Accidental History: The Girl on the Stairs
a book by Barry Ernest
Reviewed by Joseph E. Green and Jim DiEugenio
The above is how Barry Ernest begins his interesting and unusual book, The Girl on the Stairs. The JFK assassination, like any historical event, had a ripple effect on the history of the country and, indeed, the world. And while many of these effects were foreseeable—for example, the expansion of the war in Vietnam—there were an infinite number of others that were not. Some of the most tragic stories that emerged in the wake of the assassination concern the deaths of those who became accidental players by hearing and seeing things they were not supposed to, and whose documentation began with Penn Jones in his Forgive My Grief series. Still others involved those who were not murdered, but instead were forced into a life of hiding and jumping at shadows.At first she thought it was firecrackers. But when she saw the chaos and the terror on all the faces below, she knew it was something far worse. She turned from the window and grabbed the arm of a co-worker. “Come on.” She whispered. “Let’s find out what’s going on down there.” In this split second, her innocence—and that of a nation’s—came to an end.
Barry Ernest’s book tells two stories. One is about himself: his journey from being a believer in the Warren Report to that of being a fierce critic of that now, quite discredited, volume. Therefore he begins the book at a rather appropriate place and time. In fact, it is actually beyond appropriate. It is almost symbolic. Barry was a student at Kent State in 1967. This is the college where the expansion of the Vietnam War would, in three short years, lead to the infamous shooting of students by the National Guard and produce one of the most iconic photographs of that tumultuous era. The first scene of the book is him sitting outside the cafeteria. A fellow student named Terry approaches and asks him about a dialogue from a previous class where Barry actually defended the Warren Report. The student then asks Barry if he had ever seen or heard of the Zapruder film, and if he had read the entire 26 volumes of the Warren Commission. Barry said no to each. The student left him a copy of an interview by Mark Lane, and said, “Read this.” Barry did—right then and there. Hours later, in twilight, he then went to a bookstore and searched for Lane’s book, Rush to Judgment. This is how the first story—that of personal discovery and evolution—begins.
And it was through Lane’s book that Barry was introduced to the heroine of the second story he will tell. That second story is about the plight of one of these ordinary people who was swept up by events: Victoria Adams, the notable “girl on the stairs.” She was an employee who worked in the same building as one Lee Harvey Oswald. The problem caused by her presence is very simple and easily summarized. Adams, along with her friend Sandra Styles, stood on the fourth floor of the Texas School Book Depository at the moment of the murder. She testified to hearing three shots, which from her vantage point appeared to be coming from the right of the building (i.e., from the grassy knoll). She and Styles then ran to the stairs to head down. This was the only set of stairs that went all the way to the top of the building. Both she and her friend took them down to the ground floor. She did not see or hear Oswald. Yet, she should have if he were on the sixth floor traveling downwards. Which is what the Commission said he did after he shot Kennedy.
This is the first problem, in a nutshell. Why did Adams not see a scrambling Oswald, flying down the stairs in pursuit of his Coca-Cola? Because of the Warren Commission’s timeline, we know Oswald had to have gone down the stairs during this period in order to be accosted in time by a motorcycle policeman. In addition, as we are later to discover, Adams also reports seeing Jack Ruby on the corner of Houston and Elm, “questioning people as though he were a policeman.”
From here the parallel stories broaden out. For Barry began to read more books critical of the Commission. And he would then compare what was in these books with the testimony and evidence in the 26 volumes. Like many people before him, he found something rather disturbing: the evidence and testimony did not completely back up the summary conclusions in the Warren Report. The Commission had selectively chosen evidence to make their case. And they had deliberately tried to discredit witnesses and testimony that contradicted their guilty verdict about Oswald. And the witness that they did this to that really kindled Barry’s curiosity was Victoria Adams. As the author writes at the end of Chapter 1, “What if she was right?”
Adams did not find the government eager to hear her story. This is why they badgered her day and night: the FBI, Secret Service, Dallas Police, and the Sheriff’s Department. And Victoria noticed something discriminatory about all the attention she was getting: the other witnesses in her office did not receive it, e.g., Sandy Styles who ran down the stairs with her, or Elsie Dorman or Dorothy May Garner who watched the motorcade with her.
