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Pitzer: An Update

by Allan R.J. Eaglesham
April 1999

The body of Lieutenant Commander William B. Pitzer was found in a pool of blood at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC), Bethesda, MD, on the evening of Saturday 29 October 1966. A revolver lay on the floor nearby. In due course, two US Navy investigations and one by the FBI would deduce that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

This untimely passing is one of some forty so-called mysterious deaths of people directly or indirectly associated with the assassination of President Kennedy or its aftermath. Bill Pitzer is indirectly linked to Kennedy death via friend and colleague, then Chief Petty Officer and later Lt. Cmdr., Dennis David, who maintains that, within a few days of the assassination, he saw in Pitzer possession at the NNMC black and white photographs, color slides and, most significantly, movie film exposed during President Kennedy autopsy. Such a movie has never seen the light of day, with the possible exception of viewing by the Warren Commission (see below).

In September 1997, FOIA-released documents, relating to the FBI investigation of Pitzer death, came into my possession. The physical evidence described therein is inconsistent with suicide, therefore I wrote a summary of it for publication. Robin Palmer acted as a sounding board and co-authored The Untimely Death of Lt. Cmdr. W.B. Pitzer, which was published in this journal (1). An interpretive piece followed (2), the final sentences of which were as follows:

"(We) feel that the information now available ... is so persuasive of homicide that a push to have the case reopened is in order. In accordance with that objective, we have sent copies of The Untimely Death of Lt. Cmdr. William Pitzer, preprints of this article, the 140-plus pages of FBI documents and the Informal Board of Investigation Report, to:

  • Ms. J. Reno, US Attorney General.
  • Mr. J.J. Curran, Jr., Attorney General of the State of Maryland.
  • Captain J.F. Caffrey, Commanding Officer, Naval School of Health Sciences, Bethesda.
  • The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Ithaca Journal.
  • If/when there are any further developments, we will communicate them to the JFK/DPQ readership."

    The items were mailed 17 March 1998.

    The purpose of this article is to provide interested parties with an update, to put on record the progress towards having the case reopened, and to cover ancillary aspects that shed new light.

    We did not expect these newspapers to jump on the story, but hope springs eternal, and their inclusion on the list just might have pressured the authorities to take our message seriously and act on it. There was no response, not even the courtesy of an acknowledgment, from The New York Times or our local paper the Ithaca Journal. The latter, a Gannett newspaper, may be excused in view of the fact that the package was delivered by hand. We were told it would be sent to John Hanchette in the Washington DC office. It might just as well have been sent to the moon.

    A letter dated 8 April 1998 was received from the Washington Post, signed by �The Editors� that stated simply:

    "Thank you for your letter, but we cannot pursue this matter."

    Contact with the Washington Times by e-mail resulted in a request to send information to Jerry Seper. Accordingly, I e-mailed the articles with a request for his expression of interest, and heard nothing.

    Likewise, the articles were sent by mail to Christopher Ruddy, after he indicated interest, without feedback. Mr. Ruddy authored The Strange Death of Vincent Foster (New York: The Free Press, 1997), in which there are several coincidental parallels with the Pitzer case.

    No acknowledgment of receipt of our package came back from Captain John F. Caffrey, Commanding Officer of the Naval School of Health Sciences (previously the Naval Medical School), Bethesda. Therefore, in a letter dated 27 July 1998, I asked him what progress had been made towards having the case reopened. In response, Lt. Cmdr. Dorka M. Picard called, saying that Capt. Caffrey was no longer in charge and there was no record of receipt of our original letter and documents. About a week later, Lt. Cmdr. Picard informed me that contact had been made with Capt. Caffrey, who said that the materials had been sent to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS, previously the Naval Investigative Service) and a letter to that effect had been sent to me; I received no such communication.

    I would discover later that the letter, articles and accompanying documents were forwarded from the NCIS to the FBI.

    Mr. CURRAN
    In response to the package sent to Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Staff Attorney Margaret W. Tindall wrote to say that:

    ". . . Maryland Attorney General Office has no jurisdiction to investigate or enforce criminal laws for crimes committed in federal enclaves such as the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda."

