Mortal Error

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Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK
Mortal Error.png
Author Bonar Menninger
Country USA
Language English
Publisher St Martin's Press
Publication date
May 1992
Media type Print
Pages 361 pp (first edition, hardback or paperback)
ISBN 0312080743

Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK is a 1992 non-fiction book by Bonar Menninger outlining a theory by sharpshooter, gunsmith and ballistics expert Howard Donahue that a Secret Service agent accidentally fired the shot that actually killed President John F. Kennedy.[1][2] Mortal Error was published by St Martin's Press in hardback, paperback, and audiobook.

Menninger is also the author of And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado, which won a Kansas Notable Book Award in 2011.[3]

Background and overview[edit]

Donahue first became interested in the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy after being invited to participate in a recreation of the shooting as one of eleven invited marksmen and sharpshooters.[2] He demonstrated that it would not have been possible for Lee Harvey Oswald to have fired three shots in the time specified by the Warren Commission, and was the only one of the eleven to better the 5.6 second window. However the experience highlighted to Donahue other concerns regarding the Warren report, and in particular the fact that the testimony of ballistics experts seemed to have been completely omitted from the Commission's evidence gathering.[4]

Conducting his own investigation, Donahue eventually decided that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the head had in fact been fired by Secret Service agent George W. Hickey Jr. from an AR-15 rifle carried in the car immediately following the President's vehicle. The series of events is as follows: After the first shot which hit the street was fired, Hickey turns completely around and acquires Oswald on the sixth floor of the school book depository building. His turned head is documented in an AP photograph by James Altgens. Hickey reaches for the AR-15 under the seat, releases the safety and begins to lift the gun. The second shot is fired by Oswald, hitting the president and Connally. The president's car and the follow-up car containing Hickey suddenly speed up. This is attested to by Secret Service agent Clinton J. Hill. Agent Hickey, who is unstable because he is standing on the cushion of the seat, rather than the floor of the car, begins to fall back due to the acceleration of the vehicle, pulling the trigger of the AR-15. In the worst of luck, the gun is pointed toward Kennedy at that instant, and the bullet strikes him squarely in the back of the head.

In parallel, he believes Oswald's second shot through Kennedy's neck may have already critically wounded the president before the third shot was fired.[5]

Donahue was encouraged in his investigations by Ralph Reppert, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. In 1977, Reppert published Donahue's theory in two articles, which appeared on Sunday, May 1, and the following Sunday, with the second article accompanied by an editorial. These two men were keen to collaborate on a book on the subject,[6] but this was cut short by Reppert's ill health and subsequent death.[7] Donahue later also approached author John Davis in the hope that a book would still be written.[8] The original copyright of Mortal Error read "Copyright 1992 Bonar Menninger and Howard Donahue"[9] but some later editions did not mention Donahue's copyright. The Acknowledgements section (dated January 21, 1992) begins "Special thanks to Nick Beltrante for a great news tip, the late Ralph Reppert for showing the way, Howard and Katie Donahue for casting their lot with me...".[10]

Donahue's reconstruction of the trajectories of the shots that struck Kennedy and Governor Connally supported the single-bullet theory for the second shot. Donahue decided that the impossible trajectory suggested by the Warren Commission was only necessary because there was an error in their positioning of Connally. He also concluded that this was Oswald's second shot, the first having missed owing to the misalignment of the rifle's telescopic sight but with a ricochet fragment slightly wounding Kennedy, and that Oswald had not fired a third shot, the third cartridge case found at the scene having been a slightly bent and empty one kept in the rifle's chamber.[10]

Neither Donahue nor Menninger commented on whether the Warren Commission's key finding, that Oswald acted alone, was correct or not. Menninger notes that the theory is consistent with Oswald being involved in a conspiracy.[11] The term "cover-up" is mentioned in the book, rather than conspiracy.


The book takes the overall form of a narrative, in which Menninger describes Donahue's enquiries over twenty-five years.