The attention didn’t stop. In fact, even when she moved to a different address these agents followed her. Even though she had left no forwarding address and her new apartment was not in her name. But they still found her. They followed her when she went to lunch. They followed her when she walked around town. When she sent a letter to a friend in San Francisco describing what she saw and did that day as a witness, the friend never got the letter. The question they posed was always the same: When did you run down the stairs after the shooting?
Then, another odd thing happened. When David Belin and the Warren Commission requested her to testify, it was her alone. Sandra Styles was not with her. In fact, Barry could find no evidence that the Commission questioned Styles at all. Further, during her appearance, Belin had handed her a diagram of the first floor of the Texas School Book Depository, the place where she and Oswald worked at that time. He asked her to point out where she saw two other employees (i.e., William Shelley and Billy Lovelady) when she arrived at the bottom of the stairway. When Barry went to look up this exhibit in the Commission volumes—Commission Exhibit 496—he discovered something odd. It was not the document in the testimony. It was a copy of the application form Oswald filled out for his job at the Depository.
Further, although Styles did not testify that day, or at all, both Lovelady and Shelley did. And as Barry read their testimony it appeared to him that the Commission was making use of them to discredit Adams. Commission lawyer Joe Ball made sure he asked Shelley when and if he saw Adams after the shooting. And when Barry read Lovelady’s testimony his mouth flew open. Lovelady brought up Adams’ name before Ball did! And he called her by her nickname, “Vickie.” Barry was puzzled as to what prompted this spontaneous reference to Adams. Did Lovelady know in advance that Ball was going to specifically ask about her?
Indeed, when she read her own testimony in the Warren Commission—and the Commission’s use of it—Adams was startled to find major discrepancies, including the time interval as to when she started down the stairs after she heard the shots. This began for her a lifelong burden of living in the shadows, avoiding any publicity dealing with her testimony or her treatment at the hands of the Commission. When her employer, publishing house Scott Foresman, offered her a chance to transfer out of Dallas to Chicago in 1966, she took it. (p. 35) While there, she actually now began to read the Warren Report. She now noted what they had done with Lovelady and Shelley. This stupefied her. Because she did not recall seeing either man after she and Styles arrived on the first floor. (p. 36)
However, although the book drops in on her from time to time—and it builds towards Barry’s hunt for her, discovering documents that bear out her veracity, and interviewing her in a climactic scene—the principle narrative is the journey of the author himself, who was a teen-ager at the time of the assassination, and went on to became acquainted with some of the earliest critics. He and Terry became working partners at deciphering the fraud of the Warren Report. They would visit each other’s dorms to discus the latest deception they found in the volumes, e.g., how the Commission cut corners and accepted false witnesses to place Oswald on the sixth floor at the time of the shooting; the dubious way they reconstructed his movements after he left the Depository; the quality of the witnesses to the Tippit shooting, etc. These all begin to fuel doubts in him about his former belief in the Warren Commission.
