HIDDEN IN PLAIN VIEW: The Zapruder Film and the Shot that Missed

By Kenneth R. Scearce

November 27th, 2007

The Most Valuable Film in History

No single piece of evidence concerning the Kennedy assassination has remotely approached the Zapruder film’s value. Though badly shaken by what he had recorded, Abraham Zapruder regained enough composure to sell his film three days after the assassination for $150,000—equivalent to nearly $1,000,000 today. The value of Zapruder’s film, great as it was in 1963, only increased with time. When the National Archives purchased it in 1998, a panel of arbitrators valued the Zapruder film at $16,000,000.

It can hardly be said that the 26-second film has been undervalued commercially. Yet despite obsessive frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film by investigators both professional and amateur over the past 44 years, the Zapruder film’s full forensic value has remained “hidden in plain view”. Demonstrating what everyone has overlooked in the Zapruder film is the first aim of this article. Exploring why this happened and what lessons can be drawn therefrom is the second.

After 44 Years, A Breakthrough

A newly published theory about the Kennedy assassination demands that we re-examine the Zapruder film, more closely than ever before.

In a New York Times article published on November 22, 2007, JFK assassination researchers Max Holland and Johann Rush set forth a novel explanation for when Oswald fired his 1st shot and why it missed. Holland and Rush theorize that Oswald fired his 1st shot about 1.4 seconds before Zapruder began filming the assassination sequence, and that Oswald missed because the shot ricocheted off the metal arm of a traffic light suspended over Elm Street. They argue that one should not assume—as everyone heretofore has assumed—that Zapruder filmed each of Oswald’s three shots as they occurred. Their bold hypothesis presents a stark challenge to the prevailing consensus as to the timing of Oswald’s gunshots. (A more detailed version of the Holland/Rush theory can be found at http://www.washingtondecoded.com/site/2007/03/11-seconds-in-d.html.)

Holland and Rush present and explain several pieces of evidence supporting their conclusion that Zapruder’s film captured only Oswald’s 2nd and 3rd shots.

First, Holland and Rush point out that assassination eyewitnesses such as Amos Euins, placed JFK’s location at the moment of the 1st shot farther back on Elm Street than JFK’s position as seen in the Zapruder film at Z133, the moment Zapruder began filming. Previously, no one had seriously considered the possibility that Oswald fired a shot before Zapruder started filming.

Second, Holland and Rush observe that many earwitnesses recalled hearing a shot pattern in which the time between the 1st and 2nd shots was longer than the time between the 2nd and 3rd shots. If Oswald fired his shots at the times theorized by Holland and Rush, the 1st and 2nd shots were about 6.3 seconds apart and the 2nd and 3rd about 4.9 seconds. According to Holland and Rush, not only does this timing correspond well with earwitness recollections, it makes Oswald’s shooting feat a relatively easy one for the former Marine rifleman.

Third (and this is the major new insight of their theory) Holland and Rush highlight a fact that very few have noticed and fewer have thoughtfully pondered—that JFK passed under the traffic light extension arm a moment before Zapruder began filming the assassination sequence. Several eyewitnesses observed something hitting the pavement in the vicinity of the presidential limousine at the same moment they heard the 1st shot, which supports Holland’s and Rush’s argument that Oswald’s 1st shot ricocheted off the metal arm, missing JFK and his limousine entirely while causing the pavement strike that these witnesses observed.

The Holland/Rush theory for why Oswald’s 1st shot missed represents a major conceptual breakthrough in thinking about the assassination. This new theory is easily the most significant forensic insight into the Kennedy assassination since Failure Analysis Associates’ 1992 discovery of the sudden movement of Governor Connally’s jacket lapel that pinpoints the moment of Oswald’s 2nd shot. But while Holland and Rush base their traffic light pole ricochet theory primarily on statements of eyewitnesses and earwitnesses, the Zapruder film itself lends their theory powerful support.

The Overlooked Zapruder Frames

Below is a Zapruder film sequence running from Z133–Z206. The most important, to the present inquiry, are the earliest of these early Zapruder film frames. (In analyzing these frames, we use “left” for “driver’s side” and “right” for “passenger’s side”.)

