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Peter Lemkin: A casualty of JFK's assassination

Peter Lemkin: A casualty of JFK's assassination

Posted: November 18, 1998

By Alan Levy

I am here in Prague because of the events of one awful weekend in the United States 35 years ago. On Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Later that day, a policeman approaching a suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, was shot and killed. Arrested and charged with both slayings, Oswald was murdered two days later - while in police custody - by a smalltime nightclub owner, Jack Ruby. For many of my generation, the last full weekend of November 1963 was when the American dream went sour ... when Camelot dissolved in the blood and brains spilled on Jacqueline Kennedy's pink suit ... and when some of us started looking for the exit even before assassins' bullets claimed Malcolm X in 1965, and, in 1968, Martin Luther King and John Kennedy's brother Robert. My family and I moved to Prague in 1967.... Now it is 1998 and I am sitting in the back room of a trendy Old Town restaurant with a man who was 12 years old that terrible weekend, but knows more about it than almost anyone alive in today's world. His open face and reddish mustache both illuminated and masked by a Tiffany lamp hanging low over our table, Peter Lemkin, 47, could be speaking for me when he says: "It was a pivotal event in my life. I can look back now and see that it was the moment when the bubble burst as to what I and a lot of other people thought about America. When I lecture, I ask the question, 'When did your image of America change?', and very often the answer from people my age and older is 11/22/63 or soon thereafter, when all our heroes kept getting assassinated. Our vision of America as a guiding light in the world had been crushed. We went about our business, but we'd lost the feeling of hope." Here Lemkin's path and mine diverged. For him, a moment of truth and trauma became a research hobby 20 years later and then a million-dollar obsession leading not only to "multiple lawsuits, financial ruin and threats to life and limb," but also to his taking refuge in Prague two years ago. Born in New York City on the 22nd day of 1951 to a politically active family, Peter Raphael Lemkin grew up comfortably in suburban Hempstead, Long Island, where his father practiced dentistry and his mother was a legal secretary. On Aug. 28, 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King led 200,000 Americans in a civil rights March on Washington, Dr. Lemkin was a parade marshal and his son went along to hear King proclaim a vision of America that began: "I have a dream." On the afternoon of 11/22/63, Peter was attending "Mrs. Fisher's eighth-grade science class at the Fulton School in Hempstead. While we were studying the elements, the principal, Dr. Hamburg, came in crying; we had never seen Dr. Hamburg cry. He had a radio in his hands and, without speaking, he plugged it into the wall. All of a sudden it was broadcasting the news that the president had been shot and was being rushed to the hospital. We listened until it was announced that he had died and we all went home, crying. At home, my parents were crying, too. That weekend, we didn't sleep, we hardly ate, we just stayed in front of the television; we were stunned. Our whole world had collapsed and it never quite reassembled the way it had been before then." Peter went about his business - graduating with honors in 1968 from Hempstead High as president of the student council; majoring in biology and psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and the University of Colorado at Boulder for his bachelor's degree, and earning master's degrees in public health and environmental sciences from Yale and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). But he stayed politically involved throughout the apathetic 1970s - mainly with Central America. While working in support groups for rebels seeking to bring down the Somoza family's dictatorship in Nicaragua, he encountered U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents "and ex-CIA people and I began to notice that the same people were cropping up in Central America who were involved in Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination." Gradually he gravitated into what he calls "the Kennedy research community," a loose network of a few hundred experts delving into the unanswered questions, disappeared and destroyed evidence, contradictions and utter impossibilities that abound in the Warren Commission's report on its investigation of the president's death. Lemkin's training as a scientist suited him for using databases and other new research tools. But he also studied the bigger picture of parapolitics, which he defines as "hidden history: a large part of which is planned to be covert." By 1985, Lemkin was lecturing around the world on the Kennedy assassination and its fallout. At each lecture he would distribute a 100-part questionnaire called "Coincidence or Conspiracy?" for listeners to take home and ponder. Its first questions were: 1. Why were over 58 eyewitnesses to the assassination ignored by the Warren Commission when they said they felt that shots had come from directions other than the Texas School Book Depository? (This is the building where Oswald worked.) 