John M. Liggett: From Embalmer Extraordinaire to Serial Killer—then Dead Man Walking
By Phil Nelson
Excerpted with permission from LBJ: From Mastermind to “The Colossus”
Jay Bert Peck’s homicide was not the only assault at the little ranch house at 1202 Melrose Street in Garland, Texas. Almost five years later, on Tuesday, March 27, 1974, Jay Bert’s wife Dorothy Peck was attacked by the mortician John M. Liggett, beaten with a hammer and left for dead. He erred in not double-checking to be sure she was dead before starting a fire under her bed with clothing he had stuffed under it, then running out the door. Because Dorothy managed to regain consciousness and stumbled her way out of the fire to a neighbor’s house to call the fire and police departments. And she knew her attacker, John Melvin Liggett, because he had accompanied her home from a bar the night before. Since she was able to wake up and leave the burning bedroom and identify him, John M. Liggett was arrested and subsequently investigated for several other Dallas area murders involving similar arson attempts to destroy any evidence left behind by the killer.
John Liggett had worked for several other funeral homes in Dallas before he went to the largest such mortuary and cemetery in Dallas, Restland, which had allegedly been owned by a member of the Texas Mafia.[i] Liggett had become highly skilled in the use of reconstructive techniques to eliminate all signs of physical damage on corpses which had been brutally attacked, horribly disfigured in automobile accidents or died by gunshot(s), and he was considered “the best” by his colleagues in that particular segment of the mortuary business. His skills were so good that, when the beautiful actress Jayne Mansfield was killed and decapitated in a car accident in Louisiana, John Liggett was selected to make it appear that her head was still attached to her body because her family insisted on an open casket funeral. Liggett led a dual life in 1963, married to a woman named Lois who said that he would be gone for days or weeks at a time without explanation. Lois had children from a previous marriage but John maintained his distance from them during that period and one of them, Debra Godwin, claimed that she had always suspected he was merely treating them as “cover” to provide him with an aura of being a plain, average guy.
Immediately after JFK’s assassination, Liggett was called while at work at Restland Funeral Home. He rushed to Parkland, calling his wife only once to let her know that he had been asked to work on the President and that he would call her, she shouldn’t try to call him. According to Billie Sol Estes, in his book Billie Sol Estes — A Texas Legend, Liggett left Restland with an assistant, taking a body that had been stored in the morgue that was similar to JFK’s body and prepared to look like a rear head shot was the cause of death. Estes stated that the second body was used to create false evidence and that photographs, x-rays and even the complete brain from that cadaver were substituted for JFK’s autopsy “records” in order to re-frame the documents to conform to the official story; moreover, he stated that all of this was sent first to the White House before being sent to the FBI, the Warren Commission and the National Archives.
According to Estes, the “other body” was taken to Washington on a private jet. If that story is true, it is a possible explanation of the provenance of the discrepancies that exist in photographs and x-rays which could not have been taken of Kennedy’s head. It might also explain the enigma, noted elsewhere, of the supposed existence of JFK’s complete brain, weighing 1500 grams, more than an average male brain, as reported by several authors; that is impossible, since most of his brain had been blown out the back of his head, much of it splattering the motorcycle policeman B. J. Martin in the process. The scenario that I previously portrayed, in LBJ: The Mastermind, had been based partly on David Lifton’s early research, but I independently concluded that JFK’s body was moved to a shipping crate and put on “Air Force 2″. I have since reevaluated that, based upon Lifton’s latest research, pending publication, which clarifies that and proves that JFK’s body was indeed simply moved to the cargo hold of Air Force One immediately upon delivery of the ornate casket, while the Kennedy party was still on the tarmac. Lifton explained his findings at an address in November, 2013, at Bismarck State University, which is available for viewing on a Youtube video.
