Did the mob kill JFK? New book drops an interesting bombshell

Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 10:07 p.m.
Having uttered these words more than 40 years ago, the late Harrison Salisbury had no way of knowing how stunningly right he would be. Who killed President John F. Kennedy and why has become so much more than mere ''arguing.'' It's a raging inferno of international debate and always has been.
Dallas' darkest moment, the assassination on Elm Street, has fueled not just hundreds but thousands of inquiries. They range from the daringly noble to the comically idiotic, and every point in between. A lull of sorts occurred after Gerald Posner's riveting 1993 account, ''Case Closed,'' the best book by far supporting the Warren Commission's conclusion that a sad, deranged loner named Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president.
The lull recently screeched to a halt with the release of ''Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba, and the Murder of JFK.'' Authors Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann contend that the Mafia killed Kennedy, while insisting - though falling far short of proving - that there is so much more to the story.
''Ultimate Sacrifice'' weighs in at 904 pages and 2,700 footnotes and is, say the authors, the carefully tended product of 17 years of research and interviews. The book could not have been written, they say, without access to thousands of documents freed up by the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, which was passed into law after the public outcry surrounding Oliver Stone's 1991 pro-conspiracy manifesto, ''JFK.''
''Ultimate Sacrifice'' is not without virtues, and much of it ranks as compelling, often breathless reading. The book's thesis that three Mafia chieftains - Santo Trafficante of Tampa; Carlos Marcello of New Orleans (and, by extension, Dallas); and Johnny Rosselli of Chicago - engineered the president's slaying as retribution for the dogged pursuit of their activities by the president's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, is nothing new.
What is new is the book's bombshell, that the Mafia believed it could get away with the president's assassination because it had inside knowledge of the Kennedys' dark secret - that, on Dec. 1, 1963 (nine days after JFK came to Dallas), they would overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in a violent coup and replace him with a pro-U.S., puppet regime.
The authors' logic: The assassination would render U.S. officials powerless in conducting an investigation for fear of jeopardizing national security and risking a scarier second act of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which had taken the U.S. and Cuba's Marxist benefactor, the Soviet Union, to the brink of nuclear war. And how did the mob know about the Cuban plot? They had been told by the CIA, say the authors.
Do the writers prove their case? Not by a long shot. Further eroding their credibility is the fact that they call the Cuban coup plot ''C-Day'' - ''a name entirely of our own invention.''
Which is not to say the book isn't entertaining. They contend that Trafficante had tried to assassinate President Kennedy in Tampa four days before his visit to Dallas. They even name a ''patsy'' who they say would have taken the fall: a Cuban named Gilberto Policarpo Lopez. (Oswald's comment to the media while in custody that he was a ''patsy'' has longed helped to fuel conspiracy theories.) They also quote former Kennedy aide Kenneth O'Donnell, who was in the motorcade and who told Tip O'Neill, former speaker of the House, in 1968 that ''he had heard two shots'' from the grassy knoll. They also quote former Kennedy aide Dave Powers, who was in the motorcade and who spoke to the authors before his death in 1998, that he felt they were ''riding into an ambush'' because of shots from the grassy knoll and that he was pressured to change his story by the Warren Commission.
But this is just one of the problems with this book. Dave Powers never testified before the Warren Commission. So when was he pressured?
''Ultimate Sacrifice'' pins much of its thesis on interviews with former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Enrique ''Harry'' Ruiz-Williams, a veteran of the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Ruiz-Williams was believed to be Robert Kennedy's closest friend and ally in the Cuban exile community. (Both men have since died.) Rusk had long been considered a fierce loyalist of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded President Kennedy. And, Rusk was apparently no fan of either Kennedy, Bobby in particular.
As for Ruiz-Williams, he may have wanted, with all his heart, for such a coup to take place. But neither he nor the authors do an adequate job of convincing the reader that such a bold (crazy?) political and military stroke was really going to happen. A contingency? Maybe. A reality? Hardly. Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, has given recent interviews, claiming not to know of any such plot and rejecting wholeheartedly any notion that such a plan was in the works. If it was, why would the president never bother to tell McNamara, one of his closest aides? And, by the way, he hasn't exactly lacked for candor in recent years, as anyone who saw the documentary ''The Fog of War'' can tell you.
But ''Ultimate Sacrifice'' has deeper problems than that. There exists in this book an overriding flaw that bedevils all pro-conspiracy tales, one the authors never come close to answering: Why would any band of conspirators, hoping to gun down the president of the United States, put so much faith and trust in the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby - Ruby in particular?
All one has to do is study the timeline of Ruby's actions before gunning down Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station to wonder why the nation's most powerful Mafioso would even joke about hiring such an impulsive, impetuous, chatty man.
Oswald was supposed to be transported from the city jail to the county jail sometime after 10 a.m. The shooting took place at 11:21 a.m., but minutes before, Ruby was still at a nearby Western Union office - standing in line - preparing to wire money to one of his strippers. Ruby's own testimony indicated that he left the Western Union office and saw bustling activity at the police station half a block away. He decided to check it out. Minutes later, he grabbed the pistol he always kept in the pocket of his coat and fired a shot, for which he thought he would be a hero.
If Ruby really was the hit man, why was he more than an hour late? Why was he taking care of an errand moments before pulling the trigger in the crime of his life? When you're trying to prove a point in the world of JFK conspiracies, such questions are rarely worth asking.

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