By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Patricia Calhoun
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Todd Manns thinks he's found a way to prove once and for all whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin. Using his company's firearms-training simulator, Manns is working on a virtual re-creation of the view from Oswald's sixth-floor perch in the Texas School Book Depository, from which he shot and killed President John F. Kennedy--supposedly. Manns's idea is to use the simulator in a contest where some of the world's best sharpshooters can attempt to duplicate Oswald's amazing feat of marksmanship.
Even though Manns, like many others, doesn't think Oswald acted alone, he's not a conspiracy buff; he's just realistic. As a former Marine and SWAT sharpshooter, the 34-year-old Manns has spent plenty of time behind a rifle. And after reading through a pile of Kennedy assassination books and paying a visit to Dallas to walk through Dealey Plaza, he's unconvinced that even the best shot could have hit a moving target from behind, three times in five seconds, from Oswald's distance and height.
"I think it'd be extremely difficult under any circumstances to make that shot," says Manns. "As a shooter, you've got to make all kinds of adjustments depending on the elevation, the temperature and the speed of the target. The Warren Commission's report puts an incredible achievement to the American public. The bottom line is that not a lot of shooters have examined the evidence. Mostly, it's been people who've probably never fired a gun in their lives."
Manns is so confident no one can repeat Oswald's feat that he plans to give a million dollars to anyone who can. He envisions the contest being like a halftime field-goal kicking contest where the contestant wins a chunk of money if he can nail the skill shot. Such contests work because an insurance company is willing to put up a dollar amount to cover the contest; after the insurance company determines that the odds of someone actually accomplishing the feat are long enough to make the proposition worth the risk, it asks for a down payment--which generally turns out to be an easy profit.
Manns's contest, he says, will be a lot harder than booting a thirty-yard chippie. He's still looking for an insurer--and it's an undertaking most insurance companies probably haven't encountered before, because until recently, technology wasn't sophisticated enough to accurately re-create Kennedy's assassination. But Manns's Englewood-based company, Precision Shooting Concepts, owns a Firearms Training System that puts people in shooting simulations that rival the real thing; it's the only such system privately owned in Colorado. Although the $60,000 FATS is primarily a military training tool, Manns's company leases it out to local law-enforcement agencies, which use the system to put officers through "decisional shooting training."
The FATS simulator occupies a large conference room in the company's strip-mall headquarters. Scenarios using live actors are projected onto a movie screen that covers an entire wall. The trainee uses a modified 9mm Glock pistol with a laser in the barrel to pinpoint targets. The Glock is hooked up to a CO2 tank to provide the gun's realistic recoil, and four surround-sound speakers provide the audio. The idea is for the trainee to shoot only when confronted with a life-threatening situation.
In one scenario, an officer rousts a bum sleeping on a bench who jumps up and whips out a kitchen knife, and the trainee has to shoot before his fellow officer gets stabbed. In another, shotgun-wielding hoodlums pop out from behind cement pillars and blast away; the trainee must return fire without hitting any innocent civilians. This isn't any 75-cent arcade game. In the darkened room with the speakers turned up, the experience rattles nerves. The shooter's performance is based on accuracy, reaction time and discretion. Grades are "Good Judgment," "Poor Judgment" and "Scenario Ends"--which means you're dead.
Manns's idea is to use this same approach to the Kennedy shooting. He will put a laser into the barrel of an Italian Mannlicher-Carcano rifle--the same type of gun Oswald used--and create a "set" in the training facility to approximate the sixth-floor window of the book repository.
"The only difference between the FATS training and this Kennedy thing is that we'll use computer animation as opposed to live actors," says Manns. "I'm more comfortable with that, and I think other people will be, too. Obviously, the subject is still sensitive for many people."
Like the government?
Manns insists this project is simply a means to garner exposure for his company. He says the publicity will allow him to expand his business into courtrooms, where he hopes to use his equipment and expertise to produce shooting reconstructions for trial attorneys. But he admits that the Kennedy project could shed some light on what he refers to as "the crime of the century"--and the fact that many still think it's a crime that has been covered up by the government doesn't hurt his chances for getting attention.
"At this point, I don't think the government will pay too much attention to us," says Manns, who hopes to have the re-creation ready by the end of the year. "If they do, we're in line with a hundred Kennedy-assassination Web sites. But if the government looks at our re-creation and decides to do further investigation, then all the better.