Viewing the Zapruder film grossly, it is somewhat difficult to distinguish the actions of the presidential limousine’s occupants. However, the actions of certain persons not in the presidential limousine stand out more clearly in this gross view. For example, Secret Service agent George Hickey—riding in the left rear of the Secret Service follow-up car—can be seen bending quickly down and to his left, starting at about Z143/144.

A close-up view of the Zapruder film’s early frames allows better consideration of the actions of the limousine’s occupants. Here is the Z133–Z193 sequence in close-up, focusing on the presidential limousine’s occupants:

Viewing the Zapruder film in close-up focused on the limousine occupants, we can see the following:

  • Governor Connally can first be distinguished at Z138. At that frame, Connally is looking right, at about 8:00 o’clock. Then in Z149–Z153, Connally turns his head rapidly to his left. This is a very quick head turn—about ¼ of a second. By Z161, Connally is looking left, at about 4:00 o’clock. Then from Z162–Z167, Connally turns his head rapidly to his right back to an 8:00 o’clock position. This rightwards head turn was another very quick movement taking about ¼ of a second. Connally’s initial leftward head turn can be seen in the following animation.

  • At Z133, Mrs. Kennedy’s head position is a little hard to make out; it appears that at Z133 Mrs. Kennedy’s head is pointed to about 5:00 o’clock. Then starting at Z142, Mrs. Kennedy turns her head to her left. At about Z161, Mrs. Kennedy is looking directly to her left, at 3:00 o’clock. Starting at Z167, Mrs. Kennedy begins turning her head to the right so that, by Z180–Z190, she is looking at 7:00–8:00 o’clock.
  • At Z133, JFK is looking more or less at 6:00 o’clock. His right hand is at his hair, as if he has been touching his hair perhaps to brush it back. Beginning at Z140, JFK turns his head left so that by Z146 JFK is looking at 4:00 o’clock. Starting at Z137, JFK brings his right hand down and his left hand up, and by Z153 his hands appear to have touched lightly or clasped together. JFK then quickly turns his head rightwards, starting at Z158.

Are these actions of Hickey, Connally, Mrs. Kennedy and JFK significant? Are they reactions to hearing a gunshot? If they are reactions to hearing a gunshot, when did that shot occur? No one has asked these questions before, because no one has understood how to properly frame these issues.

Reaction Time

In attempting to interpret the actions of Hickey, Connally, Mrs. Kennedy and JFK in the early Zapruder frames, it is self-evident that one must apply the concept of reaction time. The mind requires time to react to a stimulus. The body requires time to manifest the mind’s reaction to that stimulus. Reaction time—the time between stimulus and bodily reaction—can be shorter or longer, depending on what is being measured.

An example of very fast reaction time is the startle response to hearing a gunshot. In a 1939 article, scientists Landis and Hunt published test results showing that humans reflexively flinch within 0.06–0.2 seconds, on average, of hearing a gunshot. This kind of very fast reaction is, obviously, unmediated by the conscious thinking process. It is an “automatic” response. And it is not necessarily a very obvious process. The startle response measured by Landis and Hunt involves, primarily, sudden eye-blinking and slight hunching of the shoulders. One might flinch in this way without the reaction being very noticeable to others—especially, to others at a distance.

When looking for possible reactions to gunshots in the Zapruder film, it is important to define what is being examined. If one is looking for startle responses to a gunshot, then the Landis and Hunt data may be relevant—but as to startle responses, one is talking about subtle bodily movements. On the other hand, if one is looking for reactions to hearing a gunshot that are mediated by the thinking process—the process of trying to figure out the sound’s meaning and the manifestation of this thought process by the body—one is dealing with more grossly obvious bodily movements. There is a difference in kind as well as degree between flinching in reaction to hearing a sudden loud noise, and looking around in reaction to hearing a sudden loud noise to try to determine the noise’s cause, its origin, and its overall significance in the situational context. It is a difference between hindbrain and forebrain activity.

In the 44 years since the Kennedy assassination, a consensus of sorts has arisen that Oswald’s 1st shot—the shot that missed—was fired at around Zapruder frames Z155–Z157. One of today’s leading Zapruder film analysts—computer graphics expert Dale Myers—has summarized this consensus timing in a critique of the Holland/Rush theory on his website “Secrets of a Homicide,” at http://www.jfkfiles.com/jfk/html/news/news_06250701.htm. There, Myers, speaking of himself and others who adhere to the consensus timing of the 1st shot, writes:

Those who have studied the Zapruder film know that the film itself contains the best evidence of a shot fired immediately prior to Z160 as seen in the actions of Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Connally, and Governor Connally. All three react exactly as they testified that they did immediately after the first shot. Their actions, contemporary to the first shot, occur no where else in the film. Assuming a quarter of a second reaction time (a typical human startle response time) puts the first shot about 5 frames before Governor Connally’s reaction beginning at Z162, hence (Z155–157).

