Tuesday, May 30, 2017

David Lifton's Tribute to Dennis David


With regard to the recent passing of Dennis David. .  : Dennis David caused a fundamental change in the nature of my book, Best Evidence, and I’m writing this to pay a tribute to someone who was your “ordinary” person, but who in fact witnessed something extraordinary, and recounted it accurately when I first contacted him by telephone on July 2, 1979 (and then again—on camera—in October 1980).  In doing so, Dennis David rendered a great service to history. 
For those unfamiliar with the story, what follows is how someone with a vital piece of the Kennedy assassination puzzle shared that puzzle piece with the public at large, without worrying about personal consequences, simply because he knew it to be the truth.  There was never a question of having to pay Dennis David any money; he simply acted as he did because he knew it was the proper thing to do.


Its not possible to explain what he did, without telling a bit of the “story of Best Evidence,” and I will try to be brief, keeping in my that my purpose in writing this tribute is to pay homage to a man who changed the nature of my book and, as far as I am concerned, the proper way to view the Kennedy assassination. After years of work, the contract for my manuscript—originally titled Scenario for Treason—was signed with Macmillan publishing in December 1978, just around Christmas time.    The book originally had 24 chapters, and then a concluding chapter. The major thesis -- that the President’s body was altered (i.e., bullets removed, and wounds altered) –was identical to what was (later) published in Best Evidence, but the time line was different.  In December 1978, I believed that the covert intercept of President Kennedy’s body had occurred after 7 p.m., EST, at the doorstep to Bethesda Naval Hospital; specifically, that the intercept had occurred sometime between the arrival of the Dallas casket in the naval ambulance (along with Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy) at about 6:55 p.m., and the start of the official autopsy, which commenced at 8  p.m. in the morgue of the U.S. Navy Medical School. The final manuscript was due around September 1979, and the president of Macmillan, Jeremiah Kaplan, took a personal interest in the project. “Don’t worry about what anyone tells you around here,” he said to me around December 1978. If you have a problem, just come to me.”

This brings us to what happened on July 2, 1979, when I learned about Dennis David, and spoke with him for the very first time.


Another JFK researcher—Wallace Milam—had sent me a newspaper clip from a local Illinois newspaper ((TK: Name it))  stating that a Navy man who had been on duty—someone referred to simply as “the Lake County man”—had stated that the President’s body had not arrived in the naval ambulance carrying the Dallas coffin, and Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy. Rather, it had arrived earlier, in a “black” ambulance (by which, I later learned, he meant a hearse).  

The information reported in this news clip was remarkable: that the large ceremonilal coffin in the naval ambulance (which crowds of people at the front of  Bethesda saw arrive) was empty; and that the President’s body had been delivered “earlier” at the rear morgue entrance. Initially, this had the quality of a “loose end” that I should attend to, and I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, or where it would lead.  Most important, I did not know the name of this Navy person, and I could not responsibly publish the account without identifying the source.  

So, I called the local newspaper, managed to speak with the reporter, (Art Petersen) and asked for his assistance. He remember the interview he had conducted, several years before, but couldn’t remember the man’s name—only that he had been a bit shy about having his name used -- but he promised to help.  The story had been published about five years earlier, in 1975, and he said he would have to search for, and locate,  some old files that were in his attic.  A few days later, he had found the file, we spoke again, and provided the man’s name:  Dennis David.  He did not know Dennis David’s hometown, or where he might then be located.    At this point, I turned to a friend, Dr. Bernard Kenton, who had a friend in the military at the Long Beach, California, naval facility, and that peson, who was in the Navy, agreed to help.  Within a few days, I had the full name –Dennis David—and a location: a small Illinois town I had never heard of before:  Hoopeston, Illinois, about 115 miles south of Chicago.  

 According to Wikipedia,  Hoopeston had a population of about 5,000 “was laid out in 1871. It was named for Thomas Hoopes, one of the men who offered land for the crossing of two railroads: the Lafayette, Bloomington and Western Railroad and the Chicago, Danville and Vincennes Railroad.  The two railroads separated the town into four sections. The latter railroad still exists and is now operated jointly by CSX transportation and Union Pacific Railroad.” It also states that Hoopeston is rather small: that “ [it] has a total area of 3.69 square miles (9.56 km2), all land.[8]

Soon, I had the phone number and on July 2, 1979, I placed the call.  I had no idea what might happen next, so as a precaution, I set up a tape recorder, just in case it was significant, and so I would have record of his “first account.”  What happened next is described verbatim in Chapter 25 of Best Evidence. Dennis David answered the phone, and I introduced myself as an author who was writing a book, and explained that I had the news clip from the t newspaper, and wanted clarification.  Could he help?  Yes, he could—and would, and did, and what then happened, in that first phone call, changed my thinking about the Kennedy assassination.