    We expected nothing more than this response, but, at least, that base had been covered.

    Ms. Tindall suggested contacting the US Attorney for Maryland, Lynne A. Battaglia, which I did, enclosing the articles and ancillary documents. After three months and no acknowledgment, a follow-up letter induced this response from Ms. Battaglia:

    "The United States Attorney Office does not have responsibility for opening or reopening investigations. Allegations are presented to this office by law enforcement agencies and a decision is then made to open or decline a matter. In reviewing the materials you provided it appears as though the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted the initial investigation in 1966 and therefore, your request that this matter be reopened should be addressed to them."

    Which had already been done.

    Ms. RENO
    The materials sent to Attorney General Janet Reno resulted in a letter from FBI Supervisory Special Agent Charles B. Smith, dated 24 April 1998:

    "In the interest of thoroughness and justice, the FBI continues to accept and investigate all credible information relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since you believe Lieutenant Commander William B. Pitzer death in 1966 was related to that assassination, I am sending a copy of your letter and the material you enclosed to our Dallas Office for its review."

    Responding to SA Smith:

    "William Pitzer died approximately four miles from your office; we asked that the circumstances of his demise be investigated, not that of President Kennedy, hence I do not see the logic in your referring the materials to your Dallas Office. Sir, if you did not read what we sent, you have been ill advised. Please reconsider this referral.

    A copy of this letter will be sent to the Dallas FBI office, asking that the documents, and the request that the case be reopened, be returned to you."

    Mr. Danny A. Defenbaugh, SAC Dallas, returned the documents to me �to avoid any further confusion or misunderstanding.� He suggested contacting the Baltimore field office, �to ascertain if they, instead of FBIHQ, would be the appropriate contact to direct your inquiries.�

    On 21 May, I sent the articles etc. to the FBI Baltimore field office, and on 16 July received a letter from SAC David R. Knowlton stating that the materials had been sent to NCIS.

    And so, we had come full circle: information sent to the navy had been forwarded to the FBI, and the same information sent to the FBI had been forwarded to the navy.

    I wrote to Mr. Knowlton asking the following:

  • "Why did you decide on this course of action?
  • "What is your opinion on the conclusions reached in the two articles, vis-�-vis the physical evidence generated by the FBI, and its implications?
  • "What directives or requests, if any, did you make to NCIS?"
  • "How do you expect NCIS to proceed in this matter?"
  • He did not reply.

    Enclosing a copy of Mr. Knowlton letter of 16 July to me, I wrote to the NCIS on 23 July, seeking responses to the following:

  • "Did Mr. Knowlton make any directives or requests in his covering letter to you?"
  • "May I have a copy of his covering letter to you?"
  • "How do you expect to proceed with this matter?"
  • In response, a call was received from NCIS Death Investigations Squad Leader, Special Agent David DiPaola. He told me that he had received the original package from Captain Caffrey and had sent it on to the FBI Washington field office. Mr. DiPaola declined to reveal the contents of Mr. Knowlton letter to him. He informed me that N(C)IS records of Bill Pitzer death would have been routinely destroyed after 25 years (i.e. in 1991; now all records are preserved for 75 years). However, he indicated that an intact record of the Pitzer case may yet be held by the FBI. At the conclusion of his call, SA DiPaola imparted the encouraging news that the articles and accompanying documents would be sent to the NCIS Cold Case Squad (3) for review, which remains pending at time of writing.

    A request to the navy under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act, resulted in receipt of a copy of the Report of the Informal Board of Investigation into William Pitzer death, the contents of which we were already familiar with (4). My request for copies of photographs taken at the crime scene and at the autopsy, including roentgenograms, was refused - but the wording of the response revealed that the possession at least one photograph of significant potential importance:

    "After weighing the public interest in releasing the photograph taken at the scene of death..."

    If this photograph reveals a gunshot wound in the left temple, it will constitute proof of homicide (5).

