Every time Burt Griffin hears a conspiracy theory about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he sighs and shakes his head.
It’s been 50 years, he wants to shout in frustration. Fifty years for someone to break ranks. Fifty years for some co-conspirator to trade information in order to get out of a jam with authorities. Fifty years for some vengeful girlfriend to squeal on a lover. Fifty years for some secret document to be unearthed, some new photo to be revealed, some surprise confession to be announced.
It hasn’t happened because Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he shot and killed the president in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald two days later, Griffin said.
He speaks with confidence because he was immersed in the investigation. He spent eight months of 14-hour days working for the Warren Commission, the presidential committee charged with putting together the story of those shocking events.
“I’m very disappointed that we haven’t put it behind us,” said Griffin, a former Cuyahoga County judge who lives in Shaker Heights.
Griffin was a 31-year-old trial attorney with a small Cleveland law firm when he received a call from Washington, D.C., in the weeks after Kennedy’s death.
The Justice Department was assembling a team of investigative attorneys from around the country — 14 men experienced in the criminal process, diverse in age and geography, to answer 102 central questions for the Warren Commission.
Griffin, who had previously worked for the Cleveland U.S. Attorney’s Office, filled their slot for a young Midwesterner.
He still chuckles when he recalls what his law firm’s partners had to say when he asked for a leave to take the job. One told him government work was dull and he wouldn’t like it; another said he was wasting his time and the government assignment would set his career back months, maybe years.
“I didn’t agree with either of those two guys, so I went to Washington,” he said, taking his supportive wife and their toddler and newborn with him for the temporary stint.
It was a thrilling assignment, even if they felt they were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. With rumors of Russian and Cuban involvement, President Lyndon Johnson feared an inaccurate investigation could lead to nuclear war, Griffin said.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, who chaired the commission, told the band of investigators, “Your only client is the truth.”
“We knew we were doing the most important thing that was going on in the country,” Griffin said.
The attorneys were broken into pairs and given very specific assignments.
Investigating Jack Ruby
Griffin and his partner were handed the Jack Ruby mystery: Who was he and why did he kill Oswald?
It was a particularly important part of the equation because without Ruby, there wouldn’t have been a need for the Warren Commission.
Oswald would have had his day in court and many questions about the case would have been resolved through the normal course of investigating, interrogating and preparing for the trial.
But that opportunity was cut short when Ruby — the owner of a Dallas striptease club — pulled a .38 revolver before live television cameras and shot Oswald at the police department while he was being walked to a vehicle that would take him to the county jail.
Immediately, the rumor mill began churning. Was Ruby part of some overall plot to kill the president? Was his desperate act an attempt to stop Oswald from revealing co-conspirators? Was he tied to organized crime, making the Mafia a major suspect?
Griffin’s first month on the job was spent reading everything that had already been collected by Dallas police, the Secret Service, the FBI and the CIA.
“They had interviewed a couple thousand people at that point,” Griffin said.
He was surprised to find the FBI even investigated an old college classmate of his, a Mansfield man who got their attention for mumbling at a bar that he was glad Kennedy had been killed.
“They interviewed all kinds of people, and we had to decide what was relevant and what wasn’t, and if more needed to be done,” he said.
The investigation was hampered by the fact that several agencies were withholding information, presumably to “cover their fannies” or for other bureaucratic reasons, Griffin said. Trying to figure out “who messed up in not protecting the president” made some people nervous, he said.
After he became familiar with the old investigation, it was time to find new information.
The earliest anyone knew Kennedy was going to be in Dallas was Sept. 26, so Griffin and his teammate started putting together a detailed account of everything Jack Ruby did from Sept. 26 to Nov. 24, the day he killed Oswald.
They ordered phone records of every phone they thought Ruby might have used, then ordered phone records of his friends.
“We worked at breaking his day down hour by hour,” Griffin said.
‘First conspiracy theorist’
What they learned was Ruby — whose name was legally changed from Jacob Rubenstein — was convinced that Kennedy was assassinated as part of a plot to blame the tragedy on Jews.
“Ruby was the first conspiracy theorist,” Griffin said.
The day Kennedy was in Dallas, a full-page ad criticizing the president was signed by Bernard Weissman. After not finding any evidence of Weissman in the Dallas telephone book, city directory or as a member of a local synagogue, Ruby suspected the name was fake.
“The guy existed. He just didn’t live in Dallas,” Griffin said of Weissman.
Still, Ruby “can’t believe that someone who is Jewish wouldn’t like the president,” he said.
For the next two days, Ruby posed as a reporter with the Israeli press and went to the Dallas police department, where he participated in a news conference and passed out corned beef sandwiches to officers, hoping to earn their trust and learn information to support his theory.
It’s unclear whether Ruby intended to shoot Oswald in the moments leading up to the act.
He had gone downtown to wire money to one of his strippers, who complained that she was unable to make her rent because Ruby had closed his nightclub for three days out of respect for Kennedy. He’d taken his dog along with him and left him in the car while he stood in line at the Western Union office.
After sending the money off, he saw a crowd gathering at the police station, where Oswald was being transferred. Ruby walked down a ramp into the basement to join the throng.
Ruby shot Oswald in the gut, just four minutes after wiring the money to his employee. Many thought it unlikely he would have taken his beloved dog along for the ride if that had been his plan.
When Griffin and the other investigators turned in their report to the Warren Commission, they advised that Ruby acted alone. Yes, Ruby knew some people involved in organized crime, but he wasn’t part of the Mafia or some effort to silence Oswald, Griffin said.
In the end, he simply wanted to avenge Kennedy and prove that Jews supported the president.
“If the goal was to blame the assassination on the Jews [as Ruby believed], then killing Oswald was his way of saying the Jews didn’t do it,” Griffin said.
Conclusions hold up
Griffin is proud of the work he and his colleagues did. And while other commissions have been assembled to reinvestigate the case over the years, the original conclusions have always held up.
“None of us knew each other before we went to work there, and we were all determined to find a conspiracy,” he said. “If anybody was going to try and cover it up, we would have walked out. I’ve even said to people, if I could have found a conspiracy, I would have been the senator of Ohio instead of John Glenn.”
The Warren Commission presented its report to President Johnson on Sept. 24, 1964. Griffin returned to Cleveland after the commission’s work was done.
“It wasn’t hard to go back. I wanted to put it all behind me. We did a job and I wanted my life back,” he said.
He went on to run the Cleveland Legal Aid Society, then later was tapped to run a national effort to open legal aid programs around the country, a job that took him back to Washington.
After his wife died of leukemia, he returned to Cleveland with his two children and served as a Cuyahoga County judge for 30 years.
Frankly, he takes it personally that a majority of Americans still suspect there was a conspiracy and that the Warren Commission was hiding something. An Associated Press poll this year said 59 percent of Americans thought Oswald did not act alone.
“It’s sad,” he admits. “People write all these books about conspiracies, but you’ve got to have a conspiracy to sell a book, right?”
On the other hand …
“It’s been 50 years and nobody has proven there was a conspiracy,” he said. “That’s my validation.”