Mr. Lifton has recently advised me that his latest work, now underway, will address this point further as he has obtained additional information on how JFK’s body was moved to Washington. Researcher / author Doug Horne has also written what is arguably the most detailed, meticulously documented account of the events on Air Force One and Bethesda Naval Hospital ever written to date: The AF1 Tapes and Subsequent Events at Andrews AFB on November 22, 1963: What Was Supposed to Happen vs. What Did Happen at the Future of Freedom Foundation website. As I previously noted, the overall story portrayed does not hinge on which of these scenarios was the true and complete one, the details of which may never be known with absolute certainty. The one thing that is certain is that the “official” version described by the Warren Commission cannot be reconciled with the numerous contradictions which have already been identified in a number of books and summarized here.
According to Episode 7 (The Smoking Guns) of The Men Who Killed Kennedy, a day after the assassination, John Liggett returned home, unshaven, disheveled and very tired. According to his wife, “he looked like he had been in a traumatic event.” Yet he immediately took his wife and three step-children to Austin and San Antonio, talking briefly and furtively to men he met at each stop as he rushed from Dallas to these other cities, even getting a speeding ticket between Dallas and Austin. He then took the family on to Corpus Christi, where on Sunday morning they watched Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live television. Upon seeing that stunning event, he turned to his wife and said calmly, “Everything’s OK now. . . and you could just see his face, it was like all the pressure had been taken off of him.” Shortly after the assassination, John Liggett came into a lot of money and bought an expensive Dallas home and then became the host of numerous high-stakes poker parties. At one of these parties, the daughter of Lois Liggett, Debra Godwin, stated that David Ferrie — who was a long-time acquaintance, and a short-time “handler” of Lee Harvey Oswald in the summer of 1963 in New Orleans — appeared, and that John said he had known him while he served in the Civil Air Patrol.
More Possible Victims of the Demented Mortician:
Susan Payne, Lewis T. Stratton and Maurine Joyce Elliott
Before attempting to kill Mrs. Peck early in 1974, John Liggett had killed “several people in New Orleans, whom he felt knew of his role in the assassination” according to the video The Smoking Guns referenced above. Among the other victims of the demented mortician was a forty-one year old woman named Susan Thompson Payne, who had been found dead in her fire-gutted North Dallas apartment two weeks before the attack on Dorothy Peck. She had only recently moved to Dallas from California. Ms. Payne’s body had been sexually abused and her body mutilated before the fire was set, both acts Liggett had often adopted as his “modus operandi.” Liggett had a habit of hanging around the Duck Creek Lounge in Dallas after work and when he drank too much, he would become too talkative about some of the “jobs” he had done. That later made him become paranoid about what he had revealed and, according to Billie Sol Estes, Lewis T. Stratton and Maurine Joyce Elliott were killed because they had the misfortune of listening to Liggett tell them too much while he was drunk. Ms. Elliott had previously worked at the Duck Creek Lounge, where she would have known Liggett, and where she had, most likely, been told too much by the murderous mortician; by the time of their deaths, she had gone to work for Stratton at his bar and lounge in Oak Cliff. They were both sexually mutilated after they were dead and the bar was set on fire.
Still another possible victim of Liggett was Roscoe White, a Dallas policeman who had only obtained his position a few weeks before the assassination. Before that, White had worked at Jagger-Chiles-Stoval Company, which had contracts with the U.S. Army to perform highly classified work, at which somehow Lee Harvey Oswald had also obtained a job. White’s job there involved map making and working with photographic development, which gave him skills in retouching photographs. The two had known each other from their Marine Corps tours in Japan. Among his photographic achievements, according to researcher Stephen Pegues, was the set of infamous photos ostensibly showing Oswald holding a rifle and, confusing rival Marxist / Communist genre newspapers. Pegues asserted that the photographs show a bump on the figure’s arm that Oswald did not have, but White did. That, together with many other discrepancies identified by other researchers, conclusively prove that those photographs were fabricated, apparently by Roscoe White.
