Former detective was escorting Oswald when he was shot, killed
DALLAS—As Dallas Police Detective James Robert Leavelle helped lead accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald from the city municipal jail, the corner of his eye caught someone approaching rapidly from the left side.
“I saw him step out toward Oswald,”
said Leavelle, a former Red River County resident, referring to Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby as he started to approach Oswald with a handgun the late morning of Nov. 24, 1963.
“A lot of people out there thought he (Ruby) was a police detective himself. He was always looking people up and down.”
Leavelle himself had plenty of reason to anticipate trouble well ahead of time.
“The day before, we at the police department had been getting a lot of anonymous calls threatening Oswald’s life,” Leavelle said during a recent interview from his home in the Lake Ray Hubbard area of Dallas. “We had a heavy crowd waiting outside wanting to take him away from us and hang him.”
The possibility people wanted to harm Oswald necessitated him being handcuffed to Leavelle, a 25-year veteran of the Dallas PD.
Seeing Ruby step forward with a gun, Leavelle, now 93 years old, reacted as best he knew how.
“I was sure what was about to happen, and I tried to pull Oswald behind me, but he was right up against me and he couldn’t be shielded,” Leavelle said. “I had seen him (Ruby) hanging around the police department for 13 years—since nearly the first day I came to work there.”
However, Leavelle’s move didn’t prevent Ruby’s bullet from going straight through Oswald’s left side in the stomach area.
“All I could do was move him to the left a little ways and then Ruby shot him,” Leavelle said.
Born Aug. 20, 1923, in Red River County between Detroit and Bogota, his family moved close to Lubbock, Texas, for about five years between 1929 and 1934 before moving back to Red River County.
“Both dad and my brother worked in logging at a saw mill near Bagwell, (Texas),” Leavelle said. “They hauled lumber out of Bagwell to different areas but usually to Talco, Texas.”
Leavelle said he had to give up a couple of years of public school to work on a farm picking cotton, harvesting corn, cutting weeds and plowing fields for 50 cents a day until he later joined the Civilian Conservation Corps when he turned 17 in 1937.
While working with the CCC, Leavelle did public park and building construction in New Mexico for one year before returning to high school and graduating in 1939.
Following graduation, Leavelle joined the Navy in late 1939.
“I signed up, and eventually I rode a troop train to San Diego for boot camps in the spring of 1940.”
Leavelle served in World War II, including at Pearl Harbor the day of the Japanese attack, Dec. 7, 1941.
Following the war, Leavelle continued to work for the U.S. government as a auditor for the Veterans Administration Department until the spring of 1950.
“That spring, I saw that the Dallas Police Department had placed an advertisement in the newspaper saying that they were looking for more personnel. So I applied, took the Civil Service exam and joined the police force in April 1950,” Leavelle said.
“At the time, you had to be on patrol at least five years before you could get promoted to detective. I got promoted in 1955.”
Because about 300 of the entire Dallas Police Department’s force of 1,200 officers were assigned to presidential security detail, Leavelle didn’t have a partner that day, so the department assigned him to their main office the morning of Nov. 22, 1963.
“That day before lunchtime, we had an informant call and tell us about the location of where a robbery suspect was hiding at so we picked him up and brought him to the downtown office. While we were headed back into downtown, we could hear on our radio the progress the president’s motorcade was making downtown as it reached Houston Street.”
At the time, President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade started making its final approach to Elm Street in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, near the Texas School Book Depository building. The time almost 12:30 p.m.
“By that time, we had left our car in the city’s police building’s basement and were headed up stairs (by elevator) with our robbery suspect,” Leavelle said. “Once we walked into the office, my captain came right over to us and told us the president had been shot. At first, I thought he was kidding, but he told me to go out to the Houston Street area right away to get witnesses’ statements.”
However, Leavelle said by the time he got to Houston and Elm Street intersection area, he found the roadway blocked solid with cars.
“We managed to get to the Texas School Book Depository building area, which by that time had been sealed off. I started to interview witnesses at the sheriff’s office across the street. We had about 15 to 19 people in there, waiting to give their statements, so we got some help as we interviewed witnesses about what they saw, then we’d get their names, addresses and phone numbers.”
After conducting some witness interviews, Leavelle started to head back from the sheriff’s office to the Texas School Book Depository area.
But he heard about a fellow officer, J.D. Tippit, being shot in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas about 1:15 p.m.
“I heard from the police squawk box about one or our patrolman being shot, and it sounded like there wasn’t any other police out there, so I drove to the Oak Cliff area.”
About the same time, Leavelle arrived at Tippit’s murder site in Oak Cliff, police found a rifle, later discovered to belong to Oswald, inside the School Book Depository building’s sixth floor. About 15 minutes after the gunshots rang out in Dealey Plaza, Oswald, who worked at the depository, became the only employee noted as missing during a head count.
However, upon arriving at the scene at the 10th and Patton Street intersection, Leavelle found other officers at the scene, and by that time, he started hearing on the radio about a suspect connected to Tippit’s shooting.
The suspect was later identified as Oswald, who was arrested at the Texas Theater on West Jefferson Avenue.
Police whisked Oswald to the downtown police headquarters, where Leavelle had been called back to question him shortly after 2 p.m. that day.
“He (Oswald) was arrested for shooting Officer Tippit, and he (Oswald) got assigned to me for the initial questioning,” Leavelle said.
During Leavelle’s brief questioning, Oswald denied shooting Tippit.
Leavelle told Oswald that the police department could conduct ballistic tests proving that the bullets extracted from Tippit came from the revolver that Oswald used.
Oswald replied that the test would just have to be done.
During the course of Leavelle’s 15-minute questioning of Oswald, Dallas Police Capt. J.W. Fritz heard Oswald’s name mentioned.
He immediately recognized Oswald’s name in association with being the only depository building employee reported missing immediately following shots being fire at Kennedy’s motorcade.
“From there, the captain just took over the interview,” Leavelle said.
With Oswald eventually being charged with the murders of both Kennedy and Tippit, the police prepared to transfer Oswald to the Dallas County jail 10 blocks away from the city jail shortly before 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 24. That morning, police led Oswald through the police headquarters basement as they commenced the transfer by car to the county.
But after Ruby’s bullet hit him, Leavelle said Oswald never regained consciousness.
“He ( Oswald) just went straight down after being shot,” Leavelle said. “He was still handcuffed to me, so me and another officer had to carry him back to the jail office, get him unhandcuffed from me and placed on a stretcher.
Leavelle stayed with Oswald on the way to Parkland Memorial Hospital. There, he was pronounced dead shortly after 1 p.m.
“I was right in the operating room when the doctors popped the bullet out of Oswald just like it was grape seed,” he said.
For Leavelle, those three days in Dallas represented the longest he had ever gone without sleeping—from 7 a.m. Friday to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Looking back on his experience being at two critical events in world history, first at Pearl Harbor, then in Dallas on this day 50 years ago, Leavelle said he feels lucky and reassured of something.
“Had I been in New York the day of 9-11, I would have felt sure that there existed a conspiracy of sorts in my life,” he said.