In fact, Barry became so obsessed with this mystery that he ignored his studies. He flunked out of Kent State. (p. 33)
He then decided to visit Dallas. There he met a man named Eugene Aldredge. Aldredge had found a bullet mark on the sidewalk near Elm, which showed a missed shot. He told the FBI about it, but they ignored it. (p. 37) He interviewed Roy Truly a manager of the Depository about the incident right after the shooting where he and policeman Marion Baker encountered Oswald on the second floor drinking a Coke. (p. 41) And he learned something odd during their talk: No one other than employees were allowed onto the sixth floor. (p. 42) But Barry did go to the second floor. Here he examines the lunchroom area around where Truly and Baker allegedly encountered Oswald. (p. 43) Here he begins a quite interesting discussion about how Baker could have seen Oswald through the window of the pneumatic door. He makes somewhat the same argument that Howard Roffman did in his excellent book Presumed Guilty. Truly said he saw no one as he proceeded up the stairs in front of Baker. (ibid) So a question now emerged: “If that door already was closed as Truly passed in advance of the policeman, why would Oswald stand stationary behind it until Baker appeared?” (ibid) For this is how Baker said he noticed Oswald, through the window of the door. The author comes to the same conclusion that others who had read Roffman: If one takes Baker at his word, Oswald had to have come up to the lunchroom from another set of stairs, a one flight stairway from the first floor for Baker to have seen him as he said he did. This bolstered Victoria Adams’ story for Barry. He tried to visit her on this trip but found out she had left for Chicago already. (p. 44)
He then made a visit to Penn Jones In Midlothian, Texas. Jones, who had two sets, sold him the 26 volumes for $76.00. (p. 39) Penn introduced him to Roger Craig, and he also became involved with Harold Weisberg early on. Both Jones and Weisberg immediately see something in him and venture to tap his skills to assist them; Weisberg as a researcher, Jones to interview people who would not talk to him because he was too well known. He also knew David Lifton long before he came onto the scene with Best Evidence. This is all quite intriguing, although the portraits of these men are a bit sketchy and lacking in depth. Jones sends Barry to interview a couple of witnesses. But they seem quite scared and apprehensive. S. M. Holland agreed to meet with him, but brought two men with him since he felt he had been abused and taken advantage of in the past. (p. 53) He talks to Carolyn Walther, a witness who told the FBI she had seen two men, one with a rifle, in either the fourth or fifth floor southeast window that day. Yet she had not been called to testify by the Commission. (p. 54) But she told Barry that she also told the FBI that she had seen two black men below where the man with a rifle was. This would put the two men on the sixth floor, since the black employees were on the fifth floor. She kept this to herself at the time since she thought the two men were some kind of guards. She said that after the shooting she encountered an acquaintance, Abraham Zapruder, who told her Kennedy had been shot from the front and pointed to his forehead. (p. 55)
Barry then visited the scene of policeman J. D. Tippit’s shooting. Here, he meets a witness that no agent of government had talked to, a Mrs. Higgins who lived nearby. She offered him some very important information. She had heard the shots and ran out her front door to see Tippit lying in the street. Barry asked her what time it was. She said it was 1:06. He asked her how she recalled that specific time. She said because she was watching TV and the announcer said it. So she automatically checked her clock when he said it and he was right. Barry concludes that it was not possible that Oswald could have traversed the distance from his apartment to the scene of Tippit’s murder in time to do the shooting. (p. 58) This is when she heard the shots. She also said she got a look at a man running form the scene with a handgun. When Barry asked her what he looked like she replied it was definitely not Oswald. (p. 59)
Barry then timed the Commission’s story on how long it would take Oswald to get to the Texas Theater from 10th and Patton, the Tippit murder scene. This, the Commission said, took 24 minutes. Yet it was shorter by a third than Oswald’s walk from his apartment to 10th and Patton. Yet it took twice as long for Oswald to traverse? (ibid) The Commission says it took Oswald 24 minutes to walk that distance. It took Barry ten minutes.
When Barry got back to Pennsylvania he investigated a strange case near to his home, in Martinsburg. A woman named Margaret Hoover told agents she had discovered a discarded piece of paper in her back yard. On the paper were the handwritten words, “Lee Oswald” “Jack Ruby” “Rubenstein” and “Dallas, Texas”. The problem was that this discovery occurred not after the assassination but before. (p. 63) She had a brother who tipped off the FBI to this event. The woman told the Bureau that she had also found a railroad company ticket from Miami dated 9/25/63 to Washington. Both papers were found near where the trash was burned by a resident in her apartment house. This resident was Dr. Julio Fernandez, a Cuban refuge and a local junior high teacher. According to the FBI report, she furnished the FBI with the envelope and ticket stub, but not the scrap of paper with the names.
