A crucial event in the mystery of the assassination of President Kennedy was the autopsy of his remains, which was held at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. It was conducted from approximately 8PM to midnight, November 22, 1963. Much has been written and reported about this autopsy and the physical evidence collected therein. It is no secret that this procedure was performed with a lack of unprofessionalism, indeed, some have said that the autopsy of the former President of the United States was carried out in a state of gross incompetence. The fact that notes were either not taken or destroyed and valuable physical evidence was removed without proper analysis or record is beyond doubt, and reasons given for these enormous oversights have never been adequately offered. In the minds of some assassination researchers, the fact that the mortal remains of one of the most powerful men in the world at the time were not given a thoroughly fastidious examination by the finest pathologists available at the time is suspicious. This has only served to further add credibility to the theory that of some sort of cover up occurred.
Several participants to the autopsy have been interviewed and questioned in the decades since the tragedy. Perhaps one of the most crucial, yet overlooked, witnesses to the proceedings was Jerrol F. Custer, a young X-ray technician who had been trained at Bethesda. He had been performing his medical duties as an enlisted man in the Navy for three years up until that point. Custer was responsible for staging and performing the X-rays on the President’s remains, as well as assisting in the development of these exposures, a vital part of the medical evidence of the assassination. He was called before the Assassinations Records Review Board (ARRB) on October 28, 1997 to give a statement concerning his participation within the autopsy and other related events. Wh He was questioned by lawyer Jeremy Gunn, General Counsel of Assassination Records Review Board. What he recounted and described was startling, for his testimony provides enormous insight, not only into the autopsy itself, but also witness intimidation and a cover up after the fact. Much of his testimony is very technical in nature and this essay will attempt to clarify and explain, in layman’s terms, what Custer saw and did that day, so that researchers can use this information in an effective manner. A good deal of what he said is controversial. No attempt has been made by the authors of this essay to endorse or reinforce what Custer said through opinion, although some appropriate, verified additional information has been added. This piece attempts to present a neutral report on his statement. All of the statements within this article are based upon Custer’s testimony, unless noted, and all quotes were also taken from his deposition. Also, some of his statement is graphic in nature, but the authors felt that these were necessary inclusions.
Background information on Custer
Custer received his education through the Navy at Bethesda as an X-ray technician, studying in a classroom setting for two years, in addition to “sitting in” with a radiologist for an additional year, during the period of 1960-1963. He had been present for “one or two” autopsies before Kennedy’s; however, while stationed at Quantico, Virginia, as a hospital corpsman, he had been present for the autopsy of a Marine guard who had been killed by a gunshot through the head. In all, before his testimony had been given in 1997, Mr. Custer had 28 years of experience as an X-ray technician, as well as seven years’ time as an enlisted man performing similar duties. In anyone’s estimation, 35 years’ experience would make him an expert in the area of taking and analyzing X-rays, perfectly capable of explaining and understanding such a complex subject.
It is important to note that while performing these X-rays, Custer used a personal signature that he would affix to exposures that he had taken. This marker is described as a label that states “US Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Maryland” which could also be positioned to be demonstrate the plane, or angle of view, at which the X-ray was taken. Custer explained in his testimony if this “signature” appears on an X-ray, that it is proof that it was he who had taken an individual image, thereby giving each exposure authorship and provenance.
Custer’s description of his duties on 11/22- 11/23
In a basic sense, Jerrol Custer’s duties that night were to position Kennedy’s remains on the autopsy table and take pictures with an X-ray machine that had been brought into the surgical theater area. This room was not customarily used for this procedure, so Custer made use of a large portable GE X-ray machine, over six feet in height, in already-cramped quarters. He stated, “…it was a big, cumbersome thing. It’s not like the new ones today that are a little bit smaller. They can get into small holes there… It was close enough that I – I could just get in there. Just enough to get in there, to get that film.” The exposures were saved in cassette containers, which were then brought to a developing room four stories upstairs, and printed on sheets of film by Custer and his assistant that night, Edward Reed. In all, Custer estimates he took approximately 20 X-rays of Kennedy’s remains.
