Like almost everyone of a certain age, Jim Pappas remembers clearly how and when he learned that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas.
Pappas would go on to become the dean of USF’s business school, and he is retired in Tampa now. But on that day, Pappas was a sophomore at UCLA attending a lecture in anthropology. Someone walked in with a note for the professor, who announced the news. Pappas’ first reaction was not grief, or fear, or disbelief, but instead an urgent question: “Oh, hell. Where’s Skip?”
Skip was the nickname for Loren E. Hall Sr., who was married to Pappas’ mother. A soldier of fortune, Hall was prominent in the Free Cuba paramilitary forces trying to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro.
Hall had been circulating in Dallas, trying to raise money for the cause. Some supporters harbored a bitter hatred of President Kennedy, blaming him for the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and angry that Kennedy had abandoned the island to Communist rule.
Weeks after Kennedy was murdered, Skip came to Jim’s younger brother, John Pappas, with a rifle. It was a Carcano, an Italian military carbine made at the same factory as the one that killed the president.
When Hall handed over the rifle, he told his stepson to put it away and never to speak of it. For 57 years, John Pappas kept that secret. This past spring, however, he started talking with his brother about the rifle, and together they approached me with their suspicions that their mother’s husband was part of a plot to murder the president.
Over six months, I interviewed the Pappas brothers several times. We consulted firearms experts, family records and old court files.
I also reached one of Skip Hall’s sons from a previous marriage. As I edged toward the central question, Larry Hall cut me off: “Where are we going with this?,” he demanded. Well, I responded, two sons of the woman your father married believe he was involved in the murder of President Kennedy. “I know all about that,” Larry Hall answered. “And I’m not saying anything about it.” Then he hung up.
For the Pappas brothers, the last, remote chance to settle their family mystery could come down to a decision by President Joe Biden later this month. Nearly six decades and 10 presidents after the death of JFK, it is up to Biden whether the public gets to see the government’s final secret files.
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A huge cast of suspects
In November 1963, on the Friday before Thanksgiving, President Kennedy was riding in a Lincoln convertible rolling through the streets of Dallas. Just four days earlier, Kennedy paid a triumphant visit to Tampa, but some hard feelings were waiting for the president in Texas.
As the motorcade turned left in front of the school district’s textbook warehouse, an employee named Lee Harvey Oswald was hiding on the sixth floor with an Italian military surplus rifle. HIs first shot missed. The second hit Kennedy in the neck. The third hit the president squarely in the back of the head.
The first investigation of the assassination, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, concluded that Oswald acted on his own. A former Marine sharpshooter, Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union, then returned to the United States with a Russian wife. Oswald was angry that Kennedy was too tough on Communism, not too soft.
The Warren Commission did not satisfy skeptics. Long before the Internet provided rich soil for conspiracy theories, the assassination yielded a huge cast of suspects:
· The Free Cuba crowd, bitter that Kennedy was willing to leave Castro in place.
· The Cuban government, in revenge for the failed attempts to overthrow Castro.
· The Mafia, kicked out of Cuba by Castro and under intense pressure in the U.S. from Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president’s younger brother.
· The CIA, afraid that Kennedy would rein in the Vietnam War. Director Oliver Stone made a blockbuster movie blaming Kennedy’s murder on “the military-industrial complex.”
Years later, a special committee of the U.S. House mounted a fresh investigation of JFK’s assassination, plus the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The committee even went to Cuba to question Fidel Castro. He said it would have been suicidal to participate in JFK’s murder.
The House committee confirmed some main points of the Warren Commission. It said there was no general conspiracy involving the U.S. or foreign governments, or the mob. The committee agreed that Oswald fired three shots, and two hit the president.
But the House committee departed from the Warren Commission in one key respect. It said there was a 95 percent chance that a second assassin fired at the president, almost exactly at the same time as Oswald’s third shot, except that the second shooter missed.
That finding, based on sound recordings, was disputed by other experts, and no bullet from such a shot was ever found. But neither was Oswald’s first shot, which also missed.
“The scientific evidence available to the committee indicated that it is probable that more than one person was involved in the President’s murder. That fact compels acceptance. And it demands re-examination of all that was thought to be true in the past,” the House committee reported. Nevertheless, “the committee frankly acknowledged that it was unable firmly to identify the other gunman or the nature and extent of the conspiracy.”
‘John, take this rifle’
The Pappas brothers were from Kansas, but by the early 1960s, they had made their way to southern California. So had their mother Ann, with her new husband, seven years her junior. The older brother, Jim, was married himself and kept a greater distance, but the younger brother, John, was taken with his mother’s new husband and found him charismatic.
After serving in the U.S. Army, Skip went to Cuba to fight in the revolution — first with Castro to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, and then against Castro when he embraced communism. For three months in 1959, Skip was in a Cuban prison, along with Tampa mobster Santo Trafficante. After Kennedy was assassinated, Trafficante himself was a suspect.
John Pappas enjoyed Skip’s stories and adventures. John remembers a trip to a gun range in San Gabriel to shoot machine guns, and a van stuffed with weapons and ammunition.
Weeks after the president’s assassination, John recalls, Skip brought a rifle to him. Considering all the guns that Skip had, this one did not seem obviously valuable or special. “John, take this rifle,” Pappas says Skip told him. “Put it away. Don’t touch it. Don’t talk about it.” And when John asked, “What’s this all about?,” Skip replied, “You’ll know.”
The Carcano was the same make as the rifle Oswald got through the mail from a sporting goods company in Chicago. The rifles are poorly regarded as inconsistent and unreliable; Oswald happened to get one that shot straight. It was adapted so it could take a telescopic sight. So had the one that Skip Hall gave his stepson.
“Somebody was trying to make a hunting rifle,” said Al Offinga, a retired federal agent and firearms consultant. At the request of the Tampa Bay Times, he studied various photos of the Pappas rifle. “That would be the only reason for somebody to (add a scope), unless they were going to shoot the president.”
John Pappas sent the rifle for testing and examination to Lucien “Luke” Haag, a firearms expert in Arizona. Although it came from the same Italian armory as Oswald’s, Haag determined that it was an older version that took slightly larger bullets than the two that hit JFK.
Months after he handed over that rifle to his stepson, Skip told John something else about the assassination: there were two people on the Grassy Knoll, where witnesses said they saw a shooter. One was there to kill JFK. The other was there to make sure it happened.
An assassination and an alibi
CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and dabbed his eyes as he delivered the news that President Kennedy had died from his injuries. As the world was reeling, Skip Hall was constructing an alibi.
Skip insisted he was home in California, in his shorts shaving, when the news broke. He phoned a neighbor so she could call him back, confirming that he answered the telephone at his apartment. But in the weeks before JFK was shot, Skip had been in Dallas raising money for anti-Castro activities from right-wing groups like the John Birch Society.
In those circles, there were hard feelings and loose talk about Kennedy. Second-hand, Skip was later quoted saying that at one of the meetings, he was offered $50,000 to shoot the president.
For years after the assassination, Skip remained a subject of great interest — for the supermarket tabloids, for New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, and for the House Select Committee, which questioned him in secret. Leading up to that interview, the committee sent its chief lawyer to the Central Intelligence Agency.
“On 1 September 1977 Blakey (the committee lawyer) requested all CIA information on a man named Loren Hall,” reads a CIA memo from the time. “Blakey stated to me that the Committee investigators had some reason to believe that Hall may have had some association with the Agency … (and that Hall) was in some ‘deep trouble.’”
Skip’s potential connection to the CIA came up again in 1989 during a federal drug case in Oklahoma. Skip enlisted three of his own children and two other people to run a crystal meth lab, the government charged.
When he pleaded guilty, Skip’s son Loren Hall Jr. told the judge, “My father was involved heavily, at least to our understanding, with the CIA as far as aiding the Contras (and) taking weapons over to them. And he came to us, he came to me one day and said that he was involved in the running of guns to Nicaragua and that he needed some help, they were — they had oil that was being used to make methamphetamine that was supposedly helping the CIA.”
“Of course,” the younger Hall continued, “later I found out that wasn’t exactly the way everything went down.”
After his kids were arrested, Skip flew back to the U.S. from Central America and surrendered. In a court filing, Skip said he put up $17,000 in cash for the drug ingredients and equipment, but he needed a public defender because he could not afford his own lawyer.
The other defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in open court. Skip’s plea and sentence were in secret, and the transcripts were sealed in a vault. He faced 20 years in prison. Judging from federal probation records, he served less than a year, and his probation was cut short after one more year. Two years later, Skip died.
My request to the Central Intelligence Agency under the Freedom of Information Act yielded hundreds of pages of copies, all of them related to the JFK assassination. There was nothing about Skip’s activities in Central America or about the drug case.
The secrecy is ‘ridiculous’
Most of the government’s assassination records have become public, but thousands remain at least partially secret. Congress recognized that secrecy was breeding suspicion, and it set a deadline for all records to be released.
While he was president, Donald Trump tweeted that his administration would release the remaining records, “subject to the receipt of further information.” But Trump later backed away from full disclosure. I wrote the former president to ask about that decision. There was no reply.
John and Jim Pappas approached me last March because of Trump’s decision. The brothers are pushing 80, and “the calendar is catching up” with them.
Meanwhile, the days are counting down toward Oct. 26, the deadline Congress set for release of the remaining assassination archives. Now it is up to the Biden administration to follow through, or to argue — like Trump — that some records are still too sensitive for the public to see.
In a highly regarded book about the assassination, journalist and author Gerald Posner concluded that the Warren Commission got it right: that Oswald acted alone. Posner recognizes the theory that the anti-Castro crowd had a hand in the assassination, but he rejects it.
“I have no doubt there were anti-Castro militants who, after the Bay of Pigs, wanted Kennedy dead and said, ‘somebody should put a bullet in that SOB,’” Posner told me. “But the question is: was Oswald their boy?”
On one point, however, Posner finds common ground with the conspiracy theorists: it is past time for the government to come clean with the rest of the record. Some documents may be embarrassing for the CIA or other agencies, and even complete disclosure will leave lingering doubts about the murder of a president.
But the secrecy “is ridiculous,” Posner said. “It’s the only thing I agree with Oliver Stone about.”
In Stone’s film JFK, Kevin Costner plays New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, whose conspiracy prosecution collapsed in an acquittal. In a closing scene, Costner makes an impassioned plea to the jury to get the truth about the Kennedy assassination.
“There are hundreds of documents that could prove this conspiracy … Each time my office or you the people have asked those questions, demanded crucial evidence, the answer from on high has always been: national security,” Costner tells the jury. “It may become a generational affair, with questions passed down, father to son, mother to daughter. But someday, somewhere, someone may find out the damn truth.”
JFK came to movie theaters 30 years ago.
Paul Tash is the chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times. On November 22, 1963, he was in the fourth grade at John J. O’Brien Elementary School in South Bend, Indiana.