Sylvia Odio

Odio:  The Mother of All Oswald Sightings

By far the most important “Oswald sighting” is the account of a Cuban woman named Sylvia Odio, whose parents were held as political prisoners by Fidel Castro, and who was living in Dallas at the end of September 1963. This was when Lee Oswald left New Orleans and went to Mexico City.  Odio claimed to have been visited by three men, two of them Hispanic, and one Anglo.  They claimed to have been members of the anti-Castro group JURE (Junta Revolucionaria), which Odio had helped found, and to be friends of Odio’s father.  One of the Hispanic men supposedly introduced the Anglo man (who spoke virtually no Spanish) as “Leon Oswald” and told Odio that he was very much interested in the Cuban cause.


Odio testified that one of the Hispanics (who used the “war name” or pseudonym “Leopoldo”) phoned her the next day and told her he wanted her to meet “Leon Oswald” because he had been in the Marine Corps, because he was an excellent shot, and “because he is great, he is kind of nuts.”  “Leopoldo” also told her that “Leon Oswald” said the Cubans “don’t have any guts . . . because President Kennedy should have been assassinated after the Bay of Pigs, and some Cubans should have done that. . . .”[1]


After the assassination, Sylvia identified “Leon Oswald” as our favorite assassin/patsy Lee Harvey Oswald.  And indeed, her sister Annie Odio did too.


Conspiracists, naturally, have jumped all over this.  Sylvia Meagher called it “the proof of the plot,”[2]  and Anthony Summers proclaimed “There can be no innocent explanation.”[3]  Yet some relatively sober lone assassin theorists, such as Jean Davison and Vincent Bugliosi, have concluded that Odio really did see Oswald.

The Evidence

There are, in this case, plenty of witnesses who appear to be telling tale tales, but Sylvia Odio does not seem to be one of these.  In the first place, she was not an attention-seeker.  Instead of running to the media or to the cops or to the FBI, she mentioned Oswald to her sister Sarita, who mentioned it to a woman named Lucille Connell and the story got to the FBI.[4]  Sylvia, in fact, told the Warren Commission that she had talked to Connell about the incident.[5]


If we look for pre-assassination corroboration we find one solid piece of evidence: Sylvia’s sister Annie Odio was with Sylvia in their apartment on the evening the men came, and confirmed the visit of three men.  Otherwise, the evidence seems to be pretty ragged.  Sylvia claims to have written her father about the visit. The letter she supposedly wrote does not exist, but her father’s return letter does.  It makes no reference to “three men,” but does mention somebody who claimed to be Sr. Odio’s friend, asking, “Tell me who this is who says he is my friend — be careful.”[6]  This warning would fit “Leopoldo,” but perhaps fit other (undocumented) events in Sylvia’s life.


Fifteen years after the event, Sylvia’s psychiatrist, Dr. Burton Einspruch, remembered her mentioning, before the assassination, three men who visited her apartment, and even remembered that two of them were “Cubans or Latins” and one was Anglo.

Fifteen years after the event, Sylvia’s psychiatrist, Dr. Burton Einspruch, remembered her mentioning, before the assassination, three men who visited her apartment, and even remembered that two of them were “Cubans or Latins” and one was Anglo.  However, he could not confirm that there was any mention of a “Leopoldo” or a “Leon.”[7]  This testimony, however, may have been contaminated by the fact that, before Einspruch testified to remembering Odio’s statements, his memory was “refreshed” by a phone conversation between himself and Odio, arranged by staffers of the House Select Committee.  Asked “Did that telephone conversation refresh your recollection, Dr. Einspruch?” he responded “Either refreshed it or it convinced me of things.  I don’t know, but I would say it was helpful.”[8]


Einspruch, a psychiatrist, knew perfectly well the danger of creating false memories.


           Odio was clearly talking about the event after the assassination, but there are some puzzling elements in her early post-assassination testimony too.  Connell, to the FBI, failed to mention Odio saying anything about a visit from three men, and reported that Odio had said that Oswald “made some talks to small groups of Cuban refugees in Dallas in the past,” and further that “she [Odio] personally considered OSWALD to be brilliant and clever, and that he had captivated the groups to whom he spoke.”[9]  That doesn’t fit Lee.  Odio talked to a priest named Walter J. McChann, and he reported that “she insisted that the man she identified as Oswald had a mustache, or at least he had not shaved recently; that he was ‘disgusting looking’ because of his dark beard and unkempt appearance.”[10]  That’s not Lee either.  But these accounts are second-hand, so perhaps the “witness problem” is not with Odio, but with the witnesses to what Odio said.


