It was hot, over 100 degrees, and there was no breeze, but plenty of humidity in the field of mesquite and cactus in the Rio Grande Valley that August. But, considering that I was with a man whose name is historic, I just didn’t care, I was thrilled to be there.
In the 80s, a friend of mine casually mentioned that her cousin was the “cop in the white cowboy hat” who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot and killed on live television.
I was the editor of a weekly newspaper at the time and could not believe what I had heard. I asked if she would see if he would come to the Valley for a visit so I could interview him about his involvement in the aftermath of the assassination of likely the most popular president in the history of the country, John F. Kennedy.
When she called me and told me that Jim Leavelle would come down under one condition, that I find him a place to go white wing hunting, I was thrilled.
When I met Jim in person, I noticed two things immediately: his blue eyes and his height, well over six feet tall. But, Jim had a quiet, funny demeanor. He had spent 25 years in police work, and when he retired in 1975, he had reached the rank of homicide detective.
Although 20 years had passed, when he and I began speaking about Nov. 22, 1963 and the days that followed, he remembered both major and minor details, and that surprised me.
In that field filled with nothing but trees and cactus, 30 miles from the closest city, Jim propped his shotgun against his lawn chair and began to tell me about that unforgettable time in American history. Even today, people are still divided about whether or not there was a conspiracy in the killing of President Kennedy.
I switched on my tape recorder, offered him his beverage of choice, Diet Coke, and I let him talk.
That day, a Friday, the entire city of Dallas was filled with excitement because President Kennedy and his beautiful wife, Jackie were coming to town and a huge parade and thousands of people were ready to welcome them.
That same feeling was running through the Dallas Police Department. In fact, everyone with a rank above Leavelle made plans to get on the parade route and see the motorcade travel down the street.
Jim, as a homicide detective, was left in charge in case some crime was committed while they were all celebrating the president’s visit.
When Lee Harvey Oswald was brought into his office, Jim was told that the suspect had shot Police Officer J.D. Tippit outside a movie theater.
Left alone with the killer, Jim began to interrogate him. During the conversation, Jim recalls Oswald saying, “I didn’t kill them.”
Thinking he had misspoken, Jim didn’t question him further about it. He continued on, gathering information from Oswald. The conversation was interrupted when Jim’s supervisors returned and took the suspect away.
They learned that the 24 year-old man had defected to the Soviet Union but had returned to the United States the year prior.
While the country reeled from the killing, the Dallas Police Department prepared to move Oswald to the county jail.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, Jim Leavelle was assigned to transport the prisoner. Dressed in a light colored suit and a white cowboy hat, he was handcuffed to Oswald. He told me that he had recalled joking to Oswald before the transfer, “Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are.” Oswald kind of smiled and said, “Nobody’s going to shoot at me.”
They took the elevator downstairs to the parking garage, and when the doors opened, Jim said they were mobbed by reporters and had several television cameras with bright lights pointed at them.
As tall as he was, Jim stood over most of those in the garage. He saw a stocky man step forward, pointing a pistol at Oswald. In the limited space, Jim tried to jerk him away as the gunman pulled the trigger, but Oswald was hit in the abdomen.
In 1963, filming any live event was very rare. Television cameras were there to show Oswald’s transfer to jail; yet, as the world watched, they saw a man step out, point and shoot a gun at the suspect.
As the man, later identified as Jack Ruby, was taken into custody, Jim helped get the still handcuffed Oswald into a nearby kitchen. The dead man was placed on a stainless steel table and Jim’s handcuffs removed.
Jim returned to his upstairs office and Ruby was brought to him.
As he was being interrogated, Ruby asked Jim if he recognized him.
Jim told me the shooting had happened in just a few seconds, but when he saw Ruby, he knew he had seen him somewhere before.
Several years prior, when Jim was just a rookie cop, Ruby, who owned low class bars with dancing girls, stood at the front door, trusting no one but himself to collect cover charges.
Jim was instructed to wait at the door by his partner while he showed him how to throw out the men who were intoxicated and trying to grab at the dancing girls.
With Jim standing next to him, Ruby told the police officer that he had a fantasy that some day a cop would be in dire need of help and he would be there to save him and be a hero.
In 1963, during his interrogation, Ruby reminded Jim of that conversation and Jim remembered it. “I guess I messed up, didn’t I?” Ruby asked Jim, who agreed with him.
Ruby was removed from Jim’s office, but again Jim was instructed to escort the prisoner to the jail.
Jack Ruby was terrified when he learned that he would be moved through the same basement as Oswald had been when he had shot him.
He told Jim he feared someone would retaliate because the country was not given the satisfaction of watching Oswald go on trial for killing their beloved president.
But, against all his protests, Ruby was taken downstairs and as soon as the elevator doors opened, Ruby saw the open back door of a police car and dove inside and lay on the floor.
I sensed a hint of humor in Jim’s voice as he told me he “had to stay with his prisoner” and managed to get his huge frame in the back seat, his knees high and his feet on top of Ruby.
Even in jail, Ruby felt someone would murder him for killing Oswald. He went on trial, and on March 14, 1964, was convicted of murder with malice and received a death sentence.
Ruby died from lung cancer on Jan. 3, 1967, ironically at Parkland Hospital, where Oswald had died and where President Kennedy had been pronounced dead.
Because so many questions arose, and so many people felt the whole story had not been shared with the American public, now President Lyndon Johnson had to do something.
He formed the Warren Commission, a group of lawmakers, put together to review all the facts about both the killing of Kennedy and Oswald.
Jim was called to testify, and although it was a very serious hearing, and Jim provided the information the Commission asked for, when he was asked one particular question, the room erupted in laughter.
One member asked what it had been like in the basement of the police department when Ruby shot Oswald. “I asked them, ‘Well, have you ever seen someone with a bucket of slop and a bunch of hungry hogs around?’”
Shocked, I said, Oh, Jim, you did not say that!” He told me to go look. So, later I looked up the Warren Commission Report and there it was, exactly as Jim had recalled it.
Although it’s been 51 years since the assassination, controversy still surrounds whether or not there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
Jim told me he does not believe there was a conspiracy for two reasons. When he was alone with Oswald, Jim heard him say that he did not kill “them”... convincing Jim that Oswald acted alone. When he was alone with Ruby and recalled how Ruby wanted to be a hero, he felt the assassin’s killer acted alone.
Jim never picked up his shotgun to shoot at even one bird that first day of a two-day hunt, it was just too hot. But the second day, he still wanted to visit with us. So, we sat in my back yard under shade trees and watched the birds come to my property as we heard hunters shooting at them from nearby. My dog jumped into his lap and stayed there the entire day. Again, Jim never picked up his shotgun to shoot a bird. He sipped Diet Coke and we talked and laughed about life.
Rarely do I get personal with someone I write about, but Jim and I wrote back and forth for a few years after that, discussing family and that trip to the Valley; but we never again discussed the part of American history that made him so famous. Now, he was my friend.
Jim is in his 90s now, and the suit he wore on Nov. 24, 1963, the handcuffs used to restrain Lee Harvey Oswald, and the grey fedora Jack Ruby wore when he shot Oswald are now displayed in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas.