Judge Griffin and the Man Who Killed the Man Who Killed Kennedy | Part 2
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 55 years ago this week. Retired Cleveland Judge Burt Griffin was part of the team that investigated what happened. Part 1 of this story can be found here, Part 3 can be found here.
“We were all aware that if we had the wrong guy, if there was a conspiracy out there and there was some lead that we hadn’t adequately followed, the country could be in danger,” said Burt Griffin. “If we wrongly accused somebody, there would be political turmoil. If we wrongly accused some foreign government, there’d be a war. We were aware of all of that.”
To Griffin, working on the Warren Commission represented a notion of public service that has largely dissipated today.
“World War II actually had a big effect on me and the Warren Commission,” said Griffin. “We grew up in an era where patriotism and doing the right thing were absolutely essential. If there was a conspiracy to assassinate the president we were determined to find it.”
But finding such a conspiracy — and above all, finding the truth — was always going to be harder than it seemed. Griffin knew the details of President Kennedy’s assassination would be hidden behind several layers of confusion, misunderstanding and deceit. It was possible that people had conspired to kill JFK. It was also possible that people would lie to hide how spectacularly they failed to keep JFK alive. In particular, Griffin distrusted the FBI, from their failure to recognize the threat Lee Harvey Oswald posed, to their investigation after Oswald shot the president dead and ended up shot dead himself.
“I worked with FBI agents,” said Griffin. “I also saw what their process was here.”
Griffin told me about how the FBI rushed out to interview some guy in Mansfield who mouthed off in a bar after the assassination about how he was happy Kennedy was dead. It happened that the guy in Mansfield was someone Griffin knew personally, a man who struggled with alcoholism, but nevertheless the FBI ran him down, “Like they have a lead onto a conspiracy.”
“So we knew we were working with that kind of stuff,” said Griffin. “I basically didn’t, and still don’t, have a lot of confidence in the ability of the FBI in those days to have found a very well-planned conspiracy.”
The Warren Commission had a tight structure. On the first level were the commissioners themselves, who acted “like a jury” according to Griffin. Then there were the staff attorneys like Griffin, who would investigate and present evidence to the commissioners. But below that level, said Griffin, were the unsung heroes.
“The real work was done by these, literally, thousands of investigators that we had,” said Griffin.
Staffers from the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and other government entities were constantly responding to requests from the Commission investigators, sending file after file, page after page, of information that could’ve possibly been relevant to figuring out who killed Kennedy and how. These reports filtered up to the staff attorneys, and only a small fraction made it all the way to the Commissioners.
“I suppose you could say, yeah we did the work, but then you’ve got to say, but all these other people were doing the work too,” said Griffin.
The staff attorneys were divided into six teams of two — a senior lawyer and a junior lawyer. Griffin, in his early 30s at that time, was the junior lawyer in his pairing, with Leon Hubert as his senior partner. I asked Griffin to describe what his office was like and he tried to map it out in the Panera.
“This office that we were in was probably as wide as from that wall to maybe a little wider than the opening between these two walls,” said Griffin, sweeping his arms over the tables of studious Panera patrons before us. “Probably as long as from there to the window.”
In all, he outlined a space about the size, shape and volume of a freight container.
Every pairing on the Commission staff was assigned to a specific “area” of the assassination. One pair would investigate the possibility of a foreign conspiracy. Another pair would study Lee Harvey Oswald, his biography and potential motives. Burt Griffin was assigned to investigate the man who shot Oswald — Jack Ruby.
At this point in my life, I’m not a conspiracy guy. And frankly, my generation is the one that has to deal with conspiracy theories on a daily basis. I’ve got some news for you old folks: climate change is real and caused by humans. There was never any QAnon, and no crisis actors at Newtown. But you all, your generation, you’ve got Jack Ruby. And if there’s anything about the JFK assassination that would make me think there was a conspiracy, it’s that dude.
I mean, a guy commits the crime of the century, and just as that guy is getting perp walked through the Dallas police basement, some other guy walks up out of nowhere and pops him? Come on. I’ve seen movies. They call that a hit.
The only thing that might convince me different is if I sat down with the man responsible for investigating the assassin’s assassin. It so happens that when that very man started investigating the assassin’s assassin 55 years ago, he had the same two questions I still have.
- “Why did he do it?” and
- “Who the hell was this guy?”