Custer was first informed of his involvement with the Presidential autopsy approximately an hour before it commenced, at some point after dinner. He was brought to the operating theater approximately an hour before he took his first X-ray, as the casket was being opened. Custer said, “He had a plastic bag around his head with sheets wrapped around it. And you could see the blood on the sheets… He was still dressed in a suit.” Custer and Reed were then removed to the main rotunda area of the building for about an hour and were told not to discuss the case. When Reed and Custer returned to the theater area, the autopsy had commenced. Before the first X-ray images were taken, a “Y-shaped” incision had already been made on the President’s torso. In a normal autopsy, after an external examination is conducted, this “Y-shaped incision” is performed, which is basically a deep cut, starting on the front of the body at each shoulder and down to the sternum, in order to open the chest cavity. In fact, Custer noted that many of the internal organs had been removed before X-rays were performed, making an accurate search for additional bullet fragments within these organs impossible. Custer noted that having to perform X-ray duties after the body had been opened caused great difficulties, for he had to attempt to position a body that was not very stable. The condition of the skull also made his duties challenging. He stated: “I cut the bottom portion of the skull off, because I couldn’t get low enough. Every time I put blankets underneath the head, the head would actually get smaller… Crushed by the weight…Due to the instability of the bones.” He also explained that a mortician arrived to perform cossetting (the application of cosmetics to make remains appropriate for viewing) after he had completed his duties.
Custer’s description of the atmosphere in the autopsy theater and elsewhere
From the outset, Custer was skeptical of the fashion in which the autopsy was conducted, not only in the physical handling of the remains, but the atmosphere within the operating theater, including the conduct of the audience present. He stated that there were many witnesses from numerous organizations present, in far greater a number than would be customary. He described the area as “mayhem,” with people shouting orders and, subsequently, these orders getting lost in the din of the room. “The commotion was astronomical. The decibel level was extremely high. You had to scream at people at times. And when I’m taking X-rays, I placed an apron on to protect myself. I had to scream for these people to move when I was shooting in that direction.” He states further: “…from the right-hand portion of the gallery to the left-hand portion of the gallery, loaded. Not considering the people that were milling around on the morgue floor there, going from pillar to post, and making different notes, and doing this and that and the technicians that were working.” He also stated in regards to how the X-rays were ordered, “You must remember the confusion at that time and that night. People were ordering this. ‘Well, we should take some more there. We should take some more of that.’ It wasn’t just one person doing it.”
Two witnesses were present, described by Custer as the President’s personal physician (Dr. George Burkley) and a “four-star general” from a branch of the Armed Services that Custer could not identify. He states that these two were “controlling” the autopsy by giving orders to Dr. Pierre Finck, Chief of the Wound Ballistics, Pathology Branch, US Armed Forces, and Dr. John Ebersole, a radiologist at Bethesda. When asked about what sorts of comments were made by Burkley and the general, Custer stated: “In a sense that ‘The Kennedy family would not aIlow – like you to pursue that path any further .We do not want you to go any more in this direction.” Custer evidently found this type of direction to be frustrating and suspicious, for he stated this to Dr. Ebersole, who told him to “shut up.” In turn, Dr. Finck was giving orders to Drs. Joseph Humes, Director of the Laboratories at the National Medical Center, and Thornton Boswell, Chief of Pathology, National Naval Medical School, the doctors who had been initially ordered to conduct the autopsy. Finck had been called into assist Humes and Boswell after the procedure had commenced. Custer noted an immediate change in the proceedings upon Finck’s arrival. “Dr. Finck (came) in and push(ed) Humes and Boswell out of the limelight and (took) over. He was more- how can I put it- more cohesive with directions from the gallery,” barking orders, such as: “Stop that. Don’t do that anymore.” Custer also states that Finck removed medical evidence, a “king-sized” metal fragment” that fell from the President’s back, which was never seen again. Also present were FBI agents James Sibert and Francis O’Neill. According to Custer, these agents were taking profuse notes. “I could swear they were writing a book that night. Everything that happened, writing it down.” One of the agents attempted to follow Custer into the developing room, to which Custer informed the agent that he “was not allowed in