Thursday, 14 July 2016 19:22

NOVA’s Cold Case: JFK - the Junk Science Behind PBS’s Recent Foray into the Crime of the Century

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We here publish two letters written by Gary Aguilar and Cyril Wecht to the editors of the the journal of the Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners concerning the ludicrous claims made by PBS' program on the JFK assassination.

By Gary Aguilar and Cyril Wecht

On August 7, 2013 The Los Angeles Times offered a preview of an upcoming, PBS NOVA program on the Kennedy assassination for which the David Koch Fund for Science provided major financial support.[i][ii] “Sorry, conspiracy theorists, modern forensic science shows that John F. Kennedy was likely killed by ‘one guy with a grudge and a gun,’” it reported, quoting one of the participants, John McAdams, during a panel discussion by those featured in Nova’s “Cold Case: JFK.”[iii] Sure enough, the broadcast offered seemingly impressive scientific support for the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, alone, had done it. NOVA’s ballyhooed evidence came principally from three ballistics experts - the father and son team Messrs. Lucien and Michael Haag, and from Mr. Larry Sturdivan, all longstanding, ardent anti-conspiracists. CBS was so impressed that it featured Lucien and Michael Haag in on-air interviews.[iv] But because it was presented solely in video format (still available on-line[v]) students of the case were hard pressed to assess the quality of the scholarship. Things have changed.

Apparently seeking to disseminate his findings among his professional colleagues (and to take pot shots at a fellow anti-conspiracist, Max Holland[vi]), Luke Haag got his material published in the “peer reviewed” AFTE Journal, the official outlet of The Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners, an organization he was once president of. If Luke Haag had expected his AFTE articles would be a kind of post NOVA victory lap, thanks to the courage and integrity of the journal’s editor, Mr. Cole Goater, his hopes have been rudely dashed.

The editor gamely published two lengthy rebuttals Cyril Wecht, MD, JD and I wrote, 26 pages in all. In their wake, it’s likely Luke Haag rues the day he ever let his junk science see the light of day. For in answer to my request to republish his AFTE material verbatim, he emailed me, “I do not grant permission for you or Cyril Wecht to reproduce or republish any of my articles from the AFTE Journal … .”[vii] Haag clearly grasps he has a lot to hide. (Although he may have succeeded in preventing us from posting his material on-line, readers can access all of them behind a paywall at the AFTE Journal, and can download for free the first one that is as of this writing available on-line.[viii])

We first heard of Haag’s material when a friend sent me (Aguilar) a copy of one of Haag’s articles in early 2015. A longstanding Warren skeptic, I could barely restrain my amusement and glee as I read it. My colleague and coauthor, Cyril Wecht, MD, JD had a similar reaction. The rest of the articles and letters proved to be no less entertaining, not least because most of the claims the Haags and Sturdivan made had long since been widely debunked and discredited. But perhaps what struck us most about this bounty of balderdash is not only how junk science continues to snooker the mainstream media, a phenomenon that’s been oft repeated since the release of the Warren Report,[ix] but also how this cornucopia of codswollop will warm the hearts of both Warren Commission loyalists and skeptics alike.

Encomiums for the articles from the pro-Warren side came quickly. Dale Myers, a Haag fan and an indefatigable defender of the lone gunman scenario, crowed, “The AFTE Journal published … outstanding articles detailing Luke and Michael Haag’s investigation into the forensic aspects of the JFK murder … (that) are sobering, instructive, and a must read for anyone interested in the science behind bullet ballistics and in particular, the JFK case.”[x] (Lucien Haag and Myers are mutual admirers; in his first (of five) articles, Haag touts Myers’ pro-Warren animation work.[xi]) Not only will Warren loyalists appreciate having much of what was shown on TV available in on-line and print format, they’re certain also to welcome some riveting new fairytales that weren’t on TV.

Especially striking among them is the fable that author Wecht, a celebrated forensic pathologist and a perennial Warren skeptic, had actually endorsed the official autopsy report in no less than the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Forensic Sciences. Another is Mr. Haag’s claim that Dr. Wecht had dismissed the Commission’s controversial “Single Bullet Theory” (SBT: the idea that one bullet caused all seven nonfatal wounds in both the President and Governor Connally) because, fabricated Haag, the forensic expert had publicly declared that “one bullet cannot go through two people.” But there’s so much more.

To buck up the controversial SBT, Lucien Haag “proved” that the bullet that struck Governor Connally had passed through JFK first. His evidence? Haag said that the missile didn’t leave a small, puncture-type wound in the Governor’s back, like a typical entrance wound. Instead, it left an oval, 3-cm long, “yawed” entry wound, the full length of Commission Exhibit, #399, the so-called “magic bullet.” The ovality of that back wound was forensic proof, Haag asserted, that the bullet had been destabilized by passing through JFK and was traveling sideways, not point forward, when it hit Connally’s back. As we pointed out, this particular myth has long been debunked.[xii] Connally’s back wound was no more oval than JFK’s skull wound, and no one has ever argued JFK’s fatal missile had been destabilized and was yawing when it took the President’s life.

Further, Mr. Haag and Mr. Sturdivan dredged up Dr. Vincent P. Guinn’s sunken Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) ship, work that was once said to prove that all the recovered bullets and fragments came from Oswald’s rifle.[xiii] To the editor’s great credit, he allowed Dr. Wecht and I to point out in the letters pages the well-known fact that Guinn’s NAA metallurgy work had been repeatedly discredited in the “peer reviewed” scientific literature by authorities vastly better credentialed than those Haag cited. Among others, they include two Berkeley Lawrence Livermore Lab NAA metallurgy experts. In an emotional, splenetic riposte, the uncredentialed Sturdivan dismissed the credentialed scientists as mere “purported metallurgists” not real metallurgists, and that their anti-NAA work was nothing but an attempt “to trash the late Dr. Guinn’s reputation.”[xiv] In our response we pointed out what Sturdivan conveniently omitted: one of the metallurgists who he smeared, Pat Grant, Ph.D, studied under Vincent Guinn and is a credentialed NAA examiner who worked on NAA under Guinn at UC Irvine during graduate school.[xv]

Haag offered additional baloney to buttress the lone gunman scenario, including claims that:

  • Duplication experiments in which human skulls were shot from above and behind with Oswald’s ammunition damaged the blasted skulls in a manner very like the damage JFK sustained. As has long been known,[xvi] and as we point out, they did no such thing. If anything, the test skulls prove that JFK was not shot in the manner the Warren Commission had alleged.
  • Haag said that JFK’s “back to the left” lunge after being struck in the head from behind had been validated scientifically as due to either, or both, a “jet effect,” as Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez had demonstrated in test firings published in in 1976 in the American Journal of Physics (AJP), or to JFK’s neuromuscular reaction to the head injuries, as explicated by the inexpert and uncredentialed Mr. Larry Sturdivan. Neither explanation holds water.
  • Josiah Thompson, Ph.D. recently got the photo file of Alvarez’s shooting tests from a former Berkeley grad student who had participated in the tests, Paul Hoch, Ph.D. When he reviewed the images, Thompson discovered, as we describe, that the Nobel Laureate had misrepresented his own results: virtually all the objects he fired at flew away from the shooter, not toward him, except for the ones he reported in the AJP. Alvarez not only neglected to mention his inconvenient results, in the AJP he clearly implied there were none. (Paul Hoch never told anyone about his former professor’s contradictory results, despite having been asked about the tests for decades.)
  • Sturdivan’s claim JFK was rocked backward due to what Sturdivan has variously called a “decerebrate” or a “decorticate” neuromuscular” reaction is nonsense. As we lay out, from our own professional experiences as physicians and as described in the medical literature, JFK’s motions are neither; they’re best explained (as are the skull X-ray findings) as consequence of the impact of a shot from the right front.

This is but a small sampling of the silliness that will send the spirits of both sides of the debate soaring. Neither Dr. Wecht nor I can think of a greater, single repository of nonsense, outright fabrications and junk science than what the Haags and Sturdivan have published in the AFTE journal. And but for the honesty and integrity of the editor, myriad JFK myths and falsehoods would embarrassingly have stood uncontested and uncorrected in the journal. To his everlasting credit, and AFTE’s benefit, Mr. Goater not only published an 8-page riposte Dr. Wecht and I wrote in the Summer 2015 issue in response to Haag’s first three articles, available here on-line, in the Spring 2016 issue he also published our 18-page rejoinder to the fact-challenged, choleric letters Haag and Sturdivan had put in the Journal. Included in our second riposte is the essay, “The Science Behind the Persistence of Skepticism in the Kennedy Case,” supported with over 100 citations to official and professional sources, most available on-line by clicking the provided links.[xvii]