“I knew we had to carefully document everything we could find out about his life in detail from the time anybody would have been aware that Kennedy was coming to Dallas, which somehow or another we had pinpointed as mid-September,” said Griffin. “With even greater specificity we needed to know what he was doing on a minute by minute basis… from the minute the president was shot until he shot Oswald.”
To complete this chronology of Jack Ruby’s life and behavior, Griffin needed to identify and locate witnesses, connections, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, assess their credibility, collect their testimony and distill it into usable evidence. Griffin read through all the relevant FBI reports, “including the one on my friend from Mansfield.” He sent out instructions to investigators in other government agencies and came up with more methods to collect more information on Jack Ruby, including some plans that were too bonkers to be considered.
At one point, while he was attempting to get records from every telephone Jack Ruby could have touched, Griffin proposed that the Commission freeze every record of every phone call in the country from six months prior to the assassination, so they could be sifted through for clues, possibly by a computer.
“I don’t know why the hell I thought this,” said Griffin.
To be fair, a computer today could probably do the job, but in 1964 it was impossible, so they scrapped the plan. Griffin had plenty of work to keep him busy anyway. On a typical day, Griffin would arrive at the Commission offices at eight in the morning, walk home for dinner with his wife at children between six and eight at night, then walk back to the office and continue working until 11.
Ruby’s trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald delayed Griffin from obtaining necessary testimony, and introduced other, more bizarre complications, particularly involving the conduct and capabilities of the Dallas Police Department. The president and the president’s assassin had been murdered less than a week apart and both men were surrounded by Dallas cops on both occasions. It doesn’t get more “you had one job” than that. Griffin needed to find Ruby’s motive for killing Oswald, and influence from Dallas cops — many of whom frequented Ruby’s nightclubs — had to be on his list.
“There was always the possibility that he did it because someone put him up to it,” said Griffin. “So then the question was, who might put him up to it?”
The Dallas police, said Griffin, “had a personal reason for being angry. Oswald had killed one of their own men. So we knew there was the possibility that somebody had, if not conspired with Ruby, there could at least have been somebody who let him in.”
I asked Griffin about his own relationship with the Dallas police, but he immediately saw through the question.
“Do you know my answer on this?” said Griffin. “You know about Sergeant Dean?”
My own fault. You don’t prosecute a prosecutor. And so we come to Griffin’s version of the Sergeant Dean affair.
It was Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade (the Wade from Roe v. Wade) prosecuting Jack Ruby, and one of Wade’s witnesses was a Dallas police sergeant named Patrick Dean. Dean claimed to have information that Ruby had planned to kill Oswald days in advance — crucial evidence for Wade to prove premeditation in Ruby’s actions.
But Dean also happened to be responsible for security in the same basement where Ruby strolled in unhindered and killed Oswald. And Griffin thought something was off about Dean’s account of the shooting in the basement.
“I took his testimony and he said what he saw and what he knew,” said Griffin. “After he’d given his testimony, we took a break, and during the break I said something to him which essentially was, ‘You don’t know everything that we know.’ And I obviously said something to him about my not thinking that he’d told us everything, and maybe I even said that he didn’t tell the truth.”
According to Griffin, he suggested, in so many words, that Dean might want to talk to an attorney and rethink what he wanted to tell the Commission.
“I said, you know, even things that you might think aren’t significant, in light of other things that we know, may be significant or might tie in somehow,” said Griffin. “That was the basic tenor, thrust of my conversation.”
Griffin’s less-than-subtle suggestion came out of a suspicion he still holds today.
“I believe that Dean saw [Ruby] coming down,” said Griffin. “Dean does mention that he saw Ruby in the line of police officers waiting for Oswald before Ruby shot him. And he gives some indication that he saw him a few feet before he got into the line. My own feeling is that yes, he did see Ruby and he could have taken his own initiative to get Ruby the hell out of there. But he didn’t do it.”
The Dallas authorities responded to Griffin’s challenge immediately, complaining to the Warren Commission that Griffin had threatened one of their cops with perjury.
“Now, in retrospect, I can see how he thought that,” said Griffin. “But I certainly never used any words like that.”
Though he’s unwavering in his belief that Dean’s testimony, in whatever way and for whatever reason, was not the full truth, the retired judge cannot help staying judicious.