there.” Indeed, in an interview from 2005, Sibert admitted taking several pages of notes, and a follow-up report was filed with the FBI based on this information. Other unidentified individuals present in the theater gallery were also taking notes and shouting orders. Custer noted that Drs. Humes and Boswell were also making notations. Humes later signed an affidavit that he destroyed the autopsy notes he made that night. Floyd Riebe, a hospital corpsman with a minimal amount of autopsy photography training, was responsible for taking still photographs of the procedure. He, too, was being interfered with by agents. Custer recalls, “A couple of them (rolls of film) were taken away from him. Then he’d take another camera and place it in, like, little containers. A couple of the Secret Service come over and took them away from him for some reason. I – I couldn’t figure that out. And Floyd kind of got to the point where he got upset about it. He said, ‘Hey.’” According to Custer, motion picture films of the autopsy were being taken by a “chief with a deformed hand who killed himself.” These motion pictures have never surfaced, although Dennis David, Administrative Technician at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, claimed to have seen a film of the autopsy in the possession of William Pitzer, head of the Audio/Visual Department at the Bethesda.
Custer noted that this was not an atmosphere that was conducive to performing an effective autopsy, citing interferences, noise, and intimidation. Among the incidents that were shocking to him were several phone calls that were received by Finck during the procedure. “Now, you know as well as I do, when you’re doing a forensic autopsy, you do not want to be disturbed. Your mind is following a train of thought. You’re not receiving phone calls. He received phone calls from Dallas. I know for a fact he (Finck) received phone calls from downtown Washington.” The source and subject matter of these telephone calls has never been made firmly clear, as Dr. Finck, in his deposition to the HSCA, did not confirm or deny such phone calls; in fact, stating it was possible that he received a call from Dallas concerning a bullet found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the so-called “magic bullet.” According to Custer: “The security was so tight around there, you – if you sneezed, there was somebody there wanting to know what happened.”
Custer also witnessed events that took place in other areas of the hospital, such as in the hallways, where he saw what he called the “Presidential entourage,” which included Mrs. Kennedy still wearing the pink, blood-stained dress, and one of John Kennedy’s brothers “either Bobby or Teddy” on the campus at Bethesda, but not in the operating theater. Also noted by Custer was the presence of two caskets in the hospital, both of which were bronze in color and looked similar; one was brought in by the Kennedy entourage and the other was brought in by a “black Cadillac ambulance,” which, Custer said, was driven from Walter Reed Hospital. (Custer stated that he had heard that the body had been initially brought to the Walter Reed “Compound” from two sources that night.) One of the caskets was in the autopsy theater area (marked on a map of the room, ARRB Exhibit 201); the other was held in a refrigerated room, known to Custer as “the cooler room.” He also witnessed a second gray ambulance at a loading dock area. He also explained that he was informed by a duty officer that a helicopter landed at the hospital at some point during the proceedings, although Custer was not certain of the purpose of this flight.
Custer’s description of the wounds to JFK
Contrary to the testimonies of Floyd Riebe and Edward Reed taken for the ARRB, Jerrol Custer was asked to go into great detail concerning his observations of Kennedy’s wounds. He was quite clear and provided meticulous medical testimony from an actual participant in the autopsy. His statements on the wounds inflicted upon Kennedy directly contradict the official findings of the Warren Commission.
- Custer’s descripiton of injuries to the head area
Custer’s basic impression of the condition of the skull is as follows: “The head was so unstable due to the -the fractures. The fractures were extremely numerous. It was like somebody took a hard-boiled egg, and just rolled it in her hand. And that’s exactly what the head was like… The only thing that held it together was the skin. And even that was loose.” The fractures throughout the skull were described in this way, “On the right side. Right anatomical position. All the fractures are here. And then it gradually snakes out to the lowest anatomical side. This is where all the trauma was (on the right side), right here… Right anatomical side again. If there was trauma over on the left anatomical side, this would all be gone. And then you’d have fractures snaking out.” He states, “He further states: “Fracture marks throughout the zygomatic arch (part of the joint of the jaw), the mandibular arch (another part of the jaw joint), the left anterior (front) portion of the skull, the superior (top) potion of the skull.”
