SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio (WJW) — In 1959, at the young age of 24, Paul Landis said he joined the United States Secret Service. He was first assigned a detail in Gettysburg watching over the Eisenhower grandchildren.
In 1961, he was sent to Washington to serve on what he calls the “kiddie” detail at the Kennedy White House, assigned to a detail watching over Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr.
In 1962, Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was assigned to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s detail, asked him to help protect her.
Landis said Hill had been protecting the first lady by himself for five months and needed help. It was right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Landis was 28 years old in November of 1963 when, still assigned to Mrs. Kennedy’s detail, he was looking forward to a campaign trip which included a motorcade through Dallas.
“The adrenaline was pumping and this was my first motorcade,” Landis told FOX 8 News.
“This was all part of the way the Secret Service did training at that time, mostly on the job training. I had been to Secret Service school earlier and Treasury school earlier. We had practiced motorcades, but this was different, this was the real thing.”
The shooting in Dealey Plaza
Landis was among the Secret Service agents in the car behind the presidential limousine, which they called “halfback.”
He was standing on the rear passenger side running board when the motorcade made a turn past the Texas School Book Depository into Dealey Plaza.
“Just as we completed our turn and was straightening out, I heard ‘bam.’ I heard the sound of a high-powered rifle. I’ve been a hunter. I knew what that sounded like,” Landis said.
“I immediately turned to the sound came from over my right shoulder and then I quickly turned to look at the president’s limo and I didn’t realize he had been hit at that point,” he continued.
“He was leaning slightly to his left and he had his arms up. I thought he was turning to see where the sound came from,” said Landis.
“I quickly scanned back to my right, back to my left. I was scanning the overpass right in front of us and about that time, I heard a second sound and still, I happened to be looking at the president’s car in that direction. I didn’t see any real change, no movement. At that point, the president had kind of straightened up a little. Mrs. Kennedy had her arm around him and Clint Hill was racing to the car,” said Landis.
Hill raced to the back of the presidential limousine, which was travelling at about 11 mph.
“It’s kind of hard to describe everything that happened in six seconds. But then, very quickly thereafter the second shot, I heard a third shot and that sound sounded like it was coming from the right. We were in an echo chamber there and we just zoomed under the overpass there and raced on to Parkland (Memorial Hospital).”
When they arrived at the hospital, Landis said he ran to the presidential limousine where Mrs. Kennedy was cradling the head of her fatally injured husband and initially refused to let go.
Agent Hill threw his suit coat over President Kennedy’s head and Mrs. Kennedy finally released him, after which they coaxed her out of the bloody limousine.
Finding the ‘pristine’ bullet
“As soon as she stood up, right behind her on the part of the back seat, there was a chrome strip, like where the trunk area met the seat, and I saw this bullet lying there in the seam right against the chrome trim,” said Landis.
“I picked it up, looked at it. It was a fully intact bullet. No real damage. It had rifle striations and I started to put it back and people were coming to the car, started to merge on the car,” he continued. “I saw no Secret Service agents or anybody to the rear, and I was afraid a photographer, souvenir hunter, somebody was going to pick this up and I didn’t want it to get lost.
“All of this going through my mind, and I knew it was an important piece of evidence and it needed to be saved, so I slipped it in my pocket; figured I would give it to somebody later and tell them what I did,” Landis said.
Landis said he was swept into the hospital among a large number of people.
“We barged through the emergency doors. People were racing around everywhere,” he said. “I was kind of surprised there was so many people, but [Texas Gov. John Connally], they had taken Gov. Connally’s body through before us when we were in the car. I didn’t even realize at first that he had been wounded.”
Landis, the first lady and others who were accompanying the president’s body were taken to trauma room one.
“I had moved in. Mrs. Kennedy had been at my side. Clint Hill was on the right side of the gurney, I was on the left. Mrs. Kennedy was right behind the gurney. We got pushed into the emergency room. I had managed to slip behind Mrs. Kennedy, and as soon as we entered the room, she stepped to her left, just inside the doorway,” he said.
“I just got pushed by the mass up against the exam table that the president was on. They had brought him in on a gurney and they were moving his body from the gurney onto the exam table and all of this was going on at once.”
Landis said, in the chaos, he remembered he had the bullet and believed it was an important piece of evidence that needed to be with the president’s body.
“I’m not sure how long I was in the trauma room, but not very long. The doctor, everybody was screaming and yelling and the doctors were asking everybody to please leave and the doctors were trying to come in at the same time,” Landis said.
“Well finally, the crowd started to exit and I’m standing there, and it’s like, ‘What to do? What to do? I’ve got this bullet. Maybe this is the best place to leave it,'” he said.
“That’s with the president’s body. They are going to perform an autopsy. They will have a piece of evidence there, so I took the bullet out of my pocket, laid it on. I was right next to the president’s feet. I put it next to his shoe and it immediately started to roll off, and there was a trough around this exam table,” he said.
Landis said he grabbed the bullet before it got lost in a drain from the trough around the exam table and placed it in the fold of a sheet.
The magic bullet
Landis said he never read the Warren Commission report and was not among the more than 500 witnesses who were called to testify.
He said he became traumatized by the memory of watching the president being killed in front of him and soon thereafter left the Secret Service.
The Warren Commission, convinced that the bullet was discovered on a gurney on which they wheeled Gov. Connally, concluded that the pristine bullet was the first shot that hit President Kennedy, passing through his neck into the back of Gov. Connally, who was sitting in a jump seat in front of the president.
They theorize that the bullet then fractured one of the governor’s ribs and exited, passing through and shattering his wrist before ending up in his pant leg, then fell out onto the gurney when he was wheeled into the hospital.
Landis said it wasn’t until decades later, when he was handed a book to read about the Kennedy assassination, that he realized the pristine bullet — Warren Commission exhibit No. 399, which they believed caused all of that damage — was actually the one he found at the top of the back seat.
He felt he needed to set the record straight.
Casting doubt on the Warren Commission
The Warren Commission used ballistic reports to determine that the rifling on the bullet Landis said he found on the back seat matched a rifle that was found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, a rifle linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, whom the report identified as the lone assassin.
But Landis said there is no way a bullet fired from behind and above, which passed through the president and seriously injured the governor, could have ended up on the top of the back seat.
Landis believes there were only three shots fired and that Oswald was the person who fired from the depository, but when asked if he believes there is any chance of another shooter, he said, “I don’t think that will ever be resolved.”
Sixty years after the assassination of President Kennedy, he has written a book titled “The Final Witness,” in which he tells his story of Nov. 22, 1963.
He said he waited six decades to tell the story in part because he didn’t know what the Warren Commission concluded about the bullet he said he found, and because he simply wants to set the record straight.
He understands his revelation casts significant doubt on the Warren Commission’s conclusions and only adds more troubling questions about what actually happened that day.
“It wasn’t until I started reading about it and saying ‘Wooo, wooo. There are so many mistakes in their report,” said Landis.
“Everybody, I think, made so many mistakes throughout the investigation. I made a mistake by not speaking up.”
When asked if he believes moving the bullet was a mistake he said, “No.”
“I think the mistake wasn’t telling anybody about it. I’m really glad that I took it, did with it what I did. I have no guilty feeling about what I did,” he told FOX 8 News.
“I think, emotionally, I reached a point that — I just felt I had to tell the story, and I had to think about that for a couple of years. The time just kind of passed and I just wanted to tell people what I saw and what I did. It’s as simple as that.”