When Barry tracked this story down, it turned out that Hoover showed the papers to her daughter and her daughter also recalled the name “Silver Bell” or “Silver Slipper.” But the FBI got the daughter to partially retract: she now said she only saw the names of Ruby and Dallas, and she was not quite sure of even that. When they interviewed Hernandez, he explained the ticket as being for his son to come north to see him from Miami. (p. 64)
Barry wrote to Mrs. Hoover. He found out that the FBI had lied: the woman had given them the paper with the names on it. She also added that Fernandez had worked in Washington before moving to Pennsylvania. He had worked for the CIA after escaping Cuba post-Castro. (p. 65)
He and Terry now decided to visit the National Archives to view the Zapruder film. Like everyone else they were shocked by what it depicted. But further, they were angered by the fact that the Commission had never mentioned the backward movement of Kennedy’s head and body, which was contrary to what would have happened if Oswald had shot the president from behind. Surely they had seen the film. Why did they ignore it? (p. 69)
It was this event that evaporated any belief Barry maintained in the Commission. But it did something worse to Terry. The man who had first instigated Barry’s interest in that blind belief was now sapped and disgusted. He decided it was the end of the road for him. He gave up. Barry never heard from him after this trip.
Barry did some further digging into her testimony and statements. It turned out that the Dallas Police questioned her also. This was on February 17th. Way after the FBI and Warren Commission had taken over control of the case from the DPD. In reading this statement, Barry discovered that it was this report that inserted Lovelady and Shelley into her story. It was written by none other than the avuncular, smiling Jim Leavelle, the man who accompanied Oswald out of police HQ to be killed by Jack Ruby. (p. 76) But further, Barry noticed that there was no questioning of the other three women who were watching the motorcade with Adams: Styles, Elsie Dorman, and Dorothy Garner. He thought this was odd since they could confirm if Adams left the window quickly, as she said she had.
Barry also discovered something else that was odd. The FBI did time-reconstructions to simulate Oswald coming down the stairs. They also did one to simulate Truly and Baker coming up the stairs. But he could find none that tried to replicate Adams coming down the stairs. (p. 78) Even though they were keenly aware of the problem she posed to their verdict about Oswald. So much so that counselors Joe Ball and David Belin wrote a memo about this subject that ended: “We should pin down this time sequence of her running down the stairs.” But Barry could find no evidence that they did. (p. 79)
At the Archives, Barry met Harold Weisberg. Weisberg asked him to do some work for him. He thought that people would be more eager to talk to someone like him, since he had a low profile. So when he visited Dallas again in August of 1968, he did so. He asked some questions of Sheriff Bill Decker. One of them was if he had kept any more than the 92 pages of files he gave to the Commission. Decker did not buy that one. That question ended the interview. (p. 83)
Barry also got the opportunity to meet Roger Craig via Penn Jones. Craig wanted to meet Barry outside Dallas. And he did at his sister’s house. Once there Barry asked him about all the secrecy. Craig replied that his problems began in 1965 when the first essays began to appear critical of the Commission. Many had his name in them. Then people wanted to talk to him, but Decker gave him strict orders not to talk to anyone. Then in July of 1967, Decker fired him. Then, in November of that year, there was an assassination attempt against him. (p. 93)
Craig went on to repeat the famous story of Oswald getting in a Rambler station wagon and escaping down Elm Street with a Latin looking fellow driving. Craig then said he saw Oswald at the station later and Fritz asked him about the car Craig saw him run off in. Oswald replied that the car belonged to Mrs. Paine and then exclaimed with disgust, “Everyone will know who I am now.” (p. 94) When Barry asked him if he was sure the man he saw entering the car was Oswald, Craig said yes he was. And he added that the Commission had altered his testimony in 14 separate instances. (p. 95) Craig added something quite interesting about the lawyer who examined him, David Belin:
When Belin interrogated me... he would ask me certain questions and, whenever an important question would come up... he would have to know the answer beforehand, he would turn off the recorder and instruct the stenographer to stop taking notes. Then he would ask for the question, and if the answer satisfied him, he would turn the recorder back on, instruct the stenographer to start writing again, and he would ask me the same question, and I would answer it.He then added that none of these interruptions were noted in the transcript as entered in the Warren Commission. (p. 95)
However, while the recorder was off, if the answer did not satisfy him... he would turn the recorder back on and instruct the stenographer to start writing again and then he would ask me a completely different question.