This consensus timing of the 1st first shot—best exemplified by Myers’ explanation—is wrong. The consensus timing conflicts with common human experience with the kind of reaction time involved in the situation under examination. Moreover, it is demonstrably at odds with the Zapruder film itself.

Applying the Proper Measure

One of the major conceptual flaws of the Z155–Z157 consensus timing is its failure to evaluate the timing of the 1st shot in light of common human experience.

The consensus timing is that JFK reacted to Oswald’s 1st shot starting at Z158 and Connally starting at Z162, based on their sudden rightwards head turns at these moments.  Applying Myers’ .25 second startle response reaction time measure, this would place the 1st shot at about Z153–Z157.

This is not a reasonable interpretation of the evidence, or of human behavior. These purported reactions are simply too rapid given the nature of the movements at issue. An important assassination eyewitness, Howard Brennan, helps us understand why.

At the time of the assassination, Brennan was sitting just across from the Book Depository, more or less directly opposite the traffic light pole’s metal arm that Holland and Rush argue was the cause of the missed 1st shot. In his book Eyewitness to History, Brennan describes his observations and feelings as he witnessed the assassination:

When the presidential car moved just a few feet past where I was sitting, President Kennedy looked back to our side of the street. Just at that moment the whole joy and good will of the day was shattered by the sound of a shot. It took an instant to realize that something had happened. My first instinct was to disbelieve my own ears…My first thought was that it must have been a backfire. I’m sure many other people around me must have thought the same thing for there was no instantaneous reaction from the crowd.

What is most telling about this passage is the sense Brennan gives us of how bewildering the sound of the 1st shot was. Brennan remarks that “it took an instant to realize that something had happened.” His first instinct was “to disbelieve [his] own ears.” His first thought was that “it must have been a backfire.” This thought process takes time, which delays bodily reaction.

It is helpful to keep Brennan’s observations in mind as one evaluates how fast Connally, JFK, Mrs. Kennedy, and Hickey would have reacted to hearing the 1st shot. In addition to bewilderment, for the motorcade participants we should add the delaying factors of crowd noise and habituation resulting from the frequency of motorcycle backfiring. If the motorcade participants reacted like Brennan did, the physical manifestations of their reactions would have taken an appreciable amount of time to become visible from a distance as bodily movements. To be natural, their reactions would take at least 1 to 2 seconds, or more, to manifest themselves in actions like turning one’s head to look around. The “typical human startle response time” of .25 seconds referenced by Myers, is not the proper “reaction time” measure to apply. The reactions we are evaluating are not unconscious “startle reactions” involving only a subtle flinching response. They are grossly obvious, conscious and volitional “what was that?!” reactions observable from a distance, which take longer to develop. If the proper reaction time of 1–2 seconds or more is applied, then the first shot would not have occurred at Z155–Z157; it would have occurred just before Z133—as Holland and Rush theorize.

This estimate is admittedly somewhat subjective—but the reaction time issue at hand is not amenable to exacting objectivity. It involves interpretation of conscious human action. Perhaps leery of introducing this element of subjectivity into their theory, Holland and Rush steer clear of analyzing the early Zapruder frame head turns. They see the Zapruder film as a “Rorschach test” in this regard. Their restraint speaks well to the caution they take in developing their theory. But the Zapruder film supports their theory more than they appreciate.

Moreover, reaction time is not an entirely subjective issue. “Driver reaction time” is a common component of objective expert analysis in automobile accident court cases. Consciously-mediated human reaction time has long been studied by scientists who have addressed the issue using the scientific method, notwithstanding its subjective elements.

The reaction time issue at hand here calls for drawing inferences based upon life experience, a mixture of the subjective and the objective. It can be “tested” by imaging oneself in the circumstances the motorcade participants found themselves in: utterly unprepared, like Brennan and the other onlookers, for what happened. Brennan’s story about his experience helps us greatly in this imaginative undertaking. Applying common sense and life experience, it becomes obvious that the motorcade participants would not have reacted by turning their heads with near-instant, robotic speed in the direction of the sound, as the consensus timing requires. They would have reacted more slowly, because they—like Brennan—would have been confused and uncertain.

