dedicated Naval officer, and by all accounts a fine man, the kind I would like to have met. But it was none of those things that made him a martyr figure of sorts to many students of the Kennedy assassination. No, he gained that status by forcing improperly-sized live ammunition into the barrel of a revolver in which he normally kept blank rounds, placing the gun to his temple, and pulling the trigger. Once all the facts are examined, it would take a fertile imagination indeed to suppose otherwise. Tragic, but true. As I review the notes I made from conversations with Pitzer's youngest son, I feel a renewed sadness not only for his family's loss but for the world that Bill Pitzer made a better place by having lived in it. I also am saddened to be reminded that due to having collaborated with Col. Marvin (See Part One) in my investigation of Pitzer's death, doors were closed to me and I was denied some opportunities to learn more about Pitzer's life; thus I also lost the opportunity to include a richer biography and more fitting memorial in my book.
The conclusion of suicide was not an easy one for me to reach. For ten years, I refused to publicly offer or personally reach any conclusion at all on whether Pitzer was murdered or had committed suicide, to the disappointment both of readers and of radio listeners.
In Part One of this series, I reviewed many of my experiences researching Pitzer's death, and how I have come to see certain aspects of that experience in a far less troubling light. Part One dealt with Col. Marvin in particular; in Part Two, I will now write more generally of the Pitzer case as a whole, discussing both the facts of Pitzer's death and the mythology surrounding it. Among the facts are these: Pitzer was right-handed, consistent with the entry wound on the right side of his head and the small exit wound opposite. A .38 caliber revolver was found on the floor next to his corpse, which lay face-down on the floor of the studio adjoining his office at the National Naval Medical Center.
One of the most haunting suspicions I had carried this past ten years is the possibility that well-known JFK researcher David Lifton may have unknowingly precipitated - or somehow hastened - the murder of LCDR Pitzer. Feel free to laugh, but follow me on this: In Best Evidence, Lifton records October 22, 1966 as the landmark day he discovered mention of "surgery of the head area" in the FBI report on JFK's autopsy, leading Lifton to his hypothesis that the president's body had been tampered with prior to the autopsy. This discovery was in a historical context of growing public criticism of the Warren Report. Chapter 9 of Best Evidence is titled "October 24th, 1966," the day Lifton informed Wesley Liebeler of his findings, who in turn called Arlen Specter. By the end of the day, word had passed to several former Warren Commission personnel. Specter in particular was reported to have been greatly agitated by the news. Bill Pitzer, who reportedly had been in possession of visual proof of Lifton's theory, was found dead by gunshot wound a mere five days later, on October 29th. The 29th also happened to be the day that the Kennedy family finally agreed to release their autopsy photos and x-rays, after months of pressure from Congress and the Justice Department. Three days later, Lifton writes that he placed a call to Dr. Humes, who had performed JFK's autopsy. Humes had worked with Pitzer, and unknown to Lifton, had probably just returned from Pitzer's funeral when he took Lifton's call. No fewer than two days after (if I recall correctly) having taken photos of Bill Pitzer's corpse in the Bethesda morgue, John Stringer went to the National Archives to review photos released by the Kennedys which he had ostensibly exposed during the president's autopsy in that same morgue three Novembers previously. Though he would many years later, he made no objections at that time to the mismatch between what these prints depicted and what others present at the autopsy recalled. Creepy, is it not? When I first put all these dates together, it shook me.
My own correspondence with Lifton started on a poor footing and was slow to improve. Our first introduction took place in December 2001 after I sent him a copy of my weekly newsletter, in which I was picking at loose ends in the 9/11 investigation. Lifton responded in his classic manner: "This is real junk. What is the source of your 'data'??" After I began working on my book on the Pitzer case, I contacted him again. This time, we got into a minor argument about the consistency and credibility of Dennis David's testimony (see below) concerning Pitzer. Lifton seemed to have forgotten that Pitzer was the main focus of the 1975 article which brought Dennis to Lifton's attention. He implied that Dennis had changed his story, having been somehow unduly influenced by fellow author and nemesis Harrison Livingstone, who for years had been the Pitzer story's chief evangelist (again, see below). I was astonished to realize that in Best Evidence (1980), Lifton had covered every aspect of Dennis David's comments in the 1975 article except Bill Pitzer. This omission was apparently not lost on one of Pitzer's family members, who called Lifton in 2000. According to Lifton, the caller "apparently wanted to interest me in the subject; and it seemed to me, from that phone call, that he had an animus towards me because [Pitzer's] name was not in my book."