On the way back from Craig’s sister’s house, the police stopped their car. The pretext was that the car had gone through a red light. When Barry insisted the light was green, the cop came around to the passenger window and asked him for his ID. Noting he was from out of state, he asked him what he was doing in Texas. Barry replied that he was visiting friends. The two policemen then went to the front of the car out of earshot. They returned and said they would let it go this time. Craig looked relieved. When Barry told the story to Penn Jones, Penn said that he was lucky Craig was with him. (p. 98)
While in Dallas, Barry visited with newsman Wes Wise. He tells him a story about Ruby being in Dealey Plaza that Saturday before he shot Oswald. The reason he gave Wes was he wanted to see the wreath and flowers that were being laid there for Kennedy. But Wes expected a different reason. The county jail was nearby, which Oswald was going to be transferred to. But yet Garret Hallmark, a parking garage attendant said Ruby used his phone that day before proceeding to Dealey Plaza. He told the man on the other end that he had information the transfer would take place on Saturday, that afternoon. Garret got the impression that Ruby was looking for corroboration for that information. Ruby then said that because of all the people carrying flowers, the transfer could be delayed. (p. 101) Ruby’s odd Saturday activities were further described by policeman D. V. Harkness who saw Ruby at the entrance to the county jail that day. (p. 102) But when Harkness brought this interesting point up, Belin dropped it instantly. SOP for the Commission.
Adams had gone to college in California and attained a degree in Business Administration. She had graduated summa cum laude and gone into real estate. But one day in the library she came upon a set of Warren Commission volumes. She began to go over them very carefully this time. She recalled that a messenger had delivered her testimony to her at work and she was given the opportunity to make corrections. She did so. But now she saw they were not entered. (p. 106) She also noted that at the end of her appearance it said she waived her right to review her testimony. This was not so. And she noted that her own testimony had her actually talking to Shelley and Lovelady. But they were not on the first floor when she got there. (ibid) Further, she did not recall the Shelley/Lovelady stuff in the copy she had corrected in Dallas.
Barry had enlisted in the Naval Reserve and had been overseas. When he returned it was after Garrison had lost the Clay Shaw trial. The critics were now divided against each other, e.g., Jones had accused Weisberg of being a CIA agent. (p. 128) America was withdrawing from Vietnam after losing the war. The movie Jaws was about to change Hollywood. And to top it off, Warren Commissioner Jerry Ford was now president. To the victors belong the spoils.
Barry went back to college, got married, and had a son. One day he picked up Belin’s book defending the Warren Commission, November 22, 1963: You are the Jury. In leafing through it he saw that Belin used the testimony of Lovelady and Shelley to discredit Adams. This is the way it worked: Shelley and Lovelady had left the building and gone over to the railway yards about a block away. They then returned and said they saw Adams on the first floor. If this was accurate then the likelihood was that Adams came down the stairs later than she said, when Oswald would have been in the lunchroom already. (p. 129) Belin used these two men without referring to the fact that Lovelady seemed cued in advance. In fact, he spent three pages on the matter.
Just when Barry thought the Kennedy case, and Victoria Adams, were now finis, something happened to change all that. In 1975, Geraldo Rivera showed the Zapruder film on national television. It caused a minor earthquake across the land. Now came the inquiries into CIA scandals by Representative Otis Pike and Senator Frank Church. With the exposure of the CIA–Mafia plots to kill Castro, and the writing of the Schweiker-Hart report about how poorly the Warren Commission and FBI performed their duties in the investigation of President Kennedy’s death, the time was ripe for a new investigation of the murder. Unfortunately, the House Select Committee on Assassinations was a disappointment. The author does a nice job briefly summarizing many of their shortcomings. Barry wrote them about Victoria Adams and Sandra Styles. He never got anything back. (p. 132)
But now the nation was faced with two verdicts on the JFK case. The HSCA had concluded, however limply, that the murder was a result of a conspiracy. But now the critics were even more divided and scattered. Barry began to think that maybe Terry was right. It was time to quit.
