Did He See a Grassy Knoll Shooter?
If Ed Hoffman's account is accurate, there was a Grassy Knoll shooter and a conspiracy.
A deaf mute, Hoffman now claims to have stopped above the on-ramp of the Stemmons Freeway, hoping to get a view of the presidential limousine as it drove past. He thus had a view of the area behind the Stockade Fence at the time of the shooting in Dealey Plaza. He claims to have seen a man, dressed in a business suit, shoot from behind the fence, and then toss the rifle to a man in a man dressed as a railroad worker, who disassembled it, put it into a case, and walked off.
An explosive story, if true.
But what was Hoffman saying at the time of the assassination? It's very difficult to know, but we do know about the first recorded version of his account. In 1967 Hoffman went to the FBI and gave them his story. An FBI report of June 28, 1967 says:
Hoffman said he was standing a few feet south of the railroad on Stemmons Freeway when the motorcade passed him taking President Kennedy to Parkland Hospital. Hoffman said he observed two white males, clutching something dark to their chests with both hands, running from the rear of the Texas School Book Depository building. The men were running north on the railroad, then turned east, and Hoffman lost sight of both of the men.
Then, the report adds, Hoffman partially retracted his story.
Approximately two hours after the above interview with Hoffman, he returned to the Dallas Office of the FBI and advised he had just returned from the spot on Stemmons Freeway where he had parked his automobile and had decided he could not have seen the men running because of a fence west of the Texas School Book Depository building. He said it was possible that he saw these two men on the fence or something else.
The FBI took Hoffman seriously enough to try investigate further. Another FBI report of July 6, 1967 recounts:
On July 5, 1967, Mr. E. Hoffman, father of Virgil E. Hoffman, and Fred Hoffman, brother of Virgil Hoffman, were interviewed at 428 West Main Street, Grand Prairie, Texas. Both advised that Virgil Hoffman has been a deaf mute his entire life and has in the past distorted facts of events observed by him. Both the father and brother stated that Virgil Hoffman loved President Kennedy and had mentioned to them just after the assassination that he (Virgil Hoffman) was standing on the freeway near the Texas School Book Depository at the time of the assassination. Virgil Hoffman told them he saw numerous men running after the President was shot. The father of Virgil Hoffman stated that he did not believe that his son had seen anything of value and doubted he had observed any men running from the Texas School Book Depository and for this reason had not mentioned it to the FBI.
These two documents, with Hoffman saying nothing about seeing any shooter, and his father and brother casting doubt on his reliability, would seem to be damning for his current story. But his supporters do have counter arguments. The vulgar one is that the FBI simply lied about what he said. Hoffman at various times has accused the FBI of offering him money to keep quiet. The less vulgar one claims that there was likely miscommunication here. Not only did Hoffman write rather badly, the FBI had no sign-language interpreter in Dallas in 1967. Also, Hoffman's supporters claim that his father feared for his son's safety if he became involved.
While there is no record of Hoffman telling his current story in the 1960s, by the 70s he was clearly doing so. Hoffman's friend and coworker, Richard H. Freeman phoned the FBI and gave them Hoffman's story as Hoffman had told it to him.
Hoffman was watching the motorcade of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, at Dallas, Texas. Hoffman was standing on Stemmons Freeway watching the presidential motorcade, looking in an easterly direction when the motorcade sped away and headed north on Stemmons Freeway. Hoffman communicated that this must have been right after President Kennedy was shot. Hoffman saw two men, one with a rifle and one with a handgun, behind a wooden fence, approximately six feet in height, at this moment. This fence is located on the same side of Elm Street as the Texas School Book Depository building but closer to Stemmons Freeway. Since he is deaf, he naturally could not hear any shots but thought he saw a puff of smoke in the vicinity of where the two men were standing. As soon as he saw the motorcade speed away and saw the puff of smoke in the vicinity of the two men, the man with the rifle looked like he was breaking the rifle down by removing the barrel from the stock and placing it in some dark type of suitcase that the other man was holding. The two men then ran north on the railroad tracks by actually running on the tracks. Hoffman was standing approximately 75 yards from this fence.
