FORT WORTH —The original casket that Lee Harvey Oswald was buried in days after allegedly assassinating President John F. Kennedy in 1963 is at the center of a trial that began in Fort Worth on Monday.
"This is an interesting case; it has historical implications," said Gant Grimes, attorney for Robert Oswald, Lee Harvey's brother. "Parts of it are fascinating, but the facts are simple: One party sold what another party owned."
The alleged assassin was exhumed in 1981 to make sure he was actually buried in that casket. After confirming the remains belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald, his original $300 pine box was too badly damaged by water for reburial.
"Did you know then what happened to the original coffin you purchased?" Grimes asked Robert Oswald, now 80.
"No sir," he testified. "I just assumed it had been destroyed because it was not reusable."
But the Baumgardner Funeral Home, which purchased the first funeral home that buried Oswald in 1963, kept the casket in storage until it decided to auction it in 2010 through a California firm, Nate D. Sanders Fine Autographs & Memorabilia.
An unnamed buyer purchased the crumbling wood coffin for $87,468, but the sale was stopped after Robert Oswald filed this lawsuit.
The funeral home's attorney argued that Oswald purchased the casket to give to his brother essentially as a "gift," and never actually owned it.
"At the time he bought the casket," attorney Brett Myers said in opening statements, "he would never see the casket again, and it would remain in the ground forever and ever. Under Texas law, your honor, that's a gift."
"Texas law says if a man dies without a will, then his estate gets it — not Robert Oswald," Myers continued. "His widow and daughters are not bringing suit."
But Robert Oswald said that Lee Harvey's widow, Marina, asked him to make funeral arrangements after Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald in the basement of Dallas police headquarters on November 24, 1963.
Oswald testified on a video deposition rather than appear in the courtroom because of declining health. The video — which lasted 77 minutes — showed Oswald answering questions from his attorney. The elder Oswald was wearing glasses, and said it was difficult to see some exhibits.
Several times, he struggled to hear the attorney's questions, but he appeared to have a sharp memory of dates and what transpired.
"It's just bad taste, and as far as I know, it was sold by a bunch of scoundrels," Oswald said.
He testified that he used a cashier's check for $710 to purchase Lee Harvey's casket, vault, suit, and flowers for the 1963 funeral. Oswald therefore argues that he is the rightful owner of the casket, and said it shouldn't have been sold.
"If they had contacted you and said the coffin existed, what would you have done?" Grimes asked his client.
"Destroy it," Robert Oswald testified.
"Why?" Grimes asked.
"Logic," Oswald responded. "Just plain common sense. Why keep it?"
But Robert Oswald admitted he has sold other items that once belonged to his infamous brother, including letters written by Lee Harvey.
"Why has this bothered you so much?" Grimes asked Robert Oswald.
"Number one: I own the items," Oswald answered. "I have the right to sell them versus Baumgardner [Funeral Home] did not have the right. People have been collecting historical letters for years and years. I know of no case where anyone has ever bought a used coffin."
But in a sworn affidavit, JFK historian Farris Rookstool III said he contacted Robert Oswald on March 15, 1993 to warn him that the coffin had not been destroyed, but rather was being kept in storage by the funeral home.
"I told Robert that the Baumgardners were attempting to sell the coffin and the funeral registry out the back door," Rookstool wrote in a sworn affidavit. "I then told Robert that since he paid for the casket and burial, then perhaps it's still his property, and maybe he should take legal action."
But 21 years later, Oswald said he had no recollection of that early warning.
GRIMES: "Were you friends with Mr. Rookstool?"
OSWALD: "No sir."
GRIMES: "Did you exchange Christmas cards with him?"
OSWALD: "That's possible. If someone sent us a Christmas card, we would send one back."
GRIMES: "Is it possible you spoke to Mr. Rookstool and don't remember?"
OSWALD: "I don't think so."
The 80-year-old is also suing for mental anguish.
Robert Oswald's 53-year-old son, Robert Edward Lee Oswald, testified that the sale of the casket has caused added stress to his father's high blood pressure and ailing health.
"It was very difficult to talk to him sometimes because he was withdrawn," the younger Oswald said. "He was under a lot of stress and anxiety."
Attorney Brett Myers, representing Baumgardner Funeral Home, said the elder Oswald has made between $50,000 and $60,000 selling items like letters that once belonged to Lee Harvey.
Still, at issue in this case is who actually owned the casket.
Allen Baumgardner, who purchased the Miller Funeral Home that originally buried Lee Harvey in the early 1970s, testified that the coffin belonged to his company since no one else claimed it.
GRIMES: "Why did you sell it?"
BAUMGARDNER: "I didn't want to keep it anymore."
GRIMES: "Is selling the only option to not keeping it?"
BAUMGARDNER: "Yes sir."
GRIMES: "You couldn't have just thrown it away?"
BAUMGARDNER: "No sir."
GRIMES: "Why not?"
BAUMGARDNER: "It's part of history. Artifacts."
GRIMES: "If it was part of history, why did you store it for 30 years instead of donating it to a museum?"
BAUMGARDNER: "I did talk to some museums, but what they wanted to do was take it and keep it, and if the museum closed down they couldn't tell me what would happen to it. So I kept it myself."
He and his wife offered to sell it to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, but Baumgardner said the curator eventually declined.
During the 30th anniversary of the JFK assassination in 1993, Baumgardner said he had offers to purchase the casket for $10,000 to $15,000 but turned them down because they weren't high enough.
"At what point do you believe that you acquired possession to this?" Grimes asked.
"When nobody claimed it," Baumgardner replied.
The funeral home owner admitted that he didn't try to contact Robert Oswald or the deceased's widow, Marina, to alert them that the casket had been saved.
GRIMES: "You knew Marina owned the casket…"
BAUMGARDNER: "I just figured she didn't want it."
BAUMGARDNER: "She never claimed it. There has to be a statute of limitations on everything."
GRIMES: "Why not ask an attorney?"
BAUMGARDNER: "I didn't think it was necessary."
GRIMES: "You didn't want to know, did you?"
BAUMGARDNER: "I didn't really think about it."
"Allen Baumgardner owns it now," Myers explained. "Who has standing to challenge whether Baumgardner owns it? That's the estate of Lee Harvey Oswald. Who are the beneficiaries of the estate of Lee Harvey Oswald? That would be Marina and his two daughters."
The trial resumes Tuesday in Tarrant County's 67th District Court. It is a bench trial in which the judge will decide the outcome rather than a jury.
Attorneys said they expect Judge Don Cosby to issue a final ruling in a couple of weeks.