2. Why did most persons in Dealey Plaza run up the "grassy knoll" after the shots, while the police ran to the Texas School Book Depository? Knowing that "94 percent of Americans don't believe the official version, but don't know what to believe," Lemkin framed his closing question: "100. Did America 'die' - along with JFK - that day in Dallas, 11/22/63?" A decade ago, after giving an after-dinner lecture in Stockholm, Lemkin was driven to the railroad station by one of his avid listeners, a Swedish playboy named Hans, who - in a burst of conscience over a dissolute, wasted life - offered to finance him to the tune of $1 million to find the truth of the JFK assassination. Lemkin leaped at the offer. Money from a Luxembourg bank began arriving in installments in suitcases filled with $100 bills: "They were earmarked not for me, but for serious research into 11/22/63." But he felt two changes in his life right away: "I realized how fast a million dollars could be spent - on flying to New Orleans [to probe the research of District Attorney Jim Garrison, then the sole source of Abraham Zapruder's film record of the assassination] or to hire a private investigator." The second - and more sinister - change was that, armed with a million dollars, he won both respect and fear from his suspects. Already convinced that Oswald - with his checkered past in Cuba, Russia and New Orleans - was no loner, but "a creature of the intelligence community who was set up as a patsy to take the rap [and] on 11/22/63 thought he was infiltrating an assassination attempt," Lemkin zeroed in on "a strange confluence of maybe 50 people in the know - from several forces: the CIA, some high officials as well as rogue operatives the CIA would disown if caught in 'black operations' ... anti-Castro Cubans used by the CIA and angry about the Bay of Pigs [1961 invasion] fiasco ... funding from Texas oil right-wingers and the Mafia, which also provided its own 'experts' ... fascist groups connected to the intelligence community ... and other elements of the military and government, particularly in covering up after the assassination. They had the power of the press - controlled knowingly or unknowingly through an Old Boy network from World War II that was still fighting the Cold War, but there were always new recruits - to change or cover up facts, intimidate witnesses, destroy evidence, create new evidence." But why? Lemkin replies: "JFK had made a speech in which he said that Russians love their children, too. He was investigating the CIA, de-escalating Vietnam and might have wound down the Cold War with 'the evil empire.' To these people, he was a moneyed, populist 'progressive' beyond the pale. They wanted the world we got and we got the world they wanted. 11/22/63 was a special election that excluded the American public." With his benefactor Hans' approval, Lemkin had decided that his research should result in a book focused on one individual's participation in that day's events. His choice - "a small fish, but an intriguing key" - was a part-Cherokee covert operative known as "Tosh" who was entrusted on Nov. 21, 1963 with co-piloting a planeload of Dallas-bound operatives from southern Florida. Their book was tentatively titled Tell the Truth and Run Like Hell. Now "Tosh" was getting shot at and finding electronic "bugs" on his car; some of Lemkin's mail went astray and he received frequent phone threats. The crunch came when Tosh told Lemkin that several of the passengers on his Nov. 21 flight to Dallas were ready to talk. One morning in 1993, Lemkin awoke in his rented oceanside condominium near San Diego to find an eviction notice on his door giving him three days to pay his rent or leave. But he'd paid up two months ahead! Lawyers who took his "open-and-shut case" didn't show up in court or quit just before going to trial. Lemkin lost every time. His assets were seized, his bank accounts frozen, and in federal bankruptcy court he came within 30 minutes of having everything he'd owned - including his parents' ashes, family heirlooms and photos, and his research - auctioned and, if unbought, destroyed. Fortunately, a judge granted him relief from his shadowy creditors. To use up a Eurailpass toward the end of a lecture tour in 1993, Peter Lemkin had come to Prague for three days - and stayed a month: "I experienced an epiphany. Here was Havel in the castle, still his own man, and the smell of hope: what we'd lost in America 30 years ago. I hated to go home. Later, when my life collapsed, Prague was tugging at my memory as a safe haven." This time around in Prague, he's been buying and selling mineral specimens and is the distributor of an expanded second edition of Gene Deitch's memoir, For the Love of Prague. Lemkin's lost all else. Embittered by having what was left of his funding confiscated in California, Hans withdrew his support. Tosh has warned Lemkin that he'll deny anything he publishes about him. I've urged Lemkin to finish his book anyway on his own and try to publish it as a roman a clef or non-fiction novel. It's bound to be more believable than the Warren Report.

By Alan Levy

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