    Mrs. Pitzer has stated that her husband made eleven secret trips during the last year of his life (6). Furthermore, written communications between the navy and the FBI relating to the death were copied to the Office of Naval Intelligence. In response to a recently submitted FOIA request to ONI seeking their files on Pitzer and his death, a call from Ms. Nell Hayes informed me that the logical repository for such records would be NCIS. I explained that, given the 25-year limit I had hoped to obtain the records of the NCIS investigation of Pitzer death from ONI. She explained that the 25-year limit was a ruling that applied to all federal agencies, including the FBI. When I explained that the FBI still had possession of their investigation records (see below) she said that some records may be held longer than 25 years if they have historical value. That gave me the opportunity to say that, if, indeed, William Pitzer played a role in preserving the Kennedy-autopsy proceedings on film, then documentation of his activities might be retained by ONI; she promised to explore the files with that in mind.

    A FOIA request to the FBI resulted in receipt of the materials we already had, with redactions exactly as before (7). I followed this up with an appeal for five pages that were withheld in total, which was declined. A request for photographs was met with the statement that the FBI has no such records.

    A FOIA request to CIA, sent 25 August, �for all records pertaining to LCDR Pitzer including documents relating to his death� was acknowledged 6 November, and a response is pending.

    The revolver found beside William Pitzer body was a .38 Smith & Wesson Special. Its serial number 311546 defines it as a Hand Ejector Military & Police Model 1905 Fourth Change. Roy G. Jinks, the historian at S&W, determined that it was shipped from the S&W factory in Springfield, MA, on 9 October 1919 and delivered to Von Lengreke & Antoine, 33 Wabash Avenue, Chicago, IL. Therefore, strictly speaking, this weapon was wrongly described as �military issue� in the covering letter by Commander H.H. Rumble II, when it was sent (1 November 1966) from the navy to the FBI for fingerprint and ballistic tests; however, SA DiPaola has informed me that weapons originally sold commercially can, in the course of time, become military inventory.

    Mr. Jinks was unable to trace the barrel length of revolver 311546. I have learned from Lee R. Andre (8), an HM2 in Pitzer command, that the revolver he signed out on Bill Pitzer behalf on 12 October 1966 had a 6� barrel. According to a written statement of Supervisory Guard Russel L. Bray (9), the revolver (serial number not quoted) that he assigned to Mr. Andre for Pitzer was accompanied by six blank rounds of ammunition; in contrast, Mr. Andre has no memory of receiving blanks. Neither does he recall having been shown the revolver that was found beside the body (8).

    Tests by the FBI determined that the revolver must have been held at a distance of more than 3 ft when discharged, otherwise Pitzer would have had powder burns around the fatal wound in his right temple. This raises the question as to whether a 142-grain non-Special slug fired from a distance of say, 4 ft, passing through skull bone twice, would have sufficient kinetic energy to indent a blackboard (10). As a comparison: the .38 Special slug that was fired into the temple of Officer J.D. Tippit failed to exit.

    The critical question is: �Did Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer have in his possession a movie film of the autopsy on President Kennedy?� If, in conflict with the claim made by Dennis David (11), Pitzer did not have possession of such a film, then, logically, his (Pitzer) death was unrelated to the Kennedy assassination.

    In his book The Warren Omission (10), Walt Brown described a document that stated that the Warren Commission had viewed a �movie taken by the USMC man at the autopsy.� As pointed out by Walt, it is safe to assume that no member of the Marine Corps played a role in the autopsy. It is no stretch to theorize that �USMC� connoted US Medical Corps; I have a document with the signature of Captain John H. Stover, Jr., William Pitzer commanding officer, below which is typed �J.H. STOVER, JR. CAPT, MC, USN.�

    William B. Pitzer name is absent from the list of people known to have been present at the autopsy. As far as I am aware, only one person has claimed that Pitzer was on duty in the autopsy room on the evening of 22 November 1963. Jerrol F. Custer, X-ray technician for the Kennedy autopsy, first stated that Pitzer had photographed the military men occupying the benches (13) and then later made the startling claim that he (WBP) had recorded the proceedings on movie film (14). In stark contrast, John T. Stringer, Jr., Kennedy-autopsy photographer, who had known Pitzer for nine years told me (15):

    "I did not see Bill Pitzer on the evening of President Kennedy postmortem examination."