As I review the emails between Lifton and me, I see that between all his denunciations of various and sundry persons - ranging from the well-deserved to the ill-considered - some wisdom was to be found. Saying that I was "dealing with people who are pushing an exaggerated and ever changing story," he observed: "Any normal journalist would understand where the truth lies in this situation, but you keep digging, as if there's some great secret being hidden." "I am in the business of evidence, not urban legend," he wrote to me. An "urban legend" might less pejoratively be called a "meme." The term has come to common usage in the context of internet cat pictures and the like, but it also represents a certain intellectual approach to understanding where ideas come from and how they spread. LCDR Pitzer's death is a fact. The idea that he was murdered to safeguard the cover-up of the true nature of JFK's murder is - regardless of its truth or falsity - a meme.
Wikipedia defines a meme as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures." As Pitzer's story has spread over the years, its details have indeed undergone a kind of selective replication and mutation. Many, if not most, versions of the story reveal a clear heritage in the elements that they do or do not include. These elements, which one might call "memetic markers," are analogous to the genetic markers passed in DNA, as I will demonstrate.
At one time, I wondered whether Lifton had been too quick to dismiss Dennis David's Pitzer account because at some level he recognized the significance of the date of Pitzer's demise and didn't want to bear the burden of that responsibility. I cannot imagine that during his search for Dennis David - who in the 1975 article had been quoted only anonymously - Lifton did not determine the date of Pitzer's death and read his obituary in a Washington newspaper. Still, despite the perverse pleasure I might have found in doing so, I was careful in my book not to overemphasize the coincidence of Lifton's October discovery with Pitzer's death. The far simpler explanation of Lifton's choice is that he is naturally and generally skeptical. By the time he located Dennis, he may have already ruled out Pitzer's presence at JFK's autopsy based on his absence from the FBI's list of people in attendance. An alternate - and weak, but not mutually exclusive - explanation is that David's story, though it would have supported the testimony of Lifton's other witnesses regarding the original nature and locations of Kennedy's head wounds, could have caused problems for Lifton's theory that the wounds had already been altered by the time JFK's body arrived at Bethesda and was presented to Doctors Humes and Boswell. Indeed, we may justifiably infer from his discussion of Dennis David's 1988 interview (below) that Lifton at one point saw the Pitzer story as a threat to the credibility of his most key witness and of his own work. This line of thought may be developed further in a third part of this series, discussing how Lifton produced an equally robust (and also problematic) meme completely distinct from, but having definite common origin with, the Pitzer meme, its half-sibling.
Washington Post, November 2 1966
If we are to analyze the Pitzer story as a meme, we should first recognize its precedents in a more general tradition. Penn Jones Jr. was the owner of the Midlothian, TX Mirror and the originator of what came to be known in the JFK research community as the "mysterious death list." He is best known for the self-published, four-volume series, Forgive My Grief. While reviewing news stories contemporary with Pitzer's death, one of the interesting items I found was a mention of Jones's "death list" in a Washington Post article published three days before the tragedy. Due to the publication of several books on the Kennedy assassination, 1966 was a year of growing criticism of the Warren Report, comparable perhaps to the reaction to Oliver Stone's "JFK" 25 years later. The article reported the list numbering "at least ten." Gerald Posner writes that by 1967 the list would grow to eighteen. Pitzer himself would not be included until 1976, when the number of persons on list would be reported as "more than fifty." The "mysterious death" meme was picked up by others, and the population of their later lists would exceed one hundred. Many of the deaths on the list were indeed connected to the assassination, but, as we shall see, at least one of them came to be included due to a misunderstanding.
Pitzer's death on October 29, 1966 was announced very briefly in the Washington Post on the 31st of that month, and at greater length on November 2nd, relating mostly details of his life and explaining only that his demise came "unexpectedly." It set a precedent of factuality that has too seldom been followed in subsequent publications concerning the incident. The Washington Evening Star also reported much of the same information as the Post on November 2, adding only the polite fiction that Pitzer had died "after a brief illness." An autopsy was performed, and inquiries were made without public attention; The medical examiner and Naval Investigative Service both concluded that the death had been a suicide, and the FBI found no indications to the contrary.
News-Sun, May 1, 1975 (article continues here).
There wasn't much in contemporary reporting to give this story "staying power." Military suicides are not uncommon, and like all suicides, not a matter happily dwelt on. These stories were sterile, destined to die out, memetic dead ends. But, as we shall see, once a certain mutation arose, its survival was nearly guaranteed. Indeed, it replicated itself far too readily, not unlike a tumor.
