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PART 1 (Part 2 is here.)
by Allan Eaglesham
(Originally published in JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 10(3) April 2005)
|Lieutenant Commander William Bruce Pitzer died of a gunshot wound to the head on October 29, 1966, at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, MD. Six aspects of the evidence -- discussed before in terms of indicating homicide -- are reinterpreted in light of new information, notably the autopsy photographs and input from an officer of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service; it is deduced that the wound was self-inflicted. Also revisited is Pitzer's purported possession of a movie film of the autopsy on President Kennedy's body.||
Harold Rydberg & William Pitzer
(Courtesy of Harold Rydberg)
William Bruce Pitzer's name entered Kennedy-assassination lore on May 1, 1975. An article in the Waukegan, IL, News-Sun -- "Another Link in JFK Death?" -- stated:
A Navy technician who filmed the autopsy of President John Kennedy may have been an early victim of a mysterious death syndrome that has been a bloody footnote to the assassination. The death of the technician, Lt. [sic] William Pitzer, should be an early addition to that list, believes a Lake County man who worked at Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital in 1963. The Lake Countian doesn't want his identity made public. "He was shot with a .45-caliber pistol and was found with the gun in his right hand," he said. "But he was left-handed. If he would have used a weapon he would have used his left hand." The technician had filmed in detail the Kennedy autopsy. Just before he was due to retire, ending 28 years in the service, he was found dead. "I've always believed he was murdered," the former hospital worker said.
As a result of this link with the Kennedy autopsy, William Pitzer's death has been mentioned in many books on the assassination including Jim Marrs' Crossfire (Carroll & Graf, 1989) in a chapter titled "Convenient Deaths" and in High Treason by Robert Groden and Harrison Livingstone (Conservatory Press, 1989). The Pitzer case merits a three-page section in Livingstone's High Treason 2 (Carroll & Graf, 1992) and a whole chapter is devoted to it in his e-book, Stunning New Evidence in the JFK Case [http://www.harrison-e-livingstone.com/ jfk/].
A left-handed person found dead with a gun in his right hand and a wound to the right temple certainly raises significant suspicion.
In High Treason 2, the Lake County man, now identified as Dennis David, is quoted -- as in the News-Sun article -- as saying that William Pitzer ("a close friend" of David's according to Livingstone) was left-handed. As a preliminary to the chapter on the Pitzer case in Stunning New Evidence, Mr. Livingstone attributed the following statement to Mrs. Pitzer:
He couldn't have committed suicide. There was no reason for it, and he had a lot to look forward to. We couldn't even get his wedding ring off, his left hand was so mangled. That was the hand that he would have pulled the trigger with. His hand was smashed because he was trying to defend himself.
We will return to the issue of the damaged left hand. Since the widow and a close friend stated it unequivocally, it may appear certain that William Pitzer was, indeed, left-handed. However, in High Treason 2 and in Stunning New Evidence, Livingstone failed to remind his readers that Mrs. Pitzer had already given him different information: High Treason states, "His widow said...he was right-handed."
In a telephone conversation with Daniel Marvin in 1995, of which I have an audiotape, Mrs. Pitzer stated clearly that her husband had been right-handed:
Marvin: Was he -- was Bill -- right-handed or left-handed?
And documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1997 to Marvin by the FBI (who investigated Pitzer's death in conjunction with the Naval Investigative Service) confirmed that Pitzer was right-handed. Yet, in a 2003 interview for a television documentary shown in Russia, of which I also have a copy, Marvin stated that William Pitzer had been left-handed. Thus, despite information to the contrary from the best possible source -- the widow -- both Livingstone and Marvin appear to have a vested interest in perpetuating a myth. I have verified that Pitzer was right-handed with two other members of the Pitzer family and with navy colleague Alvin Edwards, himself left-handed, who witnessed William Pitzer committing his signature to paper on many occasions. A sketch of the death scene made by NIS and FBI investigators shows an ashtray on the floor to the right of an empty chair (the other chair had a pad and pencil on it), a strong indication in itself that Pitzer was right-handed (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Investigators' sketch of the TV studio in which LCDR Pitzer's body was found.
Although William Pitzer was not left-handed, other aspects of the FOIA-released information were suggestive of homicide; those items of evidence were discussed in articles published in JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly [1-3]. Most strongly indicative of murder was the report by US Navy Medical Examiner Robert Steyn -- who saw the body -- stating that Pitzer sustained a bullet wound to the left temple:
The motionless, fully dressed body was [illegible] with the left arm flexed and right arm under the abdomen. A left temple wound was visible, the right side of the head being hidden, lying against the floor in a pool of coagulated blood. [emphasis added]
Apparently consistent with this report, the cover page of the autopsy report describes three defects in the skull:
Puncture wound, skull, right temporal bone (entrance)
[*Author's note: within the autopsy report the exit wound is located above and slightly behind the left ear.]