He describes a “large gaping hole” in the right parietal area (in the side, above the ear), which he believed was the exit to a frontal wound that entered into Kennedy’s right eye socket. Custer was asked to analyze Exhibit 206, a lateral side view X-ray of the skull to compare to his observations during the autopsy. He described a large “kidney-shaped” area that was missing from the parietal/temporal (the side of the skull above the jaw). He explains that the hole would have been large enough for him to put both of his hands , clasped together, into the skull cavity. To verify this, he explains that in the right lateral X-ray the cella Turcica is visible. This feature, known as the “Turk’s Chair”, is the portion of the skull that holds the pituitary gland within the interior of the skull. According to Custer, the only way that this feature would be visible in an X-ray was if the side of the skull was missing. In regard to the absent portion of the skull, he states, “The anatomical right side, this is all blackened in (on the X-ray exposure) – which shows there is no tissue, no bone, no nothing.” He stated that none of the bullet damage went into the occipital (back to side of head, above the neck), but that those portions were fractured. His description of the location of this damage is as follows: “The larger wound would have to be further back. This one isn’t as bad, towards the temporal region. It was open. But the more you went further back, the more destruction you had… Most of the destruction was towards the occipital area… You still had the orbital ridge (bone under the eyebrow). The frontal forehead was still here. But the further back you got, the worse the destruction became. And the more gaping the hole became.” Custer states that, in his opinion, a large piece of the temporal bone was missing, and the occipital region had significant damage, but pieces of the skull were still present.
Custer also noted damage to the temporal bone (the temple) which “flapped out” and appeared to be jagged, almost like “saw marks.”According to Custer, “you had to have a king-size force coming anterior (front) to posterior (back). Everything seemed like it was just pushed backwards.” When asked if the scalp from this region was still present, he stated “It was shredded .The scalp was shredded… And it was loose. When I – I remember, l when I first came in and saw this, everything had been drooped, like somebody bad pulled the scalp and pulled it down. I had to look twice at it.” In the X-rays he was shown, he also noted almost a total lack of brain tissue and the vascular markings that would be apparent within the skull if brain matter were present, which indicates that the brain had already been removed before the images were taken. This is important, Custer stated, as the brain tissue could have held metallic fragments that would have been visible on the X-rays. In describing the shape and dispersal pattern of the fragments that appeared in the left lateral X-ray, Custer said, “They are metal fragments. Artifacts (bone) do not come in an irregular form like this. Not in that – in that traveling projection like that. It just doesn’t – Not that many in that one area. You’re going to have somebody just go in there in that one area, and put artifacts all the way up and down this? It just doesn’t happen. You get random artifacts. May have an artifact here, artifact here, artifact here.” Custer explains these metal fragments further. “Towards the top of the skull. Here… That’s the only way that can be, this fragment. There’s no way an artifact (piece of bone) will show up like that.” When asked how these metal fragments stayed in place with no brain tissue to support them, he said, “They have to be resting on the bone itself somewhere. That’s the only thing I can possibly think of, unless there’s enough tissue there in that region to hold them. That’s the only possible thing that I can think of.” He states further: “If you look at the big portion of the scalp, those fragments are in the skin of the scalp. That’s the only logical place it could be. They went through the brain, exploded, and went out into the scalp. Perforated the scalp. Impregnated the scalp.”
