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Episode 7.8 “JFK: DOA” (part 8), feat. former Warren Commission counsel, retired Judge Burt Griffin

Updated: Nov 23, 2023


The Grassy Knoll Rifle Delivery Service:

The Case of Julia Ann Mercer

(Paranoid Planet Podcast, Episode 7.8A, Chapter 2)


Actress Jo Anderson, playing the role of Julia Ann Mercer in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991)

 

In 1966, American lawyer and paranoia-peddler Mark Lane published a book titled Rush to Judgment.  It was one of the first and most influential conspiracist interpretations of the murder of President Kennedy.  In it, Lane argued that the racist Dallas Police Department and its anti-liberal allies wrongfully arrested, scapegoated, and murdered Lee Harvey Oswald to cover up the work of right-wing, pro-war, anti-civil-rights extremists inside the government.  Lane had not yet begun implicating the CIA in this scheme, nor offered his services to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison who launched a bogus crusade to convict businessman Clay Shaw for Kennedy’s murder, nor yet proclaimed the innocence of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s convicted assassin, nor yet facilitated the mass suicide of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown by filling their heads with claims that the CIA was coming to get them.  All this would come after Rush to Judgment became a bestseller, and before it was discovered that, unbeknownst to Mr. Lane, much of the donations that helped him get the book published came from a Soviet KGB disinformation program.[1]   



Twenty-five years later, Oliver Stone’s famous film JFK recycled many of Mark Lane’s alleged proofs of a massive conspiracy.  These include a scene featuring 23-year old married woman named Julia Ann Mercer, who, the film tells us, saw Jack Ruby delivering a rifle to the so-called grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, a few steps away from the place where many conspiracists claim a second gunman later fired the fatal head shot that killed Kennedy in his passing motorcade.[2]


Less than two hours before the assassination, according to Mercer’s statement to the Sherriff’s office, she drove past a green pickup truck parked alongside Elm Street.  The truck was obstructing traffic and causing a slowdown.  There, she says, she witnessed two suspicious-looking men, one in the driver’s seat, the other in the rear cab of the truck whom she said wore a plaid shirt and a stocking hat with a tassel (what we here in Canada call a "tuque").  He was unloading what she described as a 3½ to 4-foot-long rifle case and carried it up the grassy knoll.  Knowing that the Secret Service was in town to oversee the President’s visit, the film tells us, Mercer whimsically concluded that “the Secret Service isn’t so secret” after which she drove off.[3] 


A frame from Mark Bell's home movie, taken shortly after the assassination

(The grassy knoll lies on the left. between the street and picket fence)


After she received news of the assassination, Mercer contacted the Sherriff’s office to inform them of what she had seen.  According to Lane's book and Stone’s film, Mercer was absolutely certain in her interviews with the Sherriff and FBI not only that the package she saw was a rifle, but that the man who sat in the truck’s driver’s seat was Jack Ruby, theman who would later kill Oswald, but whom she allegedly identified from a police mug shot the day before he murdered Lee Oswald on live TV.[4]  Mercer also stated that three Dallas police officers were standing nearby, overlooking the rifle delivery service but doing nothing to stop it.  By the time the film’s hero, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, tracks Mercer down for an interview, all of her official statements have been replaced with doctored ones, and her signature forged.  “There never was any notary present during any of my questioning,” she tells the D.A.  The film’s Mercer is also suspicious that she was never deposed by the Warren Commission.  And while she appears to be one of Garrison’s most sober, trustworthy, and resolute witnesses, the New Orleans lawman sternly overrules his assistants and refuses to have her testify against their suspect Clay Shaw.  No clear explanation is given for this. 


Jack Ruby after a pre-trial hearing, 1964.


In real life, Julia Ann Mercer’s story was very different from the one offered by Mark Lane and Oliver Stone.  Mercer did not, for instance, merely claim that the truck’s driver looked like Jack Ruby; she also claimed that the man handling the rifle looked like Lee Harvey Oswald.  Her other allegations were disproven by December 9, 1963—less than two weeks after the assassination—which is precisely the reason for which the Warren Commission had no interest in her as a witness. 


The real Mrs. Mercer made several statements during the days that followed Kennedy’s murder.  These were signed by her and authenticated by various officials working for the local Sherriff, the Dallas Police, the FBI, and the Secret Service.  These include Dallas patrolman Joe Murphy, the person who had the best vantage point and longest involvement with the suspicious truck and its occupants, as well as Rosemary Allen, the Dallas notary public who acted as a signing witness to Mercer’s voluntary statement to the Sherriff’s Department, and who could have easily been subpoenaed by the New Orleans District Attorney to testify concerning Mercer’s participation when these documents were allegedly forged.[5]  Mrs. Allen could also have been interviewed by Mark Lane, or any other conspiracist with the time to contact her.  Yet this has not been the case.  Instead, Lane opened his book with this damning witness testimony, even though it defies our intelligence and, as we’ll soon see, had already been debunked.  For it to be repeated in Stone’s JFK a quarter century later is nothing less than a barefaced lie.    


Actor Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison in JFK (1991)


To entertain the possibility that Mercer truly saw Jack Ruby and another man, possibly Oswald, deliver a rifle to the grassy knoll, one would have to implicate many Dallas policemen and a civilian notary as part of the cover-up, not to mention the many other drivers who saw the same things Mercer witnessed but chose never to talk about it.  One would also have to assume that rank-and-file members of the Dallas Police, of the Dallas FBI, and of the local Secret Service office trusted each other’s loyalty enough to participate in an act of treason without fearing they might be denounced by some ambitious colleague they hardly knew.  As many contemporaneous law enforcement documents show, a strong rivalry and deep suspicions existed between the Dallas police and FBI at the time, making it unlikely that a conspiracy could be hatched between these two organizations.[6] 


Conspiracist author (and self-appointed lawyer to Lee Harvey Oswald) Mark Lane.


It also contradicts a central premise argued by most conspiracists, that Kennedy’s assassination was a highly professional job designed to prevent its participants from ever being subject to prosecution.  Indeed, there existed far more circumspect ways to deliver a rifle to the picket fence area.  Parking a truck on a busy freeway onramp in broad daylight, thereby causing a traffic jam, and parading an easily identifiable rifle case up its grassy slope is certainly not one of them.  The scenario presented by Mercer therefore suggests that these men were either complete idiots or deliberately trying to get arrested before they could perpetrate their murderous act. 

 

Is it possible that Mrs. Mercer was the only person to drive or walk past that truck with enough acumen to see what was really happening?  Sure, it’s possible.  Is it probable?  No.   The inductive principle of Ockham’s razor invites us to choose the simplest explanation between two competing theories: the one that requires the fewest unproven assumptions.  And the simplest explanation in this case is that Mrs. Mercer believed she saw a man delivering a rifle to the grassy knoll because it fit with the jumble of facts and faulty information she gleaned from the media in the hours and days that followed the assassination and preceded her signed legal statements.  Pictures of Oswald became headline news within a few hours of the murder.  Jack Ruby got famous within two days.  This would certainly not be the only case of a Dallas citizen who later claimed having seen Oswald or Ruby in places and times when they were known to be elsewhere.   False memories occur frequently, especially after traumatic and confusing events.  Psychiatrist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in the formation of eyewitness memories, calls this the “misinformation effect”.  In an article published in Scientific American, Loftus explains:

 

When people who witness an event are later exposed to new and misleading information about it, their recollections often become distorted. […] Misinformation has the potential for invading our memories when we talk to other people, when we are suggestively interrogated or when we read or view media coverage about some event that we may have experienced ourselves.[7]

 

And that is exactly what the Dallas Police, Sheriff, and FBI concluded once the events surrounding Mercer’s statements grew clearer.[8]  Stone’s film does not state that Ruby and Oswald had alibies, but they did, each having been seen during that time—Ruby inside the offices of the Dallas Morning News where he was purchasing ads for his bars, and Oswald inside the Texas School Book Depository going about his regular duties.[9]  Mercer’s statements were also made after she had seen Oswald and Ruby on television.  Indeed, not much of Mercer’s statements connects her to Kennedy’s murder in any way.  The two men and truck that she briefly observed belonged, it turns out, to a different storyline whose beginning and end she never witnessed, and thereby could not understand in its proper context.

 

That was not the case of Dallas patrolman Joe Murphy, who was at the scene throughout the incident.  What he and Dallas police radio transcripts reveal, and what subsequent investigations concluded, was that shortly after 10:30 a.m., the pickup truck that Mercer would pass twenty minutes later had stalled and pulled onto the curb at the bottom of Elm Street so that one of the three construction workers inside it might pull some tools from the cab in order to fix it.  (The alleged “rifle” that Mercer spotted, trusting her description alone, was merely a long tool inside a bag or a case, and not necessarily a weapon).  In the meantime, three patrolmen assigned to watch the area until the passing of Kennedy’s motorcade approached the vehicle to urge its driver to clear the street.  Informed that the truck would not start, Officer Joe Murphy radioed dispatch for a tow truck to come and retrieve the vehicle.  Learning that the men had been working at the First National Bank some six blocks away, and that another company truck had been left there unused, Murphy cancelled the order and escorted one of the three workers back to that building where he retrieve the other truck and returned to Dealey Plaza to push the first one out of the way. 


According to Special Agents Henry J. Oliver and Louis M. Kelley, who would later question Officer Murphy and file a Secret Service report on Mercer’s allegations:

 

Murphy further stated it was probable that one of these men had taken something from the rear of this truck in an effort to start it.  He stated these persons were under observation all during the period they were stalled on Elm Street because the officers wanted the truck moved prior to the arrival of the motorcade, and it would have been impossible for any of them to have had anything to do with the assassination of President Kennedy.[10]

 

What Julia Mercer witnessed, then, was nothing more than the middle segment of a mundane traffic mishap.  But lacking the ability to interpret it rightly, she wove her own experience into the story of the assassination that she would learn about a few hours later, simply because she had prematurely found herself in a place of utmost historical significance at a time when it still had none.   But her story made sense to her once she could weave her experience into the Kennedy narrative, making her personal story a part of World History.  Her place in World History, however, whatever her gut might have told her, turned out to be inconsequential.


The Real Jim Garrison taking part in his favorite pastime


But this story is also frustrating for those who, like me, hate loose ends, because Officer Murphy never took note of the name of the construction company to whom that truck belonged, nor of the three workers, leaving ample mystery for Mark Lane, Jim Garrison, and Oliver Stone to exploit it unscrupulously.  But it was enough to satisfy the Secret Service, the FBI, the Dallas Police, and pretty much every author who isn’t a victim of circular reasoning, to file away Mercer’s story as a pointless distraction, or in our case, a cautionary tale.  Stories like this one will no doubt keep suspicious conspiracists wondering what exactly happened in Dallas that day, but it is not unreasonable for the rest of us to conclude that without reliable corroborating witnesses or additional evidence supporting Julia Ann Mercer’s strange sighting of Jack Ruby in Dealey Plaza, that stories like these should be taken with a large pinch of salt and, if you’re so inclined, a slice of baloney.



Michel J. Gagné, November 22 2023.


NOTE: This essay is adapted from an earlier draft of my book Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination (Routledge, 2022). This portion does not appear in the final draft.



[1] Joseph E. Persico: “Secrets From the Lubyanka: A historian examines an archive of Soviet files smuggled to the West by a former K.G.B. agent,” (A Review of The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin).  The New York Times, October 31, 1999.  https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/10/31/reviews/991031.31persict.html.

[2] Mercer's testimony as described in Stone's film was never used as evidence in Garrison’s prosecution of Clay Shaw, nor was Mercer called to be a witness.  But the real Garrison repeated the story, presumably gleamed from Lane’s book, in Heritage of Stone (1970), even though he was no doubt familiar with it during the Shaw trial.  The account was retold by Henry Hurt in Reasonable Doubt (1985) and Jim Marrs in Crossfire (1989).  From this latest version, Stone (or his scriptwriter Zachary Sklar) transposed it into the JFK script.

[3] Mercer claimed that one end of the object got stuck in the ground on the way up the hill, which suggests it was not being handled with care.  Gerald Posner: Case Closed, p.228; David Reitzes: "The JFK 100: Julia Ann Mercer," 2011, JFK Online, http://www.jfk-online.com/jfk100mercer.html; Fred Litwin: “Why do Conspiracy Theorists Still Believe Julia Ann Mercer?” On the Trail of Delusion, Oct 26, 2021, https://www.onthetrailofdelusion.com/post/why-do-conspiracy-theorists-still-believe-julia-ann-mercer.

[4] The Ruby mugshot that Mercer allegedly saw would have been nearly a decade old, since the DPD only had one photograph of Ruby on file, which dated back to 1954.  Ruby had lost a lot of weight and grown nine years older since then, making it more likely that Mercer mistook the driver of the truck for a younger and fatter Ruby, not the Ruby of November 1963.  Reitzes: "The JFK 100: Julia Ann Mercer," op. cit., footnote #3.

[5] David Reitzes: "The JFK 100: Julia Ann Mercer," op. cit. 