Chapter 1, A Chance Telephone Call, describes the events that led to Donahue's interest in the assassination, and a brief biography up until that point.

Chapters 2 and 3, The Warren Report and The Critics, then give the context and summary of the report, and a detailed summary of its critics as of 1968.

Chapter 4, The Single Bullet Theory presents Donahue's analysis of the shot which, according to the Warren Commission, struck both Kennedy and Connally, and suggests that the "magic bullet" trajectory is only necessary because the estimated position of the Governor was wrong. One of Oswald's shots could therefore have caused both men's injuries as claimed, but there remain other unanswered questions.

Chapter 5, The Head Shot describes Donahue's analysis of the shot that hit Kennedy in the head, using the Warren Commission evidence (particularly the official autopsy report), stills from the Zapruder film and other photos, and holes drilled in a plaster skull. Numerous questions arise surrounding the completeness and even accuracy of the autopsy report.

...two crippling problems with the government's claim that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shot that hit Kennedy in the head: 1) the apparent trajectory of the bullet did not seem to match the location of Oswald's sniper's nest, and 2) the type of bullet fired was totally at odds with the rounds that Oswald was known to have used. (p. 56)

Chapter 6, A Fortuitous Encounter, describes Donahue's first correspondence with the Secret Service, and reviews the conclusions that led to his approaching them.

In just eight months, working on weekends and evenings in his cluttered basement den, he had been able to construct a rebuttal to the critics of the Commission's single bullet theory that effectively destroyed their principal arguments. More important, he was sure he'd identified two serious flaws in the Government's explanation of the head wound, flaws those same critics has (sic) missed entirely. (p. 57)

He then by chance meets Dr. Russell Fisher, who led the Clark Panel which reviewed the autopsy in 1968, and who provides a copy of its report and many insights into details of the autopsy report and problems with the material provided to the panel. The suspicion of an accidental discharge by a Secret Service agent grows.

"Well, you know more about guns than I do," he said. "But that would certainly explain the strange antics of the government." (p. 65)

Chapter 7, Kennedy's Unknown Wound, describes Donahue's conclusion that Kennedy suffered a scalp wound from a ricochet fragment from Oswald's first shot, using the material provided by Fisher. This resolves some problems with the timing of the reactions of Kennedy and Connally.

Chapter 8, Murphy's Law, resumes the story of Donahue's career as his expertise and reputation as an expert witness grows.

Chapter 9, The Discovery, describes more of Donahue's career, and his discovery of a photo showing a Secret Service agent holding a weapon that could have produced the kind of wound Kennedy suffered (the photo eventually used on the cover of the book). This revives his interest in publishing an article on his findings.

Howard here. You're not going to believe this, and God help me if I'm wrong, but I think we can do the story. I found the gun. (p. 108)

Chapter 10, Breaking News, describes the first publication of Donahue's conclusions in articles by Ralph Reppert, and attempts to contact Hickey. Questions are asked regarding the nature of the cover-up, and particularly about whether Robert Kennedy was involved in it.

Chapters 11 to 13 describe Donahue's experiences with the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Obviously, they had no intention of examining the evidence Howard had assembled. (p. 157)

Rose informed Donahue that he'd travel extensively around the country to interview a number of Secret Service agents and police officers about what happened in Dallas. "So, did you interview Hickey?" Donahue asked. "He was right there in Washington." "No, I did not," Rose replied. "Why not?" Donahue asked. "I really don't know," Rose said finally. (pp. 186–187, describing a conversation that took place in 1983)

Chapter 14, The AR-15, describes the ill health and death of Reppert, the reporter who wrote the articles that broke the story, which ends their proposed collaboration on a book on Donahue's theory and puts the book proposal on hold. The story of the AR-15 is told, with comparisons to the M-1, AK-47, M-14 and M-16, and some very critical assessments of the adoption of the M-14 and M-16.