Dennis described to me what he believed was completely routine, based on his experience in the military, but which was, in fact, extraordinary.  The naval ambulance carrying Jacqueline and Bobby Kennedy, he said, carried an empty coffin.  How did he know that?  Did he see it was empty?  No, he didn’t. He knew it was empty because of what he personally witnessed at the rear morgue entrance, about 20 minutes before.

I asked him to go through his experience that night, chronologically.  And he did.    The President’s body, he explained, was delivered to the rear morgue entrance in a black hearse, driven by a civilian, with some half dozen others—men in suits—inside.  He assumed they were all federal agents. He had gotten some sailors to unload the coffin, which was a shipping casket. They brought the casket to the morgue entrance, but never went inside.  How did he know that the body was in that casket? Because, the next day, he was told that by one of the autopsy doctors, Dr. Boswell, who he knew reasonably weel.

Furthermore, after the shipping casket was brought inside, he (Dennis David) went to the front of the hospital and saw the arrival of the naval ambulance, carrying Mrs. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and  the large  Dallas (ceremonial) casket.    But that was a god twenty minutes later.

David told me that he asked someone “why all this rigmarole?” and was told the answer: “security,” in case someone might attempt to ”hijack the body.”

The tape I made of this (initial) conversation is crystal clear. Its going to be digitized, and placed in the National Archives, in the Kennedy collection.


Although Dennis David had knowledge of this subterfuge, he honestly believed it was simply a security measure; he was not a student of the Kennedy assassination, had no particular knowledge of any conspiracy, and had no awareness that he had witnessed the inner works of what was, in effect, a murder plot. Yet by the end of this conversation, his account had a profound effect on my own thinking.

Before we said our goodbyes, and realizing the historical importance of what he had related, I asked Dennis he would repeat the account on camera, and he assented. He had no problem with that.  I did not want to alarm him so I said nothing about the truly historic significance of what he had witnessed.


Within an hour of getting off the phone with Dennis, I took out my copy of William Manchester’s Death of a President, and other related “already published” material. By simply drawing time lines, and “running the events backwards in time” (as if David’s account was like a movie, running in reverse), it became obvious that an empty casket at the Bethesda front entrance meant an empty casket upon take-off from Dallas. (The basic reason for this conclusion: that once Air Force One took off from Love Field, Jacqueline was always with the casket).   That, perhaps, was the most important consequence of Dennis David’s account: President Kennedy’s body was  placed inside the Dallas coffin at Parkland Hospital, it was inside the Dallas coffin when that coffin arrived at Love Field and was placed aboard the aircraft.  It was not in the coffin about 30 minutes later, 
when Air Force One took off for Washington.

(INSERT: Added on 5/29/16): If someone were to ask me today, "What about Dennis David?  Why does his account matter?"  The answer is very simple: Dennis David's account, if true, provides direct evidence that the coffin offloaded from Air Force One was empty.  Because he was a witness to the sequence of arrivals at Bethesda, he provides direct evidence that the casket off-loaded from Air Force One --i.e., the "Dallas casket") was empty. END INSERT

About two weeks later, the Final Report of the House Committee was issued, and I learned about medical technician Paul O’Connor, who had received the President’s body when the shipping casket that Dennis David saw brought to the morgue was opened. Inside, JFK’s body was in a body bag.
Just as had been the case with Dennis David, I now called Paul O’Connor, and got a detailed account of his experience: the arrival of the body in a body bag, inside a shipping casket.


I then arranged a meeting with Jeremiah Kaplan, the President of Macmillan, who had told me, “If you have a problem, you come to me.”

Well, I certainly did have a problem. The entire concept of “when and where” this subterfuge had occurred had changed, from December 1978, when I signed the original contract. I needed more time to flesh out the details.   I asked for—and was granted—additional time.  I also requested that the title of the book be changed to Best Evidence.

APRIL 1, 1980

When the final manuscript  was turned in on April 1, 1980, the top executives at Macmillan were astonished with the story they now found in the final seven chapters, starting with Chapter 25, titled “The Lake County Informant,” and which told the story of Dennis David, complete with detailed timelines to illustrate the subterfuge he had witnessed at Bethesda.