This mutation first saw print in the Waukegan, IL News-Sun on May 1, 1975, based on information from Dennis David, Pitzer's friend from the Naval Hospital. In "Another link in JFK death?" reporter Art Peterson mentions a "mysterious death syndrome" that followed in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and speculates that Pitzer may be counted among the "more than 50 persons connected with the incident who have died under mysterious or unusual circumstances." David was quoted as saying Pitzer "was shot with a 45-caliber pistol and was found with the gun in his right hand . . . But he was left-handed." This was incorrect on more than one point. When asked about it much later, David admitted not knowing where he got the idea that the weapon was .45 caliber. The idea that Pitzer was left-handed appears to have arisen from the fact that David and Pitzer played bridge together, and David recalls having teased Pitzer about having dealt cards left-handed. Peterson then reports that Pitzer "had filmed in detail the Kennedy autopsy," presumably based on David's recollection of having seen such a film in Pitzer's possession. Though his words have been grossly misrepresented on this point, neither Dennis David nor any other credible person has claimed to have seen Pitzer at the autopsy, with camera or otherwise. Jerrol Custer, an x-ray technician, is the only person to have made this assertion, and his recollection was both inconsistent and full of inaccuracies. "I've always believed he was murdered," David said in 1975. "They said he was depressed, but he was close to retirement and had just received an offer to work for a network television station at $45,000 a year."
It is difficult to know whether to attribute some of the inaccuracies in this article to either Peterson, David, or the channels through which David was informed of Pitzer's death, but given the overall consistency and character of David's later recorded statements, both public and private, on numerous occasions over a span of several years, I am not inclined to dismiss any of that later testimony based only on what was reported second-hand in 1975. Whatever its precise origins, the Pitzer meme was now "in the wild" and quickly found its way back into print. Mere months after the Peterson article, in a January 1976 edition of his 1969 book Forgive My Grief, Vol III, Penn Jones relayed the inaccurate information from the News-Sun and apparently added more of his own, declaring that "Lt." Pitzer called his experience of debriefings after JFK's autopsy "horrifying" and that "he was visited periodically by military personnel who reminded him repeatedly - for reasons of 'national security' - never to reveal what he saw while taking pictures." Whether Jones had a source for any of this additional information or merely invented it is unclear. It is not implausible that he and Peterson may have shared notes, as Peterson's "list" was almost certainly in reference to Jones' work. It seems doubtful that Jones did any research of his own in this matter; had he even looked up Pitzer's obituaries, he would have been obliged to give his correct rank as "Lt. Cmdr."
When interviewing Dennis David for 1980's Best Evidence, David Lifton passed over Dennis' information regarding Pitzer, focusing instead on Dennis' account of the circumstances in which the - or "a" - casket arrived at the morgue for the Kennedy autopsy. In fact (as I mentioned previously), by the time I wrote to Lifton in 2002, he implied that Dennis had changed his story, having been in the meantime somehow unduly influenced by Harrison Livingstone. Lifton wrote to me:
As to any filming of Dennis David, I interviewed him in July, 1979 by telephone. What he told me then appears in my book, verbatim, exactly as he told me. The book went to press over the summer of 1980 and was published at the tail end of 1980 (Dec. 1980/Jan. 1981).
I filmed Dennis David in October 1980. There was nothing about Pitzer mentioned in that filmed interview, which basically put on camera what he told me in our July, 1979 telephone interview.
. . .
Somewhere around 1988 or 1989, Harrison Livingstone got involved in this affair and started to promote the theory that Pitzer's death was connected with the JFK assassination. He would call up various witnesses who I had interviewed and attempt to get them to change or amend their accounts about any number of things, but the Pitzer business was part of his agenda. Again, this was all in 1988 and thereafter.
Do you subscribe to the idea that its an author's responsibility to change his book to accommodate a witness who changes his story a decade after the book appears? Changes which apparently occurred after being lobbied by an assassination "researcher" who, incidentally, would call me up and leave death threats on my telephone answering machine? And send me similar letters in writing? [Livingstone wrote comparable accusations regarding Lifton in his emails to this author.]
This is the kind of territory into which you are heading. Do you think that's credible?
I first heard the William Pitzer story coming from Dennis David directly when he was being interviewed by KRON-TV around November 1988. That film shoot was not conducted by me, but I was present. The two experienced news people who were conducting the filming - producer Stanhope Gould and Sylvia Chase - were quite put off by Dennis David's change of story. It appeared to them so completely non-credible that they wanted to drop him from their documentary as a witness. However, out of respect for his prior interview with me (in 1979) and the prior filmed interview (in 1980) they did in fact use him in their show.
. . . the first I ever heard of Dennis David "viewing" "movies" of the autopsy was when he said so in front of me and Stanhope Gould in the fall of 1988, when he was interviewed (as I recall) by Sylvia Chase for KRON-TV.