Do you know what killed most of us? Our own rifles... (p. 196)

Chapter 15, The Final Breakthrough, presents more ballistics, especially estimating the size of the head shot entry wound and its relevance. John Davis, another possible author for the book, is contacted and is at first enthusiastic. Howard gives up his Masters studies in forensics but becomes increasingly employed as an expert witness despite this.

...the bullet that struck Kennedy's neck had cracked one of his vertebrae... if Kennedy would have survived the trauma at all – something Lattimer doubted – it probably would have been only as a vegetable quadriplegic. (p. 199)

Chapter 16, Hope Dies Hard, gives a brief history of the Secret Service, their nightmare assignment guarding Kennedy, and their reaction to the shooting. There follows Hickey's involvement in the Warren Commission and statements by him and other agents. Donahue's conversation with one notable conspiracy theorist is also described.

Chapter 17, Today, is a recap as of spring 1991, describing reactions from Secret Service agents and others to the theory, and more attempts to contact Hickey.

I do not believe that George Hickey is to blame for what happened. He was a brave man trying to do his job. (p. 237, Donahue speaking)

An afterword headed Note from the Publisher describes more attempts to contact Hickey, and to discuss the theory with the Secret Service and others, and why the decision to publish the book was taken.

There are several appendices:

  • Appendix A: Testimony and Written Statements by Secret Service Agents Regarding Events of November 22, 1963
  • Appendix B: 1968 Panel Review of Photographs, X-Ray Films, Documents, and Other Evidence Pertaining to the Fatal Wounding of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas
  • Appendix C: Excerpts from Interviews Conducted by the House Select Committee on Assassinations with Drs. Humes, Petty, Angel, Baden, Boxwell, and Loquvam
  • Appendix D: Trajectory Analysis from the House Select Committee on Assassinations Hearings

Finally, there are chapter by chapter endnotes giving sources and their bibliographic details,[12] and an index.[13]


Reaction to Mortal Error has been mixed.[14] James Balducki of the Associated Press cited that Donahue's "scrupulousness" made his theory of the JFK assassination plausible.[15] Balducki praised the book, saying "Menninger interprets the story with a sharpness and fluidity that never unravels amid the surge of detail".[15] David Pietrusza called Donahue's theory unusual due to him not tying the assassination to Mafia, CIA, or FBI, but that there were "still problems with Donahue's theory".[16] The Hamilton Spectator criticized Mortal Error as "missing the mark".[17]

Pre-publication orders topped 100,000,[1] but the book caused little impact at the time. Menninger commented in 2013 that this might be because Donahue's theory was "equally disliked by both conspiracy theorists and supporters of the Warren Commission."[18]

Howard Donahue died in 1999.[19][20] In The Smoking Gun documentary, his daughter Colleen Donahue Lorenzen remembers her father being surprised that his work aroused so little interest.

At the time of his death, Donahue was working on another book on the same topic.[21]


Prior to the publication of the book in 1992, both the publisher and the author contacted Hickey to invite his participation in the book and offering him a chance to respond to the allegations. In 1995 Hickey sued St. Martin's Press over the claims made in Mortal Error.[22][23] The suit was eventually dismissed in 1997 on the grounds that Hickey had waited too long after the book's initial publication to file against the publisher.[24] Hickey refiled suit when the paper-back edition was published, and later settled with St Martin's Press in 1998 on undisclosed terms.[25]

Sources state that Hickey died in either 2005[26][27] or 2011.[28][29][30]

JFK: The Smoking Gun[edit]

Inspired by Mortal Error,[31] Australian investigator Colin McLaren decided to approach the shooting as a cold case investigation,[32] and treating Donahue's expert testimony as that of just one witness of many. After more than four years of work, made far quicker and easier by the availability of documents such as the Warren Commission report and testimony as searchable files, he published a 90-minute documentary and book, both titled JFK: The Smoking Gun.