Connally’s Reaction: The Key to the Mystery

In addition to being unnatural, the consensus timing completely overlooks powerful countervailing evidence contained in the Zapruder film.

One of the major linchpins of the Z155–Z157 consensus timing is the fact that Connally turns his head quickly to his right, starting at Z162. The consensus timing, and Myers in particular, regards this rightward head turn of Connally’s as Connally’s first reaction to hearing Oswald’s 1st shot. The sound of that shot came from Connally’s right rear. This fact, coupled with Connally’s recollection that he turned to his right as soon as he heard the 1st shot, underlie the consensus timing.  The other key linchpin of the consensus timing is the fact that the limbs of a tree begin to come between Oswald and his target, in the vicinity of Z160, give or take a few Zapruder frames.  The consensus timing cites the tree as the explanation for why the first shot ricocheted and missed.

What the consensus timing overlooks—and this is its greatest forensic flaw—is that Connally’s sudden rightward head turn starting at Z162 was not his first sudden head turn in the Zapruder film. As shown earlier in this paper and in the animation repeated below, in the Zapruder film Connally first turns his head quickly to his left from Z149–Z153, and only then quickly to his right from Z162–Z167.

Each head turn of Connally’s—left, then right—took only a ¼ of a second. Connally’s entire head movement—left and then right—took 1 second.

We cannot expect Connally to have accurately recalled every quarter-second detail of his reaction to the shocking event, and we therefore should not rely on Connally’s recollection that his first reaction was to turn to his right. Just as the Zapruder film refutes Connally’s unwavering and confident insistence that he was hit by a different bullet than the one that went through Kennedy’s neck, so too does it disprove the notion that Connally’s first visible head turn in the film was towards his right.

The consensus timing fails to account for the sudden leftward head turn Connally made before his sudden rightward head turn. It leaves unexamined Connally’s initial movement, a movement that is obvious, dramatic and begging for explanation. The explanation is self-evident: Connally’s sudden leftward head turn starting at Z149 is his first obvious bodily reaction to having heard the 1st shot; his sudden rightward head turn starting at Z162 is a continuation of that earlier reaction. Notably, Connally’s initial leftward head turn is not shown in Myers’ computerized recreation of the Zapruder film; only his subsequent rightwards head turn is shown. Myers and the consensus timing he represents have simply failed to notice critical evidence.

One might argue, What does it matter? Did Connally first react at Z149, or at Z162? Who knows and who cares? We’re talking about a difference of a mere second!

Connally’s earlier leftward head turn matters because (1) Myers—today’s leading Zapruder film expert—rejects the Holland/Rush theory primarily because it conflicts with his own theory that Connally’s Z162 rightward head turn was Connally’s first reaction to the 1st shot—yet demonstrably, that is not the case; (2) Myers holds himself out as an expert on the Zapruder film on his website and on television programs watched by millions, but he has overlooked obviously important evidence in the Zapruder film, thus calling his expertise into question; and (3) showing the incorrectness of the consensus timing of the 1st shot helps point the way to a more naturalistic, more persuasive explanation of how the Kennedy assassination occurred.

Solving the Mystery of the Missed Shot

Returning now to the actions in the early Zapruder frames, we can draw the following inferences:

  • The leftward head turns of JFK, Mrs. Kennedy, Hickey and Connally visible in the earliest Zapruder frames were almost exactly simultaneous. JFK begins to turn his head left at Z140. Mrs. Kennedy begins to turn her head left at Z142. Hickey begins to look left and downwards, starting at Z143/144. At Z149, Connally begins to turn his head left. JFK, Mrs. Kennedy, Hickey and Connally begin their leftward head movements within ½ second of each other. This simultaneity suggests that the leftward head turns of these four people were probably due to the same cause.
  • The Zapruder film shows that JFK, Connally and Mrs. Kennedy first turned their heads left before turning their heads right. When viewed dynamically, it is clear that the leftward and then rightward head turns of JFK, Connally and Mrs. Kennedy are related to each other. Their rightward head turns are a continuation of their leftward head turns a moment before. Looking only at their later rightwards head turns while ignoring their earlier, related leftward head turns—as the Myers/consensus timing does—results in misinterpretation of the evidence.
  • The 1st shot was fired from the right rear. The movements discussed herein were towards the left first, then towards the right. The sound dynamics in the assassination environment may explain this, or the explanation may be simply that the people in question were confused. If the 1st shot ricocheted off the metal traffic light arm and hit the pavement, it could have produced a smacking sound to the left of the limousine. Or, the explanation could be a multiplicity of these and other factors.
  • Viewed individually, each of these leftward head turns might by explainable for reasons other than gunshot reactions—for instance, as reactions to the crowd. But when considered collectively, the odds greatly diminish that these abrupt actions—occurring well before the consensus Z155–Z157 timing—are explainable innocuously. Hickey looks left and downwards at the pavement or at the tires the vehicles, not at the crowd. Connally’s left/right head swing is much too fast too have been a reaction to the crowd—it is obviously a reaction to severe stress.
  • The dramatic nature of the reactions (especially Connally’s) necessitates a threatening stimulus. The simultaneity of the reactions suggests a common cause. The timing of the beginning of these reactions in frames Z140–Z149 indicates, if we allow for naturalistic reaction time of 1–2 seconds, that the threatening stimulus occurred before Z133.

We have seen that Connally’s sudden left-then-right head turns refute the notion that the 1st first shot was fired at around Z155–Z157. It must have been fired earlier. The farther back in time and space the 1st shot was fired, the less chance there was that the tree could explain the fact that the shot missed. At some point farther back from the Z155–Z157 consensus timing, the tree simply cannot be the explanation. We can see this by extrapolating JFK’s position from the following Secret Service re-enactment photograph:

which corresponds (relative to the white road stripe) roughly to Z140, which is shown below:

At this moment (Z140), which would allow for a ½ second head-turning reaction by Connally (much faster than natural, but about as generous as possible to Myers), the tree is not yet a plausible cause of a ricochet. The more naturalistic 1–2 second reaction time likewise rules out the tree as a cause.

Prior to the tree, only one other possible cause for a ricochet existed: the traffic light’s extension arm.

A 1st shot occurring just before Z133 not only fits with the film’s images and the physical evidence at the crime scene, it also corresponds well with the Holland/Rush metal traffic light arm ricochet theory—a theory that explains the missed shot, and some of the other thorniest issues about the assassination in general such as whether Oswald could have accomplished the feat alone, better than any other theory heretofore conceived.

At its core, the Myers/consensus timing stands or falls on the accuracy of Connally’s recollection of the direction in which he first turned his head after hearing the 1st shot. The film is the best evidence of this, not Connally.

Why Everyone Missed the Shot that Missed

A principal reason for the failure of investigators to fully appreciate the Zapruder film’s forensic value, arises from the psychodynamics of viewing the film. The assassination sequence’s first frame, Z133, shows the dark blue presidential limousine in the middle lane of Elm Street in Dealey Plaza. For the next 90 or so frames, nothing much seems to happen. The presidential limousine proceeds down Elm and JFK waves to the cheering crowd and then disappears momentarily behind a road sign. Even after repeated viewings, this early sequence appears to be uneventful.

Once the President emerges from behind the sign at around Z225, though, startling events develop rapidly. Between Z225–Z232, JFK has lurched forward, his arms and hands rising to shoulder level. Also between Z225–Z232, Governor Connally’s Stetson hat, which he was holding in his right hand out of sight below the car door, has jerked up into view. These events occur in less than half a second. Viewed in continuous sequence, the Z225–Z232 frames leave no doubt that both JFK and Connally have been struck at the same time, by the same bullet. In the seconds following Z225–Z232, JFK begins to lean to his left while Connally tries to turn towards his right rear, cries out in terror, and begins to collapse backwards. Then comes the devastating shot, the effects of which are visible at Z313, which rips through JFK’s skull from back to front.

Given the shocking events depicted between Z225–Z313, it is no surprise that analysis and investigation has focused on that section of the film. But the intensity of that narrow focus has caused investigators to largely overlook the earlier Zapruder frames.

