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They gathered in the very shadow of the most diabolical schemer the world has ever known—the U.S. government. Just up the street from where Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and Fidel Castro planned the assassination, they packed the Omni Shoreham’s ballrooms for the Coalition on Political Assassinations’ (COPA) “Second Annual National Conference: JFK-RFK-MLK—New Evidence From the Files.”

So the reader will not suffer as I did during the 36 hours before my stamina expired, here it is in a nut: Lee Harvey Oswald: patsy. Sirhan Sirhan: patsy. James Earl Ray: patsy. They couldn’t have acted alone—nobody ever does.

That was the starting and ending point—’twas a long time in between. There’s little doubt that a Saturday would be more profitably spent hunkered down in front of Saved by the Bell reruns than sitting through panel after panel with such titles as “Assassinations 101” (I was the only freshman), “Ballistic Evidence,” and “Assassination Records Review Board Update.”

Don’t misunderstand, the company assembled were fine, friendly folk. Most seemed to come from lonely burgs in the Rust and Cheese Belts. They left behind practices and jobs and bughouses and militia recruiting offices to spend a long weekend in a whirlpool of scholarship, muckraking, and paranoia with the ambience of a 30-year chess club reunion gone deeply, seriously awry.

They weren’t the kind of people you’d want to wife-swap with, but still they cut surprisingly dashing figures in their ceremonial floodpanted-and-tube-socked ensembles, wearing corduroy jackets like trophies, or tattered tweeds and bad plugs and thick glasses and nervous tics—in their short- sleeved Arrow dress shirts, athletic cut, of course—for maximum love-handle adherence.

The expert panelists looked regal too, honored with blue ribbons dangling from lammies, so as to say, “I’ve spent my entire adult life completely off my onion—now king me!”

In the opening press conference, the organizers made no bones about not cracking the John Kennedy caper. Cyril Wecht, M.D., J.D., warned, “We’re not going to give you the smoking gun. If we could, obviously, we wouldn’t be here with you today.”

But Wecht, who’s sniffed the assassin’s trail as long as anyone, still wishes goddamnation on all who swallow the magic bullet. “Bullets used to move in straight lines. Now it’s been changed. Every goddamn forensic textbook has to be rewritten,” he yelped, while wondering why new tests couldn’t be conducted. “Get a whole bunch of cadavers—a lot of us would will our grandmothers to the experiment—and shoot and shoot and shoot until you come up with one goddamn bullet that will go in that direction and emerge in this condition, and you will put us all out of business.” Not like anyone here wanted that to happen.

Certainly not Sarah McClendon, the grand dame of Washington journalism, who, after getting wheeled next to the podium, belted through her Edith Bunker pipes, “Why did the Warren Commission go bad?”

What they didn’t tell us, in an egregious conspiracy of silence, was that though McClendon was passing herself off as a working journalist, she actually sits on COPA’s advisory board. It was a valiant effort by the old doll, but she blew her cover by ticking off the absentee rates of the Warren Commissioners.

Impressive as that sounds, it was still second-tier arcana among these pros. This is apparent after paging through titles at the book concession like It’s a Conspiracy (published by the National Insecurity Council) or Late-Breaking News on Clay Shaw’s United Kingdom Contacts, and scoping out the videos, all of which, the slug lines assure us, “couldn’t be suppressed.”

The truly hard-core could purchase The JFK Assassination—the Dallas Papers on CD-ROM, or maybe one of the hottest sellers, The JFK Assassination Quizbook, which contained the caveat: “This book is not intended as a game in which the reader scores points based on knowledge of the event. To do that would be to demean even further the luster of Camelot that has been terminated enough by recent revelations.”

No worry, there’s nothing frivolous about the quiz book. “What was the serial number of Oswald’s Mannlicher-Caccano?” is only an intermediate question. Nonlightweights are expected to come up with the total price, including shipping and handling, of Oswald’s rifle ($21.45).

“I [wrote] that in three days for a college class,” sniffed author Walt Brown, COPA program director and a fourth-grade teacher from Burton County, N.J. With his maroon shirt, catcher’s-mitt visage, and a wild Jesus Christ Superstar mane, Brown sells with sweaty desperation, though the product could be conspiracies or used Subarus in Bowie. He owns the negatives of the autopsy photos, the ones where Kennedy’s cranium looks like marinated fajitas. Brown tried to sell me 10 black-and-white glossies, a steal at 30 bucks—though he’s “not convinced [the negatives are] real.”