“Some people can convince themselves that what they’re saying is true,” said Griffin. “As many times as I’ve thought about taking Dean’s testimony, I recognize that I’m looking at this from 55 years ago. But I know how I feel, and that is he wasn’t trustworthy.”
Ultimately, however, the potential culpability or incompetence of the local authorities doesn’t factor into Griffin’s final analysis of why Jack Ruby did what he did. Instead, it’s a story so bizarre that it seems quite sensible. It’s a story I’d never heard before I sat down in the Panera on Richmond Road. It’s the story of the… I’m sorry, Judge Griffin, what did you call it?
“The Weissman ad.”
Right. The Weissman Ad.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, Jack Ruby is just a regular guy trying to submit some newspaper ads for his strip club. It’s the weekend tomorrow, and plenty of upstanding Dallas gentlemen will want to know what delights they’ll be missing if they don’t visit his Carousel Club. And so on November 22, Jack Ruby is at the offices of the Dallas Morning News when he first sees the Weissman Ad.
“Welcome Mr. Kennedy, to Dallas,” announces the newspaper ad in big, black letters.
The full-page advertisement then goes on to criticize Kennedy for various policies and actions — real, fake or exaggerated — that seem too soft on communism. The ad’s content, especially looking at it in the political context of 2018, is pretty tame. But the way Burt Griffin tells it, Jack Ruby didn’t care much what the ad said, but who was said to have paid for it.
“The American Fact-Finding Committee,” it reads at the very end. “An unaffiliated and non-partisan group of citizens who wish truth. Bernard Weissman, Chairman.”
Shortly after seeing this ad, Jack Ruby learned the president had been killed, and according to Griffin, the Weissman ad and the assassination of John F. Kennedy may have somehow conjoined in his mind. In Griffin’s theory, Ruby got it into his head that not only were the people responsible for the Weissman ad also responsible for the assassination, but the group’s use of the name “Weissman” was meant do direct blame for the killing at the Jewish community of Dallas. And so Jack Ruby — who was born Jacob Rubenstein — launched a one-man investigation into the JFK assassination to prove the innocence of his people.
“[Ruby] proceeds to spend much of the next two days trying to find Weissman,” said Griffin. “He’s a great researcher. He looks in the telephone directory and can’t find Weissman’s name.”
Ruby goes to the synagogue and asks his rabbi if he’s ever heard of Weissman. No luck there. He checks a street directory. Still no Weissman.
“Ruby’s spending a great amount of time trying to find Weissman and becomes convinced that Weissman doesn’t exist,” said Griffin.
In Griffin’s theory, the presence of the name Weissman on an anti-Kennedy ad appearing on the same day as Kennedy’s murder, as well as the questionable existence of Weissman himself, all seem to confirm in Ruby’s mind that someone is trying to link the assassination to the Jews of Dallas. In this scenario, Griffin sees a motivation for Jack Ruby’s actions: to protect his people from reprisal by taking justice into his own hands.
The path that Griffin’s version of Ruby takes from a newspaper ad to murdering Lee Harvey Oswald is convoluted, but not unconvincing. And few people have spent more of their life than Burt Griffin (225 days, according to Philip Shenon’s A Cruel and Shocking Act) studying Jack Ruby. So I asked Griffin the obvious question: Was Jack Ruby mentally ill?
“Ruby was mentally ill. By the time his trial came, Ruby was mentally ill,” said Griffin, with a caveat. “Would Ruby’s obsession about this whole thing, about the anti-Semitism… be considered mental illness at the time it occurred? I don’t know.”
For evidence that Ruby’s fear of anti-Semitism in Dallas was valid, Griffin suggests you look no further than Ruby’s murder trial.
“What happened to Ruby, total injustice,” said Griffin. “Ruby was indicted not as Jack Ruby, but as [Jack] Rubenstein, AKA Jack Ruby, even though he had… legally changed his name in the late 1940s to Ruby.”
Not only did the prosecution seem to be capitalizing on Ruby’s former, more Jewish name, Ruby was alleged to have planned the killing of Oswald days in advance, even though he was simply out and about, sending off money orders to strippers he employed, and left his dog in his car when he strolled with remarkable ease into the Dallas police basement. All of this would seem to indicate Ruby’s actions were neither part of a conspiracy, nor premeditated at all. He saw an opportunity for vigilante violence and took it.