The book was put on an accelerated production schedule, the goal being to have it in book stores by January 1981.  The top executives were on tenterhooks as to what the government reaction might be, and I proposed that, to support the credibility of the witnesses, and to prevent anyone in the media from attempting to misrepresent their stories, that the witnesses be filmed.  I was particularly concerned that someone like Dan Rather, who held a top position at Sixty Minutes, might attempt to film and misreport—through slick editing—what these witnesses had told me in telephone interviews.  Approval was received for this project, and I telephoned Dennis David and the other key witnesses and asked if we could get his story on film.  He agreed.


The result was a series of remarkable interviews conducted in the last week of October 1980, when we were just about 10 weeks before the public release of the book.   Working with an official at PBS in New York, I outlined a script for a proposed documentary.  Our third stop was Chicago, where we rented a van, and drove the 100 miles south to Hoopeston, where I met Dennis David (for the first time) along with his wife, Dot, and filmed him at his home. 

The filming technology at the time was 16 mm negative film, and that meant a separate sound system, proper synchronization, etc.  The sound man was Mark Dichter, the cameraman was David Watts.  Filming meant the home was crawling with cables for video, audio, and power.  Conducting such an interview at someone’s home could be very intrusive, but Dennis David and his wife were both very accommodating.

Dennis David went through the same story he had told me on the telephone on July 2, 1979; and we went over it several times, to make sure every detail was accurately recorded. Also, during this interview, I was required to cross-examine my own witness—that is, I had to show Dennis David photographs of the Dallas coffin being onloaded onto Air Force One, and challenging his account that perhaps he was mistaken as to what he saw that night, that perhaps this was actually the coffin he saw being brought into Bethesda, and that his account was the result of a misunderstanding.  Dennis David pushed back hard, defending his original account (which is exactly what I wanted, of course).  

He also added a fact that I’m not sure was in the original phone interview—that there was still another coffin that arrived at Bethesda, via helicopter. This turned out to be important, in terms of the possibility that there was either a decoy casket also sent by helicopter, or that there was validity to the account that a Secret Service agent had been shot that day.  No matter, we recorded what he had to say, and included it in the final edit.  (During the interview, Dennis’ dog let out a yelp during one of his answers, and we included that, too!)

When it was over, we had to disassemble the equipment and hurriedly leave to drive to Indianapolis for the flight to our next destination. 


When we returned to New York several days later, the films were sent to Duart Labs for processing, an editing room was rented, and the process of editing began.  The person doing the editing was Arnon Mishkin, who was a news editor from WNET (the PBS station in New York).  Mishkin knew Steve Glauber, Dan Rather’s producer, and Glauber visited our editing room, at least once, possibly more than once.  “Boy, Dan’s going to love this!” he exclaimed, looking forward to the day when our film could be shown to him, so sure was he that Rather would jump at the chance to air it on 60 Minutes.

By mid-December, we had a 40 minute version, and Macmillan’s president, Albert Litewka, the editor in Chief, George Walsh, their General counsel, all met at Sixty Minutes, with Executive Producer Don Hewitt, in a screening room.

The lights were dimmed, and the film was shown. 

Of course, all the witnesses—Dennis David, Paul O’Connor, Aubrey Rike—were important.    There was silence when the film was completed. Then Don Hewitt spoke up, or should I say, screamed, rather angrily:  “Did you pay these people?!”  He was really angry. Here we were, bringing him a story, already filmed!

“Yes,” I responded. “A dollar, for the release.” (It is customary to get assigned release for from anyone who is filmed, and I had done so.)

There was more angry talk, and Mishkin, who knew Hewitt, said something like, “Oh, come on, Don, calm down.”

In fact, Hewitt subsided, and then he warmed to the idea of doing a film.


He focused on Dennis David, and how he had been told by Dr. Boswell that the shipping casket contained Kennedy’s body, and Boswell’s recent statement, perhaps it was to me, that the never spoke to Dennis David.

Hewitt (always with an eye to the theatrical) talked of getting a film crew over to Bethesda and filming Boswell saying exactly that  and then  contrasting it with the film we had, of Dennis David, saying the opposite. In fact, Hewitt was considering arranging a filmed confrontation between Dennis David and Dr. Boswell.

But, to move forward with any of this, Hewitt needed someone who would agree to be the “segment producer.”  So he said he would speak with Rather, and arrange for me to meet with me, and for me to show him the film.