In large part, the sphenoid bone constitutes what is commonly known as the "temple" (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Location of the sphenoid bone
After removal of the brain, a third defect in the bony skull is encountered. This consists of a large defect in the left-supraorbital plate measuring 3.0 x 1.0 cm.
This third hole in the skull bone, running from the left-supraorbital plate into the sphenoid bone, had no corresponding skin lesion at the left temple, neither did it have a corresponding lesion to the underlying brain. Puzzling.
A second aspect indicative of homicide was the description of the entry wound by the autopsists. When interviewed by an FBI agent after completion of the postmortem examination, autopsy doctor LCDR J.G. Harmeling stated that the muzzle of the revolver had not been in contact with the skin at discharge, nor did he find powder burns around, or powder particles imbedded in, the entry wound in the right temple. The autopsy report describes an area of "charring" around the wound that may be interpreted as a margin of soot deposit, yet the report described the skin around the entry wound as having "no deposits of foreign material." LCDR H.B. Lowsma, who assisted in the autopsy, told the FBI:
(T)here was no evidence of powder burns on the right side of the head where entry was made. (He) explained that he could not say how far from the head the gun was held as he was no expert in this field.
At the request of the navy, the FBI conducted laboratory tests that showed that the revolver must have been held at a distance of three feet or more to preclude powder burning of the skin. Two entry wounds to the head, one to the right temple from a distance of at least three feet and one to the left temple (through the sphenoid bone) would be highly indicative of homicide.
A third aspect indicative of homicide was the fact that the revolver found at LCDR Pitzer's side did not bear his fingerprints.
A fourth aspect indicative of homicide was the fact that paraffin tests of Pitzer's right palm and back of hand were negative, indicating no contact with a discharged firearm. An FBI report sent to the NIS, dated December 14, 1966, stated:
Examination of (the) paraffin cast reflected no substance characteristic of, or which could be associated with, gunpowder or gunshot residue.
A fifth aspect potentially indicative of homicide was the question of the trajectory of the fatal bullet. A movable blackboard in the TV studio was "located near the body." Unfortunately its location is not shown in the hand-drawn sketch (Figure 1). It was struck by a bullet, as revealed by analysis of residual metal particles in an indentation:
...possible [sic] by the projectile after passage through the skull of the deceased.
Apparently, this was a source of puzzlement for the investigating officers; given the locations of the corpse, revolver, spent bullet, and blackboard, there had to have been another point of ricochet:
Extensive examination of the scene failed to determine what the projectile struck resulting in the extensive indentation.
A sixth aspect, indicative of foul play, was the suggestion that William Pitzer's left hand was injured. In a telephone conversation , Mrs. Pitzer said:
They couldn't give me the wedding ring because they said his left hand was damaged...that they never were able to explain.
This conjures up an image of a struggle with Pitzer fending off blows or of being struck by a bullet as he thrust out a hand in a defensive reaction.
Accordingly, in March 1998, Robin Palmer and I sent copies of two JFK/DPQ articles [1,2] 140-plus pages of FOIA-released FBI documents and the navy's Informal Board of Investigation Report -- suggesting in a covering letter that the case be reopened -- to:
--Ms. J. Reno, US Attorney General.
The results of sending out the above package of documents were described in the April 1999 issue JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly . The only significant development occurred as a result of contacting Captain Caffrey; in August 1998, I received a telephone call from Special Agent David DiPaola, Death Investigations Squad Leader of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, saying that the NIS records of William Pitzer's death would have been routinely destroyed after 25 years (i.e. in 1991). However, he indicated that an intact record of the Pitzer case might still be held by the FBI. At the conclusion of his call, SA DiPaola said that he would send our documents to the NCIS Cold Case Squad for review and other potential sources of documents would be investigated. After review of all of the available information by a Cold Case officer, a decision would be made on whether to reopen the case.
In July of 2000, SA DiPaola stated in an e-mail:
After careful consideration of all the materials forwarded by you, the unredacted files provided by FBI, and the unredacted original record of the investigation provided by [the Office of the Judge Advocate General], the Cold Case division has provided an opinion. Their position is that there simply is not enough information amongst the available materials that would warrant reopening the investigation into the manner of death of LCDR Pitzer...I realize that this is not the conclusion that you had hoped for but, in the beginning, I cautioned that such a case would require some semblance of a "heartbeat" as a homicide.
