By: Dave Astor
Eyewitnesses to the events surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy have told their stories many times before, but this time the audience was a large group of newspaper columnists.
The speakers included two journalists and former Dallas Police Detective Jim Leavelle, the man in the white hat who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby.
Looking at that iconic photo — by Bob Jackson of the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald — it appears that Leavelle was recoiling away from the shooting as Ruby’s bullet entered Oswald. But Leavelle said he was trying to protect Oswald.
“I saw Ruby take the pistol out of his coat pocket,” Leavelle told National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference attendees, who traveled from their Grapevine, Texas, meeting Saturday to visit The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. “I knew what was happening. I was trying to pull Oswald behind me. If I had been further away, I would have had the leverage. All I ended up doing was turning his body.”
Leavelle, now 84, recalled that anonymous threats against Oswald had poured into the Dallas Police Department since he was arrested two days earlier. So when Leavelle was about to escort Oswald, he told him: “Lee, if anyone shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are.”
After the shooting, Leavelle accompanied the dying Oswald in an ambulance, and stayed in the hospital long enough for the doctor to remove Ruby’s bullet from Oswald’s body for evidence. The bullet had ended up very close to Oswald’s skin after hitting vital organs and a rib.
The next day, Leavelle was involved in transferring Ruby. “I told him, ‘You didn’t do us any favors shooting Oswald,'” remembered the former detective. “He said, ‘I just wanted to be a hero.'” Later, said Leavelle, Ruby came up with other reasons for shooting Oswald, such as wanting to spare Jackie Kennedy a trip back to Dallas for Oswald’s trial and wanting to show that “Jews have guts.”
Leavelle said he has spoken “from Maine to Wyoming” about the day Oswald was shot, but has never asked for anything more than travel expenses to do so. He does keep a memento of that day — the key to the handcuffs that attached him to Oswald. As several columnists and E&P gathered around Leavelle after his talk, he pulled it out of his pocket.
Why does Leavelle feel Oswald killed the president? “He wanted the publicity,” the former detective said. “He didn’t shoot Kennedy. He shot the president, who happened to be Kennedy.”
Also speaking was Hugh Aynesworth, who’s now Southwest bureau chief for the Washington Times. In 1963, he was the science and aviation reporter for The Dallas Morning News. Aynesworth wasn’t one of the reporters assigned to cover Kennedy’s Nov. 22 visit, but walked over to see the motorcade. Then three shots rang out. Soon, “it was chaos,” he recalled. “Children were thrown to the ground. A person was throwing up.”
Aynesworth wasn’t carrying a reporter’s notebook or anything to write with. “I had a couple of utility bills in my back pocket,” he said. “Then I spotted a boy with a big pencil and bought it from him for two quarters.” Aynesworth ended up following the police to the Texas Theatre, and got there just before Oswald was apprehended.
Two days later, he was at the site where Ruby shot Oswald. “The security was pretty damn good,” said Aynesworth. “I was stopped three times. It was a one-in-a-million deal that Ruby got in.”
Also speaking was Bert Shipp, who covered the assassination as a TV reporter.
The discussion took place a floor above where Oswald allegedly shot Kennedy in what was formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository building. The seventh-floor space is the site of an exhibit, called “Covering Chaos,” about how the print and broadcast media reported on the assassination and its aftermath between Nov. 22 and Nov. 25, 1963. Included are examples of newspapers from those four days, photos, film clips, and more. The show officially opens July 1, and runs through Jan. 31, 2006.