In Haag’s defense, it must be admitted that his forensic-ballistics work was not entirely useless. He demonstrated what had previously been demonstrated and not disputed:[xviii] that one bullet can go through two men and that penetrating bullets can cause heads to explode.[xix] If he had limited his remarks to these obvious, previously established conclusions Warren skeptics and serious students of the murder would have no quarrel. But instead, no doubt through an honest ignorance of the data, and a misguided loyalty to his collaborator, Larry Sturdivan, who’s book he cites, Haag elected to repeat long-debunked, pro-Warren Commission fairy tales. One suspects his work won't disturb the principals of the David H. Koch Fund for Science, but Haag must hold his fellow AFTE members in low regard to believe he’d get away with publishing such rubbish in their journal.

Haag’s cowardly refusal to permit our republishing his JFK material says it all. It can best be explained by his justified fear that a wider, informed public might see the shoddiness of his research and how poorly he grasps long established, fundamental facts in the Kennedy case. Although he demands his words be kept hidden behind AFTE’s paywall, his confections, falsehoods and severe limitations are clearly visible here on-line, in the two letters Dr. Wecht and I published in the AFTE Journal. For we did what mountebanks most fear: we quoted him accurately and in context.

Aguilar & Wecht -- Letter to the Editor: AFTE Volume 47 Number 3 -- Summer 2015


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Aguilar & Wecht -- Letter to the Editor: AFTE Volume 48 Number 2 -- Spring 2016


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[i] “Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science … .”


[iii] Gelt, Jessica, Television Critics Association Press Tour: PBS' 'Cold Case: JFK' opposes conspiracy theories. Los Angeles Times, August 07, 2013



[vi] See: Haag, L C. The Missing Bullet in the JFK Assassination. AFTE Journal, vol.47(2), Spring 2015, p. 70-74. See also, Dale Myers, “The Shot that Missed JFK: a New Forensic Study.”

[vii] Personal email from Lucien Haag, June 10, 2016.

[viii] N.E.D.I.A.I Journal, Vol.3 of 3, p. 6 ff.

See also “Response from Lucien C. Haag. AFTE Journal -- Volume 48 Number 2 -- Spring 2016, p. 86-91.

[ix] See Robert Hennelly and Jerry Policoff, “JFK: HOW THE MEDIA ASSASSINATED THE REAL STORY,” on-line at:

See also Russ Baker, Milicent Cranor, THE MYSTERY OF THE CONSTANT FLOW OF JFK DISINFORMATION, on-line at:

[x] Dale Myers, “The Shot That Missed JFK: A New Forensic Study.”, 5.5.15, online at:

In 2004 Myers received an Emmy Award[1] from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his computer animated recreation of the Kennedy assassination featured in ABC News' 40th anniversary television special, Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination — Beyond Conspiracy (2003).

[xi] Haag, Lucien C., Tracking the ‘Magic’ Bullet in the JFK Assassination. AFTE Journal, Vol. 46(2), Spring 2014, p. 110. Available on-line at: (see p. 15)

[xii] See Milicent Cranor, “Trajectory of a Lie,” on-line at:

[xiii] Haag, Lucien C., Tracking the ‘Magic’ Bullet in the JFK Assassination. AFTE Journal, Vol. 46(2), Spring 2014, p. 110. Available on-line at: (see p. 8-9)

[xiv] Sturdivan, L. “Response from Larry Sturdivan” AFTE Journal -- Volume 47 Number 3 -- Summer 2015 143

[xv] See essay by Lawrence Livermore Lab‘s Pat Grant, Ph.D., on-line at


[xvii] Aguilar G, Wecht, CH. AFTE Journal. Volume 48(2) Spring 2016, p. 68-85.

[xviii] See Review of “Cold Case JFK” by David Mantik, MD, Ph.D.:

[xix] See testimony of Larry Sturdivan to the HSCA, Vol.1, p. 401-403, on-line at:

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 December 2016 23:10
Gary Aguilar

Gary L. Aguilar, MD, is one of the few physicians outside the government ever permitted to examine the still-restricted photographs and X-rays taken during President Kennedy’s autopsy.  He has published widely on the medical evidence in professional journals, books and on-line.  He has  lectured before academic medical, academic medico-legal, and non-professional public audiences on the subject. He is currently Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, U.C. San Francisco, and the head of ophthalmology and the Vice Chief of Staff at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco.

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