Also, as I recall (and quite vividly) he said he viewed them and "edited" them with Pitzer, at his residence. Again, if that Dennis David interview footage is ever located, I defer to whatever he said. Suffice it to say that whatever Dennis David said on the subject, I had never heard it - or at least, heard it stated quite that way - until 1988, and Stanhope Gould was quite unprepared for it too, because it seemed completely bizarre and off the wall. As I mentioned before, it was so bizarre that it essentially destroyed Dennis David's credibility, and extreme efforts on my part were necessary that everything he said was not thrown out along with his allegations about Pitzer.
After further discussion and a review of the 1975 article, Lifton did agree that Pitzer's film of the autopsy had been mentioned at that time, but he also maintained that the first he ever heard Dennis speaking of having viewed such a film was in 1988, as quoted above; this may be true, but Dennis David thinks otherwise, and his memory seems to be more reliable than Lifton's. Dennis' email to me in 2003 said:
In '79, when David and his film crew sat in my living room, I told David of my experiences of the 22 Nov 63. This included my feelings on Bill Pitzer. . . .the story of Pitzer he was not able to corroborate, for obvious reasons, and [therefore] he did not pursue it. Which, I think, was the legitimate thing to do. In 1998 [sic - he means 1988] sitting in my back yard under a maple tree, I told Sylvia Chase and her crew essentially what I had told David in 1979. That: 1) I had seen portions of a 16mm film in Bill's office, and helped edit a portion of the film. 2) I had also looked at photos, some B&W and some colored. 3) I told them from the film and pictures, both Bill and I drew the same conclusion that the killing shot was a frontal entry wound. 4) They ask[ed] me if Bill was in the autopsy room, and if he had taken the film and pictures. I told them I did not know if he took the film or pictures of the autopsy. I did day that "considering Bill's job at Bethesda, it would be logical to assume that he had, however I do not recall seeing him that night."
It is unfortunate that it would not be for several years after meeting Lifton that Dennis David's recollections regarding Pitzer would be captured on tape from his own mouth. Though all the chief elements were reported, only the barest outline for Dennis David's later comments was given in the 1975 article; if his later testimony can be suspected of having been colored by anyone's influence, it would be Lifton, not Livingstone, who would seem the most likely source, intentionally or otherwise. Lifton bestowed minor fame on Dennis David in a book promoting a hypothesis which has direct connection to the later details of the Pitzer story. Thus an opportunity was lost when Lifton failed to interrogate Dennis at length on this subject before Dennis had a chance to read Best Evidence; as he stated on "Best Evidence: The Research Video," the purpose of filming his witnesses three months prior to the release of his book "was to get the key witnesses on camera before they themselves realized the full implication of information they possessed." Whatever Lifton's mistakes may have been, getting carried away with the Pitzer story was not among them.
Forgive My Grief, Vol. III, January 1976 edition.
Forgive My Grief disappeared into obscurity, but Jones' sensationalized Pitzer story reached much wider audiences with the 1989 work (and 1990 mass-market paperback) High Treason by Harrison Livingstone and Robert Groden, which devoted an entire chapter to "Strange Deaths." Livingstone, according to an article found on his web site in 2002, had learned of the Pitzer death by reading Jones' book; in an email to me, Livingstone stated that Jones showed him the News-Sun article in person during a visit. High Treason corrected the record on the matter of Pitzer's rank at the time of his death, as well as his dominant hand, which, according to his widow, was the right. Effort was made to gain new information on the case rather than merely recounting what had already been said; Pitzer's family was contacted. "The authors believe that Pitzer was murdered . .. as a warning to other witnesses in the hospital. His family was told that his death was a suicide, and no one in his family believes it. The government refuses to give up a copy of the autopsy report or any investigation of his death, if there was one." But in the absence of an autopsy report and photos, more misinformation enters the record: "The government refuses to give up a copy of the autopsy report or any investigation of his death, if there was one. . . . His widow said that his left hand was so mangled that they could not remove the wedding ring to give to her, but he was right-handed." Further revelations are offered without documentation (if memory serves, credit for this must go chiefly to Livingstone as primary writer): "All reports indicate it was murder." Reference is made to "several reports that [Pitzer] was not only there but filmed the autopsy" in response to Dr. Boswell's denial that this was the case. If the same fiction is handed down and repeated, does that become "several reports?" One might wonder whether at this point the Pitzer family was telling Livingstone their purely personal insights or whether their opinions had already been influenced by what had circulated in the media.
The book engages in purest speculation:
Cmdr. Pitzer may have actually been murdered elsewhere and brought into Bethesda where he was found dead to make it far more difficult for the Maryland authorities to investigate his murder, even though they have jurisdiction over crimes committed on Federal property and military bases within Maryland. The fact that Pitzer's autopsy report has never been released to his widow and family indicates that another murder has been covered up.