In its 1964 Report, The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald fired three shots at President Kennedy, with one shot missing, another shot wounding both Kennedy and Connally, and another striking Kennedy in the head. The Warren Commission was unable to determine whether the shot that missed was the 1st, the 2nd, or the 3rd. The shot that the Warren Commission found had missed, missed badly—it not only failed to hit the President, it also completely missed the large limousine in which he was riding. During the shooting a spectator in Dealey Plaza, James Tague, was slightly wounded in the cheek with what were thought to be tiny bullet fragments or tiny fragments of a concrete curb possibly hit by a bullet. The Warren Commission speculated that Tague might have been hit by fragments from the missed shot.

In reaching its conclusions about the two wounding shots, the Warren Commission relied mainly on the Zapruder film’s images. The Commission examined the possibility that a shot occurred prior to Z225, but its hypothesis in this regard was not based on the images in the pre-Z225 frames. Rather, it was based primarily on witness statements (mainly, Gov. Connally and Secret Service agent Glen Bennett) suggesting that the first shot missed while the second shot hit JFK and Connally, coupled with inferences the Commission drew from its reconstruction of the assassination as to Oswald’s opportunities to take a shot at JFK from a relatively short distance compared the distance involved in the shot that wounded JFK and Connally. Although many pieces of evidence suggested the plausibility of a missed shot fired by Oswald before the shot that wounded JFK and Connally, the Warren Commission gave relatively little consideration to the Zapruder film in evaluating this issue, in contrast to its heavy reliance on the Zapruder film in evaluating the wounding shots. This anomaly most likely occurred because of the simple fact that the two wounding shots are obvious in the Zapruder film, but the missed shot—having missed—seemed to leave no telltale evidence.

The Warren Commission also tied its own hands. FBI photographic expert Lyndal Shaneyfelt, the Commission’s expert on the Zapruder film, determined that the most relevant Zapruder frames were frames Z171–Z334. Shaneyfelt’s reasoning process in deciding that the pre-Z171 frames were mostly irrelevant is not revealed in the Report or its exhibits, and his opinion on what frames were relevant was accepted uncritically. When the Warren Commission published the 26 volumes of exhibits accompanying its Report, only frames Z171–Z334 were printed. With few exceptions, frames Z133–Z170 were not analyzed in the Report or included in the exhibits.

The Quest for the Film

The early researchers’ hands were tied, too. Only frames 171–334 had been made available, and early researchers tended to assume that what was available was what was important. Beyond the black and white frames published in the Commission’s exhibits, access to the Zapruder film was so severely restricted that the earliest Zapruder frames in effect did not exist, for the first generation of researchers.  And in the early years after the assassination, the many forensic advantages of viewing the film as a film simply were not available. As a result, the culture of inquisitive investigation that developed around the available Z171–Z334 frames, could not and did not develop around the unavailable pre-Z171 frames.  These circumstances combined to frustrate opportunities for discovering evidence in the early Zapruder frames, in the years just after the assassination.

Although initially well-received, the Warren Commission’s major conclusions soon came under strong and mounting criticism, especially its “single bullet theory” and its conclusion that all shots came from the rear. In quarreling over these issues, Warren Commission supporters and critics alike continued to focus mostly on the post-Z225 series of frames. While some researchers puzzled over the issue of a missed shot, few deviated from the well-established focus on Z225–Z313. The perception continued to be that there was little else, in the available Zapruder frames, of interest on that subject.

Then in the late 1960s, the Zapruder film became available to some researchers due to distribution of the tightly-guarded film by persons who had access it. The versions promulgated by this method were relatively poor compared to the original film—they were copies of copies, at best. But the resulting greater access to the complete film—as a film—created new opportunities to examine previously under-explored aspects of the images. While the debate continued to rage over the single bullet theory and whether the head shot was from behind or from the front (as it does to this day), a perceptive and inquisitive few—aided by the wider availability of the Zapruder film—turned their eyes and thoughts once again to the question whether a shot had missed.

By the 1970s, a few investigators had noticed that a young girl running alongside the presidential limousine (who can be seen in Z133 and the next several dozen frames following) began to slow down and eventually came to a stop, while turning her gaze from the limousine to her right rear, towards the Book Depository. Some theorized that the young girl slowed and stopped because she had heard a shot. What made this new observation especially interesting was that the young girl began slowing down at Z180 or before—too early to have been a reaction to the shot that wounded JFK and Connally. Other investigators observed that JFK and Connally both turned their heads to the right, very quickly, at around Z157–Z162. Some argued that these near-simultaneous movements by JFK and Connally were reactions to hearing a shot that missed.

