(Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On Nov. 22, 1963, many lives of a generation were changed by the assassination. ECM Political Editor Howard Lestrud, an avid JFK item collector for more than 50 years, is writing a series of articles on Kennedy leading up to the assassination observance. The first in the series was on Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, and his father, Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture under Kennedy. With this piece, Lestrud writes about his friend, former Dallas Police Detective J.R. Leavelle, known as the man in white handcuffed to Oswald when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. Lestrud plans to visit Dallas over the Nov. 22 anniversary to attend special observances planned by the city of Dallas and by the Sixth Floor Museum.)
by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Nearly 50 years have passed since our 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, on the streets of Dallas, Texas.
To this date, many people still believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Many theories have evolved over the years. Those theories have never been proven, however, and evidence still points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin.
Today, a former Dallas Police detective who interrogated Oswald after Oswald allegedly shot a policeman and the president, still believes that the 24-year-old Oswald was the lone assassin of Kennedy. He is James R. Leavelle, familiar to most as the man dressed in a light tan suit and Stetson hat, handcuffed to Oswald when he was shot by Jack Ruby. The shooting, captured in a now historic photograph, occurred just two days after Kennedy’s assassination as Oswald was being transferred by Leavelle and other law enforcement officers from the Dallas Police Department to a county jail just down the street.
Leavelle, who just turned 93, is enjoying relatively good health and still openly talks about the events surrounding the assassination of Kennedy.
Leavelle said he has already granted maybe 10 interviews that apparently will be shown near the anniversary date. Three of the interviews were done by media outlets from London, England. He said he has no plans at this time to participate in any anniversary events on Nov. 22, 2013.
When contacted at his assisted living complex in Garland, Texas, Leavelle was asked if he thought he would be answering questions about the JFK assassination 50 years later.
“I didn’t think I would be answering questions six months later,” he said in his strong Dallas dialect. “I thought it would be over quickly,” he added.
Leavelle said he still gets an average of three letters per week from all over the world, most recently from the Republic of Macedonia, a country located in the central Balkan peninsula in Southeast Europe.
Those who contact Leavelle by mail often ask him to write a synopsis of his thoughts about the assassination.
“I don’t do that,” he said.
Over the years, Leavelle has been very agreeable to visit the classrooms of young students and answer their questions about this time in history.
Asked 10 years ago if his recollections of those four days in November were just as clear today as they were then, Leavelle remarked, “Time moves on, but nobody has let me forget what happened; it stays with me.”
Leavelle fields most questions posed to him, but there’s one inquiry that irritates him.
“Reporters often ask me, ‘What was going on in your mind when you saw Ruby shoot Oswald?’ I knew exactly what was happening and immediately moved to solve it. I saw Jack Ruby before he made his move toward Oswald. I jerked back and tried to pull Oswald behind me. I did manage to turn his body and he was hit about three-four inches left of the navel.”
Leavelle said he saw Ruby coming around the corner of the police station. Leavelle tried to save the prisoner, he said.
“I just wanted to get the heck out of there,” Leavelle said.
Leavelle logged 26 years with the Dallas Police Department and was on duty on Nov. 22. He was dispatched to the police station, where he interrogated Oswald for the shooting of Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit.
Only one other former Dallas detective working the weekend of the assassination is still living, Leavelle said: Elmer Boyd. Leavelle said Boyd, about 10 years his junior, was leading Oswald from the jail hallway to the captain’s office and was seen in video and still photos.
Leavelle loves to tell his story, and over the years, it has been consistently the same.
“Had we gone to trial, based on the evidence, we would have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Oswald was the single gunman,” Leavelle told this writer 10 years ago on the 40th anniversary of the assassination.
Leavelle believes Oswald wanted to be someone important and thus decided “to do something spectacular.” He also believes Jack Ruby also wanted to be a hero by shooting Oswald.
Leavelle still has his guns he owned at the time of the assassination and has loaned his famous hat, suit, tie and handcuffs for display at the Sixth Floor Museum located in the former Texas School Book Depository building, believed to have been Oswald’s shooting perch.
Acknowledging there are still people writing books on assassination conspiracy theories, Leavelle said these people want the assassination to be a mystery so it can be solved.
Leavelle has made talks on the assassination from Alaska to Florida and from Maine to Hawaii.
“When I am finished talking, people often thank me for answering their questions,” Leavelle said. He is quick to add that he believes everyone has the privilege to believe anything.
Leavelle still enjoys telling his story to young people in the classroom.
“Youngsters have interested minds, and I don’t mind sharing thoughts with them,” Leavelle said. “I try to teach by telling youngsters what the truth is and oftentimes point out errors that have been made in many books recounting the assassination,” Leavelle said.
Leavelle has continued to be a longtime friend of a student who heard him talk in Oregon on the assassination 20 years ago. She is married now with two children and lives in Amarillo, Texas.
“She calls me Grandpa Jim because she said she did not get to know her grandfathers,” Leavelle said.
Leavelle and his wife Timi met in California. She once resided in Aitkin, Minn., but hasn’t been back to visit for some time, Leavelle said. They met soon after another unforgettable world event: the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Leavelle had been stationed there since 1940 and, when injured in the bombing, was sent to a Naval hospital in California. There, he met his wife, a nurse.
Much of Leavelle’s recollections of the events surrounding the assassination are a matter of public record. He gave lengthy testimony to the Warren Commission, which submitted a report in September of 1964 saying Oswald was the lone gunman.
Comments made to this writer by Leavelle on the 40th anniversary of the assassination:
• “Oswald didn’t kill John F. Kennedy; he killed the president of the United States. He went after the office and didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.”
• Jack Ruby, Oswald’s assassin, was a similar type of individual to Oswald, Leavelle said. “When we wrestled him to the ground after he shot Oswald, he said he did it to be a hero. He also said, ‘I guess I messed it up.’”
• Ruby was previously known by many Dallas Police officers, including Leavelle. Leavelle recalls meeting him 13 years earlier at a dance hall he ran in South Irving, Texas. Ruby told Leavelle then that he was always ready to protect police officers who came to his establishment and said that someday he might save an officer’s life.
• Leavelle personally doesn’t believe Oswald and Ruby knew one another and doesn’t think Oswald believed he might be shot when he was being transferred from the Dallas Police Department to the county jail.
• “Some people have said that they could tell by the expression on Oswald’s face that he knew Ruby when Ruby lunged forward at him with a gun. Oswald didn’t recognize Ruby, he recognized the sight of a gun and showed fear of that.”
• Ruby was transferred to the same county jail a few days later and he was fearful he would be shot. “He wanted to wear my hat and suit during the transfer. I told him he wasn’t worth killing.”
• Leavelle dismissed conspiracy theories, marveling at how sharp memories become as time goes by. Many of the authors of these conspiracy books were not even born at the time of the assassination, Leavelle said.
Leavelle has never written a book on his Dallas police work, but he is never shy in telling what he says is the truth about what happened Nov. 22-24, 1963. He was there.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]
Check out Lestrud’s previous story in the series about Mike Freeman and his father Orville Freeman, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Kennedy.