Custer also noted a “cone effect” of bone damage that he described thusly: “If you’ve ever used a fragment bullet -when it goes in, it fragments. And the further it goes in, the cone becomes bigger… Like your cone starts small. And it goes -as you come out, it expands. Say, this being the front of the skull: the forehead, the orbits (eye sockets), the nasion, which is the nose, the jaw come back, the occipital region.” He is describing the effects of a bullet that came from the front, and, according to Custer, entered in the area above the eye, within the eye socket. The frontal skull X-ray (X-ray No. 1) that was presented to him featured a large, half-circle shaped metal fragment that was present in this location. He noticed that the right eyeball had protruded from its socket, which he attributed to impact force of this shot escaping from the eye socket. Custer believed this damage, as well as the numerous irregular metal fragments were the effect of a frangible, or “dum dum” bullet, which breaks up upon impact. The use of this type of bullet in the assassination has been proposed by researchers such as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Paul Chambers, and Jim Garrison. This is further backed up by his identification of the “half-circle” shaped bullet fragment in the right orbital ridge and numerous fragments in the temporal region that appear in the X-rays shown to him. Custer believed that most of the fragments would have been trapped in the already-removed brain tissue. He states, “… the metal fragments will get caught by the organs.”
To further reinforce his opinion that the origins of the head wounds were from the front, Custer describes air that became trapped in the sinus cavity, a feature that was apparent on the X-rays: “Here’s another thing, too, that shows basically this is, more than likely – I’d say 80 to 90 percent – entry wound. See this air down through the sinus area, maxillary sinuses? The only way you get air through the maxillary sinuses is when you have damage to the orbital ridge and the orbital base. Air gets down into the sinuses. The sinuses are right here on the front of the face, on both cheekbones. Your eye orbit sits back in. If you ever have any damage -you get punched in the eye. A lot of times, if this fractures – the orbital ridge, you get an opening that communicates between the sinus and the eye. And this is why a lot of times they’ll take sinus films on a damaged frontal area.” He attempts to further bolster his opinion of a frontal shot: “From the right side, you notice – you see the fragmentation, how it starts to get larger and larger and larger. You have equal and opposite force. Everything being pushed forward. The brain has been pushed back, and it pops the skull out.” When asked if this demonstrates a frontal head wound, he states “Yes, sir. Absolutely.”
- Custer’s description of the wounds to the neck and spine
Custer was much less thorough in his statements regarding his observation of the wound to Kennedy’s throat and neck. He stated that he had seen a bullet hole in the front of the throat that was approximately the circumference of his little finger. However, the tracheotomy-type surgery had not yet been performed on that area when he was taking X-rays, which is contrary to the reports given by the doctors of Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where the President received emergency treatment. He later claims to have seen an incision made to the area, but it was smaller than what appears in the autopsy photographs. Also noted were several small metallic fragments in the cervical spine (the spinal region directly below the skull), which were visible in an X-ray known as an AP Cervical Spine (the neck region, from the front of the body). Custer notes that this is one of three X-ray exposures he took that night that is missing from the collection in the National Archives. This image featured, according to Custer, “A fragmentation of a shell in and around that circular exit – that area (throat). Let me rephrase that. I don’t want to say ‘exit’, because I don’t know whether it was exit or entrance. But all I can say, there was bullet materials, in addition to fragmentations around that area – that opening.” When Custer mentioned this wound to the doctors “(He) was told to mind my (his) business. That’s where I was shut down again.” He also witnessed a metal fragment 1.5 inches in length that fell out of Kennedy’s back as the body was being positioned for body X-rays. He states that this evidence was retrieved by Dr. Finck with a pair of forceps and was not seen again.