Ultimately, errors in Ruby’s original trial drove the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse judgement in his case and order another trial in a different county. Ruby died before his second trial could take place.
Here you might think there’s a loose end. OK, not just one loose end, this is the JFK assassination after all. But what’s the whole deal with the American Fact-Finding Committee and its chairman, Bernard Weissman, the man who didn’t exist? Well, it turns out he did exist. He just didn’t live in Dallas. Weissman was just out of the Army, and along with five other veterans, he organized the American Fact-Finding Committee as a right wing organization to steer the conservative movement in the United States.
As part of their efforts, the small group sent emissaries to Dallas, which they considered, said Griffin, “the center of right-wing activities in the United States.” There the nascent political organization made contact with retired General Edwin Walker, a prominent anti-communist, segregationist, right-wing political leader. And in April of 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald tried to shoot Edwin Walker through his dining room window.
“The next part I’m gonna tell you we didn’t even know,” said Griffin. “And that is that after Oswald shot at Walker and missed, there was a wave of anti-Semitic violence in Dallas because the supporters of Walker were convinced that Jews were the ones that shot at Walker. So there’s this ironic connection between all of this kind of stuff.”
Are we all together now? I know there were some twists and turns there, and I can understand if some of us fell off the wagon, as it were. I can only tell you that, listening to the recording of this interview at the Panera on Richmond Road weeks later, I personally sound flabbergasted — a word I do not use lightly.
At some point I said to Griffin, “It all seems like a series of coincidences that’s easily spun into a conspiracy.”
“And yet,” replied Griffin. “The message here is that so much of important events can be the product of coincidences. Because it’s very clear that these people are all acting without any knowledge of each other.”
To Griffin, the influences of anti-Semitism on Jack Ruby’s behavior that week in 1963 make more sense than an assassination plot. They were also understated in the final Warren Commission report, spawning hundreds of conspiracy theories. If you don’t have the context, it’s easy to assume Jack Ruby was a pawn in a labyrinthine conspiracy. It’s almost the only thing that makes any sense. At least that’s what I thought before I sat down at the Panera on Richmond Road, with little to no knowledge of Ruby’s mental health, his Judaism, and his legitimate fear that anti-Semitic violence might lurk around every corner.
“This whole business about Ruby fearing anti-Semitism, there are a lot of valid reasons why Ruby would feel that way,” said Griffin.
“Now that’s something…” said Griffin before trailing off. “We could not write the Warren Commission report about that. There’s no way we could write this.”
And so the final report of the Warren Commission was without context, a terrifying, pressurizing context that might’ve mattered to Jack Ruby, and so it should matter to those of us who want to understand him and every other part of the president’s murder.
“As an important fact as racism is to this country’s history, to blacks and whites, anti-Semitism…” said Griffin, before looking up at me. “Look, your family, on what, your mother’s side? Irish Catholics, the prejudice that Catholics and the Irish faced in this country. And all you’ve got to do is have once incident of this in your life and you can never forget it. It’s like the one incidence of sexual assault. You don’t forget these things, and you remember who did it.”
At some point during his explanation of Ruby’s motives, Griffin was cut off by more friends who just happened to be passing through the Panera on Richmond Road.
“Hey Linda,” said Griffin. “Do you want to come over here and tell my friend whether you think there was a conspiracy?”
Over to our table walked Linda Rocker, yet another retired judge from the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. “You would give me the opportunity,” said Judge Griffin to Judge Rocker, “to introduce him to sane people who think there was a conspiracy.”
It turns out that Rocker doesn’t totally buy Griffin’s theories.
“I mean, including the Jack Ruby thing, where he supposedly acted because he was worried that Jews would be nailed for the assassination… he was either a complete nutcase, which he may have been, I mean Burt makes a good argument that he was not a picture of sanity,” said Rocker. “Or he had other connections with the Mafia in particular and he was gonna do that or he was gonna get shot down and go away.”
My God, I love how Clevelanders talk.
Judge Rocker has a hard-boiled, person-on-the-street view of the whole thing, the same sort of view I had before I talked to Griffin. The sort of view that slaps you when you start to disregard the idea of an obvious conspiracy in favor of a messy, demoralizing, horrifying coincidence.
“As former judge on the same bench as this guy,” said Rocker. “I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as coincidence.”
Read Part 3 here.