Annie’s corroboration that one of the three men was Lee is a bit shaky too, since she was pretty much led into the identification by her sister.  According to her July 1964 interview with the FBI, “Miss Odio said that as soon as she saw OSWALD on television, she had a distinct impression that she knew she had seen him before.”  That’s not an identification. She further told the FBI that a short time later, while visiting Silvia:


Miss ODIO mentioned to SILVIA that she had the feeling that she had either met or seen OSWALD previously.  SILVIA then remarked that OSWALD was the American who had accompanied the two Cubans to SILVIA’S apartment in late September, 1963.  Miss ODIO said that she then recalled incident and realized that this was in fact the person of whom she had been thinking when she saw OSWALD on television.[11]


Anybody inclined to distrust this FBI report should look at Annie’s testimony to the House Select Committee, where she made it even plainer that Sylvia led her to the identification.  In that account, Annie reports that she told Sylvia of Oswald, “I think I know him.”  Sylvia then replied, “Do you remember those three guys who came to the house?”  Annie then explained, “… that’s when I realized I had seen Oswald before.”[12]


So we don’t have two genuinely independent identifications of Oswald at the Odio apartment.

Was Sylvia Reliable?

Was Sylvia lying?  Hysterical?  Making up stories?


Author Gerald Posner does a number on Odio, pointing out that she had a history of emotional problems.  In Puerto Rico, where she had lived before moving to Dallas, she had seen a psychiatrist over her marital problems.[13]  The psychiatrist decided that she was unstable and unable to care for her children.  One doctor who had treated her for an “attack of nerves” concluded she made it up to get attention.  She had been under psychiatric care in Miami, one of the places she lived before moving to Dallas.  After moving to Dallas, she came under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Einspruch, whom she had been seeing for over seven months, at least weekly (and sometimes more often).[14]


Posner engages in overkill, since a witness doesn’t have to be a raving lunatic in order to believe she has seen Oswald where Oswald could not have been.  A more balanced assessment came from Einspruch, who told the House Select Committee:


Let me say, consciously, I don’t think she would want to lie, but to me, it’s very conceivable that in the histrionic personality, the kind of personality that she had that where she would not lie, she could be — has a degree of suggestibility that she could believe something that did not really transpire.


Einspruch went on to say that he suspected that the story “has grown … It’s a fish story of some sort that you may be dealing with.” [15]

Where Did Sylvia Get That?

Annie Odio told the House Select Committee:


Sylvia told me that when she first heard that President Kennedy was shot, she started saying: “Leon did it.  Leon did it!”  I remember that Silvia was very excited at the hospital and kept saying that she knew that Leon was going to do it.[16]


So when Sylvia “first heard that Kennedy was shot,” she connected the shooting to “Leon” (the fellow described to her as “kind of nuts” and having said that “President Kennedy should have been assassinated”).  In fact, Sylvia’s own Warren Commission testimony confirms this.  Sylvia had a fainting spell after she heard about the assassination, but before she fainted she associated the three men at her door with the assassination.


So immediately, for some reason, in my mind, I established a connection between the two greasy men that had come to my door and the conversation that the Cubans should have killed President Kennedy, and I couldn’t believe it. I was so upset about it.[17]


Asked, “Had you heard the name Oswald when you passed out,” she replied “No, sir.  It was only the connection.”  And indeed, she quite precisely specified the time she had passed out (1:50 p.m.), and at that time neither Oswald’s name nor face had been broadcast in the media.[18]  So it appears that when Odio woke up in the hospital (about 8:00 p.m. that evening) it was already in her mind that the assassination involved the men at the door of her apartment.  Then when she saw Oswald, this rather suggestible person connected the face on the television to “Leon.”


So it appears that when Odio woke up in the hospital (about 8:00 p.m. that evening) it was already in her mind that the assassination involved the men at the door of her apartment.

Note that this interpretation assumes that there were three men at Odio’s door, and some fellow (whom she remembered as “Leopoldo”) said something about the Anglo guy suggesting violence against Kennedy.  Given Annie Odio’s corroboration of the visit, and Einspruch’s assessment that Sylvia was “truthful” (which, as we have seen, is not the same as “accurate”), this interpretation is superior to some ad hoc assumption that Odio made the entire thing up.


Twiford:  The Proof of No Plot


So far, we have merely argued that it’s plausible that Odio reconstructed, in the wake of the assassination, a memory of Oswald and two other guys at the door.  But is there any evidence that it was not Oswald?


Yes there is.