    Mr. Custer claimed also that Pitzer could not have committed suicide, because a deformed right hand (14) rendered him unable to hold a revolver. I have asked five men who knew Pitzer, and none has any recollection of such a deformity - furthermore, as remarked by Dennis David, it is unlikely that Pitzer would have been accepted into the US Navy Medical Service Corps with such an affliction.

    It is important to note that Dennis David does not claim that his friend and mentor was actually present at President Kennedy autopsy; he saw Pitzer editing the movie and drew the obvious conclusion that he had personally done the filming (16). On the assumption, and it seems a safe one, that Bill Pitzer was not present at the autopsy, movie camera in hand, then how else might he have come into possession of such a film? There is one possibility.

    Pitzer professional specialty was closed-circuit television (CCTV). About three years ago, the obvious theory struck me: the Kennedy autopsy had been recorded via a permanently installed CCTV camera, probably located overhead. The Lieutenant Commander would not have been at the autopsy, but ensconced in the television control room.

    Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I inquired of JFK researchers if they had any knowledge of such a device in the Bethesda morgue. None had. The obvious person to ask about this was Dr. James J. Humes, therefore, last September, I sent off a letter of inquiry along with a copy of The Untimely Death of Lt. Cmdr. W.B. Pitzer, not hopeful of a response. A few days later, by a quirk of coincidence, researcher Denis Morissette e-mailed me that he�d learned from Barb Junkkarinen that Dr. Humes had revealed to the ARRB that the autopsy room at Bethesda was, indeed, wired for CCTV. Within an hour or two, Barb had kindly scanned in the pages in question and e-mailed them - tangible evidence to support the theory that Bill Pitzer had possession of a film of the Kennedy postmortem that had been generated via CCTV:

    Q (from ARRB) "Could you describe in a general way what the autopsy room looked like?..."

    A (from Dr. Humes) "Well, it about the size of the room in which we�re seated... It would accommodate maybe 20 or 30 people, because we used to have conferences in there. Routinely, at the end of a week, we would retain the organs from the autopsies of the week."

    At this juncture, it appears that Dr. Humes was freely, and perhaps fondly, associating memories from those years ago. He continued:

    "In fact, not only did we review them there, but there was a closed-circuit television. They went to Andrews Air Force Base, NIH, and it was a closed-circuit instruction."

    I cannot help but wonder whether he felt that he may have said too much, because he then repeated earlier words:

    "That platform, a two step platform, was for observers."

    And then he broadened the description beyond the scope of the question:

    "And in an adjacent area, we had a refrigerated storage place with either four or six - I forget the number - places for retention of bodies. And we had a shower and restroom adjacent."

    The questioner brought him back to consider the autopsy room:

    Q "Was there any kind of gallery in the room other than the two steps that you -"

    A "That what I�m speaking of. It might have three steps. I couldn�t - you know, I don�t recall how many steps it had. We used to get a fairly decent number of people. Maybe it had three steps."

    Possibly a different questioner realized the potential importance of CCTV:

    Q "Was there any closed-circuit broadcasting -"

    Before the question was completed, Dr. Humes anticipated its meaning:

    A "No."

    Q "- during the night of the autopsy?"

    A "No absolutely not. I wish there was, retrospectively."

    So, there it is: a closed-circuit television system was installed in the autopsy room in November 1963, and Dr. Humes was as certain of that as in his recollection that the system was not in use during the president postmortem examination.

    One morning in early October, I was at work, as usual, in my home office when the telephone rang. It was Dr. Humes. I had not expected that he would respond to my letter; at first I did not understand who was calling. Here are notes that I made immediately after his call:

  • He knew Bill Pitzer well and worked closely with him on films on tropical medicine for use in Vietnam. These were films made on video and transferred to film; WBP was in charge of the television part. He does not know whether Bill made the conversion to film.
  • He does not know where Bill was on the evening of the Kennedy assassination. He was certainly not in the morgue.
  • Bill was a "nice fellow," with whom he enjoyed working.
  • I said that some people felt that Bill was the last person they�d have thought would commit suicide. He said that "suicide is a part of life." He believes that Pitzer killed himself.
  • He has read the article (The Untimely Death of Lt. Cmdr. William B. Pitzer: The Physical Evidence) and said frankly that it is weak and that we are barking up the wrong tree.
  • He was categorical that all photos at the autopsy were taken by Stringer. Bill took no photographs at the JFK autopsy. He (i.e. Cmdr. Humes) "was in charge of everything," and has total certainty that Bill took no photographs, neither did he expose movie film.
  • He said that the morgue was new, and he does not know whether it was wired for closed-circuit television on 11/22/63. Certainly the autopsy was not recorded on CCTV.
  • It seems to me that his certainty that the autopsy was not recorded on CCTV, on top of uncertainty as to whether the autopsy room had CCTV installed, should be viewed with caution, particularly so considering that he displayed no such uncertainty in his testimony to the ARRB.

    A highly redacted section of the FBI report on Pitzer death appeared to focus on an enlisted man who had been under psychiatric treatment and whom Pitzer had taken under his supervision in the spring of 1965. According to psychiatry records, this man had apparently made good progress in his new assignment.

    In the second article published last year in JFK/DPQ, Interpretations of New Information in the Pitzer Case, I theorized that this man was a covert "plant," to provide eyes and ears on a daily basis around Pitzer, to discover whether he had copies of the JFK-autopsy photographic materials and possibly their location. I now believe I know who this man was and that this theory was wrong.

    I also believe that I misinterpreted the scant information that is available from this most highly redacted section of the FBI report, and that when Pitzer phoned the Psychiatric Unit of the NNMC to make an early appointment, it was not for the enlisted man or for himself, but for someone else. It is noteworthy that this phone call was made on the afternoon of October 28, the day before he died, which, apparently, the FBI investigators saw as more than a coincidence, judging from the fact that a whole section of their report was devoted to it. These questions remain: for whom did Bill Pitzer make an appointment to see the psychiatrist, and did that call play a role in his death?

    [Note added 23 July 2000: I am now certain that the highly redacted section, part of which is shown in this link did not pertain to the enlisted man. The second paragraph applied to the enlisted man, and I was in error in thinking that the same man was the subject of the third paragraph. Neither did this redacted section pertain to William B. Pitzer himself; however, the purpose of the subject matter of this highly redacted section was to add weight to the theory that he committed suicide because of stress.]

    A pair of eyeglasses was found on the floor of the studio approximately six feet from the body (10). Although the lens prescription was determined by the FBI, no link was made with Bill Pitzer. I had the prescription checked by an optician who said that those eyeglasses would likely have been worn constantly. As previously reported (10), Dennis David had no recollection of Pitzer wearing spectacles. Neither did Alvin Edwards, a Master Chief at NNMC in 1966 who, in the course of his duties, interacted with Pitzer several times per week (18), nor Mr. Stringer, who knew Pitzer for a total of 12 years (15). In contrast, Mr. Andre did recall his wearing spectacles, as did Dr. Humes. Therefore, the eyeglasses on the floor of the studio may have belonged to the deceased. In the FBI documents, there is no reference to powder or blood spattering on them, which tends to indicate that, if indeed they were Pitzer, they were not thrown from his head at the moment of firearm discharge, but fell on the floor at some earlier point.

    In their book JFK; The Dead Witnesses (19) John Armstrong and Craig Roberts stated:

    "It is believed by some that Pitzer death was a warning to others at the Naval Hospital to keep quiet forever about any coverup or strange occurrences regarding JFK autopsy."

    If this was so, it would seem to have been an unsuccessful strategy; Messrs. Edwards, Andre, and Stringer agree that there was no rumor that Pitzer had been murdered. The incident was kept confidential with a minimum of information released, and there was general acceptance of suicide. Mr. Edwards (18):

    "I was stunned - he was or would have been the one officer in the command that would not commit suicide in my mind."

    Nevertheless, he accepted the official ruling of suicide and never heard any talk of a cover-up - as the admin office supervisor he believes that he would have heard such rumors had there been any.

    Mr. Andre stated:

    "I do not think for a moment that he was murdered."