Dennis David is mentioned twice in High Treason, first as "a medical corpsman present at [JFK's] autopsy" and then as "a witness at the autopsy." He is quoted without reference to any other source, and thus the impression is given that the authors had interviewed or otherwise made contact with him. This appears not to have been the case. When all the references to David in High Treason are compared with prior sources, it becomes clear that they all have origin in Peterson's 1975 article and Jones' 1976 book, except for Dennis David's name, which must have come from Best Evidence. Rather than having contacted David, Livingstone (as a resident of Baltimore) must have found it more practical to contact the Pitzer family. As seen above, the authors twice misreported David's presence at the hospital and morgue anteroom as him having been "at the autopsy." This error becomes more grievous when placed directly alongside David's assumption that Pitzer had filmed the autopsy. High Treason makes this highly regrettable statement:
Dennis David, a medical corpsman at the autopsy, was a friend of Lt. Cmdr. Bruce [sic] Pitzer, who he said "filmed in detail the Kennedy autopsy" [directly quoted from Peterson's 1975 article].
It would take a careful reader not to infer from the foregoing that Dennis David told Groden and/or Livingstone that he had seen Bill Pitzer film the autopsy. Vincent Bugliosi, author of 2007's Reclaiming History, demonstrated quite clearly that he was not a careful reader; or, perhaps that he saw only what he was looking for. Bugliosi made precisely this incorrect inference and then, in his brief treatment of the Pitzer case, raked Dennis David over the coals for it:
After indicating to David Lifton in 1979 that he was not present at the autopsy, and telling Harrison Livingstone in 1988 that he was, in 1997 he went back to his original story and conceded to ARRB investigators that he was not present at the autopsy . . . It's clear that David is incapable of telling the same story twice on this matter.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Bugliosi's cynical, arrogant, and misinformed caricature of David is a straw man of his own construction which he appears to have enjoyed tearing apart. David Lifton (as quoted above) also seems to have had the impression that Livingstone had been in contact with Dennis David by 1988, but any such contact is in no way evident in Livingstone's 1989 book with Groden.
In the 1992 sequel High Treason 2, Livingstone devotes at least three more pages to the Pitzer death.
. . . [N]umerous other reasons were presented to me by Pitzer's family as to why he could not have killed himself, and why they believe his death had something to do with John Kennedy's assassination and the pictures he took at the autopsy. Pitzer died on the day the Kennedy family finally transferred the autopsy materials ... to the National Archives. . . . I have now seen, after years of effort (thanks to Joyce Pitzer's and Washington Lawyer Jim Lesar's help) the autopsy report of Bruce [sic] Pitzer. Nobody in his family believes the Navy claim that he died a suicide. After all (according to Dennis David), Pitzer was in the gallery filming the entire autopsy with a movie camera, and David . . . helped Pitzer edit the film. David was a bridge partner and close friend of Pitzer's for many years and used to baby-sit for his children. They all believe he was murdered.
The very next paragraph paradoxically includes Dennis David's denial (quoted below) that he could verify that Pitzer was in the autopsy room that evening. Similarly, Livingstone takes pains to call out the explicit absence of powder burns in Pitzer's autopsy report, saying this is inconsistent with having shot himself, yet his quotation of the report includes the notation that "An area of charring of the skin surrounds the wound." Clearly, this would have been caused by the discharge of the closely-held pistol, yet may in some way be distinct from what a medical examiner was classify as "powder burns:" "[N]o powder burns of the skin surrounding the area are noted." David denies that he ever baby-sat Pitzer's children and recalls meeting his wife on only two or three occasions.
Despite its failings, High Treason 2 deserves credit for being, to my knowledge, the first book to directly quote Dennis David at length regarding Bill Pitzer. But despite what one may at first infer (as I did), it contains no real indication that Livingstone had yet made any contact with David directly. It takes the following from a letter sent by David to one Joanne Braun:
As to Bill Pitzer's involvement, I never asked him, "Were you there?" or "Did you do the filming?" I have always assumed he did, but cannot verify he was in the autopsy room that evening. I do know that he had the film in his possession at one time. When he and I looked at a portion of the film, we remarked only on the extent of the injury, the apparent point of entry, etc. Bill also had some 35mm slides which, again I assumed, were excerpts from the film. I would say that the films which I viewed with Bill were prior to the commencement of the postmortem, as there was no evidence of a Y-incision on the torso, nor was the scalp incised and peeled forward on the face as would be done during a postmortem."
In another letter, David recalls the "massive wound in the rear of JFK's skull," which could not be mistaken for anything other than point of exit.
Doug Moench's The Big Book of Conspiracies, 1995: The Pitzer meme literally devolves into a cartoon.