In October of 2000, I spoke to SA DiPaola on the telephone for an hour and twenty minutes. He said that the absence of autopsy photographs makes it impossible to precisely interpret and reconcile the verbal description of the navy medical examiner with the autopsy report. Likewise, without autopsy photographs, it is impossible to interpret the defect in the left sphenoid bone that is described in the autopsy report. It is possible that the navy medical examiner was in error in his description of a wound in the left temple. The autopsy report should be given much more weight; it does not describe a wound in the left temple, therefore it is likely that no such wound was there. The only available photograph -- taken at the scene -- was too far from the body to be useful; he was unable to determine whether or not it showed a wound in the left temple. I asked Mr. DiPaola if he could offer an explanation for the fact that the large defect in the supraorbital plate and left sphenoid bone, described in the autopsy report, appeared to have no corresponding lesion in the overlying skin or the underlying brain. He stated that the pathologists may have had an explanation, but were negligent in not expressing it in the autopsy report. Again, if photographs of the defect were available, a plausible explanation may be deduced. He agreed that there are inconsistencies in the available information, but then discrepancies and inconsistencies exist in most cases. He felt that LCDR Pitzer's personal problems should be given weight. Pitzer's uncharacteristically unkempt appearance, described by one witness shortly before the shooting, indicates acute depression. Mr. DiPaola expressed surprise that the FBI did not have photographs and a face sheet in conjunction with the autopsy report. He'd had hopes also that the Bureau would have possession of the report on the NIS investigation. If FOIA requests had been submitted in 1990 or early 1991, i.e. within 25 years of William Pitzer's death, there would have been a full record at the US Navy archives. The Pitzer files were routinely destroyed by the navy after 25 years had passed; however, that ruling has been rescinded and records are now preserved for 75 years. In summary, only autopsy photographs or photographs taken at the scene indicating homicide would justify reopening the case.
I made contact with William Pitzer's son Robert in June of 2000, and immediately suggested that, by means of a FOIA request, he attempt to obtain possession of the photograph taken at the scene that I knew was held by the US Navy Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) . (My request for a copy of this photograph had been denied because of lack of familial ties with the deceased. A formal request to view the photograph at the JAG Office had been similarly denied.) Mr. Pitzer obtained the photograph and provided me with a copy (Figure 3).
|The monochrome 8x10 is a poor-quality scan with excessive contrast. The camera was about 18 inches from the floor and about 6 ft from the body; the left side is towards the camera, visible to the upper thigh. He is prostrate, lying on his right arm with fingers partially visible at the hip. The left arm is flexed with the hand close to, possibly touching, the mouth. The left side of the face is visible to the left nostril. The left shoulder obscures the lower part of the cheek to the left earlobe. The upper part of the head, from approximately the auricular canal, is under an aluminum stepladder. Blood is spattered on the upper surface of the lowest step, and is smeared on the vertical surface. The head is right-side down in a pool of blood.||
Figures 3 and 4. The death scene.
A striking aspect is the profuse spatter of blood on the floor between the body and the camera. The floor locations of legs of a chair that had been removed for the photograph (compare with Figure 1) are visible as chalk marks, as is the outline of the revolver to the extreme lower right. It appears that blood is oozing from two contiguous dark oval areas at the left temple (Figure 4); one narrow trickle of blood passes over the left cheek onto the upper lip and is then obscured by the left hand, and the other narrow trickle of blood from the left temple goes over the left eyebrow, onto the nose and then is obscured by shadow. From above the left ear to the forehead is a broad tract of blood; also, there is a broad tract of blood behind the left ear. The origin of these broad tracts is not obvious, but presumably they come from the exit wound, stated in the autopsy report to be in the hair above and slightly behind the left ear.
In August, 2001, through the agency of Robin Palmer, I took the photograph to Herbert L. MacDonell, Professor of Criminalistics and Director of the Laboratory of Forensic Science, Corning, NY. Professor MacDonell examined it along with an enlargement of the head area. He was not surprised when told that the subject had been found to have committed suicide. However, he was surprised when I said that, officially, the subject had committed suicide by shooting himself in the right temple. Professor MacDonell had concluded from his viewing of the photograph and the enlargement that there was a bullet wound in the left temple.
It seemed possible that Professor MacDonell's opinion might be viewed by SA DiPaola as the "heartbeat" necessary to reopen the case, therefore I requested a meeting to discuss the photograph and he kindly agreed to see me in his office at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, MD. On the afternoon of April 3, 2002, he gave me three and a half hours of his time after driving from North Carolina to keep our appointment.
Figure 5. Ladder movement revealed by an area relatively free of blood spatter.
|SA DiPaola stated that Professor MacDonnell was not justified in saying that the photograph shows a bullet wound in the left temple; it could be pooled blood from the exit wound above and slightly behind the ear. He again expressed the opinion that the available information is consistent with suicide and, absent autopsy photographs, everything else is open to interpretation. In his view, LCDR Pitzer was sitting when he shot himself. He slumped over to his left and the exit wound bled profusely onto the floor, causing the broad spatter of blood seen in the photograph. Presumably his chair was similar to the one visible in the background of the death-scene photograph -- a wooden captain's chair -- from which his body gradually slid. The chair was at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the stepladder; having been slumped heavily to its left by the force of the bullet, the body eventually came to rest belly down between the two chairs (see the investigators' sketch, Figure 1). Initially the head came into contact with the bottom step of the ladder, then the ladder closed enough for the head to fall onto the floor partially below the step. [That the ladder moved is shown by a vee-shaped area relatively clear of blood spatter (Figure 5).]|
 Eaglesham, A.R.J. and Palmer, R.R. (1998) The Untimely Death of Lt. Cmdr. William Pitzer. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 3(2) 6-16.
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