Examining NH's Own JFK Assassination Mystery
Investigating Bill Sullivan's role in JFK's death
The now-iconic image of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the moments prior to the assassination.
Bill Sullivan was too controversial to die quietly. As the number three man in the FBI during the turbulent mid-20th century, he collected the nation’s secrets, and when he retired to Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, they came with him. And in November of 1977, they died with him at the hands of young hunter who mistook him for a deer. His untimely death came just weeks before he was to testify before a Congressional inquiry into the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an investigation that he led.
The event is the most provocative and famous hunting accident in the state’s history. But not everyone agrees that it was an accident. Conspiracy theorists “from away” see a web of coincidences and contradictions, while locals familiar with both the men and the circumstances involved see the events of that fateful day as nothing more than a terrible accident caught in a cultural clash.
During the 1970s, New Hampshire lost about a third of its deer population — mostly due to a string of severe winters, but also because of a persistent band of outlaw poachers, out to prove their manliness with a prize buck trophy (or at least something). These factors only exacerbated a condition known as “buck fever,” a kind of tunnel vision or wishful thinking that leads inexperienced hunters to ever-so-rarely mistake humans for their prey.
On the early morning of November 9, Robert Daniels Jr., a Lisbon native and 22-year-old son of a local New Hampshire state trooper, entered a large side yard between two stately summer homes. It was early — probably too early to legally hunt — and dark. The spot was complicated by a the rise of a knoll. Daniels was on one side of the knoll and Sullivan was 241 feet away on the other side.
At around 6 a.m., Daniels saw a motion and raised his rifle. He pressed one eye against the four-point scope and saw what he thought was a deer — or at least something that resembled a deer. “I saw brown,” he said in an affidavit a day after the incident. “I dropped my rifle and saw a flicker of white. I’m not sure what it really was, but I thought it was the flag [of a deer].” He raised his gun again and, he said, “I saw the brown again and I squeezed the trigger.” The gun exploded, breaking the early morning silence. He missed, or so he thought. As he moved toward the location — up and then down an incline — he saw the shadowy figure of “a man lying there.” He rushed toward the disturbing sight and found a man that he knew to be Bill Sullivan.
Daniels tried to revive and then carry Sullivan to his nearby vehicle. Both attempts were unsuccessful, so he rushed to the nearby home of Gary Young, the Sugar Hill police chief, for help. A hysterical Daniels woke the chief in his bedroom. “Through his sobbing and carrying on,” wrote Young in his official report, “I was able to understand him to say, ‘I think I have killed a man,’” and “that it was Bill Sullivan.”
That name meant something — at least to Young and certainly to law enforcement officials. In the close-knit North County, everyone knew everyone, and many of the people involved had personal relationships with both Sullivan and Daniels, at least through his father, also named Robert Daniels, who was a local state police corporal. Young called the local ambulance, young Daniels’ father and the local State Police barracks and then proceeded to the scene of the shooting, where he met the ambulance crew and Corporal Daniels, who took his son home.
As it was immediately deemed a hunting accident, New Hampshire Fish and Game conservation officer Richard Dufour was charged with leading the investigation. “I had no idea who he was,” he said when asked recently about the incident. Not until some of the state troopers arrived did he learn that Sullivan was “a big deal with the FBI.” John Tholl, one of those state troopers who assisted in the investigation, said, “When we found out who it was, we paid more attention to it. [We knew] there were going to be rumors.”
The news of Sullivan’s death spread quickly through the national news media. Prominent gadfly attorney William Kunster, who led the ACLU, called for an investigation of Sullivan’s death, saying, “There was never more of a motive to kill a man.”
Sullivan joined the FBI during World War II, and in 1961 broke into the top ranks. He became known as “Crazy Billy,” said the New Times magazine a year after his death, “for his maverick style [and because he] had been privy to the FBI’s most sensitive secrets.” As the bureau’s top liberal Democrat, Sullivan ironically ran the counter-espionage and domestic intelligence unit that the magazine said “attempted to neutralize the leftist organization with such tactics as infiltration, monitoring of mail, burglaries and illegal bugging.”
As years passed, Sullivan was seemingly being groomed to replace his notorious boss, J. Edgar Hoover, but in 1971, the two had a serious falling out. A year later Hoover was dead, but Sullivan was passed over for the top FBI job.
During his time in Sugar Hill, Sullivan became a well-known figure in the community. While living a rural lifestyle, he was writing a book about his experience in the FBI, which was published after his death. He was scheduled to testify before a Congressional committee re-examining the assassination of President Kennedy. Adding to the conspiracy theory fever, he was actually one of several witnesses who died shortly before the hearings began.
Sullivan’s so-called “mysterious” death became a common touchstone for JFK conspiracy theorists, most notably, Jim Marrs’ best-selling book, “Crossfire,” which became the basis of Oliver Stone’s movie, “JFK.” But even more mainstream journalists, such as Robert Novak in his 2007 memoir, “The Prince of Darkness,” added to the conspiracy notion by relating conversation with Sullivan in 1972. Novak wrote, “[Sullivan] told me someday I probably would read about his death in some kind of accident, but not to believe it. It would be murder.”
The controversy even made its way into “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader,” a collection of odd stories and anecdotes.
At first blush, the one-page report explaining the incident seems wholly inadequate by today’s high-tech investigative culture, rooted in DNA and CSI. But none of this existed 36 years ago, and certainly not in the rural North Country. Several websites mock the investigation — especially the cozy relationship between the elder Daniels and local law enforcement officers and specifically wonder why young Daniels was released into his father’s custody. They also wonder about how the case could have been resolved in just 10 days, and why it was handled by conservation, not law enforcement officers. There also seem to be simple discrepancies between what Sullivan was wearing and what was gathered at the scene.
“We weren’t trained for that kind of investigation,” said lead investigator Dufour more recently. “We investigated hunting accidents” and those were very rare, he added. In his 20 years with Fish and Game, Dufour said he investigated just three or four shooting incidents — and only two were fatal, and interestingly both occurred in Sugar Hill.
Still, Dufour has had time to think about the incident. He’s quick to deflect many of the criticisms but questions remain. “The odd thing about it,” he says, “is that he was hit in the right shoulder blade and [the bullet] exited through his neck.”
This may be — at least partially — explained by the terrain and the angle and trajectory of the bullet — Daniels was shooting across the knoll and may have fixed his sight on the top of Sullivan’s head, which was adorned with a “dark brown toque hat” and contrasted with his white face. Could Daniels’ bullet have skidded across the ground of the hill and then hit a rock and ricocheted in an upward motion? Other questions have come up over the years. Was there another shooter in the woods? Was Sullivan’s dead body brought to this spot?
Critics like Kunster questioned how someone at this distance with a high-powered scope could confuse a man for a deer, but this misses several factors, Dufour says, including a “buck fever” induced state of mind, and that the “scope magnified the light” of Sullivan’s face against the brown of his hat. But the bottom line, he says, “[at that hour] it was too damn dark to know what you’re shooting at.” “I always wondered,” Dufour says. “I was the lead investigator. There are still questions in my mind — I just don’t know.”
Just before the December issue went to press, a new trove of files on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was released. As of our deadline, no new earth-shattering revelations had come to light, but it dredged up discussion of conspiracy theories, one of which has roots right here in New Hampshire.