Impropriety, intimidation, and cover up
Clearly this was not a standard autopsy procedure, if for no other reason than the amount of attention and chaos that surrounded the autopsy of the former President of the United States. It was in this environment that Jerrol Custer described an operation that was, in his opinion, full of intimidation and ineptitude that he referred to as a “total disaster.” According to Custer, the autopsy was conducted as a search for bullets rather than a standard investigation into the precise cause of death. He says, “Their (the doctors’) basic thing was, “We’re looking for shells, bullets, fragments. They weren’t looking to what caused it? How was it done? What was the tracing… what was the path of the bullet?… They (Humes and Boswell) come right out and said, ‘You’re taking X-rays for buIIets.” In fact, when describing the carelessness that was displayed by the pathologists that night, Custer said, “There was body fluid everywhere. The body was butchered…They would puIl out an organ – a big organ, and be up there cutting it up like a piece of meat.” He had concerns about the professional conduct of Dr. Ebersole, in particular, saying, “He should have been directing me, as he viewed the films. Each set of films I brought down to him, I put on a board. I had a certain amount of expertise that I felt should have been noticed I tried to bring this up to him, and tried to suggest different things to him. And he wouldn’t – wouldn’t listen. He kept listening to the gallery. He was being led. Plain and simple. It was right there. You couldn’t help but see it.” In fact, Custer was given an opportunity to discuss his opinions concerning Ebersole’s testimony taken for the House Senate Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978, reading from Custer’s own self-annotated copy. A major discrepancy noted by Custer in Dr. Ebersole’s testimony was the doctor’s statement that he took all of the X-rays, alone, at 3 A.M.
Custer also discussed intimidation that took place during the autopsy, as well as during his shift the next morning. He states that, during the autopsy itself, he was told by Dr. Ebersole that “(He) was not to speak of this. ‘Keep your mouth shut.’ Plain and simple.” These verbal orders were repeated by Ebersole after he had returned from a trip to the White House the next morning. “At that time, he made it quite clear, this came from high level that I was not to say anything, and he reiterated “anything.” If I did, I would be quite sorry.” Custer identifies the individual Ebersole spoke to from that “high level” was the “head of the Secret Service.” (In 1963, James J. Rowley was the head of the Secret Service.) Later that day, in the office of Vice Admiral Galloway, Custer and his assistant Edward Reed were forced to sign a gag order in the presence of armed military police. Custer said, “Well, that was the most traumatic. After I signed the gag order, I was told if anything -no matter what – got out, it would be the sorriest day of my life. I’d spend most of my time behind prison walls… I would not get out of that office unless I signed that signature, because there were armed guards. They were right behind me. And I know for a fact, if I did not sign that, I would have been gone. It was made quite clear… They don’t have armed MPs standing there for nothing.” This document was admitted into evidence as Exhibit 195 and verified by Custer. The order of secrecy was in place until it was lifted as part of the investigations by the HSCA in 1976.
According to Custer, important pieces of medical evidence were mishandled or stolen. As previously mentioned, at least three X-ray exposures made by him, including an important image taken of the neck, went missing and the large bullet fragment that was picked up by Dr. Finck off the operating table was never seen again. Also, that night’s entry in the log book which contained detailed information about autopsy was destroyed by Dr. Ebersole. Custer said, “Well, I had made the statement on the duty log, in the main X-ray department, that I was going to the morgue to X-ray President Kennedy. And I was told to eradicate it. In fact, I was told to tear the whole page out… I gave it to Ebersole, and he destroyed it… I asked him. I said, ‘What are you burning that up for? That’s official government property.’ And he says, ‘It’s none of your business.’ And burned it up.” In addition, Custer describes X-ray films that were intentionally damaged by Dr. Ebersole. One was scratched up with a pencil in an attempt to highlight a potential entry wound: “This is what he was trying to say was an entry wound, here. I remember that now. On the first set of films I brought back, he put them up, and he had a ruler there, and he was penciling it in. And this is when he got a comment, “Don’t do that.” And this came from the gallery.” Custer also describes an X-ray being melted by Ebersole at a lamp: “This is where Dr. Ebersole got it too close to the heat lamp. I stated to him twice, ‘Please do not put it too close…’ It started to burn. And isn’t it funny how where starts to burn is the area that I suggested was an entry wound.” Several X-rays did not include Custer’s metal signature label after he was told by his superiors that was told not to use it.
