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Legal battle over Lee Harvey Oswald's crumbling casket

Lee Harvey Oswald's family goes to court to gain ownership of Oswald's original casket.
The original casket of alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is at the center of a trial underway in Fort Worth.

FORT WORTH, TX (WFAA) – JFK historian Farris Rookstool III testified that Robert Oswald's lawsuit over his brother's crumbling coffin is based on a lie.

Rookstool, a JFK historian and a former FBI analyst, testified on Tuesday as Oswald fights to get ownership of his infamous brother's first casket.

The alleged assassin was exhumed in 1981 to settle conspiracy theories and confirm that Lee Harvey Oswald's remains were actually in his coffin.

But the funeral director that assisted in the exhumation, Allen Baumgardner, kept the original casket and tried to sell it several times over the years before auctioning it in 2010 for more than $87,000.

Robert Oswald, Lee Harvey's older brother, sued Baumgardner in 2011, contesting ownership of it.

But Rookstool said he personally told Oswald that the macabre artifact was for sale as early as 1993.

ROOKSTOOL: "He says 'You're kidding me.'"

OSWALD: "I say 'No sir.' He said, 'Wow, just when you think you've heard it all.'"

ROOKSTOOL: "I said they were offering it for sale.I said, 'Well Robert, I'm not dispensing legal advice, but I thought maybe you could get an injunction or stop the sale of this.'"

Rookstool testified that Oswald said he would have to think about what to do next.

But 17 years later, after Baumgardner sold the casket at auction, Oswald took legal action.

"I told him years before in 1993," Rookstool testified. "I knew that was in fact not only not truthful, but completely fraudulent and was without any sort of factual base. My feeling was ... that when you attempt to pervert or hijack the court based on a lie it's egregious."

Rookstool's testimony directly contradicts what Oswald, 80, told the court on Monday.

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Oswald testified that he neither knew the casket existed before it went up for auction in 2010, but also he had never heard of Rookstool.

As the second day of trial got underway on Tuesday, the attorney representing Baumgardner sought to shore up his client's credibility over keeping the casket.

"Did anybody tell you [that] you were to destroy the casket?" asked attorney Brett Myers.

"No sir," Baumgardner replied.

"Did anybody tell you to keep the casket on behalf of somebody else?" Myers continued.

"No sir," he said.

"If someone would have told you to destroy the casket, what would you have done [so]?" the attorney asked.

"Destroy it," Baumgardner answered.

Oswald originally paid $300 for the pine box in 1963 and insists that makes him the rightful owner of it.

But Baumgardner's attorney argues the casket was a "gift" to Lee Harvey because Robert purchased it for his brother and never intended to get it back. The rightful heirs to it, if any, Myers explained, are Lee Harvey Oswald's widow and daughters who have not sued for it.

Still, Baumgardner admitted on Monday that he never reached out to Oswald's widow or his brother to see if they had an interest in the casket.

"Are there any rules or regulations that govern or control what a funeral director is supposed to do with a casket that is part of an exhumation process and when it is no longer usable?" Myers asked.

"No sir," replied Baumgardner.

But in re-cross examination, Grimes tried again to show Baumgardner as only seeking to profit from the sale of the casket rather than show any respect for the family of the deceased.

The judge, leading a bench trial rather than a jury trial, then quizzed Baumgardner himself in a potentially damaging line of questioning.

Baumgardner previously testified he worked for Miller Funeral Home as an ambulance driver when it embalmed and buried Lee Harvey Oswald in November 1963. Baumgardner left that job the following year but ended up buying his former employer a decade later in the early 1970s.

Baumgardner didn't just auction Oswald's casket, but also other items such as the embalming table and instruments that he said were used on the assassin.

"How do you know the items you gave to [Nate D.] Sanders to put up for auction were in fact the same tools used on Oswald?" Judge Cosby asked.

After pausing for a moment, Baumgarder replied: "Nobody ever buys a new embalming table. They're kept forever."

The judge asked whether Baumgardner could authenticate the items even though he was gone from the funeral home for a decade since they were used.

"I never really thought about it that way. They were there when we purchased the funeral home and looked like it when we were there," Baumgardner said.

"But you have no proof they were in fact the ones used on Lee Harvey Oswald?" Judge Cosby pressed.

"No sir," Baumgardner admitted.

Those items sold for $55,000. Proceeds went to the corporation, not Baumgardner personally, he testified.

"History allowed you the opportunity to transport the casket," the judge said. "You're entitled to claim it as yours?"

"Yes," Baumgardner told him. "Because nobody wanted it."

But the judge continued to pick apart Baumgardner's testimony as to who exactly knew that he saved the coffin.

"What proof do you have that Marina Oswald Porter knew?" Judge Cosby asked.

"Oh, I don't have any proof," Baumgardner testified.

"What proof do you have that Robert Oswald knew that an old casket existed?" the judge continued.

"I don't have any proof," Baumgardner admitted.

Still, Brett Myers reiterated that Robert Oswald doesn't have an ownership claim in this case because he purchased the casket for his brother in 1963 with no expectations that he would ever get it back.

Myers said it's also difficult to assess any damages for mental anguish in the case since Oswald wants to destroy the casket.

"Just because he never intended it ever to come back up to Earth, he never abandoned or relinquished any rights to title," said Gant Grimes, Oswald's attorney.

"It was not a gift," continued Grimes. "He didn't make it with any donative intent. The only intent he had was my brother just got murdered. I need to get him a casket to get him buried."

Oswald has made more than $50,000 selling letters that once belonged to his infamous younger brother, but insists he would not resell the casket.

The trial, four years in the making, only lasted two days in Tarrant County's 67th District Court.

Attorneys said they expect the judge to issue a final ruling in a couple of weeks.

Editor's note: Farris Rookstool III provided historical expertise for WFAA-TV during coverage of the 50th anniversary of the president's assassination in 2013.