The Fourth Tramp
A new book about Lee Harvey Oswald reveals that conspiracy theorists are still straining to repackage old news into something new.
By Gregory Curtis , April 1996
I know more about the Kennedy assassination than most people do, I’m sorry to say. Although I came to my own conclusions long ago—Oswald acted alone, Ruby acted alone—I can’t keep myself from reading any new theory about what really happened that day in Dealey Plaza. Some theories, like the one that identified Franklin Folley as a second gunman, are good for a laugh. Franklin Folley was Frank Sinatra’s drummer. Most often the theories are aggravating because even a little basic knowledge can be enough to spot the misunderstandings, inconsistencies, facts conveniently ignored, or lies on which the theories depend. Still, there are too many spooky characters, known and unknown, real or mythical, for me to resist: the “babushka lady,” “umbrella man,” and “badgeman”; the three tramps; the exotic European George de Mohrenschildt; David Ferrie, with his pasted eyebrows; mad dog anti-Communist Guy Banister and his office at 544 Camp St. in New Orleans; the mob; the CIA, the FBI, the KGB; and Oswald himself, horrible and pathetic, who escaped after the assassination in a cab and later admitted to the police that he had never ridden in one before in his life.
Polls show that a large majority of Americans believe the assassination was the result of a conspiracy; but, if the majority are like me, it’s more accurate to say that they want there to be a conspiracy.
I’m convinced that the belief in a conspiracy persists because people instinctively think that somewhere in the midst of all these bizarre people and events there must be a better story than the one the Warren Commission told. I don’t doubt the sincerity of director Oliver Stone’s belief in the conspiracy that he used as the basis for his very good and very wrong movie JFK; but, it’s also inevitable that he would believe in a conspiracy. Stone is by trade a dramatist, and without a conspiracy there is no drama in the assassination, no plans, no arguments, no interplay of personalities, no conflict between the forces of good and evil, and no triumph of one over the other. Most assassination researchers, I believe, think they are looking for the truth, but because so much of the truth is absolutely known, in fact they are looking for something else, for something more aesthetic, for a narrative, for beauty. Certainly that’s the case in the most interesting new book about the assassination to come along in years: Oswald Talked: The New Evidence in the JFK Assassination, by Ray and Mary La Fontaine of Dallas.
In 1990 a young man living in Lubbock named Ricky White announced that his father, who had been in the Marines with Oswald and was on the Dallas police force when Kennedy was murdered, had been the fabled gunman who shot from the grassy knoll. (See “I Was Mandarin…” TM, December 1990.) That story took a while to unravel and to be exposed as an honest mistake at best or as a plot for money at worst. The La Fontaines believed in the story and wanted to make it the subject of a documentary film. During the early months of 1991 they were still actively trying to shore up the White story enough to save their documentary, although as the year wore on they gave up. Then, that fall, Stone’s JFK appeared. Its portrayal of a conspiracy by agencies of the federal government to kill Kennedy increased the percentage of the public who believe that the government, specifically the CIA and the FBI, are hiding the truth about the assassination. Official Dallas had always been uncomfortable about the film. But after it appeared, perhaps to allay the widespread suspicions, perhaps as a final act of expiation, the Dallas City Council ordered all the city’s police files concerning the assassination placed in the city archives at city hall and opened to the public. For a few days in late January 1992, researchers dug through the previously restricted files only to find little there that wasn’t already available in other sources, in particular the Warren Commission documents.
Mary La Fontaine looked at the newly released files, but she had the curiosity to look at a second set of files that had been released more than two years earlier with no fanfare and overlooked in the excitement about the new files. She noticed one folder labeled “Arrest sheets on persons arrested 11-22-63.” The first three sheets in the folder were for three men arrested for vagrancy near the railroad tracks behind the Texas School Book Depository. Their names were Harold Doyle, Gus Abrams, and John Forrester Gedney, and they were the famous “three tramps” who had been photographed not long after the assassination in the custody of two Dallas police officers but never previously identified. One tramp is now believed dead. After Mary’s discovery, the FBI located the other two and questioned them. There is no doubt that the men in the arrest records and the men in the photograph are the same. Their arrest records were thought to be nonexistent or lost or hidden or destroyed by sinister forces, depending on which assassination theory one believed. Some authors argued that these men were the real killers of the president. Others thought they looked like E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, who later became infamous as Watergate burglars. Charles Harrelson, a convicted hit man and the father of actor Woody Harrelson, said he was the real murderer of Kennedy. Others pointed out a resemblance between Charles Harrelson and the tallest of the three tramps. In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations spent a considerable amount of money doing computerized comparisons of the tramps’ faces with photographs of known individuals, hoping to identify the tramps. The tramps play a role in the murder in Stone’s film. All the while, the truth was sitting in a plainly marked file, and the truth is that the “three tramps” were simply three tramps.