Robert Groden made brief mention of Pitzer in his 1993 coffee-table photo book, The Killing of a President. The following appears under a sidebar entitled "HSCA Mysterious Death Project":
Lieutenant Commander William Bruce Pitzer, who had supposedly taken photographs of Kennedy during the autopsy, was said to be working with a film of the autopsy shortly [sic] before his death in 1966. It has not been confirmed that the film he was examining actually existed, or whether he was the man who took it; however, all evidence of the film has disappeared. Pitzer was found shot to death in his office at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He was slumped over his desk, with the alleged suicide weapon placed close to his body.
The Killing of a President was my first exposure both to the Pitzer meme and to assassination conspiracy literature. I well remember poring over this book, then over High Treason, making notes on index cards as I rode the bus home from work. I recall having particular interest in the Pitzer story. During those days, I was still of a naive mind set that might subconsciously have assumed that "they wouldn't print it if it weren't true." I was still quite pleased to have my photograph taken with Groden when I encountered him in Dealey Plaza in 2012.
Dealey Plaza, 2012. The author (right) with Robert Groden.
In the same year as High Treason, Pitzer's name also appeared in Jim Marrs' 1989 book, Crossfire, along with over 100 other names in a list of "Convenient Deaths" thought to have had a connection to the Kennedy assassination or its cover-up. It is worth noting that it was Livingstone and Groden who first introduced the name "Bruce" into the meme, as in "William Bruce Pitzer" or sometimes even "Bruce Pitzer," as seen in quotations above. In July 1992, A combination of the "death lists" from High Treason and Crossfire aired in a two-hour television special hosted by Robert Conrad (see photo in Part One), listing "Lt. Cmdr. Bruce [sic] Pitzer." Pitzer's name is listed as the 30th in a total of 42 names.
And it is here that Lt. Col. Dan Marvin enters the narrative, as discussed in Part One, and the meme begins to replicate and mutate via the medium of television. Over the course of several months, Marvin would come to falsely remember a Fall 1993, two-hour, CNN 30th anniversary special on the Kennedy Assassination, hosted by Jack Anderson, in which he saw a list of 42 names, including that of "William Bruce Pitzer." As discussed in Part One, Marvin reportedly first spoke of "Bruce Pitzer," then of "William Bruce Pitzer." He would also come to falsely remember having conversed with one Captain David H. Vanek as they walked out to meet a CIA man at Fort Bragg in the first week of August 1965, who asked Marvin to kill Pitzer, and having been refused, then spoke to Vanek. The CNN detail was not added until later, but this is the story he told on camera in April 1995 and which has been televised for years and distributed for home video. The same documentary also presents Dennis David's recollections, including that Bill Pitzer dealt cards left-handed. The narrator for The Men Who Killed Kennedy repeats and embellishes an untrue item first reported by Livingstone: "There are grave doubts about Pitzer's alleged suicide. His left hand had been so mangled, as if tortured, that his wedding ring could not be removed and given to his widow." This new strain of the Pitzer meme went viral, and attempts to contain it continue to meet with difficulty.
Cut between footage of Dan Marvin's story, Dennis David's appearance on TMWKK is the earliest available recording of him speaking about his friend Bill Pitzer, nearly twenty years from the time of his interview with Art Peterson. Prior to 1995, the subject was either not brought up in recorded interviews, left out of any final edit (see above), or copyrighted and not widely distributed (see ARRB record). Dennis' recollections for the 1995 documentary are consistent with a recording made for Dan Marvin in 1996, as well the paper records of much more detailed interviews with the ARRB in 1997, William Law in 1998, and this author in 2002. From TMWKK:
Three or four days after the assassination, I walked into [Pitzer's] office and I saw he was working on some film. He had a movie editor, one of those reel to reel that runs across with a screen. And he showed it to me, and it was a 16mm film of the autopsy. There were also some slides . . . tissue slides and also showed some slides of President Kennedy that were from when he was on the table at the morgue. And we looked at them, kind of horrified I guess you would say, at the seriousness of the wound, but I remember that one of the things that I remembered was . . . a picture of Kennedy laying on the table and it was a front profile, and the only thing was saw was a little hole about here [pointing to just above the right eye] in the temple; and in another photograph, another slide that Bill had, showed a huge gaping hole here in the back, and so Bill and I logically assumed that the wound was a frontal entry wound . . . [S]hortly before I left Bethesda, which was around the 7th of December, of 1965, [Bill] told me that he was planning on retiring, because he had enough time in and he was wanting to get out. And he also told me that he had some damned lucrative offers from some TV networks . . .
A December 1996 recording made by Dennis David for Dan Marvin contains a rare detail:
If anyone ever threatened or intimidated Bill Pitzer, he never gave me that impression, other than to say that he had been in contact with agents about the material that he had been working on. And generally, this was said in times when we were in the presence of other people and really didn't discuss it.