According researcher and author Matthew Smith, White is also considered by many to have been one of the shooters, indeed “Badgeman” the policeman, captured in Mary Moorman’s famous Polaroid photograph taken at the moment Kennedy received the fatal shot. According to this story, after taking the “last shot” (the head shot that caused JFK’s body to jerk “backwards and to his left”), White, in his Dallas policeman’s uniform, hurled his gun to a waiting assistant who caught it and ran toward the rail yards while White jumped onto a car’s bumper and hurled himself over the fence, before morphing himself back into his role as a Dallas policeman and immediately confiscating the film of Gordon Arnold (who stated that his film was taken by a uniformed policeman). The following excerpt from Matthew Smith’s JFK: The Second Plot succinctly summarizes the Roscoe White story from the perspective of his wife Geneva White, and their son, Ricky White. His wife stated that her then-deceased husband had been a “contract man” with the CIA who had gotten other contracts to murder people, both on-shore and off. His son Ricky believed that his father had tried to disengage himself from this arrangement after JFK’s assassination but the CIA wasn’t about to let him walk away from his past.
Geneva White claimed her now-deceased husband left a diary in which he revealed he was one of the marksmen who shot the President, and that he also killed Officer Tippit. The diary, said to have been stolen by the FBI, is claimed to contain details of the assassination, which was carried out on the instructions of the CIA.
The fact that Roscoe White had worked for the CIA was verified by Tosh Plumlee, an acknowledged CIA operative, whose long and fascinating interview can be found at the websites Spartacus Educational and JFK Murder Solved:
Roscoe White was at the radar complex and jungle warfare training in Honolulu and that’s where I first met him. When I say met him… I would have never, never have picked Roscoe White and my feelings, it’s a tragedy of what happened to Roscoe White’s life. He was an operative. He was military intelligence. .
While the Roscoe White story, whether or not it was true, is incidental to the scope of this book, it is still widely believed by many JFK assassination researchers despite attempts to discredit it. The solid connections he had with intelligence agencies, and his subsequent service in Vietnam, as noted above, give credence to the assertions of his involvement in the assassination on behalf of his “handlers”. His connections to both John Liggett and Jack Ruby (who, the day following JFK’s assassination, attended Roscoe and Geneva White’s birthday party for their young son Ricky), together with the fact that they lived across the street from officer J. D. Tippit, puts him at the epicenter of the pre-assassination conspiracy. The fact that both White and Ligget have been reported to have “come into a lot of money” after the assassination also tends to corroborate that conclusion. It should also be noted that White died as a result of an “industrial accident,” which, in light of the next possible victim in the following paragraph, should not be discounted as being within the skill set of John M. Liggett. In the absence of a full accounting of the incident, it should at least be stipulated that the victim’s son, as noted above, does not believe it was an accident.
Another possible victim of Liggett, according to one prominent Dallas area researcher who, for personal reasons, prefers to remain anonymous, was Mary Sherman, whose murder remains unsolved, because, as an article on the 50th anniversary of her murder on July 21, 1964, in the New Orleans on-line paper NOLA.com revealed: “But a 117-page police report and 70 pages of case files recently obtained by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune paints only a picture of detectives tracking leads that went nowhere. The report contains no obvious smoking gun, no definite suspect to the crime.” The article then stated that “Firefighters hauled out a burning mattress, and found the body of Dr. Mary Sherman lying face up on the floor. She was severely burned on her right side. Her liver, intestines and charred lung were exposed. And her right arm and right torso were gone.” This article asserts that “blood spatter on the walls, floor and chest indicated she had been stabbed there in her apartment” and that she died of stab wounds, the fire apparently being merely a cover-up. What is oddly not explained is how can such a hot fire — hot enough to burn her right arm and torso so completely — be so concentrated that the rest of her body was not burnt at all?
Another take on the story of Mary Sherman’s murder appears in Edward T. Haslam’s book, Dr. Mary’s Monkey. Haslam believes that Mary was brutally murdered by electrocution in the secret CIA-controlled laboratory in New Orleans, as she worked to develop an aggressive strain of cancer for the purpose of murdering Fidel Castro. He has posited that her murder was followed by an attempt to destroy the “evidence” when her body was then moved back to her apartment, where a fire was started to burn her corpse. Regardless of which of these hypotheses one accepts, the fact that of the murders which have been attributed to John Liggett — at least tentatively, since he was never convicted of any of the unsolved cases — at least four of them involved brutal attacks by gun or knife followed by an attempt to burn the bodies, as noted above. The case against him that was pending when he died, the attempt on Dorothy Peck, was very solid, since she survived and was ready to testify against him. The plain fact was that setting fire to the mattress where his victim lay was precisely John Liggett’s favorite method of covering his tracks.