JFK: The Smoking Gun (documentary)[edit]

The documentary aired on Australian and American television on November 3, 2013.[33][34][35]

Directed by Malcolm Mcdonald and featuring actors Anne-Sophie Bozon and Larry Day,[36] it features re-enactments, archival footage, and also new interviews with Menninger, with Donahue's daughter Colleen, and with witnesses to the shooting. A one-hour abridged version of this documentary aired in the UK on November 13, 2013, entitled JFK's Secret Killer: The Evidence.[37]

A highlight of the program is when McLaren demonstrates one of Donahue's ballistics tests as described in Mortal Error, using a plaster skull to trace the trajectory of the head shot, and showing how this indicated to Donahue that the shot that struck Kennedy in the head came from exactly where Agent Hickey was positioned. As further evidence for there being a second shooter, he notes Donahue's conclusion that the calibre of the bullet that made the 6mm entry wound in Kennedy's head was incompatible with Oswald's 6.5mm calibre Mannlicher-Carcano rifle but compatible with a 5.56mm bullet from an AR-15, and that the 30-40 bullet fragments found inside Kennedy's skull demonstrated that it was a different type of ammunition to the bullet which travelled straight through the President and into Governor Connally, and again that while this shot behaved exactly like a full-jacket Mannlicher-Carcano round, the head shot appears to behave exactly like an AR-15 round. He then produces the photograph of Agent Hickey holding up an AR-15 while standing inside the Secret Service follow-up car as it speeds behind the Presidential limousine with Secret Service Agent Clint Hill on its rear,[38] the same photograph which was crucial to Donahue's decision to publish his work and which was used on the front cover of Menninger's book.

Also investigating the leadup to the shooting, McLaren discusses the pressure the Secret Service agents were under at the time of Kennedy's Texas trip, stating they "...had been working double-shifts" and "...the previous three days (to the assassination) had been brutal with no end in sight". He adds that several Secret Service agents spent the early hours of November 22 drinking until 5am, suggesting this would have made them "...hungover from the alcohol and not at their best performance" and probably why Hickey, who hadn't been out drinking, an agent of only four months service at the time and normally just a driver, was given the job of commanding the AR-15, "a role foreign to him", McLaren comments.

Moving to events after the shooting, the documentary reconstructs scenes where eyewitnesses gave statements to the Dallas police, with one saying he saw "a flash of pink" from the Presidential motorcade, and how another, Jean Hill, saw "...the president grab his chest", then "...a few men in plain clothes shooting back". McLaren suggests the pink flash could have been "a muzzle blast or the gunpowder itself" and asks why Hill's testimony wasn't followed up. Further reference is made to ten witnesses in Dealey Plaza who smelled gunpowder, with a 15 mph breeze from the south-west, heading towards Oswald, making it unlikely the gunpowder had originated from the Texas School Book Depository.

Other evidence of a cover-up put forward by McLaren states how an evasive Secret Service chief James Rowley admitted, at the Warren Commission, that AR-15s were no longer used by his organisation inside protection vehicles since the assassination, and also that classified Secret Service documents on the assassination were destroyed just one week prior to being handed over to the Assassination Records Review Board in 1995. McLaren suggests the chaos of the aftermath of the assassination, including threatening and interfering behaviour by Secret Service agents towards Parkland Memorial Hospital staff, involving the removal of Kennedy's body without an autopsy having taken place, was "...evidence they knew one of their agents had shot JFK" and pointed to a cover-up. He further suggests that Kennedy's eventual autopsy with its "...overcrowding in the room, the Secret Service's constant interference, the pressure cooker autopsy, lost photographs, falsified x-rays...all point to conspiracy". Several scenes are dramatically reconstructed, including the removal of the body from the Dallas hospital.

JFK: The Smoking Gun (book)[edit]

McLaren's book JFK: The Smoking Gun[39] (2013) is dedicated to Howard Donahue[31] but has a very different focus to both his documentary and to Menninger's book. Donahue's ballistics tests are not here repeated, but are simply cited as evidence, and McLaren then describes going to the scene in Dallas to see with his own eyes whether they seemed convincing in that context.[40]

As an investigator, McLaren focuses on the existing witness testimony, rather than on his own ballistics or similar tests.[41] Rather than just dismiss the ballistics tests carried out for the Warren Commission as inexpert, their testimony to the commission, including their qualifications, is quoted and critiqued,[42] and also any cross-examination.

