Welcome to the Dealey Plaza Metaverse
Photogrammetry offers a new scientific test of the dubious but persistent Single Bullet Theory
I had never heard the term “photogrammetry” until I interviewed former prosecutor John Orr and forensic analyst Angelos Leiloglou.
I first met Orr some 25 years ago when he was a senior official in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Justice Department and I was working at the Washington Post. After pursuing his interest in Kennedy’s assassination, Orr sent a detailed visual reconstruction of the gunfire that killed the president to then-Attorney General Janet Reno. His report led to the reopening of the investigation for further scientific testing by the FBI of certain evidence in the JFK case. Orr’s legal expertise—the precision of his argument and the methodical way he built his case—impressed me.
In 2018 the now-retired Orr hired a Colorado firm specializing in three dimensional photo-mapping to develop a fantastically detailed model of Dealey Plaza in Dallas where Kennedy was killed. Leiloglou was the staff member assigned to Orr’s project. Orr said his only question for Leiloglou was, “Do you have any opinion about the Warren Commission?” Leiloglou, born in 1972, replied, “What’s the Warren Commission?” Orr had his man, a scientist with no stake in JFK polemics. When Orr’s money ran out, Leiloglou, who had started his own forensic analysis firm, took on Orr’s project on a pro bono basis. (You can hear Leiloglou talk about his techniques here.)
Photogrammetry, Leiloglou explained, is “the science and technology of deriving accurate measurements from photographs.” By placing high resolution cameras at many points around Dealey Plaza, Leiloglou and fellow photogrammetrist Mark Johnson, created what they call a “point cloud” consisting of millions of tiny images. Applying photographs from November 22, 1963, they recreate the crime scene where the presidential motorcade was hit by gunfire. The transformation of the point-cloud into video imagery enables you to observe the scene of Kennedy’s assassination from any vantage point, with the claim that what you see is faithful to the scene at the moment of the president’s murder within two millimeters. Welcome to the Dealey Plaza metaverse.
But this is no video game. With assiduous attention to detail, Orr and Leiloglou have created a teaching tool, an immersive experience to enhance understanding of a historic crime. They bring new precision to an event often obscured by suspicious official secrecy, CIA malfeasance, and dubious conspiracy theories. They show how historical storytelling can evolve and improve. New technology yields new insights.
Orr and Leiloglou are not the first to map Dealey Plaza in this way but they are the first to conclude the Warren Commission’s controversial theory that a single bullet caused seven wounds in President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally is wrong.
In 2009, Dale K. Myers, an Emmy-award winning animator, used design schematics of Dealey Plaza and high-resolution photography to create a computer simulation of the crime scene. His model confirmed the official theory of the assassination. (Myers talks about his work here. )
In 2013, the NOVA television program engaged the father and son team of Michael Haag and Luke Haag to do a crime scene simulation for its show, Cold Case JFK, which also endorsed the Warren Commission’s version. As a belligerent defender of the single-bullet theory, Michael Haag’s authority as a scientific arbiter was open to question.
The Official Theory, Take 2
The single bullet theory (SBT in JFK lingo) matters historically because it is the forensic lynchpin of the official story that one man, ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald, shot the president for reasons known only to himself. For his part, Oswald denied killing Kennedy and claimed he was “a patsy.” He was then killed in police custody by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with connections to organized crime. This shocking and baffling series of events had generated a thousand conspiracy theories and an ill-informed (and to my mind brittle) elite media consensus that the government’s theory must be true.
(In a 2017 Washington Post story about Oswald’s last day, for example, the editors deliberately omitted Oswald’s denial that he killed the president, a classic example of bad JFK journalism that was followed up the Post’s empirically false claim in 2021 that “the evidence is clear” that the official theory is true. In point of fact, the evidence was not clear to astute and informed observers including Lyndon Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Charles De Gaulle, Joseph Califano, John Kerry, and JFK’s personal physician George Burkley, all of whom privately or publicly rejected the Warren Commission’s findings. If you think the Post’s fact-checking department will review the paper’s evident bias in its JFK reporting, think again)
Evidence was not central to the official theory when it was first offered as historical truth. Within 48 hours of Kennedy’s murder and six hours of Oswald’s murder, President Johnson and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover decided that the government had to demonstrate that Oswald was “the real assassin” and that no one else was involved. Neither Kennedy nor Oswald had been buried. The investigation of JFK’s murder had barely begun, and the chief of state and the nation’s top law enforcement official already had convicted the perpetrator who, conveniently dead, could not defend himself. The under-informed Warren Commission—deceived by CIA and Pentagon on key facts about Oswald and secret operations against Cuba—came to the same “lone gunman” conclusion in September 1964.
The problem with the government’s account of the gunfire that took Kennedy’s life was the evidence. At first the FBI said that three shots had been fired from behind the motorcade. The first shot, it was asserted, hit Kennedy in the back. The second hit Connally in the back, and the third hit Kennedy in the head.
Here’s a postcard that circulated in early 1964 illustrating the first official theory.
The problem was that FBI agents, in their haste to reach the lone gunman conclusion demanded by Hoover, chose to ignore bystander James Tague who had been struck in the face by a cement fragment thrown up by a shot that missed the president’s limousine altogether. Tague’s minor wound and a gash in the street curb near where he stood proved the first official theory of the gunfire could not be right.
So, in the spring of 1964, Arlen Specter, the clever and ambitious lawyer for the Warren Commission who was later elected to the U.S. Senate, came up with the official theory, Take 2, namely the SBT, which had also had a big problem: Connally and his wife said they were certain it wasn’t true. They insisted to the day they died that the president and the governor had been hit by two different gunshots.
The SBT has generated a lot of ridicule over the years, starting with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, as dramatized in Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK. Cyril Wecht, the crusading forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, became the most persistent and vocal critic of the SBT. Yet the SBT has also been endorsed, implicitly or explicitly, by many major media organizations.
Now the SBT faces a new empirical challenge, with history hanging in the balance. If the SBT is not true, the only explanation for the Kennedy and Connally’s wounds is that there were two gunman firing at the motorcade, proof that Oswald did not act alone.
The 60th Anniversary
Orr and Leiloglou say the new technology of photogrammetry enables far more precision than the technology available to Myers and Haag. They hope to engage Haag and Myers to compare findings and refine their analysis in spirit of scientific debate. Their goal is to make their work available to documentary filmmakers in time for the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination in 2023.
Their findings will pack a punch. For one thing, their preliminary findings suggest that the Haags’ recreation was not only inaccurate but intentionally manipulated in order to support the single-bullet theory and the Warren Commission. If they are right, NOVA has some explaining to do.
“We’re confident in our analysis,” Orr said.
In my next post, for paid subscribers only, I will explain Orr and Leiloglou’s findings about the SBT and about the fatal shot. I will also show a video of an earlier version of their presentation.