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Vincent Bugliosi sits, sipping a cup of after-lunch coffee. The coffee can’t possibly give the 72-year-old prosecutor more buzz. Think instead of topping off a running engine that’s already stoked and ready to roar down the racetrack. He fixes his subject with steely blue eyes. He leans forward. “I wanted to write a book for the ages,” he says. It’s certainly a book for the record books: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a behemoth, weighing in at 1,612 pages and close to six pounds. After a definitive, second-by-second retelling of the shooting itself, Bugliosi takes on, point for point, the legions of conspiracy theorists who think that Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was a front for the Mafia, the CIA, the KGB, the FBI, the Cubans, or even LBJ. He’s a prosecutor on a mission, armed with both the sense of moral outrage that wins over juries and the dispassionate ability to keep millions of details straight. Bugliosi has tackled big cases before. He’s the hotshot prosecutor who looked murderous cult leader Charles Manson in the eye and put him away in 1971. He followed that courtroom success with the best-seller Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. The gruesome tale has been called one of the best true crime books ever written. Later, Bugliosi ripped into O.J. Simpson and his prosecutors in a 1996 book, Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder. And this time, he’s taken on perhaps his toughest case: to silence the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists once and for all. The effort has obsessed him for the past 20 years. You might say that in trying to silence what Bugliosi calls the “zanies” (and, in gentler moments, the “buffs”), he has crossed over the zany dividing line himself. What is there about Kennedy’s death that brings out a certain, um, single-mindedness? YOU FOLLOW? Take Bugliosi’s interview demeanor: He lays out his argument passionately and precisely, as if it were the first time anybody had heard this story. “You follow?” he asks every few minutes. It’s important to win over his listeners, even if this time his entire audience consists of one lone reporter. In some ways, it’s easy to understand that intensity. Polls over the years have shown that the vast majority of Americans believe that some kind of conspiracy was behind the Kennedy assassination. Even though the Warren Commission in 1964 found no evidence of even a second gunman, let alone a group, the American public has come to think otherwise in the 40 years after Kennedy’s death — thanks, in part, to a kind of conspiracy industry churning out books and articles and theories. Plus, there was that Oliver Stone movie. Bugliosi’s faith lies in facts. He dedicates his book “to the historical record, knowing that nothing in the present can exist without the paternity of history, and hence, the latter is sacred, and should never be tampered with or defiled by untruths.” His exasperation that not everyone else has the same respect for the record nearly gets in the way of his hawking his book. He’s ticked, really, that he’s got to be out there telling the world that Oswald was the lone killer. In fact, the whole idea of Oswald as any kind of front for a conspiracy just infuriates him. It just doesn’t add up. “They [conspirators] were going to rely on Oswald?” Oswald, he says, was a mentally unstable loner. Just about every second of his life after the shots rang out has been accounted for, Bugliosi notes. “The FBI checked every breath he took.” If he were in cahoots with any group at all, says Bugliosi, there would have been some evidence. The Mafia, for instance, would have had a car waiting to whisk him away, most likely to his death. No self-respecting group of conspirators leaves that kind of incriminating evidence wandering around Texas. CUCKOO BIRDS Bugliosi takes on and tears apart every single conspiracy theory. The entire second half of the book is titled “Delusions of Conspiracy: What Did Not Happen.” He writes in Chapter 11, “Comedy feeds on tragedy. And whenever there’s a major catastrophe or tragedy, as sure as death and taxes a chorus of cuckoo birds will voice their bizarre observations.” Point by point, fact by fact, Bugliosi demolishes his opponents’ arguments. What takes one sentence to proclaim — say, the charge that the mob killed JFK to get brother Bobby, the attorney general, off their backs — takes another 100 pages to knock down. And yet, even with this incredible detail, the story as well as its teller are compelling. Bugliosi is the Ancient Mariner of the Kennedy assassination. In the chapter on Oswald himself, we learn the name of the doctor who delivered him, the checkered history of his mother, and the series of shabby apartments the young boy lived in. Although we’ve heard before what a disturbed loner Oswald was, it’s hard to turn away from the narrative. At the same time, there are more than 10,000 citations (not actually printed in the book but saved on an accompanying CD). And be warned that Bugliosi doesn’t get to the Zapruder film until Page 450. The grassy knoll? Page 845. That’s a lot of words to argue what Bugliosi describes as a simple murder case, albeit “the most important murder case in American history.” Keeping up the prosecutorial hyperbole, he says, “There have been more words written on this than any single one-day event in world history.” One might consider for a fleeting moment challenging Bugliosi on this point — bringing up the Crucifixion, for example — but then the instinct passes. Challenging Bugliosi on any one point, no matter how small, would mean you’d be there all day. In fact, it’s hard not to get the feeling that if he could, Bugliosi would simply hound the hundreds of conspiracy theorists until they begged for mercy. Here’s how he interrogated Dr. Cyril Wecht, the forensic pathologist who, from the start, disagreed with the Warren Commission finding that a single bullet killed the president. Bugliosi concedes that Wecht is “a rationalist in principle,” but then proceeds to take him down, as he recounts part of the conversation from a January 2000 phone call: “If the synchronized bullet you postulate, but acknowledge have no evidence to support, was not, in fact, a frangible bullet, do you concede that it would have exited the left side of the president’s head, or at least penetrated far enough to cause some damage to the left hemisphere of his brain or have left metallic fragments there?” The doctor concedes and concedes again. Eventually, Bugliosi writes, Wecht called him to say he had “reconsidered his position and now accepts that the bullet that entered the right upper back of the president �must have’ exited the front of the throat where the Warren Commission and HSCA [House Select Committee on Assassinations] said it did.” HELTER SKELTER Bugliosi has had this sort of take-no-hostages approach for a long time. In 1970, he became the chief prosecutor in the Tate-LaBianca murder trials. Charles Manson, for those too young to remember, was the mastermind behind the ghastly murders of actress Sharon Tate, her housemates, and an elderly couple who lived nearby, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson had fashioned himself into the cultish leader of a group of lost souls — the Family — and convinced them to murder innocent people. Bugliosi wanted to secure a first-degree murder conviction of Manson, which was tricky because Manson never actually stabbed or shot anyone — he just gave orders. Bugliosi needed to prove the almost complete control Manson held and continued to hold over his followers, even as they faced the death penalty. Manson also tried to commandeer the courtroom, at one point attempting to attack the judge. Bugliosi did secure the Manson conviction, although his death sentence was later changed to life in prison after California (temporarily) abolished capital punishment in 1972. Bugliosi built on his triumph by traveling around the country, apparently to every college he could squeeze into his schedule. I interviewed him for my college paper in 1977. Helter Skelter had taken the country by storm, and Bugliosi’s fame packed them in. He gave a good show: “Manson? He didn’t frighten me a bit.” And 30 years later, the man has changed little. Although he refers at the end of Reclaiming History to the toll the project took on him, he’s as pugnacious as ever. “I never seem to get tired,” he says. “I get sleepy.” Yet he admits the book was nearly too much. “I felt more than once that I had bit off more than I could chew.” In the last seven or eight years, he says, he put in 80 to 100 hours a week on it. Now he is done with projects like this. He has written his masterpiece. “This is not just another Kennedy book,” Bugliosi insists. “Any question, I think, is answered in the book right here.” Vince Bugliosi could keep talking, but it’s time for him to do another interview, to make his case just one more time.
Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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