[6] See David Reitzes: "Dallas Doings: Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry," (n.d.) JFK Online, http://www.jfk-online.com/dallasdoings.html, which includes excerpts of Dallas police and FBI reports highlighting the miscommunications and reciprocal accusations made by key members of both services during their investigations of the assassination.

[7] Elizabeth F. Loftus: "Creating False Memories," Scientific American, September 1997, vol. 277 #3https://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm.

[8] Investigation conducted by Special Agents Henry J. Oliver and Louis M. Kelley on December 9, 1963, Index of Collection of FBI Records Files 100-10461, LMK:mam, p.41, posted at: http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/FBI%20Records%20Files/105-82555/105-82555%20Section%20055/105-55b.pdf. (p.14).

[9] Oswald was witnessed by Buell Wesley Frazier, who drove him to work and saw him in the building some time after 10 a.m., by co-worker Harold Newman, who saw him in the TSBD a half-hour or so before the Mercer incident happened, and by several co-workers who saw him shortly before noon.  No set of clothes resembling those worn by Mercer’s “Oswald” were found in the TSBD.  Reitzes: "The JFK 100: Julia Ann Mercer," op. cit., footnote #10.    

[10] "Investigation conducted by Special Agents Henry J. Oliver and Louis M. Kelley on December 9, 1963," op. cit. The full report reads: 


     "JOE MURPHY, Patrolman, Traffic Division, Police Department, Dallas, Texas, advised that on November 22, 1963, he was stationed at the Triple Underpass on Elm Street to assist in handling traffic. At approximately 10:30 - 10:40 AM, a pickup truck stalled on Elm Street between Houston Street and the underpass. He was unable to recall the name of the company to whom this truck belonged but stated it is the property of the company working on the First National Bank Building at Elm and Akard in Dallas.

     There were three construction men in this truck, and he took one to the bank building to obtain another truck in order to assist in moving the stalled one.  The other two men remained with the pickup truck along

with two other officers.  Shortly prior to the arrival of the motorcade, the man he had taken to the bank building returned with a second truck, and all three of the men left with the two trucks, one pushing the other.

     MURPHY noted that the men did not leave the truck except for the one he took to the bank building, and all three left together sometime prior to the arrival of the President's motorcade.  He described the stalled truck as being a green pickup and noted the truck had the hood raised during the time it was stalled.  This truck had side tool bins on it, and they had a considerable amount of construction equipment in the back.

     MURPHY further stated it was probable that one of these men had taken something from the rear of this truck in an effort to start it.  He stated these persons were under observation all during the period they were stalled on Elm Street because the officers wanted the truck moved prior to the arrival of the motorcade, and it would have been impossible for any of them to have had anything to do with the assassination of President KENNEDY."



Documents related to this episode: *

 

1. Conspiracy Theorists Lie. (Nomagicbullets.org, 2015) Written and directed by James K. Lambert.   

 

2. You Don’t Know Hitler (2006).  Written and directed by James K. Lambert.

 

3. James K. Lambert: “Conspiracy Theories, And the Harm They Do,” Skeptic, Vol. 23, Issue 2, Spring 2018.

 

4. James K. Lambert: History Think Bloghttps://www.historythink.blog/

 

 

6. Truth is the Only Client: The Official Investigation of the Murder of John F. Kennedy (2019).  Written and directed by Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman, feat. Burt Griffin, Priscilla McMillan, and Robert Blakey.

 

7. Burt W. Griffin: JFK, Oswald and Ruby: Politics, Prejudice and Truth.  McFarland, 2023.

 

8. James Robenalt: “A New JFK Assassination Revelation Could Upend the Long-Held ‘Lone Gunman’ Theory,” Vanity Fair, September 9, 2023. 

 

9. Kayla Epstein: “Ex-Secret Service agent reveals new JFK assassination detail,BBC News, September 13, 2023.

 

 

 

 

13. John F. Kennedy: Commencement Speech at American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963.  John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, U.S. National Archives.

 

 

15. Cunk on Earth, TV Series, 2022-23 (Broke and Bones / BBC2 / Netflix).  Written and directed by Charlie Booker.  Feat. Diane Morgan (aka: Philomena Cunk). 

 

16. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (EMI Films, 1975).  Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones.

 

17. “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?PBS: Frontline, 2013.  Produced by  William Cran and Ben Loeterman.  Featuring Robert Oswald, Ruth Paine, Priscilla McMillan, and Gerald Posner.






* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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