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Sunday, November 26, 2017

An ordinary American..

In extraordinary times...

There is an old saying that everyone is famous for fifteen minutes. My fifteen minutes was getting on TV after camping out with some friends for the premier of Return of the Jedi (young and stupid), but this gentleman got a bit more than a quarter of an hour.

Retired Dallas Police detective Jim Leavelle was stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After living through "...a date which will live in infamy...", he moved on to the Dallas Police Department in 1950. And his image is engraved in history. He was handcuffed to suspected presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby murdered him.

From this month's American Legion Magazine, an interview with veteran and retired police detective Leavelle, 97 years young.
Two Bouts With Infamy

By John Raughter Nov 20, 2017

Jim Leavelle just may be indestructible. The 97-year-old member of American Legion Post 23 in Garland, Texas, is a living, breathing participant in two of the 20th century’s most significant events.

A sailor serving aboard USS Whitney, he was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Twenty-two years later, on Nov. 24, 1963, Leavelle witnessed the slaying of John F. Kennedy assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald.

How close was he? He was handcuffed to Oswald at the time.

“Those weren’t even my closest calls,” Leavelle chuckles, noting times he faced gunfire during his 25 years with the Dallas Police Department. But none compares to the sheer firepower he saw as a 21-year-old ship’s storekeeper in Hawaii.

“I was on deck and a boatswain’s mate was standing beside me and we were looking across the harbor,” he recalls. “He saw the first plane coming in. I didn’t notice it. He said, ‘Look at that plane. It’s got a red ball on the wing.’ He said they must have been using it for practice. But that was the plane that was sent first. Then he dropped his bombs and went back.”

Whitney was spared as a target due to its location. About a mile and a half from Ford Island, the destroyer was not at the center of the large fleet that bore the brunt. “The Japanese would come over Ford Island and make a turn to the right because that’s where most of the action was, but we were on the other side,” Leavelle says. “One came our direction. I don’t know how he got lost. He fired a few rounds, I guess at several of us, as it passed over.”

Still, Whitney’s crew saw much of the attack. “We did have a good view of everything. A mile and a half at sea looks like 150 yards on the ground because you can see a lot further on the open sea.”

Though his memories of Pearl Harbor are troubling, Leavelle understands the importance of giving an eyewitness account.

“We saw some destroyers going out with big fires on the back end of them where they had got hit,” he says. “The battleship Nevada was trying to get out of there, burning on each end, front and back, and you could see the firemen fighting it, and they had their guns going. They made a lot of wartime movies later on, but none could match what the scene looked like to us.”

Leavelle manned his battle station, although it was not an effective one. “I was a loader on a 5-inch gun,” he says. “It would shoot 40 or 50 miles, so if you fired it could kill someone in Honolulu, but it was useless here.”

While Leavelle did incur an injury during his time in the Navy, it happened prior to Dec. 7, 1941. A wake from a rough Pacific storm struck Whitney and threw him over the rail of a stairwell onto a steel floor, shattering his knees. “After the attack, the doctors would only assign me to shore duty,” he says. “One doctor said he would never approve sea duty because he was afraid my knee wouldn’t hold up, and I couldn’t man a battle station. Since they weren’t going to send me to sea, I got out.”

After a few jobs in the civilian workforce, Leavelle joined the Dallas Police Department in 1950. “I thought my previous injuries might hinder me, but I passed the physical test without any problems, and the rest is history.”

Major history, actually. Wearing a light suit and a cowboy hat, Leavelle is a prominent figure in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing in pain the moment he is shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Leavelle, by this time a homicide detective, had earlier interrogated Oswald for the slaying of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed about 45 minutes after President John F. Kennedy.

“I started talking to him,” Leavelle says of the interrogation. “He was real polite. He wasn’t arguing or anything. Of course he wasn’t answering them truthful. He answered one question that I snapped on real quick. When I asked him about shooting the police officer, he said, ‘I hadn’t shot anybody!’ Well, that’s not the answer to that question.”

His interrogation was interrupted by a police captain who asked Oswald where he worked. When Oswald answered that he worked at the School Book Depository, Leavelle lost his prisoner and Oswald became the prime suspect of a much bigger murder case.