He quotes many more witnesses than Donahue or Menninger as having believed that shots were fired at ground level, and observes a pattern of concealment of evidence.[43] His conclusion, like those of Reppert and of Menninger, is that Donahue is correct in both the broad theory and the details.


  1. ^ a b "Mortal error? Agent's accidental shot killed JFK, book asserts". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. February 23, 1992. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Hunter, Stephen (February 23, 1992). "Author says friendly fire killed JFK". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  3. ^ ISBN 978-1934572498
  4. ^ Burnes, Brian (February 21, 1992). "Another JFK theory: An accident Kansas City man's book says fatal bullet was fired by a Secret Service agent.". Kansas City Star. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  5. ^ "Agent's Error Killed Kennedy, Book Says". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. February 23, 1992. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  6. ^ ...Reppert and Donahue agreed the next logical step would be to write a book. (Mortal Error 1992 paperback edition p. 121)
  7. ^ In theory, at least, there was still the prospect of the book in collaboration with Reppert. In those heady days following the publication of the Sun article, both men had been in full, excited agreement that a book would be the next logical step. (Mortal Error 1992 paperback edition p. 188)
  8. ^ Much to Howard's delight, Davis said he was very interested in the theory and the possibility of doing a book. (Mortal Error 1992 paperback edition p. 211)
  9. ^ Mortal Error 1992 paperback edition flyleaf
  10. ^ a b Mortal Error, ISBN 0-283-06136-7
  11. ^ p. 146 Of course, Donahue's understanding of the fatal shot in no way precluded the possibility that Oswald was involved in some kind of conspiracy.
  12. ^ pp. 335–350
  13. ^ pp. 351–361
  14. ^ Bready, James (February 27, 1992). "The 'JFK' theory that's too simple for Americans to believe". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  15. ^ a b Balducki, James (June 7, 1992). "New JFK assassination book just another theory". Observer-Reporter. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  16. ^ Pietrusza, David (1996). Mysterious Deaths — John F. Kennedy. Lucent Books. pp. 71–72. ISBN 1560062630. 
  17. ^ Legall, Mark (March 28, 1992). "'Fumbling agent shot JFK' theory misses the mark". Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  18. ^ "TAKE 5: Author: Accidental shot killed JFK". Sanford Herald. November 15, 2013. Retrieved December 2, 2013. [the theory was] equally disliked by both conspiracy theorists and supporters of the Warren Commission. 
  19. ^ Gay, Verne (October 31, 2013). "'JFK, The Smoking Gun' review: Conspiracy theory documentary feels recycled". Newsday. Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  20. ^ Rasmussen, Frederick N. (December 21, 1999). "Howard C. H. Donahue, 77, ballistics expert, studied Kennedy's death". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  21. ^ retrieved 16 December 2013 According to his daughter, Colleen Donahue Lorenzen of Riderwood, Mr. Donahue was working on a related book at his death. "He had discovered a TV tape in a German archive that showed the assassination from a different angle as well as a Secret Service agent standing up in a car."
  22. ^ "Suit Filed over JFK Book". The News. August 23, 1996. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  23. ^ "JFK killing theory on trial for libel". Lawrence Journal-World. August 23, 1996. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  24. ^ O'Brien, Dennis (September 30, 1997). "Defamation suit involving book on JFK dismissed Judge notes time limit". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  25. ^ "Retired agent paid undisclosed amount in JFK shooting case". Gettysburg Times. February 4, 1998. Retrieved August 5, 2012. 
