Dead in the Wake of the Kennedy Assassination

Nancy Mooney: Mysterious Death?

by Magen Knuth

Bob Considine's article published in the New York Journal-American on February 23, 1964 was the first to speculate on Mooney's death. It was so pivotal in this argument that the Warren Commission entered it as exhibit 342.

Nancy Mooney, also know as Betty MacDonald, was found hanged in her jail cell by a trusty at 4:45 a.m. on February 13, 1964, only two hours after being incarcerated. Justice of the Peace W. E. Richburg ruled Mooney's death a suicide (Dallas Morning News. February 14, 1964, section 1, page 8). To the Dallas Police Department, it simply looked like a suicide of one of their inmates. To JFK conspiracy theorists, it looked like another murder of someone who knew "too much." This claim first surfaced in an article by columnist Bob Considine. The Warren Commission concluded that there was nothing suspicious about the death (663), but conspiracy author Sylvia Meagher, in Accessories After the Fact The Warren Commission, The Authorities, and The Report, claimed that the "investigation cited by the Warren Commission as the basis for its findings in the Betty MacDonald affair is so sketchy and deficient that it leaves matters where they were when Bob Considine's story was published and adds a few new mysteries as well (297)."

To fit the pieces of the "mysterious" death together, one must go back to November 22, 1963, the day JFK was shot. Roughly one hour after Kennedy was shot, Officer J.D. Tippit of the Dallas Police Department was shot and killed instantly. At least twelve people witnessed the shooting or the killer fleeing (Warren Commission Report, 165-166). According to conspiracy author Jim Marrs:

. . . [One] witness was Warren Reynolds, who chased Tippit's killer. He, too, failed to identify Oswald as Tippit's killer until after he was shot in the head two months later. After recovering, Reynolds identified Oswald to the Warren Commission. (A suspect was arrested in the Reynolds shooting, but released when a former Jack Ruby stripper named Betty Mooney MacDonald provided an alibi. One week after her word released the suspect, MacDonald was arrested by Dallas Police and a few hours later was found hanged in her jail cell. Neither the FBI nor the Warren Commission investigated this strange incident.) (Crossfire The Plot That Killed Kennedy, 342).

These are the facts: on January 23, 1964, two days after his FBI interview, Reynolds was shot in the head with a .22 caliber rifle at Reynolds Motor Company where he worked. The prime suspect in his shooting was Darrell Wayne Garner, also known as "Dago." Garner was a suspect for three reasons. First, on January 20, 1964, he attempted to sell a 1957 Oldsmobile but he did not have its title. He became very upset and enraged when Johnny Reynolds, brother of Warren Reynolds and owner of Reynolds Motor Company, refused to purchase the car. Secondly, on January 24, 1964, Johnny Reynolds received an anonymous call in which he was told to go see Dago. Lastly, Garner made statements at a local cafe as to how Reynolds got what he deserved and how sorry Reynolds and his brother were. Later that same day, Garner was arrested and charged with investigation, assault to murder, and "drunk and disorderly." His arrest was made due to the statement by the anonymous telephone caller and the statements Garner made at the café (CE 2589).

So far, that sounds pretty incriminating.

Warren Commission Exhibit 2589 summarizes the FBI's investigation of the Mooney death, and related issues.

But Garner appeared for a polygraph test which showed that he was not at the scene at the time of the shooting. He was then released. He was arrested again on February 3, 1964 after making a statement to his sister-in-law about how he had shot Reynolds. When he made this comment, he was drunk. He later stated to the Dallas Police that he frequently makes statements like that when he is drunk. Garner also had an alibi, Nancy Mooney. On February 5, 1964, she gave an affidavit on the whereabouts of Garner. She also appeared for a polygraph test which confirmed the truth in her statements. With all of this evidence, the Dallas Police released Garner (CE 2589).

Eight days later, on February 13, 1964, Nancy Mooney was arrested for disturbing the peace. She was involved in a fight with her ex-roommate, Pasty Swope Moore, over Jimmy Walter Kirkpatrick. According to the Dallas police and the Warren Commission, she hanged herself "with her toreador trousers, causing death by asphyxiation" in her cell less than two hours after being incarcerated (CE 2589).

Warren Reynolds testified on July 22, 1964 that the picture he was shown of Oswald was in fact the shooter he saw fleeing from the Tippit shooting (W.C. XI 435). What conspiracy theorists contend is that Reynolds "recanted" his earlier statement on the identity of the Tippit shooter in fear of his life. After all, not only had he been shot shortly after he could not positively identify Oswald as the shooter, Nancy Mooney "mysteriously" died in her jail cell because she knew "too much."