Media quickly descended on the Dallas police station. Moving Oswald from station offices to jail became a logistical challenge as reporters crowded the halls. During a walk-through prior to the Ruby encounter, Leavelle felt something move near his legs.

“There was a reporter with a camera trying to take a picture,” he says. “I gave him the backside of my foot and tried to send him about 10 feet down the hallway. I didn’t have any trouble with him after that.”

The trouble began at 11:21 a.m. Nov. 24. Moments earlier, Leavelle had prepared Oswald for another walk from the station offices. “I said, ‘Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are,’ because he had a marksmanship rating in the Marines. And he started laughing at that. But that’s another mistake. I complimented him and he liked the compliment about his good shooting. That’s what he wanted people to think about him – to think good things about him.”

When they walked into the basement, Leavelle instantly recognized Ruby. Years earlier as a beat officer, Leavelle had been responsible for ensuring the city’s nightclubs closed by midnight in accordance with Texas law. Leavelle describes Ruby as one of the more pleasant club owners he dealt with. “If I ever asked him anything, he’d tell me, and he always told me the truth,” he says.

This encounter was different.

“When I turned the corner and was facing Ruby, I recognized him, but he had that pistol in his left hand pressed against his left leg,” Leavelle says. “But all those reporters and police officers weren’t looking down. They were looking up here (face-level) when I came in, to see what he (Oswald) looked like. But (Ruby) switched that pistol over to his right hand, and I knew immediately what was going to happen. So I tried to grab Ruby. I got my hand on his shoulder, not good enough to do much with him, and I was pulling Oswald behind me at the same time.”

Ruby got his shot off into Oswald, but Leavelle credits his police partner L.C. Graves with saving his own life by grabbing the pistol. “L.C. had the cylinder of that pistol and I knew he wasn’t going to turn it loose, and I knew that nobody could pull that trigger as long as L.C. held that,” he says. “But he already moved over enough. Ruby was still working his finger on his trigger trying to get off a shot. Had he gotten it off, I would have caught it here (the chest). If my partner hadn’t grabbed that cylinder, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”

Oswald lost consciousness and died that day.

Leavelle doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. “We didn’t leave anything out,” he says. “We had run everything down to the last inch.”

So why did Ruby kill Oswald? “Same reason Oswald did it,” Leavelle says. “He wanted recognition. He wanted to be thought something of.”

When it came time to transfer Ruby to jail, the suspect was understandably nervous. “He was wanting to borrow my hat and get my jacket and camouflage himself. I said, ‘Jack, nobody’s going to shoot you. In the first place, you ain’t worth killing.’ He said, ‘Well, all I wanted to do was be a hero, but it looks like I just messed things up.’ I said, ‘You can say that again.’”

Leavelle is a beloved figure by the Dallas Police Department, which named its Detective of the Year Award after him. Although Pearl Harbor led the United States into the bloodiest war of the 20th century, Leavelle says it’s the JFK assassination he is asked about most often. “So many people were too small back during the Pearl Harbor days,” he says. “I (also) think it’s because the president they saw and were closer to.”

Born just a year after The American Legion’s founding, the legendary lawman has witnessed a lot of history. As far as Kennedy goes, Leavelle is neither a fan nor a critic. “I’m like everybody else,” he says. “I don’t think I voted for him, but I don’t think I disliked him. I don’t know that I ever hated any politician. If you try to hate somebody, you’re just wasting your time.”

Well done sir, well done.


  1. I just want to point out; Leavelle's current interviews contradicts what he originally said. He currently says he questioned Oswald about the shooting of Officer Tippit on the 22nd after his arrest. But Leavelle’s Warren Commission testimony states the exact opposite - that he only interrogated Oswald on the 24th - the morning Oswald was shot, and that he had never talked to him before. Not accusing Leavelle of being unrealible or a liar but his interviews he has done in recent years are in contray to his WC testimony. Memory always distort from time to time. When Leavelle testified before the Warren Commission, he claimed that the first time he had ever sat in on an interrogation with Oswald was on Sunday morning, November 24, 1963. When Counsel Joseph Ball asked Leavelle if he had ever spoken to Oswald before this interrogation, he stated; "No, I had never talked to him before". Leavelle then stated during his testimony that "the only time I had connections with Oswald was this Sunday morning [November 24, 1963]. I never had [the] occasion to talk with him at any time..."