On the morning of 11/23, or the morning after the assassination, Custer was given some skull fragments that he had heard had arrived “from Dallas” the night before. However, these bones may not have been from Kennedy’s body, for Custer did not see them during the autopsy. He was told by Dr. Ebersole to tape some metallic fragments to these skull bones. These were then to be taken to a private room and X-rayed with the same machine, at the same distance, that he used the night before. He says, “I was told by Dr. Ebersole that they were to be taken to make measurements, to make a bust of President Kennedy… He gave me three or four different metal fragments, varying in size. And he asked me to tape them to the bones… As soon as he walked in, that’s the first thing he said. ‘I want these bone fragments X-rayed with metal fragments taped.’” The only witness to this procedure, according to Custer, was Dr. Ebersole, who had just returned from his visit to the White House. Ebersole had discussed the manufactured X-ray (X-ray No. 4) with the HSCA, and stated that it was created to measure magnification levels. This procedure is performed when a piece of metal is placed on a bone and an X-ray is taken from a specific distance: 72 inches. When it is performed correctly, no magnification of the metal will be seen. Asked about the possibility of the exposure being created for this reason, Custer stated, “But he knows to get no magnification – this is part of his board certification – everything has to be taken at 72 inches. Not 44 inches. And this was all taken at 44 inches that night, which causes magnification. This was supposed to be a radiologist that knew what he was taking about.” Also, according to the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, the piece of metal to be used during this procedure needs to be of a standard known thickness and density (the journal recommends using a British ten pence coin, which matches these criteria) ,making the choice of random metal fragments very questionable. The exact purpose of these X-rays is unclear, but Custer’s testimony sheds serious doubt on the official explanation.
Custer’s testimony directly contradicts the official version of events in numerous ways. Some of his statements include:
- Accusations of neglect on the part of the autopsy doctors, not only in the physical handling of the body, but also through performing a less than complete autopsy that focused on “a search for bullets” rather than gathering details about the cause of death. Also, the doctors were ignoring the advice of the radiologists, instead taking the advice of onlookers.
- Accusations of intimidation that included a gag order that was signed by Custer and Reed under threat of prison, with military police present. These documents were entered into evidence and were verified by both men.
- Accusations of poor evidence handling, as well as evidence manipulation and destruction, including a bullet fragment being taken away, an X-ray being melted, and the radiology log book being tampered with.
- Accusations of the forgery of evidence: skull bones with metallic fragments created by Custer, as well as the X-rays made that featured these fabrications.
- Custer’s overwhelming opinion that there was a head shot from the front, which entered through the eye area. He attempts to back this up through expert analysis of the skull X-rays which he took on remains that he positioned during the autopsy.
- Custer’s opinion that a fragmented bullet, which explodes upon impact, was used. This was also corroborated by him, through his observation of the remains and the skull X-rays.
He also noted several important details that were not in line with previous investigations, including:
- The remains had been taken to the Walter Reed Medical Compound before arriving at Bethesda.
- There were two caskets present in the hospital.
- Kennedy’s throat had not been operated on when it arrived at Bethesda.
- A film was made of the autopsy by a cameraman who was present in the operating theater.
- A large bullet fragment fell out of Kennedy’s back during the autopsy.
- Metal fragments were visible in the X-rays made of Kennedy’s neck.
Jerrol Custer died of a heart attack in 2000. In 1995, he stated to researcher Walt Brown that he had given Brown “the key that will unlock a mystery that the world has been trying to solve for 32 years…” Whether Custer was honest about what he saw, or whether or not his memory was infallible, is subjective. However, within his medical testimony, Custer raised some serious questions about the origin of the gunshots that killed John Kennedy, which, of course would shed enormous doubt on the official lone killer scenario. The fact that he was forced to sign an order of silence, keeping him silent for more than a decade, is beyond question. He also gives strong testimony that the autopsy was conducted in a very unorthodox, indeed, haphazard and irresponsible fashion. Custer says, “Let me put it this way, plain and simple. The autopsy was something that had to be done. It didn’t have to be done correctly. It had to be done for record purposes only. Finding out facts, forget it. This is something that had to be done, but done in a way that it’s not going to implicate. And this is, basically, the opinion I got, because I made that statement, and I was told to shut up.” He did eventually break his order of silence, and quite possibly, as he stated to Brown, gave us a “key that will unlock a mystery that the world has been trying to solve.” He may have left that key within his testimony to the ARRB, leaving the lock to be opened by future researchers.