Haslam writes of how the New Orleans project went off track, leading to the contamination of the Salk vaccine with monkey viruses that caused the tremendous increase in the incidence of soft tissue cancers in the last fifty years, as well as being the proximate cause of mutations that were linked to the origin of the AIDS virus. It is a fascinating read, one which comports with the story told by Judyth Vary Baker in her book Me and Lee. The sum total of these two books, as persuasive and as fascinating as they are, remain very controversial among researchers, though, in our case, that issue is not pertinent because neither of them would significantly affect the narrative of this book. But one thing cannot be denied however: Mary Sherman was viciously murdered on July 21, 1964, just one more person among many who had unwittingly become involved with very treacherous people — some unwittingly, others not — all operating in one capacity or another on the periphery of the conspiracy to assassinate a president.
The Arrest and Death of John M. Liggett
After Dorothy Peck’s escape from the nearly fatal beating and the start of the house fire set on March 27, 1974, by John M. Liggett, he was arrested. One of the most distinguished, and expensive, criminal lawyers in Dallas, Charles Tessmer, was recruited to come to John Liggett’s defense. It appears that he had been selected by others, judging by the kind of advice he would give his client. Tessmer was described in a 1999 article in the Dallas Observer as being “The don of Dallas criminal lawyers” and as having, “possessed the stage presence of an Olivier, the oratorical skills of a Greek philosopher, and the liver of Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. He celebrated his wins by going on lengthy drinking binges, and he was always winning – and buying. He was Good-time Charlie to his friends, and everyone was his friend.” Tessmer briefly considered representing Jack Ruby until he discussed it with his good friend, Sheriff Bill Decker, who told him to stay away from that one: “There may be a conspiracy,” Tessmer recalls Decker saying. “Those are dangerous people” implicitly meaning Lyndon Johnson and his cohorts, of whom most people in Dallas were afraid, probably including many in the Dallas police department, the mayor and Henry Wade, the district attorney, and, clearly, by his own admission which then became public, Sheriff Bill Decker. (Emphasis added).
Perhaps he didn’t know of his connection back to the original murder when he accepted the challenge of defending John M. Liggett, or maybe he did it in spite of that connection, to help perform a task that most defense lawyers would avoid, even if paid very well to do it. The esteemed lawyer, paradoxically, gave his client John Liggett some strange and unusual advice: He prohibited Liggett from discussing the case with either prosecutors or police officers or anyone else besides himself for month after month, all while Liggett was being held pending a trial that kept being rescheduled, time after time. After nearly a year of delays, on February 14, 1975, as he was being taken from the jail to another location, John Liggett allegedly tried to escape and was killed by a shot in the back by one of the guards. The term “allegedly” is used here to convey the official story even though there are a number of unexplained “holes” in that story. First, it appears that Liggett was given a key to use to slip the handcuffs off of his wrists before his escape attempt; secondly, both his wife at the time as well as his previous wife, and her daughter, have disputed those assertions, to the point that his ex-wife suggested that he wasn’t killed at all, that another body was substituted for his.