This may explain the reference to "debriefings" in Penn Jones' version of the story, supposing David had mentioned the above to Peterson, and Peterson to Jones, the information becoming distorted in the process. The only inconsistency I have found in David's recollections to date concerns the circumstances in which he learned of Pitzer's passing. Perhaps this should give me greater pause, considering how the very same detail is what finally led me to disbelieve Lt. Col. Marvin. In the above-mentioned December 1996 recording, Dennis says this regarding Barb Munroe, an officer and mutual friend of David and Pitzer; also mentioned in TMWKK and misidentified as "Murray" in the ARRB's notes from their interview with him:
When I met [Barb Munroe] in ’66 or ’67 — early part of ’67 I guess or ’66 — when she saw me at Great Lakes Naval Hospital and told me about Bill’s death, I don't remember exactly what, or how she told it to me, except it was something to the nature of, did I know that he was dead, and I said, yes, that I had heard that on the grapevine, through other sources, and then she told me that he had been found with - shot in the right side of the head, and I thought that’s a little weird because he used to play bridge, we used to kid him about being left-handed. Especially when he was dealing cards.
I am glad not to have anyone comparing and contrasting my every statement with every other, because human memory is notoriously dodgy. Be that as it may, the above statement does conflict with Dennis' 1998 recollection to William Law, that Munroe was the one to break the news to him:
I was in the lobby of the hospital at Great Lakes when Lieutenant Commander Barb Munroe came in and saw me and came over, and of course we renewed old friendships. And she said, "By the way, did you know Bill's dead?" And I said, "No, what happened?" The she said, "Well, he shot himself." I said, "I don't believe that." And she said, "Well they found him with a gun in his right hand, and he blew his brains out." And I said "But Bill's left-handed . . " That's what I recall, because sometimes - back at Bethesda, Barb, Bill and I would play bridge together - he sometimes would deal the cards in reverse, you know, instead of dealing them clockwise, he would deal them counter-clockwise (with his left hand) and we'd kid him about it. That was the first time I had heard he was dead. I asked, "Well why did he commit suicide?" And she said "It's highly questionable that he did." I said, "Well, it stands to reason." And then she said something to me about, "Did you know that he'd had some pretty good job offers?" And I said I had, and that just before the last time I'd seen him, just before I'd left Bethesda, he'd told me that he had some very lucrative offers from a couple of the national networks like ABC, CBS, to go work for them. I said, "I suspect it was probably because of some of the films and the material he had from the assassination." She said, "You know he had those?" And I said, "Yes, because I was over there a couple, three days after the autopsy and saw them." She kind of nodded her head as though she agreed with me, or something like that [but it was not discussed further due to the secrecy still surrounding the autopsy].
The above narrative suggests that the "gun in the right hand" element to the Pitzer meme did not originate with Peterson, but rather with David, Munroe, or some prior point in the "grapevine." This also introduces another detail which is, to my knowledge, not discussed elsewhere: the identity of another possible witness to Pitzer's autopsy materials. It is unfortunate that this detail was not mentioned to the ARRB along with the correct spelling of Munroe's name. But perhaps it would have been to no avail, as I heard in 2003 that she was by that time no longer living.
Simultaneous with the recording of Marvin's appearance on TMWKK, Marvin published an article having comparable content in The Fourth Decade. Letters of criticism and support followed; some were printed or summarized. The Assassination Records Review Board communicated with former Fort Bragg Captain David V. Vanek, with the result that Marvin's story seemed much less credible. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Marvin acquired FBI and NIS reports from their investigations of Pitzer's death, and these were partially presented in TFD in 1998. There was little in them to compel a conclusion of suicide other than the complete absence of indications of foul play.
During this time, the internet grew rapidly in popularity. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to analyze or summarize the life of the Pitzer meme on the internet, other than to highlight the most significant items. I do know that the controversy over Pitzer, and especially Marvin, raged in online forums and discussion boards, though I remained unaware of the latter controversy until being introduced to Marvin in 2002, after which I agreed to write a book with him on the Pitzer case. More details of that experience were related in Part One, but I would like now to assess my book's legacy as concerns our present subject. I don't think impartiality is possible, but I will do my best. In retrospect, I am disappointed in the extent to which I was "taken in" not only by Marvin but by many other stories of questionable veracity; I believe I too readily saw corroboration where there was mere similarity. As a review and criticism of what had gone before, Without Smoking Gun was adequate. Some stunning coincidences in the case were noted for the first time. Its inclusion of the ARRB records on Capt. - now Doctor - Vanek was, I believe, a first. A few recollections of Pitzer's life were solicited from one or more family members and included in the book. The book also put some of Allan Eaglesham's findings into print, perhaps for the first time. WSG was printed in 2004, but not in large numbers. It sold in much fewer numbers than that, but it was cited a few years later in one or two highly popular books, which I will discuss shortly. It is there, I believe, that the book will have its most lasting legacy, for better or worse.
