|Tina Towner Pender|
Seconds before the assassin's shots rang out, the 13-year-old Towner's home movie camera ran out of film, but she captured the President and First Lady's car just as it turned the corner from Houston Street to Elm Street.
Now Tina Towner Pender, she spoke to me at the 2013 Virginia Film Festival after a screening of a new documentary, The Kennedy Half-Century, co-produced by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. She had participated in a panel discussion along with UVA political scientist Larry Sabato and another witness to the Kennedy assassination, Wesley Buell Frazier, who on that infamous Friday was a 19-year-old co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald at the Texas School Book Depository.
The author of a 2012 book called Tina Towner: My Story as the Youngest Photographer at the Kennedy Assassination, Pender described what happened to the short piece of movie film she took that day in Dallas.
The raw footage, she explained during the panel discussion, was processed by local law enforcement authorities, who had put out a call for any movies or still photographs that may have been taken by onlookers but had not been developed yet. Her family did not receive the reel back for several weeks.
Asked whether they thought it might have been tampered with, Pender said, “Not at the time.”
They did notice something anomalous right away, however.
The assassination footage “was on the end of a reel of home movies so we knew we were going to have to watch the whole reel,” which included, she said, her “sister going off to college,” before they got to the newsworthy section.
“When we got there, it ran out and there was no assassination film,” she explained, “and for a few seconds we thought we didn't have it, that they didn't send it back to us.” It turned out that “it had been cut from the rest of the film and it was there” on the reel but “it was just not spliced on to the end.”
About a decade later, Pender and her father took the film to a lab to be examined at the request of some investigators.
“My dad didn't let it out of our hands, so I went with him” to Jack White's lab in Fort Worth, Texas, she said.
“There were about three or four people there looking at it while I was there and they turned to me and they said, 'Did you know that there's a splice in your film?'”
Startled by the question, Pender asked them what they meant.
The technician replied that “'there's a jump in the film and there's a splice,'” and showed it to her. Just at the point where the limousine is turning the corner, “you see a jump in the film.”
That was not a surprise to her in itself, because “we knew that was there but we just figured it was some sort of a blip in the processing” but it was actually “spliced together. You could see where it was spliced and it was not using materials my dad would have [used]. It was more professionally done and it was hard to see this splice when you looked at it.”
Pender conceded that she did not know “who did that and I don't know when it was done, either,” because the film had been in the possession of law enforcement in 1963, and Life magazine had borrowed it, along with 35mm slides her father had shot, for a feature in 1967.
Later in the 1970s, Pender was questioned by investigators for the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded that Kennedy's assassination was the result of a conspiracy and not the sole responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald. She said her encounter with them seemed peremptory.
The meeting was “brief,” she explained.
“They called and said they wanted me to bring them the original film and the slides that my dad took,” but in the event the investigators came to her office, where she was working.
They questioned her “for about 15 or 20 minutes – maybe 30 -- but it didn't seem like that long. The questions were not very deep or probing. It almost was like they just wanted to get it done with and take the film and leave.”
Neither Pender nor any member of her family who witnessed the assassination was called to testify before the Warren Commission, which was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the killing of John F. Kennedy.
(This article appeared in slightly different form on Examiner.com in November 2013. Video of Tina Towner's panel discussion with Frazier and Sabato can be seen here and here.)