His wife at the time he was killed, Leona, later stated that the body she was asked to identify in 1975 was not her husband John. She said that the corpse had a mustache and that John Liggett did not have a mustache and that she did not believe he could have had one if he tried. His ex-daughter-in-law agreed with that assessment and his ex-wife Lois, who can be seen on the video The Men Who Killed Kennedy: Part 7, “The Smoking Guns”, was convinced that she had seen John in a Las Vegas casino a few years after that. Indeed, he had previously worked in that casino for several years in Las Vegas, and had remained well-connected there. There were other discrepancies related to the death certificate issued for John Liggett, including the fact that it stated that the shooting occurred on another street, “several hundred meters from the place where he died;” and that the Deputy who shot him was not on the list of Sheriff’s deputies. It also indicated that he had died “due to an injury on the front of his thorax,” even though he supposedly died because he was running away, attempting to escape. Another important piece of evidence presented in the referenced video is a photograph showing, according to Ms. Godwin, John Liggett’s brother Malcolm, standing next to Jack Ruby with a group of other people; Malcolm, it was further stated, was one of the people John met on the Liggett’s strange ride through Texas in the two days following JFK’s murder, before Oswald was shot on national television and the greatly relieved Liggett suddenly decided it was finally OK to return to Dallas. As a result of that scene, where the person in the photograph was identified as being Malcolm Liggett, a lawsuit was brought by him against the History Channel, which was described in a contemporaneous news article on March 19,2005 in the Vero Beach Press Journal (Florida):
History Channel to answer Vero couple
By Grace Murphy, staff writer
April 30, 2005
VERO BEACH — The History Channel is scheduled to air a statement at 8:30 a.m. Sunday concerning the inclusion of a Vero Beach couple in a 2003 TV series called “The Men Who Killed Kennedy.” . . .
The disputed episode said that Liggett’s brother, John, now deceased, was a mortuary worker in Dallas when Kennedy was shot in November 1963. Later in the program, a photograph is shown of a man and woman identified as Malcolm Liggett and his wife, Suzanne, standing with Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. In the letter scheduled to air Sunday, the Liggetts claim the program made false accusations. They also claim they never met Ruby and were not associated in an assassination conspiracy.
The article makes no reference as to whether the lawsuit was only against The History Channel, and if so, why the former Mrs. John Liggett and her daughter were not named in the suit. It was they who had the courage to go onto national television and make the specific charges regarding having seen Malcolm Liggett meet with her husband two days after the assassination and who identified him in the photograph next to Jack Ruby. The photograph shown in the video (at about 43:00 on Episode 7, “The Smoking Guns”) certainly looks like the same man, but then there are a lot of “look-a-likes” so we will never know who that might have been if it wasn’t Mr. Liggett. This was only one of the numerous mysteries occurring in the wake of John Kennedy’s murder that will probably never be solved.
The evidence noted above, of a close connection between John Liggett and David Ferrie, the alleged New Orleans “handler” of Lee Harvey Oswald, inexorably leads one to ponder whether Liggett’s involvement in handling the “reconstruction” of JFK’s skull was directly connected to his long-time friendship with a key member of the New Orleans group (Clay Shaw / Bertrand, Guy Banister, David Ferrie) overseeing the details related to the preparations for the assassination. When Oswald returned to New Orleans, in April, 1963, he was immediately swept into the nascent conspiracy, either through his previous association with Ferrie or through his uncle, Charles “Dutch” Murret, who was on the payroll of Carlos Marcello. Banister’s long-time secretary, Delphine Roberts, would not cooperate with Jim Garrison because she thought that both Banister and Ferrie had been murdered and feared for her own life, but she did admit to the HSCA that Oswald worked out of Banister’s office. The clear connections between Oswald to Ferrie and Banister, and theirs back to John Liggett, completes an undeniable circle that widens and connects with the many other men and the circles each of them inhabited: From Johnny Rosselli, George Joannides and David Phillips, and then from them to Bill Harvey and David Morales, and from them to Cord Meyer, James Angleton and J. Edgar Hoover, all the way back to the top of the hierarchy, where sat Lyndon B. Johnson. That same evidence also demonstrates the “continuum” that existed in the “before” and “after” conspiracies; it leads inexorably to a logical presumption that Lyndon Johnson’s known actions to cover-up the real story “after” the assassination – viewed by many (since that is exactly how he intentionally portrayed it) as merely his attempt to avoid “World War III” – were intrinsically connected to the “before” plotting and planning: It is this continuum that shows the “pre” and “post” conspiracies were not separate and unconnected. There was only one “conspiracy” and the shooting of JFK was merely the half-time intermission which marked the switch of most of the first half actors (e.g. Angleton, Harvey, DeMohrenschildt and Oswald) with the second half actors (e.g. Hoover, Dulles, Specter, et. al.). There was really only one most prominent actor in both halves: Lyndon B. Johnson.