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Natural Born President Killer

by Jen Burd

September 16, 2013

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Donate Who was the real kingpin in the Harrelson family? Charles Voyde Harrelson, the father of Cheers actor Woody Harrelson, was a career hit man whose life story reads like a 1970's cautionary tale about drug use. At the time of his death in 2007, Charles Harrelson was serving two life sentences for the 1979 murder of U.S. District Judge John Wood. Harrelson claimed he was innocent, though at the time of his arrest in 1980, he had confessed in one fell swoop to killing Judge Woods and Former President John F. Kennedy.

Harrelson recanted his confession shortly after the incident, saying in a TV interview: “at the same time I said I had killed the judge I said I had killed Kennedy, which might give you an idea as to the state of my mind at the time, but that was in an effort to elongate my life.” Harrelson, who had been on an impressive cocaine binge, was arrested after a six hour standoff with police. He had gone on the run, telling his attorney that he was being pursued by helicopters and “little men who bored holes through the bathroom wall.” Police arrived after he attempted to fix his muffler by shooting it with a .44 magnum.

Harrelson’s denial was not enough for some people. Conspiracy theorists believed that Harrelson was one of “the three tramps” captured in a photograph being led off by the police near the book depository in Dealey Plaza on the day of the Kennedy assassination. The Dallas Police Department claimed that the men were vagrants, arrested for riding a boxcar around the time Kennedy was shot. The arrest records were not available, which led to speculation that the men in the photograph were CIA operatives who had fired shots from the grassy knoll, or that they had been sent to provide assistance for Oswald. The men, according to some, were too clean and well-dressed to be homeless. Erroneous reports that the tramps had been released within hours of their arrest circulated, resulting in further conjecture that the tramps were government agents.

Louisiana District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s film JFK) brought the tramps photograph into the public eye during an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1967. Garrison’s theories regarding the JFK conspiracy involved hypnosis and “homosexual thrill-killing.” Early tramp suspects included ex-marine Thomas Vallee, UFO enthusiast Fred Crisman, and Watergate burglars E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis. In 1980, Harrelson’s confession led to his identification as “the tall tramp” (middle). Charles Rogers, a missing former CIA agent, was fingered as “Frenchy” (front), and a man named Chauncey Holt claimed to have been the third tramp along with Harrelson and Rogers.

The Dallas Police Department made arrest records from the day of the assassination public in 1989. In 1992, journalist Mary La Fontaine discovered the identities of the three tramps. They were Gus Abrams, Harold Doyle, and John Gedney. Gus Abrams died in 1987, but Doyle and Gedney confirmed that they were the men in the picture and Abrams’ sister identified him. Doyle told reporters that the three had spent the previous night in a homeless shelter where they had showered, shaved, and received clean clothing. The men had not come forward earlier because they thought it would draw unwanted attention or blame. "I am a plain guy, a simple country boy, and that's the way I want to stay,” Doyle told reporters, “I wouldn't be a celebrity for $10 million.”

The mystery of the three tramps has been solved, but there are always those who refuse to believe the official story, and Harrelson continued to fuel rumors of foul play in the Kennedy assassination. In the same interview in which Harrelson dispelled notions of his involvement, he lent his support to the idea of a conspiracy, saying: “do you believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy... alone, without any aid from a rogue agency of the US government or at least a portion of that agency? I believe you’re very naïve if you do.” In a 1997 interview with Barbara Walters, Woody Harrelson spoke about his father. He alluded to evidence that his father had been a CIA operative, but never provided any.

The JFK assassination is the holy grail of conspiracy theories, eclipsed in splendor only by the shiny, new 9/11 conspiracy theories. And if Woody Harrelson’s father had been working with the government to kill John F. Kennedy, it would make an already tempting story that much sweeter. I want to believe, but the evidence just isn’t there. The real culprits? Neither Norm nor Cliff have come forward with alibis for November 22, 1963. And that “Coach” character disappeared as soon as Woody showed up at Cheers. Suspicious, indeed.

by Jen Burd

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