These and similar observations and theories were fleshed out and carefully analyzed by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in its 1977–1979 investigation of the Kennedy assassination. In 1979, the HSCA concluded, based upon these early Zapruder film events and other evidence, that Oswald fired a shot at around Z160, that this shot was his first one, and that he missed. Why he missed, the HSCA could not determine, though it noted—as had the Warren Commission—that a tree came between Oswald and the limousine in the general vicinity of Z160.

Later that same year, the “young girl”—Rosemary Willis—told a reporter that she had indeed stopped and turned in reaction to hearing a shot. For many, this new information from Ms. Willis tended to confirm the HSCA’s analysis as to when the missed shot was fired.

The Road Not Taken

Only after the Zapruder film became more widely available in the 1970s were researchers finally able to begin to see hints in the film of the timing of the 1st shot. Yet since then, researchers have pursued these hints clumsily, under-appreciating again and again the Zapruder film’s full forensic value.

In the wake of the HSCA’s investigation, a consensus of sorts emerged among many assassination researchers that the 1st shot was fired at around Z157, give or take a few frames. The consensus timing coalesced around the tree limb ricochet theory first articulated by the Warren Commission. In his influential 1993 book Case Closed, assassination researcher Gerald Posner argued that the tree limb was the most plausible explanation for the missed first shot. Showing a tantalizing spark of original thinking, Posner noted the metal traffic light arm as a possible cause, but footnoted and rejected that possibility on the grounds that “none of the witnesses recall the sound of a bullet striking metal.” Connally’s recollections, a shaky foundation (like all eyewitness recollections) on which to base any conclusions about the case, proved more beguiling than the seemingly uninteresting first frames of the Zapruder film. The spark died, and the trail went cold. Subsequent researchers, most prominently Myers, have simply accepted the Z155–Z157 consensus timing without approaching the question afresh. Even Vincent Bugliosi, perhaps the world’s leading forensic expert, appears to have adopted the consensus timing, in his new book Reclaiming History. Bugliosi grasps the tree ricochet problem and the reaction time misunderstanding that invalidate Myers’ explanation of the 1st shot's timing (see Reclaiming History, p. 469). But Bugliosi fails to couple the implications of his careful reasoning with a close study of the earliest Zapruder frames and the movements therein of JFK, Mrs Kennedy, Hickey and Connally. This oversight leads Bugliosi to hypothesize that Oswald missed because the 1st shot was so difficult. Obviously, it was difficult, but that would only explain missing JFK—not the entire limousine.

The Undiscovered Country

Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK convinced the vast majority of Americans that the single bullet theory was invalid and that JFK was shot from the front. Posner, Bugliosi, Myers and a few others have labored in the years since to disprove these ill-founded theories. They have done well. Commendably, they have stood resolutely against the braying ignorance of the conspiracy believers. Myers, perhaps better than anyone else, has proved the truth of the single bullet theory and the rear head shot with his masterful computerized recreation of the Zapruder film and his exacting correlation of Zapruder’s film with other assassination films.

But as the history of ideas teaches us, the price of uncritical acceptance of “received wisdom” often is eventual irrelevance. None of these three eminent researchers has offered innovative analysis of the Zapruder film; they have merely adopted the theories of lesser-known researchers and woven them into well-articulated and comprehensive explanations of the film. As this paper shows, the theories they have relied on concerning the missed 1st shot are incorrect. At bottom, these theories rest on notoriously unreliable evidence—human memory—while overlooking the most valuable evidence, the Zapruder film itself. The Myers/consensus timing has frustrated the search for the 1st shot. Once insightful dissenters, Myers and others who adhere to the consensus timing of the 1st shot now represent a tired ancien regime of JFK assassination research. They are being left behind by others willing and intellectually able to question old assumptions and to ask new questions.

The single bullet theory and the rear head shot are settled issues, the forests and terabytes that continue to be consumed debating these subjects notwithstanding. The only remaining major forensic questions concern the missed 1st shot. As to those questions, the Z155–Z157 consensus timing is a millstone. The torch has been passed to original thinkers like Holland and Rush. They are helping uncover what has been “hidden in plain view” for over four decades. The open-minded among us owe them a fair hearing in their journey through the heretofore undiscovered country of the Kennedy assassination towards the final truth.