Both men were white males, both dressed in some type of white suits, and both wore ties. He was too far away to furnish a more detailed description. There were no other people in his area of observation, nor in the area where the two men were standing behind the fence.
The FBI then interviewed Hoffman. An FBI report by Udo H. Specht recounts what Hoffman said.
On March 28, 1977, Virgil E. Hoffman accompanied Special Agent [REDACTED] to Stemmons Freeway, also known as Interstate Highway 35 North, Dallas, Texas.
Hoffman communicated that he was driving a 1962 Ford Falcon on November 22, 1963. He parked his car on the west shoulder of Stemmons Freeway at the northbound lane near the Texas and Pacific Railroad overpass that crosses Stemmons Freeway. He could not see the presidential motorcade as it was proceeding west on Elm Street toward the Triple Underpass. He saw the motorcade speed up as it emerged on Stemmons Freeway heading north. His line of vision was due east looking from Stemmons Freeway toward the Texas School Book Depository building. The two men he saw were behind the wooden fence above the grassy knoll north of Elm Street and just before the Triple Underpass. He indicated he saw smoke in that vicinity and saw the man with the rifle disassembling the rifle near some type of railroad track control box located close to the railroad tracks. Both men ran north on the railroad tracks.
This is the basic story that Hoffman told throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, although note that Freeman's version of Hoffman's story has both men dressed similarly.
Hoffman gave generally similar accounts in the video "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" (1988), and in "Beyond JFK" (1992). But the next detailed examination of the Hoffman story was by Bill Sloan in his 1993 book, JFK: Breaking the Silence. As recounted by Sloan:
In his account of watching the events behind the Stockade Fence, Hoffman discusses the characters "businessman" and "train man." "Businessman" is described as "neatly attired in a dark business suit, complete with white shirt, necktie, and short-brimmed black hat." "Train man" is described as wearing "striped overalls and a cap andlooked to be a railroad worker going about his duties. . . " (p. 16).
Hoffman then describes the shooting scenario:
I could see that the top was down on the president's car and I could see the people inside waving at the crowds, although I couldn't make out yet who was who. Part of me wanted to concentrate on seeing the president, but I couldn't keep from looking back at the two men behind the fence.
Just as I did look back, the man in the business suit raised the gun. I saw him rest it on the pickets in the fence. . . .
And just then I saw a spark of light. I saw a puff of fluffy white smoke. The first thing that crossed my mind was that it might be from a cigarette, but it was much too big for that.
When I realized it was a shot, I was totally shocked. I couldn't believe it.
An instant later, I saw the businessman turn back away from the fence, and as he turned around, I could clearly see the gun in his hand. I could see the brown stock as he held the gun out in front of him. Then, very quickly, he tossed the gun over to the train man and started running. He ran past the parked cars and kept on going, running north into the railroad yards. (p. 18)
The most recent, and most detailed, version of Hoffman's account was published by JFK Lancer in 1997. Authored by Hoffman and Ron Friedrich it is titled Eye Witness (it is now, unfortunately, out of print). A close reading reveals some interesting details.
While Ed was waiting for the President, he saw the following:
(a) A stocky man in the dark blue business suit & black hat stood near the stockade fence.
(b) A tall, slender railroad workman stood by the tracks at the switch box.
(c) Three men in railroad workmen [sic] stood on the first bridge of the Triple Underpass. . . . Their backs were toward Ed as they leaned on the guard rail looking out over Dealey Plaza. We assume that Sam Holland was one of those three men that he saw on the railroad bridge.
. . .
In the moments immediately before the assassination Ed saw:
. . .
The man in the business suit . . . walked over to the "railroad man" standing by the switch box, spoke very briefly with him, and then returned to his position behind the fence.
The "railroad man" bent down and seemed [to] work with something on the ground near the switch box. The "suit man" at the fence bent down, then stood up, and looked over the fence.
