Jim Garrison, Tom Bethell and Dick Billings: The Nix Film

Richard (Dick) Billings

Richard (Dick) Billings

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell


When Jim Garrison started his investigation that would ultimately lead to the Clay Shaw trial, he called Orville Nix to testify:  no subpoena, but an interview.  By that time, Orville had been warned by Penn Jones that many witnesses to the JFK assassination were dying in strange circumstances.  Orville’s wife Ella refused to let him go.

Tom Bethel worked with Jones Harris, Mark Lane, and David Lifton among others in investigating issues for Garrison.  He was also good friends with the Assistant Editor of Life magazine, Dick Billings.  Here is an excerpt from the Tom Bethell Diary:


In general, I feel that Billings and I share a similar position about the Warren Report.  He does not believe that there was a conspiracy on the part of the government, the Warren Commission or the FBI to conceal the truth, but that a probability exists that they simply did not uncover the whole truth.  When it came to the investigation of sensitive areas, such as Oswald’s possible alliance with anti-Castro Cubans, he feels that the FBI tended to side-step the problem by not investigating it very thoroughly, for fear that it might upset their sole-assassin preconceptions.  In corroboration of this, one need only point to the absence of any trace of an FBI investigation of the 544 Camp St problem.  Billings argues that some of the classified FBI reports, if declassified, probably would reveal some interesting information, and he cited CD 1085, the FBI report on Cuban exile groups.  Billings does not feel that the FBI knowingly would have filed any reports which indicated conspiracy without making it known, merely that these reports might inadvertently contain such information.  I agree with this position.

He further states:

As for the Garrison investigation, Billings was more guarded, but I sense that he believes that, 1. Shaw is completely innocent.  2.  Garrison sincerely believes everything that he says.  3.  Garrison is not motivated by political ambition, but that his motives are much more complex, or, maybe, much more simple.  4.  Garrison, regrettably, has too much of a butterfly approach, and instead of concentrating on a few important areas, such as Oswald’s Cuban connections, hops around from storm drain theories to the Minutemen, without ever really exhausting one line of inquiry.  I agree with all these assessments, including the first, in the light of what Billings told me later on in the evening.

We discussed Life‘s position at some length.  I said that I thought it was absurd to say that the magazine was a tool of the government in view of their Nov. 1966, article (“A Matter of Reasonable Doubt”) and it was also unfair to accuse them of suppressing the Zapruder film.  They have made it available for viewing in the National Archives (without restriction, as is the case with some of the other film in the Archives, eg. the Nix film,) they have published articles based on its contents criticizing the Commission and calling for a new investigation, and, above all, they are a magazine and not a TV station or a Movie company.  The only decision which they made about the film which cannot easily be interpreted as simple commercial vested interest was their refusal to let CBS show it on their “Special” on the Warren Report.  Such a showing would almost certainly have enhanced rather than diminished the value of the film.  I asked Billings about this and he said it was one of those rather mysterious calculations made by the businessmen in the upper echelons, which, he agreed, did not seem to make good sense.

He then said that Life has in fact been dickering with the project of making a film, utilizing Zapruder and other footage which they possess, such as DCA, Dorman, Hughes, etc.  However the problem has been to find a producer for it.  As Billings said you cannot just splice the footage together and then shot it.  You have to analyze it and come to conclusions, etc., and this is precisely what no-one in the magazine wants to do, not because anyone there knows there was a conspiracy and is trying to hide it, but because it would represent a controversial entanglement which they would rather avoid.  As he said, if you showed the Zapruder film to 100,000 people, 95,000 would immediately conclude that Kennedy was shot from the front.  If they made such a film it would be sold to a TV station.

Billings emphasized that he had no Federal government connections.  He worked closely with Garrison during the early stages of the investigation, and was sincerely hoping for some solid proof of conspiracy, which the magazine would have published if it had existed.  As he said, this would have been a considerable embarrassment to the FBI and the government, and he observed that the present rift between Garrison and Life must be a source of pleasure to the FBI.  Billings said that he had suspicions about the New York Times aborted investigation, and in particular their peculiar attitude towards Garrison.  He feels that many of the news media had adopted a negative attitude toward Garrison before they had had a chance to come to a valid conclusion about his evidence.  I recall that this was my impression, too.  I told Billings what I knew about the New York Times story.  In November, 1966, before I was working for Garrison, and, I believe, almost before the Garrison investigation began, I was in Dallas with Penn Jones.  To be precise, this was on November 22, 1966, at the assassination site.  At that time I met Martin Waldron of the NY Times, and, he had a four or five page questionnaire of problems about the assassination he was looking into, as a part of the NY Times investigation.  Most of these questions were about New Orleans, and specifically about David Ferrie.  I did not see the list, but he showed it to Penn Jones.  Thus, it should be emphasized, the NY Times was investigating Ferrie independently of Garrison, and possibly actually earlier than Garrison.

Was Jim Garrison close to the truth?  After working on Garrison’s staff for 2 years did Tom Bethell become a jaded man?  Was Dick Billings spying for Life magazine or was he truly a Garrison defender?


UPDATE: Here’s a great article by Penn Jones written in 1976 and now available at the Poage Library at Baylor University.  With thanks to Andrea Skolnik for directing me to it for you the reader:  The Purloined Letter with Apologies to Edgar Allan Poe.

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