VENTURA, Calif. » The call came in to a switchboard in Oxnard, Calif., just after 10 a.m. on Nov. 22, 1963.
”Operator," answered a six-year employee with General Telephone Co. She heard a fuzzy sound. But no one spoke, and she thought the phone was off the hook.
Then the whispering started.
Worried the caller could be in trouble, the operator asked her co-worker to pick up, too.
”The President is going to die at 10:10," they heard whispered faintly through the open line.
They each looked at the clock. It was just a few minutes before 10:10.
Minutes later, another whispered prediction came: "The President is going to die at 10:30."
The operators, who believed the person was mentally disturbed, had disconnected the call by 10:25 that morning. By then, President John F. Kennedy was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.
He was shot and killed at 12:30 p.m. Central time — 10:30 a.m. in California.
The mysterious phone call was one of hundreds of tips reported to the FBI in the minutes and days following Kennedy’s assassination. Even 50 years later, speculation about the phone call lives on in blog posts and books — one small detail amid a sea of questions surrounding the president’s death.
”Any time an event gets studied and studied … mysteries are going to come up that are difficult, if not impossible, to answer," said Tom Stone, a senior lecturer at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
With the Kennedy assassination, a host of issues add to the controversy, he said. The Warren Commission failed to close the case. Lee Harvey Oswald was killed before he could stand trial.
By the time questions started getting answered, the "conspiracy horse" had already left the barn, said Stone, who has taught about Kennedy and the assassination for the past 10 years.
He had not heard about the Oxnard phone call but was not surprised. Back then, Kennedy had enemies. Shortly before the Dallas trip, events were canceled because of death threats.
The Oxnard Press-Courier and Ventura Star-Free Press ran short stories about the anonymous call, as did the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press. FBI reports, however, provide more details.
The Mary Ferrell Foundation website offers two FBI reports about the anonymous call. The nonprofit organization scans and posts decades-old records to increase access to documents about the Kennedyassassination and other investigations, said Rex Bradford, foundation president.
A typed FBI report — marked urgent and time-stamped 4:56 p.m. Nov. 22 — says the phone company reported the anonymous call about an hour after the shooting.
While the origin of the call wasn’t clear, the switchboard served about 12,000 lines in the Oxnard area. News reports at the time said that included Camarillo, Oxnard and surrounding communities. Of those, 60 percent were party lines, and the telephone company was unable to identify the caller or the call’s origin.
After the first whispers about the president’s imminent death, the two operators heard something like: "The justice. The Supreme Court. There’s going to be fire in all the windows. The government is going up in flames."
The whispered words came quickly, rhythmically, the operators later told the FBI. One said it sounded like the person was reading from something.
At one point, the person seemed to lay the phone on a table. Someone dialed some numbers, maybe 12 to 15 digits. One of the operators asked again if she could help. This time, a woman responded, speaking clearly: "No. I’m using the phone."
The operators said the voice sounded like a middle-aged woman.
The whispering started again. Different judicial courts were named, then the second report that the president would die, and then more court names.
”The government takes over everything, lock, stock and barrel," was one of the last whispers heard by the operators. The voice soon became inaudible, and an operator released the call.
The whole thing took 10 to 15 minutes, during which both operators had to leave at times to answer other calls. But they told the FBI that at no time was there any other party on the line.
The FBI report says: "It was their impression that unidentified woman caller was quite disturbed."