But first, we need to explain that, if the man at the doorway was Oswald, the visit had to have occurred on Wednesday, September 25, 1963.  As we shall see, Oswald left Houston at 2:35 a.m. on the early morning of September 26 on Continental Trailways bus number 5133, headed for Laredo, Texas.[19]  Oswald had to have been in New Orleans in the morning of September 25.  With some help from someone with a car, he could have made it from New Orleans to Dallas to Houston.  But he could not have been in two places on the evening of September 25.


In the wake of the assassination, the FBI discovered the Houston address and phone numbers of a fellow named Horace Twiford in Oswald’s address book.  Contacting the Twiford household, they found that Mrs. Estelle Twiford remembered Oswald having called her one night, wanting to contact her husband, who was an activist in the Socialist Labor Party.  Oswald had sent a request for literature to the SLP in New York, and the request was forwarded along to Horace Twiford in Houston, who duly mailed a copy of the Weekly People, a newspaper published by the Party, to Oswald.  Oswald told Mrs. Twiford that he was flying to Mexico, and mentioned his membership in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.[20]  Mrs. Twiford explained that her husband, a merchant seaman, was at sea.


Mrs. Twiford’s story has some untidy elements to it.  She thought Oswald had called in late October or early November.[21]  Later, her husband remembered Estelle telling him about the Oswald call when he returned to Dallas on September 26.[22]  Mrs. Twiford remembered the call coming “not in the late evening,” and said the “best she could do” to fix the time of the call was between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.,[23] and then later between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.[24] Yet the only bus Oswald could have taken from New Orleans to Houston on the afternoon of September 25 was scheduled to arrive at 10:50 p.m.[25]  So if Oswald was in Houston when he called, wanting to make contact with her husband, she must have been wrong about the time.


Of course, Sylvia Odio insisted of the visit of the three men “It either was a Thursday or a Friday.  It must have been either one of those days, in the last days of September.”[26]  Indeed, she remembered that it had to be Thursday or Friday because her sister Annie was visiting and she came over on these days to babysit.[27]  So if uncertainty about the date is a problem for Twiford’s testimony, it’s an even bigger one for Odio, given the latter’s apparent certainty.


Mrs. Twiford said that she thought the call was a local one (no operator was involved), and Oswald stated that he had only a few hours in Houston and wanted to make contact with her husband.[28] 

Is Twiford Just Another “Sighting”?

If witnesses can think that they saw Oswald at a shooting range (even though he could not have been there), or getting a scope put on his rifle (even though it came with a scope already mounted), could it be that Twiford merely thought she got a call from Oswald?


Unlike the Odio case, there are three pieces of hard evidence that link Oswald to the Twifords.  First, there is an envelope, with the return address “L.H. Oswald, Box 2915, Dallas, Texas” that the Twifords produced.[29]  Secondly, a note saying “Lee Oswald, Dallas (P.O. Box 2915), Fair Play for Cuba” which Mrs. Twiford said she wrote, and which she produced.[30]  And finally, as we have mentioned, Horace Twiford’s name and address and phone numbers in Oswald’s address book.[31]


So the evidence linking Oswald to the Twifords is essentially iron-clad.


But does it link Oswald to the Twifords on the evening of September 25?  The evening of the 25th is the only time Oswald is known to have been in Houston.  One can assume, ad hoc, that he was in Houston some other time, but Horace Twiford’s testimony rules out any date after September 25, and since Twiford mailed the Socialist Workers Party paper to Oswald on September 11,[32] it’s hard to see how Oswald would have known Twiford even existed before that date.  The impecunious Oswald was not given to gallivanting about the country, although one could posit that conspirators were driving or flying him around.  One could also posit that Oswald was not in Houston at all when he called the Twiford residence, although his statement that he had only a few hours and wanted to talk with Mr. Twiford clearly implies he was in town.


So if it’s Twiford or Odio, the hard evidence trumps.  It was Twiford.

Could It Have Been Both Twiford and Odio?

If Oswald was in Houston on the evening of September 25, could he possibly have visited Odio on the evening of the 24th?  The Warren Commission thought not, since Oswald apparently picked up his unemployment check at the Lafayette Street Post Office on Wednesday, September 25 no earlier than 5:00 a.m.  If he was in New Orleans on the 25th, he could not have been at the Odio place on the 24th, so the argument goes. 


Of course, all this goes out the window if we posit someone (not necessarily conspirators) driving Oswald around.


