The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawsuit seeks return of missing JFK assassination footage

Orville Nix. (Court documents)

On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone.

Or so they say.

In the 52 years since Kennedy’s assassination, conspiracy theories questioning whether Oswald was the only gunman in Dealey Plaza on that fateful day have persisted despite the conclusion of the Warren Commission; despite a lauded 1,600-page examination of all available facts by the well-known prosecutor of Charles Manson; and despite the lack of any clear and convincing evidence of the contrary. Oliver Stone even directed an Oscar-winning film that flaunted such theories — a film that perhaps gave confidence to the reported 75 percent of Americans who believe there was a second assassin.

Now, there is yet more kindling to fire up those who again wish to dissect Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union and speculate on the motives of his assassin, Jack Ruby. In yet another twist in a long tale, the granddaughter of a man who filmed Kennedy’s assassination is suing the government to get her grandfather’s movie back — or get paid for it.

First things first: We are not talking about the fabled Zapruder film. That one, shot by Abraham Zapruder, offers the indelible image of Kennedy’s death for most Americans, and is in the possession of the National Archives.

Instead, we are talking about the lesser-known — but, to plaintiffs in the new court action, no less important — Nix film. Orville Nix, a 52-year-old Dallas native and General Services Administration employee, shot the film at the corner of Main and Houston Streets, according to the suit, after a poker buddy in charge of the local Secret Service office said he would get a good view of the motorcade. And, swept up in the investigation of Kennedy’s death, it has never been returned to its owner.

“The film is a mirror image of the Zapruder film from the other side of Dealey Plaza,” Farris Rookstool III, a former FBI analyst in Dallas, told the Guardian.

“According to the Warren Commission, the Nix film is nearly as important as the Zapruder film, yet the public is mainly unaware of its significance,” the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by Gayle Nix Jackson, Nix’s granddaughter, read. And: “Despite its significance and duty by the Government and its agencies who last possessed it to preserve the original Nix film and to turn it over the Plaintiff, it remains missing, stolen or destroyed.”

To be clear: the Nix film, which was viewed by the Warren Commission, can be seen and dissected. It’s the original that’s missing — and, according to the suit, which noted the Zapruder heirs got $16 million from the U.S. government, it’s worth $10 million dollars.

“It is my hope that this suit will be the first of many made by others to question why evidence was mishandled, lost, abused and more,” Jackson said in a statement posted to her Web site. “Furthermore, I also hope that people who are unaware that the original Nix film is missing will take a stand and along with me, demand the government answer the unanswered questions not only about the loss of the Nix film but the loss of our trust in our government due to the murder of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.”

This is not the first time Jackson, now in her 50s, has tried to get her grandfather’s film back. Though Nix died in 1972, Jackson took up his cause decades ago — partly because her grandfather was convinced Oswald didn’t act alone, and told his family so.

“He told us there was another gunman over there [on the grassy knoll],” Jackson said in 1991. “He said, ‘I was right there. I know it.’ Everybody around him is divebombing into the ground, and he just kept [the camera] running.”

Though Nix turned over a copy of his film to the FBI in Dec. 1, 1963, according to the suit, that was just the beginning of its story. After some tough bargaining, Nix went to New York City and sold the original to the wire service UPI for $5,000 and, strangely, “a new fedora.” After a handshake deal, UPI said it would return the film in 25 years.

Nix got his cash and his hat, and died before the 25 years was up. But his family never got his movie back.

“The camera-original Nix film has never again been seen by a member of the Nix family,” the suit read.

“We were used to handshakes and eyeball deals,” Orville Nix Jr., who was with his father when the agreement was made, said in 1991. “We were a couple of country hicks in the Big Apple.”

Meanwhile, history marched on. Six frames of the Nix film appeared in the Warren Commission report in 1964; in 1967, Nix appeared in the documentary “Rush to Judgment,” which criticized the Warren Commission. The film appeared to raise questions about whether the Nix film the commission viewed — that is, the copy Nix provided to the FBI, not the original — had been altered.

“Is that copy the same as the original you gave to the FBI?” Nix was asked.

“I would say no,” Nix said. “There’s some frames maybe missing. Some of the frames were ruined.” He added that few people thought the shots came from the Texas School Book Depository, from where Oswald shot Kennedy: “Most everyone thought it came from the fence behind the book depository.”

But Nix — who said he believed the Warren Commission though it contradicted what he had seen — was shy about criticizing the government, according to his granddaughter.

“He started saying, ‘I really don’t want to talk about it,'” Jackson said in 1991. “And I said, ‘Paw-Paw, nothing’s going to happen to you.’ But he was scared to say anything about it. No one wanted to think the government was lying — especially him.” She added: “Toward the end of his life, he didn’t talk to anybody about the assassination at all. Not at all.”

Jackson’s attempts to retrieve the original film from UPI after 25 years were up met with failure. The wire service, it seemed, no longer had the film. So, Jackson took up her cause with the FBI, and had no luck. At some point, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) — which, in 1978, concluded Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy” — had the film, but Jackson’s attempts to retrieve it from its chairman failed as well.

Something smelled funky. And whatever it is, it’s bad for history, according to Jackson’s claim.

“Whatever happened on November 22, 1962 [sic] and those involved,” the suit read, “is only magnified by the disappearance, destruction or concealment of the Nix film after being in the possession of the HSCA and was the last known possessor.”

Jackson, meanwhile, wrote a book on lingering questions about the Kennedy assassination last year.

“This book will not solve the question that was first asked on November 22, 1963, ‘Who killed John F. Kennedy?’” she wrote in “Orville Nix: The Missing JFK Assassination Film.” “What I hope this book will do is underscore the fact that there was and is a conspiracy to withhold the truth as to what happened on that dreadful day, not just to my grandfather, but to the world.”