Ed saw a puff of smoke by the "suit man" and assumed it was from a cigarette.
[The] man in the blue suit turned, holding a rifle, and ran the short distance to the man at the switch box. . . .
The three men (c) on the triple overpass began what appeared to Ed as an animated discussion, looking and pointing toward the fence. Ed assumes that they could see the front of the fence, the side facing toward Dealey Plaza, and that they saw the same puff of smoke he did.
The "suit man" tossed the rifle over to the "railroad man." (There was a thin, horizontal pipe, about four feet off the ground, and a shallow ditch beneath the pipe, and couple [of] yards from the railroad tracks, which separated the "suit man" from the "railroad man.")
The "railroad man" received the rifle, dismantled it, stashed it in the "tool box," and started running north along the tracks. (Military people tell us that this kind of rifle can be dismantled in less time [than] it takes to describe it — click and twist.) Ed emphasizes that both men acted very quickly.
Meanwhile, the men on the triple overpass still stood there, pointing toward the area of the smoke by the fence, and gesticulating rather visibly.
The man in the blue suit assumed a casual composure, and sauntered back toward the north end of the fence.
A police officer (d) ran from the south end of the triple overpass to the middle of the bridge where the three railroad men are standing, shouting, and pointing. It appeared to Ed that the police officer joined the three in their animated conversation.
. . .
A police officer . . . came around the north end of the fence. He saw and confronted the "suit man." The policeman held his service revolver in both both hands, arms extended forward, legs spread and slightly squat.
The "suit man" first held both arms out to his side, as if to gesture, "It wasn't me. See, I have nothing." Then the "suit man" reached inside his suit coat and pulled out something (presumably identification) and showed it to the police officer. The officer relaxed, and both men mingled with the crowd coming around the fence.
We assume this police officer was Joe Marshall Smith, who testified before the Warren Commission about this encounter. (pp. 7-9)
Adding Joe Marshall Smith
It would make sense that this was Joe Marshall Smith, a Dallas police officer who reached the area behind the Stockade Fence soon after the shots were fired, and confronted an agent of some sort who showed him credentials. This part of Hoffman's account would seem to be strongly corroborated by Smith's testimony if it were independently given. The problem is that the latter-day account that includes Smith flatly contradicts the account that he gave Bill Sloan and the account he was giving in the 1970s. In the account he gave Sloan, Hoffman said of Suit Man "He ran past the parked cars and kept on going, running north into the railroad yards."
It appears that between the time he talked to Sloan and the time he gave his account to Friedrich he learned of Joe Marshall Smith's testimony and incorporated into his story.
Adding the "Railroad Men" to the Story
Another element never seen before in this account is the three "railroad men" on the Underpass — Sam Holland and two of his cohorts (presumably Richard Dodd and James Simmons). Why do Holland and his two friends appear in the later account, and not in any of the earlier ones?
Ed Hoffman, in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 2002, talking to interested sightseers. (Photo: Leland Watts)
By the time he gave his story to Ron Friedrich, Hoffman apparently knew he had a problem with Holland.
Immediately after the shooting, Holland and several other railroad workers ran around to the area behind the Stockade Fence, where they believed at least one shot came from. Their path led them directly toward the signal box where "railroad man" was supposedly dismantling the rifle. And it led them behind the Stockade Fence precisely in the path of the retreating "Suit Man" assassin.
Yet neither Holland nor any of his cohorts reported seeing a Railroad Man breaking down the rifle, nor Suit Man with a rifle in his hands.
I was in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1993, watching Hoffman show his scenario to a substantial crowd. A skeptic in the crowd shouted "what about Sam Holland?" Hoffman, being deaf, could not have heard the question, but somebody could well have conveyed it — from this or another source — to him.
Hoffman attacks this problem in two ways. He speeds up the retreat of Suit Man and the disassembling of the rifle by Railroad Man. And he slows down the run behind the Stockade Fence by Holland and his railroad buddies. He runs into trouble on both counts.