The most cogent and best-argued defense of the Odio testimony comes from author Jean Davison, who challenges the Warren Commission’s logic in several ways.  First, she notes that no eyewitnesses establish Oswald’s presence anywhere from the afternoon of the 24th until he boarded the bus in Houston in the very early morning hours of the 26th.[33]  Neither did investigators find any documents to place him on the bus he presumably took from New Orleans to Houston.  He supposedly cashed his unemployment check at a Winn-Dixie supermarket on the morning of the 25th, but no solid evidence rules out his having done so on the 24th.  Oswald mailed, no later than 11:00 a.m. on the 25th, a change of address form, closing out his New Orleans post office box.  But it could have been mailed on the afternoon of the 24th had it been put in a box in an outlying area.[34]


So it comes down to the unemployment check. The check was cut on the 23rd, and picked up from the mailroom at the Texas Employment Commission in Austin at 5:15 p.m.[35]  The FBI meticulously traced the route it travelled from Austin to New Orleans.  The Superintendent of Mails in Austin explained that mail to New Orleans was dispatched to Houston by truck on Star Route 48703-T at 10:00 p.m. on September 23. He went on to explain that this was “the only way regular mail could be dispatched from Austin, unless it were delayed or missent.” He added that “regular mail is never diverted to airmail or to any other means than stated above.”[36]


In Houston, records showed that the mail truck from Austin arrived at 2:40 a.m. on the 24th.  The mail was placed on Southern Pacific Train number 2, which (the Houston officials said) would arrive in New Orleans at about 6:00 p.m.  The train actually left Houston at 9:45 a.m., twenty minutes late.[37]  Postal officials in New Orleans established that Southern Pacific Train number 2 did arrive in New Orleans at 6:00 p.m. on September 24.  Mail then had to be taken off the train and transferred to the branch post offices.  The mail to the Lafayette Street post office (where Oswald retrieved it from his box) was dispatched at 4:55 a.m.  There were no employees on duty at the Lafayette Street station during the evening, and no mail was put in boxes from 5:45 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. on the following day.[38]


The New Orleans Postal Inspector confirmed what the Superintendent of Mails in Austin told the FBI:  his records showed that there had never been any airlift of mail from Austin to New Orleans.[39]


Then what is the evidence that the check arrived on the 24th?  Davison points out that Marina, in an interview just a week after the assassination said that Oswald “went every Tuesday to pick up his unemployment check.”[40]  Davison also points out that the Warren Commission report asserts that Oswald cashed an unemployment check on Tuesday, September 17.[41]  Unfortunately, the Warren Commission provided no citation for this, and the FBI report tracing Oswald’s check cashing activities shows no evidence that agents ever established the exact date on which Oswald cashed any check.[42]  Davison rather airily suggests that “the postal authorities had for once underestimated the efficiency of the U.S. mails.”[43]  Unfortunately, Marina’s testimony can’t outweigh the meticulous reconstruction of the check’s journey from Austin to the Lafayette Street station in New Orleans.


Oswald picked up the check on September 25.

Really Proof of the Plot?

In judging that Oswald left New Orleans by bus on the 25th, called Mrs. Twiford late that night, and then left Houston by bus very early the morning of the 26th, the Warren Commission was “connecting the dots” the most straightforward way, without any trips, by means unknown, with people unknown, to Sylvia Odio’s apartment in Dallas.  Thus it has the virtue of parsimony.  But it omits the Odio sighting.  Is Odio an “outlier,” that we can exclude, or are we forced to adopt a more elaborate theory to accommodate her testimony?

Unfortunately, if Oswald was being “set up” as a leftist (and the vast majority of conspiracy theorists believe this), it makes no sense to have him running around with a bunch of anti-Castro Cubans.


The sheer number of Oswald sightings argues for Odio being just another “outlier” that can be excluded.  If we know that scores or hundreds of false Oswald sightings popped up in the wake of the assassination, that renders plausible the notion that this is just another one.  Another problem with conspiracy theories that accept the Odio testimony is that it is hard to see what the point would be.  Of course, having Oswald (or perhaps an imposter “Oswald”) talk about shooting Kennedy sounds like a dandy way to “set him up.”  Unfortunately, if Oswald was being “set up” as a leftist (and the vast majority of conspiracy theorists believe this), it makes no sense to have him running around with a bunch of anti-Castro Cubans.  He needs to be running around with pro-Castro Cubans, or some other variety of left-wingers.[44]


So the most straightforward theory puts Oswald in New Orleans, then in Houston, then on the bus to Mexico City.  If we buy a “Odio plus Twiford” scenario, we have Oswald in New Orleans, then in Dallas, then again in New Orleans (to pick up the unemployment check) then in Houston, and then on the bus to Mexico City.  This based on extremely hard evidence of a contact with Twiford, and the receipt of the check no sooner that 5:00 a.m,. September 25.