Mary La Fontaine had solved one of the most famous and provocative mysteries of the assassination, but the story disappeared as surely as if it had fallen into a black hole. The Houston Post ran a story by the La Fontaines on the front page, but the Associated Press halfheartedly distributed a story that identified the La Fontaines as “conspiracy theorists,” which, as they say in their book, is a code name for “nuts.” The Washington Post and the Boston Globe mentioned the discovery without crediting the La Fontaines in brief stories about other aspects of the assassination. A Current Affair did a segment about the tramps but claimed the discovery as its own. And that was that. The result is that even people who maintain an interest in the assassination and habitually read new stories about it may not know that the three tramps have been positively identified and that this avenue of speculation about the assassination is a dead end.
The temptation is to blame the dreaded media for this failing, particularly because there are people who believe the media are part of the conspiracy to cover up the truth, but the real fault lies with the La Fontaines. Their story in the Houston Post mentions the three tramps almost as an afterthought and never clearly explains the importance and the certainty of Mary’s discovery. Instead it describes at some length several photographs the Dallas police took simulating the famous photograph of Oswald in his back yard holding radical newspapers and the rifle that killed Kennedy. For years conspiracy theorists have speculated that this photograph is a fake, but in 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations proved beyond doubt that the photograph was genuine. In the Post, the La Fontaines chose to concentrate on their new information about the photograph, because it suggests a conspiracy, more than on their solid research on the tramps, which demolishes any conspiracy theory involving them. They chose mystery and speculation over truth.
And they did it again in Oswald Talked, for Mary found something else of interest in that file. There were three other arrest sheets besides those of the three tramps. One, apparently misfiled, was for an arrest several days later. One was for Daniel Wayne Douglas, a 19-year-old car thief from Memphis who had the bad luck to choose that day in Dallas to turn himself in. And the third was for a 31-year-old man named John Elrod who, like the three tramps, had been arrested along the railroad tracks north of the School Book Depository. Elrod’s arrest record was not known to exist either. It was important because he claimed to have been the cell mate of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Nine months after the assassination, Elrod appeared at the sheriff’s office in Memphis looking for help. Elrod was an alcoholic and now, though he was trying to dry out, he had been drinking and contemplated killing his wife. At the sheriff’s office, he confessed to something else that was bothering him. He said that while he was in a cell with Oswald the day of the assassination, a prisoner with a battered face had been brought down the corridor by guards. According to Elrod, Oswald had said he knew the man because he had seen him in a motel room a few days earlier discussing selling stolen guns with four other men, including Jack Ruby. The Memphis sheriff contacted the FBI. Agents interviewed Elrod and filed reports of his statements. They sent to Dallas for his arrest records, but the reply came that there was no record of Elrod’s being arrested on November 22, 1963. The FBI assumed Elrod’s tale was the fantasy of a drunk and proceeded no further. Now Mary had found proof that he had been arrested that day after all.
That would not amount to much if there weren’t a few other tantalizing facts the La Fontaines found to support Elrod’s story. Oswald was put in a cell at some point during the afternoon of his arrest. A log prisoners were required to sign to make telephone calls showed that Oswald was in cell F-2. The F cell block was a corridor with three small, adjoining cells. No known record shows what cell Elrod was in, but in 1993 he told the La Fontaines that “a kid from Tennessee who had stolen a car in Memphis” was also in the cell. The same phone log shows that Douglas, the confessed car thief, was in cell F-1. And there really was a prisoner with a battered face in the jail that day. He was Lawrence Reginald Miller, now dead, who on November 18 was the passenger in the front seat of a blue Thunderbird carrying guns stolen from a military arsenal. The car crashed along Hall Street in downtown Dallas while being pursued by the police. Newspaper stories the next day refer to Miller’s injured face. And, to complete the circle with exactly the sort of fact that could mean everything and could mean nothing, the driver of the Thunderbird, Donnell Darius Whitter, worked in the garage where Jack Ruby took his car. Indeed, he had personally worked on Ruby’s car.
This is the kind of tale that makes wading through assassination literature rewarding. And isn’t it a great story! The three prisoners watching the convict with the bloody face paraded before them, the meeting in the motel room with Ruby, the stolen guns, the chase through downtown Dallas in a blue Thunderbird with Jack Ruby’s mechanic at the wheel…not that I believe that all this proves anything. Elrod’s story may be true, but there is no proof he was in the cell with Oswald. He could have, for instance, been in a cell with the man with the battered face and learned his story from him. And, even assuming Elrod was in the same cell, there is no proof that Oswald said a thing. Indeed, why would Oswald, who was smirky and elusive in everything he is known to have said after the assassination, who was smirky and elusive during his time in the Marines, in Russia, in Dallas, and in New Orleans, suddenly start talking cordially and intimately to a teenage car thief and a drunk. Surely, whether Oswald was part of a plot or not, he would have suspected that anyone put in a cell with him was there to inform on him to the authorities and thus would not have volunteered that he knew Ruby.
By discovering the identities of the three tramps, the La Fontaines have made a real and important contribution to the history of the assassination. Few books on Kennedy can make that claim with justice. By discovering Elrod, they have made an ingenious story based on a few related or unrelated facts. Most books on Kennedy can make that claim. Oswald killed Kennedy all alone, but people will never believe it in their hearts. There are too many bizarre facts, too many deep and foreboding characters, and too many hypnotic stories to weave around them.