For this death to be truly sinister, each and every one of the following things must be true:

  • A conspiracy must have arranged to have Warren Reynolds shot.
  • Darrell Wayne Garner must have been the man who shot Reynolds at the behest of conspirators. After all, if Garner was innocent, conspirators would hardly mind that he, rather than someone they had assigned to shoot Reynolds, was blamed.
  • Nancy Mooney must somehow have learned that Garner shot Reynolds at the behest of conspirators and been somehow persuaded or coerced into protecting him. Or, she must have gained some sinister knowledge because of her supposed employment with Ruby.
  • Conspirators must have taken the opportunity of Mooney's arrest to kill her in her jail cell.

If any of the links in this logical chain is missing, this "mysterious death" can be written off as nothing but a half-baked piece of supposition.

Warren Reynolds was interviewed by the FBI and that statement was given to the Warren Commission. It is Commission Exhibit 2523. Reynolds describes in this interview the shooter he saw fleeing the Tippit shooting.

Would Conspirators Want to Shoot Reynolds?

Reynolds talked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on January 22, 1964. When shown a photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald, Reynolds stated that he was "of the opinion Oswald is the person he had followed on the afternoon of November 22, 1963; however, he would hesitate to definitely identify Oswald as the individual" (CE 2523). He would hesitate to identify Oswald, but he did believe Oswald was the shooter. When he testified in front of the Warren Commission on July 22nd, 1964, his statements were very similar to the ones given to the police.

Mr. Liebeler. Were you able to identify this man [the Tippit shooter] in your own mind?

Mr. Reynolds. Yes.

Mr. Liebeler. You did identify him as Lee Harvey Oswald in your mind?

Mr. Reynolds. Yes.

Mr. Liebeler. You had no question about it?

Mr. Reynolds. No. (W.C. XI 435)

His testimony doesn't appear to have "improved" very much at all. Indeed, the earlier "unimproved" testimony should have suited conspirators just fine. With six witnesses who offered immediate, positive identifications of Oswald either shooting Tippit or fleeing the scene, Reynolds was hardly the linchpin of the case against Oswald (Warren Commission Report, p. 166).

But the more fundamental problem is: is shooting somebody in the head a good strategy for "improving" his testimony?

Was Garner a Conspiracy Operative?

Who was Garner? Did he work for a "clean-up squad?" For the moment, the counter-productivity of a "clean-up squad" will be ignored. Whoever hires a "clean-up squad" would want efficient professional killers; people who would do the job and not reveal the plot. Garner was no such man. Reynolds, who knew Garner through business dealings for about six to seven years, testified as to the type of man Garner was (W.C. XI 438).

Mr. Liebeler. What kind of person is Garner?

Mr. Reynolds. Well, to describe him as best I can, I heard that his mother had $10 hidden one night and he wanted it and she wouldn't tell him where it was, and he held a knife to her throat threatening to kill her unless she did. He is just a complete troublemaker (W.C. XI 439).

"Mrs. Garner stated Darrell was a mentally unstable person whom she did not desire to have hanging around influencing her other boys."

When the FBI interviewed Mrs. Dahlia Garner, Darrell Garner's mother, she "advised Darrell does not generally reside at 1006 North Bishop [her residence and the address he gave to police] and is presently living in his car. Mrs. Garner stated Darrell was a mentally unstable person whom she did not desire to have hanging around influencing her other boys, Rickey, age 16, and Earnest, age 19" (CE 2589). The night Reynolds was shot, Garner stated to Dallas Police that he and some friends went and picked up some beer across the river and then drove around, presumably drinking while driving, until 3:30 a.m. As mentioned above, Garner not only talked about his joy over the Reynolds' shooting in a local cafe, he called his sister-in-law on February 3, 1964 bragging about how he shot Reynolds so she would think he was a big shot. He stated to police that he regularly made comments like this when he was drunk (CE 2589).

Any conspirators who hired him to shoot Reynolds were taking a big risk with someone who couldn't keep his mouth shut. Garner was a drunk that lived out of his car. He constantly bragged to people so they would think of him as a big shot, making him unreliable. Not even his own mother wanted him around her two boys and called him mentally unstable. Surely a conspiracy that killed John Kennedy and got away with it could hire a better quality hit man. And why would they hire somebody well-known in Oak Cliff whose behavior would draw immediate suspicion, risking a possible leak?

Did Nancy Mooney "Know Something?"

Conspiracy theorists claim that Mooney knew "too much" through her alleged previous employment at Jack Ruby's Carousel Club and her connection to Garner and thus Reynolds. If Garner indeed shot Reynolds, did he also tell Nancy Mooney that he did so, and that he did so at the behest of a conspiracy? If he had, would she have believed him?

One can speculate that conspirators threatened or coerced Mooney into providing an alibi for Garner. If so, that would hardly be the way to run a "coverup." To get one person (Garner) off, you give another person (Mooney) knowledge of the conspiracy, creating the need to kill her too.

But what about the Ruby connection?