But suppose we really want to accept the Odio testimony? The only sensible theory about it comes from Davison, who suggests that Oswald was “infiltrating” the anti-Castro movement.  Oswald had, back on August 5, showed up at a store in New Orleans called the Casa Roca run by anti-Castro activist Carlos Bringuier.  Oswald claimed to Bringuier that he wanted to serve the anti-Castro movement, that he had been a Marine, that he had been trained in guerrilla warfare, and that he was willing both to train fighters and to fight himself.[45]  He left Bringuier his Guidebook for Marines, which showed how to make bombs and booby-traps and how to mount sabotage operations.


The purpose of this little tableau was revealed by Oswald in his “Revolutionary Resumé,” which he presented to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City to establish his credentials as a friend of the revolution. Oswald said he “infiltrated the Cuban Student Directorate and then harassed them with information I gained ….”[46]  Davison suggests that the Odio visit was yet another infiltration.[47]  Thus, if we insist on accepting the Odio testimony, the most parsimonious theory is one that has Oswald doing something he is known to have done before (“infiltration”), and not one that requires him to have been sincerely anti-Castro.


As Oswald sightings go, the Odio sighting is the most intriguing. Sylvia was not a crackpot nor an attention seeker, and there is little doubt that she came to believe a “Leon Oswald” had visited her residence on an evening in late September, and further than this “Leon Oswald” was identical with Lee Harvey Oswald.


If one is inclined to take witness testimony at face value, Odio is as good a person as any to take at face value. The problem is that scores of other Oswald sightings were reported in the wake of the assassination, the vast majority coming from witnesses who were honestly convinced they had seen and interacted with the real Lee Oswald — even though they could not have done so. Most likely, Odio was just another of these honestly mistaken witnesses.

[1] WCR, 322. CD 205, 643

[2] Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 376.

[3] Anthony Summers, Conspiracy (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House Publishers, 1989), 391.

            [4] Memo to Dave Marston, from Gaeton Fonzi, 4/5/76, HSCA Number Files, Archives Record Number 180-10001-10154.

[5] 11 H 380.

[6] Odio Exhibit 1 (20 H 690).

[7] United States House of Representatives, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Sworn Testimony of Dr. Burton C. Einspruch, July 11, 1978 (JFK Document 010069), 14–15.

[8]  Ibid., 8.

[9] CE 3108 (26 H 738).

[10]CE 2943 (26 H 405).

[11]CE 2907 (26 H 363).

[12]  10 HSCA 28.

[13]  She eventually divorced.

[14]  Gerald Posner, Case Closed (New York: Random House, 1993), 178-179.

[15]  United States House of Representatives, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Sworn Testimony of Dr. Burton C. Einspruch, July 11, 1978 (JFK Document 010069), 35-36.

[16]  10 HSCA 28.

[17]  6 H 392.

[18]  6 H 392.

[19]  WCR, 323.

[20]  CE 2335 (25 H 300).

[21]  CE 2335 (25 H 300).

[22]  CE 2136 (24 H 726), CD 191, 6.

[23]  CE 2136 (24 H 727).

[24]  11 H 180.

[25]  WCR 731.

[26]  6 H 380.

[27]  6 H 384.

[28]  CE 2335 (25 H 301).

[29]  Twiford Exhibit 1 (21 H 681).  Unfortunately, no handwriting analysis was ever done to identify the writing on the envelope as Oswald’s, so one can assume, ad hoc, that the envelope was forged if one wants.

[30]  Twiford Exhibit 1 (21 H 682).

[31]  CE 2335. One of the numbers was an old disconnected one, which Oswald presumably got from a phone book at (most likely) the bus station.  Apparently he called the operator to get the other number, which was current.

[32]  Twiford Exhibit 1 (21 H 681).

[33] Jean Davison, Oswald’s Game (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983), 189. 

[34] CE 2131 (24 H 716).

[35] CE 2131 (24 H 715).

[36] CE 2938 (26 H 386).

[37] CE 2940 (26 H 389).

[38] CE 2939 (26 H 388).

[39]  Ibid.

[40] Oswald’s Game, 190. CE 1781 (23 H 388).

[41] WCR, 308.

[42] CE 1161 (22 H 208).

[43] Oswald’s Game, 190.

[44] Some conspiracists try to square this circle by pointing out that JURE was a rather leftist anti-Castro group, often said to want “Castroism without Castro.”  But this would seem like a rather fine distinction in the media circus that would predictably follow Oswald being charged with killing Kennedy.  Further, Oswald left a trail of pro-Castro (not just leftist) activities and statements.

[45] WCR, 728.

[46] CE 93 (16 H 341). Oswald’s spelling errors corrected.

[47] Oswald’s Game, 195–198.