Mid December, 1980: THE FILM IS SCREENED (by me, personally) FOR DAN RATHER. . .

A few days later, I was back at CBS, this time alone, and I met with Dan Rather (who is eight years my senior)  in a screening room.  Once again, the lights went out, and the film was shown.

About 22 minutes later, the film was over. I turned to Rather—the same person of whom Steve Glauber, his producer, had predicted,  “Dan’s going to love this!”--but that was not Rather’s reaction. Not at all. 

Instead, Rather professed puzzlement, as if he were a child, and what I had just shown him was beyond his comprehension. Really: he behaved in that fashion!  He did not understand what the film had conveyed,  he said, what it was all about.  I had to go through it again, explaining it as if he were a child, that if the body was altered, then autopsy results could be changed; not because “the doctors lied,”: but because the “body lied to the doctors.”

Rather responded by saying something rather glib (but important) along these lines: “But since Oswald assassinated the President, there would be no need to alter the body.”  (Yes, he actually said that, or something darn near close to it. Of course: exactly the opposite was the case: if Oswald had not assassinated the President, then there would be every reason to alter the body, or falsify the autopsy in some way).

I could hardly believe my ears. I went over some of the points made in the film, including Dennis David’s account of the arrival of the black hearse, with the shipping casket, prior to the arrival of the naval ambulance at the front ("a good 20 minutes before," said David);  and Paul O’Connor’s account of the body arriving inside the morgue, in a body bag, inside a shipping casket (and with an empty cranium).

Rather looked at me blankly and said: “Well, I think you’ve found some witnesses who remember things a bit differently.” 

Hmmm. . .
(Added, 5/29/2017--1 a.m. PDT):  I was incredulous. At the time, I remember thinking: How can this guy be the anchorman on the CBS Evening News?  He's behaving like an ignorant child. How can he fail to understand what I just showed him, and which was laid out, on the screen, plain as day.  It was only some years later that I "got it".  Rather knew very well what I was showing him, and what I was talking about (just as he knew which way JFK's head went on the Zapruder film).  He just wasn't going to deal with it. At all. Not then, and not ever.   (But I don't wish to digress here and get into the "dark side" of Dan Rather. Another time. . . as in "Final Charade.")

DSL NOTE, 5/29/2017 - 1 a.m. PDT:  For those who wish to see the (nearly) identical film shown to Rather (and to Hewitt) in December 1980,  just Google "David Lifton, Best Evidence Research Video". 

Here's the (current) link:

What you will see there on the screen is the 37 minute video released (as a VHS, by RHINO video, in 1989).  Once there, skip the Intro (that was later added for the 1989 release) and go  directly to 6 min 30 second. Starting there, and for the next 25 minutes (approx) is the film that I showed to Dan Rather, sitting next to him, in a screening room, at CBS headquarters ("Black Rock") in New York City in December 1980. I am sure he never forgot the experience. (And there's more to come, 
when Final Charade is published).

RETURNING NOW to this London Forum post, as originally drafted. . .


That was the bad news.  The good news was that because of the foresight I had in creating a filmed record, and the investment made to do this by my publisher, someone like Dan Rather could not now approach the witnesses, film them, and then report to a Sixty Minutes audience that I had misrepresented what they said.  The film we created didn’t get us on Sixty Minutes (which of course would have been wonderful); but it prevented someone like Dan Rather from mangling my work, and doing a hit piece on Best Evidence, misrepresenting it, as he did the Zapruder film head snap.

January 1981 - DONALD REBENTISCH Comes Forward

Sometime in mid-January, I was in Los Angeles, on my book tour, and staying at the Bonaventure Hotel, when the phone rang.  It was Jerry Morlock, reporter for the Grand Rapids, Michigan, 
newspaper. He called to tell me of a witness, Don Rebentisch, who had witnessed the same thing as Dennis David, and who had not yet read the book. I immediately contacted him, and we had a detailed interview. He corroborated Dennis David’s story, and told me that he knew David, because he would, occasionally, play ards with him. He even knew his wife, he said.  I’m always careful, and since I had met Dennis’ wife, I asked him a simple question: what’s her first name?  “Dottie” (or “Dot”) he replied, and I knew he was “the real deal.”