    1. So glad I am not the only one who noticed that. Leavelle himself during his W.C. testimony, used “I do not recall” 30 times in two testimony sessions and “I don’t remember” 9 times. Quite a few instances of failed memory when it comes to his actions during that big important day only about 4 months later. But in later years, and today, he is able to give precise details surrounding those days without any trouble. This by the way, is something that seems to be present with almost all D.P.D. law enforcement officers memories from the Kennedy assassination; collective amnesia when it comes to remembering details of Oswald’s interrogations.

    2. Another thing to point out about Leavelle's current claims; his claim that he joked with Oswald, "Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are." Leavelle never mentioned any such thing back in 1963, and his claim that he did was spoken years after Oswald's death. There is no corroboration for any of this from anyone else who was with Leavelle or Oswald, not from L.C. Graves (who was also handcuffed to Oswald) or Captain Will Fritz (who was leading them). No mention of any light hearted banter whatsoever. From the footage that is available when they are coming out, not much was being said at all. I have always wondered if Leavelle is misrembering, or if he actually made that up.

  2. I don't mean any disrespect to the elderly, but we should keep in mind that Leavelle later said to author Joseph McBride that to him, the murder of President John F. Kennedy was "no different than a south Dallas nigger killing". This remark reveals that Leavelle was a racist who was not really concerned about who killed President Kennedy.

    1. For the record, Mcbride did say that Leavelle did preface that comment with “As the old
      saying goes back then.” But Mcbride also said Leavelle said it with a little smile, as if he were genuinely amused by the remark, even saying that Leavelle never even apologized for saying it. He really did say that, yes, and I think it’s quite the shocking statement to make about anybody’s death. The origin of the quote lies in a conversation that author Joseph McBride had with Leavelle some years ago during McBride’s research. McBride had seemingly commented from hearing the recordings of the police interactions of November 22, 1963, that everyone sounded so calm considering the fact that the President had just been shot. Leavelle responded with the line quoted above, with the addition that he had seen many of those. The fact that Leavelle spoke about the death of the President that way may be surprising to many when it’s taken out of its significant historical and sociocultural context.

      Back in the 1920s, Dallas took centre stage as the main chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It is estimated that Dallas membership at the time presumably represented one out of three eligible men. Elections had seen Klansmen gain control over public offices. Both the city police commissioner and the county sheriff were a part of the Klan, as were many others working in law enforcement capacities. The Klan eventually closed its headquarters back in 1929.

      Yet, racial issues in Dallas didn’t quite stop at that. In the early 1960s, it was one of the few cities still resisting integrating its classrooms – long after the decision ordering school desegregation. The civil rights movement was kept at bay in Dallas for the longest time. There are various notions out there that the existence of racial prejudice was predominant in the Dallas Police Department in those days as well, which would definitely fall in line with Leavelle’s quote that he shockingly never even apologised for saying. John F. Kennedy himself may have been of Irish descent, but his endorsement of the civil rights movement would not have endeared him any to those within Dallas wishing to uphold their old status quo. He would, in other words, “be no better than a n*****” – hostilities against Kennedy’s viewpoints were widespread in Dallas, regardless of the warm welcome he received on the day of the assassination, and I think that Leavelle’s quote comes from a very deep-set place of prejudice that is informed by the city’s history and the context of the times they were in.

  3. About Leavelle's claim that he saw Ruby in the crowd and he was pulling Oswald behind him when he saw Ruby approach. Memorise this and have a look at the photographs and films of Oswald being shot, Leavelle had no clue what was happening until the deed was over and done with. Its obvious from the photos and footage of Oswald's shooting, that when Leavelle comes out with Oswald, he is not even looking in the direction of Ruby, who is to his left. Even when Ruby approaches and plunges the gun into Oswald's stomach, Leavelle is not looking at Ruby, but at the transfer car, where they were to place Oswald in. He also made no mention before, that Ruby came close to shooting him and L.C. Graves stopped it.

  4. In an episode of The Simpsons-"Mayored To the Mob" Leavelle was the design for the bodyguard teacher. The academy is even titled "Leavelle's BodyGuard Academy."

    1. Mark Hamil voices the character.

  5. The comments on here...wow.