On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the debate over whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is still unresolved. Polls indicate 60% of Americans do not believe the official explanation. Investigative reporter George Knapp looks into why there are so many theories, and the Las Vegas link. Originally aired on Nov. 21, 2013, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas. First of 3 Parts.
Half a century ago, a small army of FBI agents swooped into Las Vegas to look for possible links between Las Vegas and the dark events in Dallas.
Theories on the John F. Kennedy assassination abound even today. The mob did it, the Cubans, the Russians, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson. Or maybe all of the above?
More than 1,400 books, countless TV specials, news reports, and conspiracy websites have explored the various scenarios.
Las Vegas plays a role in pretty much all of them, even the official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
Sheriff Ralph Lamb had just sat down for a meal when he heard the news. Channel 8 newsman Hank Thornley saw the story flash across the wires. Everyone who was alive at the time remembers where they were when they first heard the terrible word out of Dallas that the president had been shot.
Within two days of the murder, Dallas police announced that Lee Harvey Oswald had done it, and that he acted alone. That was also the conclusion of the Warren Commission nearly a year later. But it’s a story the public has never been able to swallow.
Author Gerald Posner’s book about the JFK murder still ignites a passionate response from those who simply can’t believe the Warren Commission.
“I’ve done books on Chinese Triads and Nazi war criminals and terrorists, and the King assassination,” he said. “But the only time I got threats on my life, literally threats on my life, was to say Oswald did it alone.”
Posner, who was in Las Vegas last month for a panel at the Mob Museum, agrees with the ends, but not the means.
“They should have pursued every lead. The FBI, the CIA lied to the Warren Commission. The Warren Commission got the shooting sequence wrong. There are so many mistakes in this. The autopsy of the president was terrible, so the official explanation came, I believe, to the right conclusion but did it for all the wrong reasons … and laid the groundwork for a ton of conspiracy speculation.”
Even defenders of the Warren Commission agree with critics who say the panel was not created to solve the crime.
“The Warren Commission had a common goal: to make sure this didn’t lead to accusations that the Soviet Union or Cuba were carrying out the assassination because they didn’t want a war,” said forensic historian and author Patrick Nolan. “So okay, to prevent a war was simple. Just have a lone gunman.”
But when nightclub owner Jack Ruby murdered the lone suspect on national TV, conspiracy theories kicked into high gear, and the first official doubter was likely Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of the slain president.
The Justice Department was well aware of JFK’s Las Vegas connections, and the potentially embarrassing ties between his Rat Pack buddies and the heads of organized crime. On the day after Ruby killed Oswald, Las Vegas was flooded with FBI agents asking questions about Ruby and his connections to organized crime. And there were many.
“We have Ruby totally connected to the mob,” said Ed Becker, a mob-connected Las Vegas Hotel insider turned private eye.
“He worked for a man named Red Dorfman in Chicago,” Becker said. “Red Dorfman was a brutal union mobster. He was part of the mob, and Ruby worked for him in Chicago. Who was Red Dorfman? Father of Alan Dorfman, (Jimmy) Hoffa’s best friend. Whoops, here we go again.”
Becker was interviewed by the FBI a week after the assassination. Records from the Warren Commission show at least 27 other Las Vegans were quizzed by FBI agents.
Among them: Jackie Gaughan, owner of the Flamingo and El Cortez hotels at the time, who said he had spoken with gambler Benny Binion about Jack Ruby. They speculated that Ruby had been in Las Vegas a week before the assassination. That story had also been told by TV newsman Gordon Kent, who refused to give up his sources to the FBI.
A caddy master at the Tropicana Golf Club named Joseph Stefan thought Ruby had played the course weeks earlier but couldn’t be sure. A Tropicana bell captain named A.J. Ricci thought he had seen Ruby in town a year earlier, but under an assumed name.
The FBI’s primary focus was on a longtime casino manager named Lewis McWillie. McWillie had known Ruby since the early ‘50s, spent time with him in mob-owned casinos in Havana and spoke to him often by phone. In Cuba, McWillie had worked for mob boss Santo Trafficante but told the FBI he doubted that Ruby knew any of the big name mob bosses.
“Ruby was here in Las Vegas? Sure,” Becker said. “McWillie, who was the pit boss at the Thunderbird and Lansky’s right hand here. A week before the assassination, Ruby sent McWillie a .38 revolver. That’s how close they were.”
In his FBI interviews, McWillie downplayed his relationship with Ruby, portraying Ruby as a bit of a pest. But when Ruby was questioned by the Warren Commission after killing Oswald, he mentioned McWillie 22 times, saying he “idolized the man.” Years later, the lawyer who headed up a House probe of the assassination also interviewed McWillie and came to believe that his pal Jack Ruby had, in fact, worked directly for Mafia bosses.
“People like Trafficante didn’t have their money in banks,” said Robert Blakely, Notre Dame law professor and an authority on the JFK assassination. “They had it in the ground. And they had to send people into Cuba who were not connected with them to bring the money out. I think that’s one of the things Jack Ruby was doing.”
Contrary to the Warren Commission report saying Oswald acted alone, Blakey and the House Assassinations Committee decided years later that JFK might have been the victim of a conspiracy, possibly involving the mob.