William Law's 2005 book with Allan Eaglesham, In the Eye of History, was the next significant book to touch on Pitzer's death. Law interviews Dennis David on several matters, including Pitzer and Marvin. A 2001 interview with Eaglesham is included in the appendix, in which Eaglesham details his reasons for disbelieving Marvin as well as his continuing research in the Pitzer case. Among the most interesting points:
The Pitzer case is discussed from a very biased standpoint in Vincent Bugliosi's highly popular 2007 work, Reclaiming History. This discussion is found not in the printed text, but on a companion CD containing the footnotes. In the Eye of History and Without Smoking Gun are both cited as sources. John Stringer, Pitzer's colleague, was interviewed by Bugliosi in 2002, telling him that Pitzer's death was rumored to have been a result of his extramarital affair having been discovered by his wife (now deceased), who was supposedly going to divorce him. Stringer's ARRB testimony is also cited in which he states that he knew Pitzer well and denies that Pitzer was present at JFK's autopsy. The Navy's investigation is also cited, in which they do point to Pitzer's affair as a possible factor in his suicide. Not mentioned by Bugliosi is the letter from Pitzer's alleged mistress which arrived at his office immediately after his death. The letter is included in the Navy's reports, and it was apparently this which expedited the identification and interview of the woman. As mentioned in both my book and James Douglass' later work (below), there is some justifiable doubt about this aspect of the Navy's report, but not enough to cause me to any longer doubt their conclusion of suicide.
The next - and to date, last - book to devote significant space to the Pitzer case was James Douglass' JFK and the Unspeakable (2008). Of the seven or so pages on the subject, a slight majority are more directly concerned with Dan Marvin (despite this author's advice to the contrary), regrettably passing over the most compelling reasons Marvin's account should be ignored, and presenting without criticism Marvin's problematic timeline on his "epiphany." It is speculative, but no more so than my own work, and otherwise free of demonstrable error. In the Eye of History, TMWKK and Without Smoking Gun are cited often, if selectively.
The only legitimate public curiosity in this case arises from Dennis David's assertion that Pitzer had at one time been in possession of photographs and motion picture film of JFK's corpse; that these images contradicted the findings of the autopsy, and that David also saw them. Period. The rest - the reports of Pitzer having witnessed the autopsy in person, a mangled hand preventing retrieval of Pitzer's wedding ring and suggesting torture, the improbability of Pitzer having shot himself using his right hand, the long unavailability of the autopsy report being indicative of a cover-up - is just noise, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;" and David's recollection alone is far from sufficient to cast serious doubt on the forensic conclusion of Pitzer's suicide.
My own personal resistance to concluding suicide before now has had much to do with lack of closure regarding interesting, but non-central, issues. The most demanding mystery is this: If Pitzer committed suicide, then what is the meaning and significance of Dennis David's recollections? My answer is that one may have nothing to do with the other. This is not a novel in which we may expect a coherent narrative; nor may we justifiably object "That's not the way I would have written it!" when an event foreshadowed is not paid off. To be satisfied with a conclusion of suicide, we naturally want to see the deceased's palm prints on the weapon, the suicide note, the conclusive match of the bullet to the weapon, the "smoking gun;" but that is not always how real life plays out. To be sure, the irregularities of the Kennedy autopsy to which Pitzer had been privy may have weighed on his mind and thus been a contributing factor in his final act, perhaps even influencing his choice of location, but the available evidence very credibly assures us that the hand pulling the trigger and ending his life was his own. If, accepting this as reality, one then wishes to suppose that his suicide was somehow compelled by a connection to the aforementioned autopsy, one would be doing so in the complete absence of evidence.
Another part of the problem is the private nature of some of the most compelling items in evidence. Allan Eaglesham has seen the relevant photos, and as he has documented on his web site, there is no damage to either of Pitzer's hands nor any indication of foul play. The blood spatter patterns on the floor tell a very specific story of how Pitzer's body came to rest. The points of entry and exit for the bullet show that the pistol was held in the middle of the range in which it would have been easiest for Pitzer to hold the muzzle to his own temple. Had the Pitzer autopsy and crime scene photos been as free to circulate as all of the "noise," accounts like Dan Marvin's would have gained much less currency. But for legitimate reasons, they continue to be unseen by the general public. No one wants to see their loved one's corpse on the internet. Some ideas and information are not meant to be spread.
(*The subtitle of this article also derives from a meme. I will mail a signed copy of Without Smoking Gun to whomever can best tell me its history going back at least as far as 1971, the year I was born. I can be contacted via my web site, memresearch.org)