First, he has Suit Man run "the short distance" to the railroad man, and toss him the rifle. Unfortunately, he has placed the shooting position of Suit Man at the "HSCA acoustic" position, near the corner of the fence. This position has a venerable history in assassination lore, but it's about 30 yards from the steam pipe over which Suit Man supposedly tossed the rifle to Railroad Man.
And it was impossible to "run" from the shooters position to the steam pipe.
The parking lot was jammed with cars. Sam Holland, who ran from the Underpass to the "shooters position" from the opposite direction, said:
They were just bumper to bumper . . . just a sea of cars. You couldn't hardly get through them. We were jumping over the bumpers, over the hoods of the cars to work our way to the spot that we saw the smoke and heard the shot. (Mark Lane video "The Plot to Kill JFK: Rush to Judgment")
In the wake of the shooting, Sam Holland and some of his fellow railroad employees, who were standing on the Triple Underpass, ran around behind the Stockade Fence, from which they thought the shots were fired. Conspiracists have long touted Holland's impression as to the source of the shots, but his testimony flatly rules out the possibility of a Grassy Knoll shooter doing what Hoffman said he was doing without being seen by Holland and his buddies. Mark Lane filmed an interview with Holland describing his reactions.
You can watch the clip in streaming RealMedia video by clicking here (128K ISDN or better connection)
You can download the clip by clicking here (you may need to right click and select "Save Target As.")
Thus Holland, who said he ran around behind the fence "immediately" when the limo disappeared beneath the Underpass estimated that it took him a minimum of two minutes to reach the "shooter's position" (Mark Lane, Rush to Judgment, p. 34).
It thus would have been physically impossible for the shooter to do what Hoffman describes him doing. And it would have been impossible for the entire scenario to have played out before Holland and his buddies began their run.
Only Three "Railroad Men"
In describing the three "railroad men," Hoffman fails entirely to mention that they ran around behind the Stockade Fence. Rather he has them talking and gesturing on the Underpass the entire time. But the worst part of his story is that he describes three and only three "railroad men" on the Underpass. He has apparently learned of Holland, Dodd, and Simmons. But it appears to have escaped his attention that many more men were on the Underpass. To quote Holland's Warren Commission testimony:
Mr. STERN. Tell me if this is correct, Mr. Holland. At the time' the Presidential motorcade arrived, to the best of your recollection, on the overpass there were two uniformed Dallas Police, and the following employees of the Terminal Co. yourself, Mr. Reilly, Mr. Dodd, Mr. Potter, Mr. Winburn, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Cowzert, and perhaps one other man?
Mr. HOLLAND. That's right.
Mr. STERN. So, that would be eight including yourself, plus two employees of the railroad. One of the T. & P. and one of the Katy?
Mr. HOLLAND. That's right.
And indeed, photographs of the Triple Underpass in the wake of the shooting appear to show ten to twelve people (Robert Groden, The Killing of a President, pp. 43, 46).
So why in the world does Hoffman vividly describe three and only three railroad workers on the Underpass? Apparently, from learning the testimony of Holland, Simmons, and Dobb. Apparently not from actually viewing the scene on the Underpass in the wake of the assassination.
Given that Hoffman altered his story in important ways in the 1990s, does that mean that the "Suit Man" shooting at Kennedy and "Railroad Man" disassembling the rifle are additions also?
A More Critical View
Researcher Duke Lane does an intensive analysis both of witness testimony and the terrain of the area in "Freeway Man," a detailed and critical view of the Hoffman testimony.
It's important to note that some aspects of Hoffman's story are corroborated. Hoffman claims to have seen — and have tried to draw the attention of — a police officer on the railroad bridge over the Stemmons Freeway. There was indeed an officer on that bridge, one Earle V. Brown. This is something Hoffman would not likely have known unless he was there.