1988 – KRON-TV (San Francisco)

In 1988, former CBS producer Stanhope Gould, and Sylvia Chase--both of whom had been with 20/20, and had moved on to KRON-TV, in San Francisco--arranged  to do a major documentary built around Best Evidence.  I was a consultant on the show, flew around the country with them on most of the shoots, and arranged for Dennis David to be filmed again.   The interview was successful, but Stanhope told me after the broadcast, that nothing compared, for drama, with the original filmed interviews. And the reason was obvious: in October 1980, Dennis was learning, for the first time, the full importance of what he had witnessed. (And the same was true of Rike, O'Connor, and the others). By 1988, they were all  quite familiar with the basic material, so it did not have the drama of the original interview, which--through the fine camera work of Dave Watts--captured the impact on their psyche, as each of them had their "moment of truth."

July 1989 – With Dennis David, at the Vietnam Wall

In 1989, I raised funds by going to numerous family members, and did additional filming of the Best Evidence witnesses.   On this occasion, I arranged to have Dennid David flown to Washington, and we went through his story again, only this time “on site”, at Bethesda.  We filmed him at the back of the hospital, where the ambulance arrived and then up in the veranda at the front of Bethesda, where he was standing when he saw the naval ambulance arrive.  In addition, we went to the Vietnam War memorial, where Dennis David was quite emotional because he was able to find at least one friend of his, who had died in Vietnam, and whose name was inscribed on the wall.  The 1989 filming was the last time I saw Dennis David.

1995: THE BOYAJIAN DOCUMENT (is discovered)

Around 1995, a JFK researcher discovered a document written by Sgt. Roger Boyajian,who  commanded the USMC Security Detail that guarded the morgue. Boyajian said that the body was delivered to the morgue at 18:35 (6: 35 p.m.), which was 20 minutes before the naval ambulance arrived at the front. In our interviews—and particularly in the film interview—Dennis had told me, with considerable force, that the black ambulance he had seen arrive at the back had arrived “a good twenty minutes before" that naval ambulance arrived at the front. Bingo!  Here was documentary corroboration for Dennis David’s account!*  And it was truly remarkable: in 1980, on camera, Dennis David had specifically mentioned the time lapse as “a good 20 minutes!”.  And here was a written document, dated November 1963, which provided corroboration for that exact time lapse: 1835 (6:35) for the arrival of the shipping casket; 6:55 p.m. for the arrival of the naval ambulance.

*In a separate post, I will relate the story of the two JFK researchers, opposed to my work, who had this document and withheld it from me for about 18 months, because they knew it would corroborate Dennis David's account, and validate my work.  (Some "collegiality" . . eh?)


I mentioned above the casual way that Dan Rather attempted to dismiss the account of Dennis David (and others) by stating that I had merely found “witnesses who remember things a bit differently.”  That was the way Rather brushed off the accounts of Dennis David, and Paul O’Connor.
First of all, I resent anyone having the gall to brush off the interview such as the one I had with Dennis David  by saying that I had “found a witness who remembered things a bit differently.”  Second, when Final Charade is published, the reader will be introduced to some jaw-dropping evidence that suggests that Dan Rather was in fact quite knowledgeable about the body-centric plot that took President Kennedy’s life, and his casual dismissal of a witness as important as Dennis David (blocking my appearance on Sixty Minutes), when joined with the way Rather misreported the JFK headsnap—will take on a new meaning.

* * *

Dennis David was an ordinary American who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  My conversation with him on the night of July 2, 1979 changed the course of my own life, and the nature of the book that I was writing.  He was the first witness to provide evidence that led to the conclusion that the coffin off-loaded from Air Force One, in the nationally televised event when Air Force One arrived at Andrews on the night of 11/22/63. was empty.  That single fact is simply stunning.

On a personal level, I am deeply indebted to the contribution that he made, both to my work, and to history.  More important, I would hope that Cleo, the Muse of History, has a special place for someone who performed such a valuable public service, by providing history with an essential “missing piece” of the Kennedy assassination puzzle. Without fully understanding the full implications of what he had seen, Dennis David was one of history's "first responders."  

And I wish him well. RIP Dennis David.

David S. Lifton
5/28/2017 – 7:30 a.m. PDT; edited 5/29/17, 2:30 a.m. PDT
Los Angeles, California

1 comment:

  1. David, thank you for compiling this touching tribute to Dennis David. I was very sorry indeed to hear of his passing, as he is one of the many unsung heroes of the research community (as well as being a true, "stand up" gentleman). Like you, I wish Mr. David a restful onwards journey to his next adventure. A big, heartfelt vote of thanks is due to you also for your tireless work in this case. With every good wish, Paul Hemming