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Zapruder film remains critical piece of JFK assassination

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The Zapruder film is one of the most important pieces of evidence in the JFK assassination, a crime mystery still hotly debated 50 years later.

But from the moment it was filmed, it took more than a decade before most Americans actually saw it.

What Abraham Zapruder filmed Nov. 22, 1963 would give him nightmares for years afterward. He was determined the authorities needed to see his footage first, but ended up at a local TV station because he thought the 8mm film could be processed there.

Zapruder was a 58-year-old Russian immigrant who'd built a business in manufacturing women's clothing. He hadn't originally intended to bring his home movie camera to Dealey Plaza, but at the urging of an assistant, he went home to retrieve it.

He was excited to see JFK, whom he greatly admired.

From his perch, with an assistant standing behind him to steady him, Zapruder filmed 26 seconds of color film that would go on to become the most studied home movie ever.

Time, Incorporated bought the film and the copyright for $150,000, publishing individual frames in Life Magazine.

A poor copy was shown at a trial in New Orleans in 1969. The district attorney there was trying to prove a man named Clay Shaw was involved in the conspiracy, but few saw it, and for 12 years, it went unseen by the public until a film technician at a lab in New York made a bootleg copy.

Robert Groden says Time brought the film to a lab where he worked to be blown up to 35mm, and Groden made a copy Time didn't know about.

"I blew it up, zoomed in on the president," Groden said. "And second of all, I shot it one frame at a time and re-positioned the president in each frame so it's stabilized, and you can follow much better what went on."

In 1975, Geraldo Rivera hosted a late night program on ABC called Good Night America. He'd learned of Groden's bootleg film and wanted to air it.

"The physical copy was available, but Time/Life had an ironclad copyright, and they threatened they would sue anybody who went anywhere near it," said Rivera. "I had to sign a release whereby I would be financially responsible for the damages."

America finally saw the Zapruder film when Groden and his film went live on Geraldo.

"The history of what happened in the Kennedy assassination is contained in that film," said Groder. "And it was in private ownership at the time, and the people of the world couldn't see it."

"My response mimicked the response of the millions of Americans that night," said Rivera. "It was, ‘Oh my God, of course there's more than one gunman. Of course there was a conspiracy to kill the president.'"

Even though Time officials threatened to sue, they never did.

"As a result of the reaction to the airing of film, and that so many people were outraged that it had been suppressed for over a decade, they kind of lost their nerve, I think, and backed out," said Rivera. "And never brought the action they swore they would."

Within weeks, Congress reopened the investigation. Groden was hired as photographic consultant to the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

"That was the moment when Life Magazine and Time, Incorporated realized it was time to unload the Zapruder film," said Gary Mack, Sixth Floor Museum curator. "They sold it back to the family for one dollar."

In 1999, the government paid the family $16 million and took the original film.

The copyright was donated by the Zapruders to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which now licenses its use to media outlets around the world.

Now 68, Groden has published his 14th book -- still making the case for conspiracy and spending virtually every weekend at Dealey Plaza.

"I had made a promise to President Kennedy at his gravesite that I would do everything I could to try to get the truth out about what happened," he said.

Geraldo Rivera launched a personal investigation of the evidence that led him to change his mind from that initial reaction upon first seeing the Zapruder film.

"Lee Harvey Oswald and Lee Harvey Oswald alone, at least for the act itself, is the probably most likely explanation for what happened that awful day in Dallas 50 years ago," said Rivera.

Zapruder himself died in 1970, without ever shooting another frame.

Other poor quality bootleg dubs were shown around the country, just adding to the mystery and building suspense that culminated with the national showing of a decent copy in 1975.

Groden, who lives in Dallas now, has had a long running legal battle with the city over Dealey Plaza. He was an advisor and script writer for Oliver Stone's movie, and he sets up shop at Dealey Plaza every weekend, selling books and tapes and magazines.

The city was trying to run him off. They wrote him dozens of tickets and arrested a couple of times, but Groden is winning in court.

He now has a lawsuit pending against the city, claiming false arrest.

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