His very earliest accounts have Hoffman saying he was stopped on the Stemmons Freeway at the time the assassination happened. He claimed that a Secret Service agent pointed a rifle in his direction. A photo, shot by Al Volkland, of the Secret Service follow-up car speeding down the Stemmons Freeway toward Parkland Hospital shows Agent Hickey brandishing an AR-15 assault rifle, and it might well have been pointed toward Hoffman as the car sped up the ramp (Richard Trask, Pictures of the Pain, p. 477). And Earle Brown told the Warren Commission what he saw as the motorcade rushed beneath him on the freeway:
Mr. BROWN. Well, let me see, by that time the escort as to the motorcycles, we could see them coming, the front part of the motorcade, I don't think they probably realized what happened; they had come on ahead. And then we saw the car coming with the President, and as it passed underneath me I looked right down and I could see this officer in the back; he had this gun and he was swinging it around, looked like a machinegun, and the President was all sprawled out, his foot on the back cushion. (6H234)
Brown is obviously confused on some points, but his testimony corroborates Hoffman's with regard to the Secret Service agent brandishing a weapon.
Other elements of Hoffman's story fail the plausibility test. His claim to have seen a puff of smoke when Suit Man shot at Kennedy is implausible given the fact that modern firearms don't let off big puffs of smoke when they are fired. There was most likely a puff of motorcycle exhaust in the air over Elm Street in the wake of the assassination — as several of the witnesses said. Unlike the "police officer on the bridge," the "puff of smoke" is in virtually every conspiracy book.
But "Holland's Run" is the Achilles Heel of the Hoffman account. It's impossible that the little tableau that Hoffman described could have played itself out without Holland and his friends seeing Suit Man or seeing the Railroad Man disassemble the rifle. That he really saw two men running is easy enough to believe. That they were the shooter and his accomplice is vastly less likely.
When Did He Add the Shooter to His Story?
If Hoffman didn't literally see a shooter, did he add that element to his story sometime after he talked to the FBI in 1967, or was it there all along? Mark Panlener, in a thorough review of this issue, concludes that Hoffman was telling of seeing a shooter and accomplice from the very beginning. Two witnesses, his wife Rosie, and his friend Lucien Pierce, confirm that he was telling of a shooter as far back as 1963. However, both are friends of Hoffman, and would not want to see him embarrassed. One need not believe they are lying to doubt their corroboration of Hoffman's story. It would suffice that they have heard several versions of the story, and are simply confused, remembering details given later as part of the first telling.
On the other side is Ed's father Frederick Hoffman who maintained until his death in 1976 his son's first version of the story did not mention the two men behind the fence or seeing a shot fired. Hoffman supporters claim that Frederick was simply lying — not from evil motives but out of a desire to avoid seeing his son in harm's way. Also failing to confirm Hoffman is his uncle, Robert Hoffman, a police officer. As he told Sloan:
Maybe it is better that I didn't understand what he had seen. I know that Eddie's a very bright person and always has been, and can't think of any reason why he would make up something like this. It would be completely out of his character for him to change his story or to add to it at a later date, but all I knew at the time was that someone in a car had pointed a gun at him. I understood it to be a shotgun. His father was very, very concerned that Eddie knew anything about the assassination at all. It was time when suspicions were running high and he [Frederick] was worried about Eddie getting involved in any way . . . If I had known the whole thing I guess it would have been my duty [as a police officer] to come forward with the information and I imagine Chief Curry would liked to have known about it. But as a relative, I would have probably have felt pretty much like Eddie's father felt . . . It just wasn't a time for loose statements that couldn't be proved or backed up with any evidence. (Sloan p. 30-31)
The fact that Hoffman changed his story in the 1990s, adding the Joe Marshall Smith encounter and Sam Holland and his coworkers, might suggest that he was capable of changing it between the time he talked to the FBI in 1967 and the time he talked to them again in 1977. But it's also possible that this badly shaken and highly emotional witness was talking about seeing a shooter when he first told his story on November 22, 1963.
If so, it's unlikely that his account included the details so familiar in later conspiracy accounts.