    The body was discovered in the NNMC television studio at approximately 7:50 PM on 29 October 1966. During the following evening, Mr. Andre was called at home and asked if he had been in the studio or offices that weekend - there had been an incident at the studio which the navy was investigating - in fact, he never visited the base at weekends. When he arrived at the NNMC next morning, he learned that his superior officer was dead, having apparently shot himself. The gory mess in the studio had been cleaned up, but not completely. Mr. Andre (8):

    "In the studio, I found a piece of tooth and some skin and hair on the floor and showed these to the investigators."

    He is certain that the fragment was tooth and not skull: it was shiny enamel, not bone.

    We have no record of this piece of physical evidence being sent to the FBI for determination of its origin. Furthermore, the autopsy protocol described the oral cavity as patent, i.e. clear. Even if Bill Pitzer had struck his mouth in his fall, breaking a tooth, the injury would or should have been described in the pathologists� report. To whom did the tooth fragment belong?

    As described in detail before (1), physical evidence relating to the death of Lt. Cmdr. William B. Pitzer is consistent with homicide and inconsistent with suicide. The Cold Case Squad of the NCIS will review the case in the near future.

    In his testimony for the ARRB, Dr. Humes stated that the autopsy room at the Bethesda Naval Hospital was equipped with closed-circuit television. Pitzer specialty was closed-circuit television and its applications, and he collaborated with Dr. Humes in the production of instructional movies that were made on videotape then transferred to movie film. Therefore, the facilities were available and Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer had the expertise to produce a 16-mm movie film of the autopsy on President Kennedy body, without being present in the autopsy room, on the evening of 11/22/63. This may be as close as Dennis David will come to having his story corroborated.


    1. Eaglesham, A.R.J., R.R. Palmer (1998) The Untimely Death of Lt. Cmdr. W.B. Pitzer. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly, January, pp. 6-15.
    2. Eaglesham, A.R.J. (1998) Interpretations of New Information in the Pitzer Case. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly April, pp 15-20.
    3. The NCIS Cold Case Squad was established in January 1995, to reactivate and review unsolved homicides using new forensic technology, including DNA analysis and computer data bases.
    4. Article 1 drew partly on the report of the National Naval Medical Center Informal Board of Investigation into Lt. Cmdr. Pitzer death, originally obtained by Mr. Harrison E. Livingstone, author of several books on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that highlight the potential importance of Pitzer death. The Informal Report is given in full (absent enclosures) in Marvin, D., J.D. Rose (1998) The Pitzer File Fourth Decade, January, pp. 17-25.
    5. Naval Medical Officer Lt. Cmdr. Robert Steyn who saw the body 20 minutes after discovery, described a left temple wound in the Naval Death Certificate; in contrast, no such wound was described in the autopsy protocol vis-�-vis the external appearance of the body. See Article (1) pp. 11-12.
    6. Livingstone, H.E. (1988) Lt. Cmdr. William Bruce Pitzer. Third Decade January, pp. 20-21.
    7. Article 1 drew mainly from new information on the FBI investigation of William B. Pitzer death obtained by a FOIA request made by ex-Special Forces Colonel Daniel Marvin (Retired).
    8. Andre, L.R. (1998) E-mail communication, 15 October.
    9. Article 1, p. 8.
    10. Article 1, p. 9.
    11. Article 1, p. 7.
    12. Brown, W. (1996) The Warren Omission, Delmax: Wilmington, p. 171.
    13. Brown, W. (1995) An interview with Jerrol Custer, JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly October.
    14. Palamara, V. (1998) Communication to the editor dated 4/1/98, Fourth Decade, May, p. 19.
    15. Stringer, J.T., Jr., (1998) E-mail communication, 25 October.
    16. Livingstone, H.E.L. (1992) High Treason 2. New York: Carroll & Graf, p. 557.
    17. ARRB Deposition of Dr. J.J. Humes, pp. 57-59.
    18. Edwards, A. (1998) Written communication, 4 April.
    19. Armstrong, J., Roberts, C. (1995) JFK; The Dead Witnesses. Tulsa: Consolidated Press International, pp. 40-41.

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