There is no evidence that Mooney ever worked for Jack Ruby as a stripper. George Senator, Ruby's former roommate, Andrew Armstrong, who hired employees for Jack Ruby at the Carousel Club, and present employees could not identify her as a former employee (CE 2589). This point was reiterated in Armstrong's Warren Commission testimony.

Mr. Hubert. Do you know a Nancy Jo Mooney?

Mr. Armstrong. Nancy Jo Mooney; no.

Mr. Hubert. Well, did you know one by the name of Betty MacDonald?

Mr. Armstrong. No. (W.C. XIII 351)

Also, after Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, extensive investigation was done on Ruby and his businesses during the course of which Mooney's name never appeared as having been an employee at any time (CE 2589). Thus, she has no connection to the assassination of JFK through previous employment.

Did Conspirators Kill Mooney?

Was Mooney's death "mysterious?" The evidence suggests otherwise. Mooney had suicidal tendencies before her death. On February 13, 1964, William Grady Goode provided an affidavit stating that Mooney had attempted suicide twice during the time he knew her. The first attempt involved her turning on the gas in her apartment, but Goode was able to revive her. The second attempt involved her slitting her wrists. Mooney also had shown Goode the scars on her wrists and stomach from previous attempts and self-mutilation.

The autopsy was performed by Earl Rose, M.D., the same man who autopsied Lee Oswald, Jack Ruby, and Officer J.D. Tippit. A well-respected forensic pathologist, Rose was a member of the House Select Committee on Assassinations Forensic Pathology Panel. Here are:
  1. Page One
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After her death, Mooney was autopsied by Dallas County Medical Examiner, Earl F. Rose, MD. The autopsy confirms these scars. The autopsy report, dated February 13, 1964 at 10:05 a.m. states "there is a right lower quadrant [stomach area] 2 inch stria which is irregular, it gives the appearance of a scar. . .There is a transverse 1 5/8 inch reddish-pink scar on the volar aspect of the right wrist. . . [On the] volar aspect of the right wrist there are four transverse scars measuring 1 , 2, 1 ¼ and 1 inches. These tend to be parallel."

Mooney had a reason to be suicidal. She lost custody of her four children who were at the time of her death living with her mother in Paris, Texas. Both Goode and Moore stated that the loss of her children caused her to become despondent (CE 2589). The toxicological report performed by the toxicologist of the Dallas County Hospital on February 14, 1964 stated that she had a blood alcohol level of 0.169% the night she hanged herself. Alcohol contributes to a more depressed state of mind. The combination of alcohol, a despondent personality, and her history of suicide attempts explains her suicide the morning of February 13, 1964.

"Mooney's body does have evidence of an actual hanging."

But how can we be sure that she actually hanged herself and was not strangled? Dr. Rose's conclusion was that the "cause of death [was] asphyxiation by hanging." Researcher Lenora Peper showed the autopsy report to Eileen Weller, Administrative Manager and Dr. Rebecca M. Hsu, both employed by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office. They explained that the autopsy shows there were minimal abrasions and no evidence of recent bruises on Mooney's face or body. This is evidence that there was no struggle. Mooney's body does have evidence of an actual hanging. The downward motion of the body during a hanging leaves certain marks on the body. One is an abrasion on the lip. On "the lower lip there is a 1/16 inch abrasion." This abrasion is typical of a hanging victim and is caused by the teeth biting the lip when the body is suspended. Mooney's body had an "abraded band from the right parieto-occipital region distal to the ear by 2 inches extending below the jaw, above the thyroid cartilage covering a distance of 8 ¾ inches and in its widest area measuring ¾ of an inch." This physical evidence shows that the skin on the neck was worn away. This type of abrasion is caused by the rubbing of the trousers while dangling. The neck organs show the most compelling evidence. "The left wing of the hyoid bone is fractured and displaced upward." This fracture is caused by the sudden motion of the body falling and then being suspended. This fracture is extremely common in hangings. Thus the independent assessments by Weller and Hsu confirm Rose's verdict.


The conspiracy theorists have little evidence that Nancy Mooney's death was a murder. Even worse, if there was a conspiracy that led to her murder, it apparently was designed not by the CIA nor the FBI nor the Mafia but by the late Rube Goldberg. Wanting to silence Warren Reynolds — for what reason nobody knows — they sent to kill him not a crack professional hit man but a mentally unstable braggart alcoholic living in the same part of the city. When the killer fell under suspicion, they responded not by killing him but by bringing Nancy Mooney into the picture — with the foreseeable consequence that she had to be killed too. And instead of killing her in her own apartment or in (say) an "apparent mugging attempt" they waited until she got herself arrested. They then put together in two hours a plot to kill her in jail — a plot that had to involve at least a few of her jailers. And they managed to kill her in a way that left no evidence of anything but a hanging suicide.

Why would they do it this way? The answer is, they didn't, because there was no murder, only a suicide by a mentally unstable woman.

Lenora Peper conducted key research that formed the basis of this article.

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