And who can blame him? Treachery and deception abound in this business. Why, just look at the Warren Commission’s 109,930 questions—Brown knows, he counted them! “I figured out on a scale of one to eight—ones being good questions and eights just ridiculous—2,000 questions about the death of Kennedy were reasonable. The other 107,000 are just filler.”

But that’s not the first time these hornswogglers perpetrated a hoax, not according to Eraka Rouzorondu, a dead ringer for rapstress Yo-Yo, and one of our Assassination 101 profs, who played connect the dots with history, decrying Athens or Kennebunkport or wherever these plots are hatched. After asking for our “suspension of disbelief,” she took us on a sojourn through the Big Conspiracy, from Africa’s schools of enlightenment, raided by the Greeks and later accessed by the European Renaissance, which yielded white supremacy and begat our “so-called founding fathers,” who were Freemasons all and members of the Illuminati besides, making the American Revolution “a conflict between Britain and the U.S. as to where white supremacist rule and domination of the world is going to be.”

This “global conspiracy,” and the fact that Kennedy “did not support fully the establishment of the military-industrial state, which is required to build the New World Order,” is why he had to be exterminated. But Rouzorondu left us with a ray of sunshine: “Let’s come up with our own conspiracy to make sure the New World Order is an order of peace…where we won’t have governments who are able to kill spiritual, moral, and political leaders and get away with it.”

This Aryan International flowchart had many of her white patrons heading for the exits, until one pink-socked-and-sandaled, veiny-legged dream congealed the crowd once more with “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” pins.

As most cultists do, they went on like this, never copping to the fact. It’s rather surreal: seeing grown men in a hotel lobby reconstructing entrance wounds while applying styrofoam coffee-cup patches to each other’s hair, dropping “external occipital protuberance” in casual conversation, having command of back vs. forward blood spatter (both cone-shaped and elliptical), and arguing passionately over the trajectories of the Harper and Weitzman skull fragments.

Say “deranged lone gunman” in front of these theorists, and you may as well take a leak on the Koran in front of a Shiite imam. Except Paul Nolan, a conventioneer I met who quietly confided, “Oswald shot him. I’m in a small minority here. Don’t ever tell anyone I said that.”

Nolan, who knows a thing or two about jet propulsion effects, served as my guide through the muddy “House Select Committee on Assassinations” panel, explaining the backward snap of Kennedy’s head: “The truth is that we see a pressure cap exploding in his skull. When a bullet hits that dense matter, it loses a huge amount of energy very quickly, and that energy has to go somewhere. It goes into a pressure cavity that is the equivalent of an explosion, like a small piece of dynamite going off in his head.” Nolan manages a computer store in Shorewood, Wis.

As former House Select Committee attorney Andrew Purdy was hissed and put on the rack after saying he couldn’t recall much of the case minutiae, Nolan saved me analogizing trouble, whispering, “William Shatner has the same response at Star Trek conventions. The Trekkies remember all the details of the programs and Shatner will have no idea what they’re talking about. It wasn’t that important to him.”

Still, all these Ph.D.s, M.D.s, J.D.s, and B.S.D.s clinging to their steely convictions—it’s enough to turn a boy’s head around, especially one whose knowledge of the case is derived from the cineplex, which has left me with the indelible impression that the Kennedy assassination had something to do with Tommy Lee Jones wearing jumper cables on his nipples, or whatever.

But leaving the Omni in a huff, not knowing what to believe, I spied one conventioneer calmly sitting in a lobby, smoking a Camel like One Who Knows Things, and looking like he could crank a few shells from the sixth floor himself, with his pock-marked face and three-quarter-length black-leather wrap—the kind Gary Oldman wears before offing somebody. He wasn’t here for just any reason, he was Martin Kelly, a professor from Ithaca, N.Y., and he was my Fletcher Prouty, my Mr. X.

Researching a book titled Inkblots Over Dealey Plaza, he reassured me, “These people put too many demands on the precision of everyday action. And when they don’t get it, they say, “Aha! Something’s wrong.’ They’re looking for a narrative that explains things, and it’s not just the Kennedy case, it’s something deeper in their lives, their general and political disaffection, their own status. There’s a lot of narcissists here, so you get these narratives.”

Still, who to trust? I had no idea whether he was some kind of plant like McClendon. And besides, you had to grudgingly admire the bastards—for their stick-to-itiveness, their 32-years-down, go-to-hell Weltanschaung. As Walt Brown told me, “This is a big piece of change. You could spend 1,500 bucks here and then you got to go home and tell your wife, “Listen, we’re not going to Disney this year. I’ve spent three days listening to something I already know—he’s dead!’ ”