Victoria Adams had moved to Seattle. And she had become a successful businesswoman who was now listed in Who’s Who of American Women and Who’s Who in the World. Now she and her husband decided to travel the country back and forth in a five-wheel trailer. They did that for six years. (p. 142) She also wrote a newsletter called Principles in Action, a chronicle of what she saw and heard on her travels. She also wrote a cookbook called No More than 4 Ingredients. Ironically, she liked Pennsylvania so much, she and her husband stayed there for several months, near Harrisburg. Which is where Barry was living in 1991. Then Oliver Stone’s film JFK came out. This caused the creation of the Assassination Records Review Board. After a visit with Weisberg, Barry decided to look through some documents. (p. 145) He also began to read through the HSCA volumes. After reviewing them thoroughly, and summarizing their major findings for us, he notes that they never found and reinterviewed Adams. (p. 148)
From here, the book slows down—takes a detour so to speak—as Barry now looks back at the work of the Warren Commission through the declassified Executive Sessions. Barry also now reviews some of the newly declassified medical evidence showing that there was a hole in the back of Kennedy’s head. He also tried to get in contact with Francis Adams, one of the Warren Commission senior counsel. Adams worked for about a month and then left. His duties were assumed totally by Arlen Specter. It was never clear as to why. And when Lee Rankin, the Commission executive director, was asked about Adams, he replied he should have fired him the first day. (p. 171) Further, there was nothing left behind to explain exactly why he left. Nothing until a quote about leaving showed up in 1966 that said that he was too busy at his law firm and that he had a “different concept of the investigation.” (p. 172) There was no reply to any of Barry’s queries to Adams. But when he died, Barry wrote his surviving wife. He got a call back form his daughter Joyce Adams. She first wanted to know if Barry had spoken to ‘Specter.’ She said the name like the late Jean Hill would intone it. Barry said he had not. Joyce laughed when she heard about the “too busy at the law firm” excuse. He would have never joined up if that were the case. She thought the real reasons was he did not like the way they were proceeding, “If he didn’t think it was being run properly, he would be the type to leave.” (p. 173)
Barry then asked if her father had many notes, or writings or kept personal papers from his days with the Commission. Joyce quietly said that he had. They were kept in longhand. Barry asked to review the file. Joyce said this was in her sister Judith’s possession. She said she had to talk to her sister first and would get back to him after. She never did. It is unfortunate that this information was not turned over to the ARRB, for whatever was in those files would have been very important to discover.
Obviously, if they had come up after, then Adams had left when she said she did. Barry notes that he felt like someone had punched him in the gut when he read this. The date of the letter was June 2, 1964. But even with this in their hands, the Commission went ahead and did all they could to discredit Adams. They wrote “...she actually came down the stairs several minutes after Oswald and after Truly and Baker as well.” (ibid) This was written in spite of the fact they had this new evidence in their hands saying the opposite. And this is why the Commission never formally deposed the three corroborating witnesses.
When the author showed this letter from Marcia Joe Stroud, the Dallas US Attorney, to Weisberg, Harold told him to write a book about Adams. The author then makes one more try to find Adams or her corroborating witnesses. He visits Dallas and talks to Gary Mack, who Harold referred him to. Mack says he cannot help him.
It was not until 2002, when his son convinced him to buy a computer to type his book, that he found Adams via email. What follows, in Chapters 27 through 29, is a fascinating, long interview with Adams, now aged 61. She goes over her experience that day in full detail: arriving at work, waiting for the motorcade, running down the stairs, seeing Ruby in suit and hat talking to people like a reporter, etc. This interview is really the high point of the book. What it reveals about Leavelle, the Dallas Police, and David Belin is powerful stuff. Adams concludes that Oswald could not have been on those stairs. He was not on the sixth floor at the time of the shooting, he was on a lower floor. (p. 211)
Beginning to master the Internet, Barry then finds Sandra Styles. (p. 217) She confirms Adams. She says the two left the window when Secret Service agent Clint Hill jumped on the back of the car. (p. 218) And she said she neither saw nor heard anyone on the stairs on the way down. And she did not recall Lovelady or Shelley on the ground floor when they got there either. (p. 219) (Editor's bold emphasis throughout) Styles said the only interview she gave was to the FBI and it was not in depth or probing.
The book ends on a sad note. Adams died of cancer in 2007 at the rather young age of 66. We are lucky that Barry found her before she passed.