When President Kennedy was assassinated, the FBI turned to a team of Oak Ridge scientists to help them solve the case
Like most people alive in 1963, Frank Dyer remembers where he was when he heard the news.
"I was working in building 4501 at that point. I started toward building 4500 north, and the PA system announced Kennedy had been shot."
He stopped along his route through the campus at the Oak Ridge National Lab, and went looking for anyone else who could confirm what he'd just heard.
Little did he know, he too, would soon become a part of history.
"That was the 22nd of November, and we learned pretty soon that we were going to analyze the samples," Dyer said.
RECRUITING THE TEAM
Dyer came to work at ORNL in 1960 as part of a team of radio chemists. The group studied an analytic technique called neutron activation analysis, or NAA. They even wrote a book on the subject.
NAA measures the features of materials by examining their tiniest parts: neutrons. The technique is useful if the individual using it wants to compare materials to determine a "match."
"We were experts. We did everything. We did all kinds of active nuclear activation analysis with not only reactors, but neutron generators and charged particle activation analysis. So we did everything," he said.
After the president was killed, there were a lot of people looking to fit puzzle pieces together.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation asked the Oak Ridge team to assist in their investigation of the primary suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald. An FBI chemist, Jack Gallagher, traveled to ORNL and brought a few items along for the scientists to analyze. They included lead fragments from bullets found in the presidential limousine, and paraffin casts of Oswald's face and hands.
Their goal was to establish truth in two things:
"Where did the bullets come from, and did Oswald—was Oswald the shooter?"
TESTING THE EVIDENCE
Dyer and his colleague, Juel Emery, used NAA to study the elements present on the evidence.
In the lead fragments, they measured the levels of antimony and silver. They took those numbers, and compared them to the same measurements from another cartridge case fired by Oswald's gun after the FBI seized it. The scientists found all the measurements were similar enough to indicate the bullets were all fired from the same source.
However, it would be another decade before somebody else completed a comprehensive study on the elemental nature of different ammunition. In 1963, Dyer and Emery were comparing pieces of a puzzle without a picture on the box to guide them.
WEB EXTRA: ORNL scientist describes "jigsaw puzzle" of evidence
Retired ORNL scientist Frank Dyer explains the challenge of examining lead fragments from bullets, without a clear picture of comparison
WEB EXTRA: ORNL scientist on post-research ammunition findings
When ORNL scientist Frank Dyer examined lead particles from the bullets that killed President Kennedy, he didn't know what kind of ammunition they were sampling. Years later, another scientist's research would find out
When Dallas police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, they made a paraffin cast of his face and hands that would pick up any gun residue that might have existed on his cheeks or fingers. The team tested the elements they found in the cast, and tired to determine if it matched samples of residue from one of the guns.
But which gun? From the start, Oswald was suspected of using the rifle to kill the president, and a pistol to shoot Dallas Police officer, J.D. Tippet.
"If Oswald did fire the rifle, and he also fired the pistol to kill the police officer – then we had the problem of determining if there was primer residue on his hands or face from both weapons," Dyer said.
The casts presented another problem. They were made in Dallas and passed through several hands between Texas and Washington before arriving in Tennessee. By the time Dyer and Emery got the samples in their lab, the casts had collected more than just gun residue.
"I still think that the way the samples were handled made the paraffin casts invalid. They were not useful," Dyer said. "And the Warren Commission – in their report – talks about that, and says they were not useful."
The team worked for five weeks, while FBI's Jack Gallagher took the notes. Dyer made a copy.
"I kept that copy for – I don't know how long. Finally, somebody in government wanted it back for the national archives and I gave it up," he said.
A CAREER, CONTINUED
When the assignment finished, Dyer and Emery returned to their ORNL work. They would end up using their NAA technology to assist in more criminal investigations, although – that was never Dyer's original intent.
"I wanted to be a scientist," he said with a shrug. "I didn't want to be a forensic activation analyst."
From his home in Knoxville, the now-retired scientist lists a number of other research projects he worked throughout his career, including another presidential death investigation.
"About the death of Zachary Taylor – the 12th president of the United States," Dyer said. "Rumors began about him after his death that he was poisoned with arsenic."
FIFTY YEARS LATER
Dyer and Emery's work in 1963 provided the foundation for many others. Some research has affirmed their findings, while others have built upon it.
Like any scientist, Dyer is always asking questions. Decades later, he believes there is more to learn about both the Kennedy and Taylor investigations, and plans to pursue answers.
"I'm really glad I got back into studying this," he said, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of his JFK work. "Because I have learned things now that I only learned in the last few weeks."
Dyer is the only member of his team still alive. His partner, Juel Emery, passed away a few years ago.
He remembers the tragedy of the assassination, the mystery of trying to understand it, and the challenge of proving things happened a certain way.
Today, it is still a puzzle to Dyer-- 50 years in the making. And he is a man that will never stop looking for answers.