  26. ^ Bark, Ed (October 29, 2013). "Look out, it's only just begun: ReelzChannel weighs in early with JFK: The Smoking Gun". Retrieved June 18, 2014. Hickey, who died in 2005, refused to talk to Menninger or Donahue for the purposes of their book. 
  27. ^ "TAKE 5: Author: Accidental shot killed JFK". Sanford Herald (Sanford, North Carolina). November 15, 2013. Retrieved June 18, 2014. George Hickey died in 2005, but not before taking legal action in response to “Mortal Error.” 
  28. ^ Rule, Andrew (October 25, 2013). "Aussie out to show Secret Service blunder was to blame". Herald Sun (Melbourne). Retrieved June 18, 2014. Hickey died in 2011, which makes it easier to tell the story without the fear of a lawsuit. 
  29. ^ Doyle, John (November 4, 2013). "Did a hungover Secret Service agent accidentally shoot JFK?". The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario). Retrieved June 18, 2014. Hickey died two years ago [i.e. 2011] and isn’t around to answer the charge. 
  30. ^ Arkin, Daniel (November 21, 2013). "Accidental assassin: JFK theory alleges Secret Service agent fumbled gun". NBC News. Retrieved June 18, 2014. Hickey, who died in 2011, filed a libel suit against Menninger, Donahue and St. Martin's Press, the publisher of Menninger's book, in 1995. 
  31. ^ a b To Howard Donohue, a man who epitomised the very reason we demand dedicated and precise forensic science at the forefront of unravelling complex crime. Despite his arduous 25-year study he was snubbed and ultimately silenced by official suits and lawsuits. His ballistic expertise, his astute opinions and his skill live on through my story. McLaren, Colin (2013-10-23). JFK: The Smoking Gun (Kindle Locations 18-20). Hachette Australia. Kindle Edition.
  32. ^ I carried the book in my cabin luggage when I winged my way homeward. By the time I arrived in Australia I had read it again and was charged with a desire to undertake a cold-case forensic study into the killing of the 35th President of the United States. McLaren, Colin (2013-10-23). JFK: The Smoking Gun (Kindle Locations 225-227). Hachette Australia. Kindle Edition.
  33. ^ "‘JFK: The Smoking Gun,’ TV review: Australian detective concludes that Kennedy died from friendly fire". Daily News. Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  34. ^ "JFK: The Smoking Gun". Amazon. Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  35. ^ "JFK: The Smoking Gun – Get the Books". Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  36. ^ retrieved 17 December 2013
  37. ^ "JFK'S Secret Killer: The Evidence". Channel 5 Broadcasting Limited. Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  38. ^ Mucha, Peter (November 13, 2013). "Shooting holes in theory that a Secret Service agent killed President Kennedy". (Interstate General Media). Retrieved November 30, 2013. 
  39. ^ McLaren, Colin. JFK: The Smoking Gun. ISBN 978-0-7336-3044-6. 
  40. ^ Oswald could not have fired the third and fatal shot from where he crouched. The line of the trajectory was all wrong. McLaren, Colin (2013-10-23). JFK: The Smoking Gun (Kindle Locations 2909-2910). Hachette Australia. Kindle Edition.
  41. ^ Donahue was missing the purity of witness evidence. Here was a great ballistics theory but with no supportive evidence or, as detectives say, ‘all meat and no potatoes’ – no forensic analysis of the testimonies to support his premise. McLaren, Colin (2013-10-23). JFK: The Smoking Gun (Kindle Locations 219-225). Hachette Australia. Kindle Edition.
  42. ^ Dr Light went on to say that Olivier’s theory relating to JFK’s head wound and Connally’s wrist wound was ‘barely conceivable’. McLaren, Colin (2013-10-23). JFK: The Smoking Gun (Kindle Locations 3036-3037). Hachette Australia. Kindle Edition.
  43. ^ Leading a witness is prone to interjection from the judge. Strangely, this was not the case at the Warren Commission, where leading questions were commonplace. McLaren, Colin (2013-10-23). JFK: The Smoking Gun (Kindle Locations 3072-3073). Hachette Australia. Kindle Edition.

External links[edit]

Evidence cited by Donahue[edit]