If things had gone his way on Nov. 24, 1963, Detective Jim Leavelle might never have made history.
According to veteran Dallas newsman Hugh Aynesworth, Leavelle had suggested to city police chief Jesse Curry that suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald be moved from police headquarters by surprise that fateful Sunday, out of view of the media.
“(Leavelle) told me he advised Curry to ‘double cross’ the media,’” Aynesworth wrote in “JFK: Breaking The News.”
“I told them, promised them they’d see the man moved,” Curry said to Leavelle.
The police chief prevailed. Most Americans know the rest.
Leavelle, who died last week at 99, was handcuffed to Oswald and had his left hand around the suspect’s belt. In his light suit and Stetson hat, the burly Dallas lawman was framed in history by the photo that shows the split second when Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald to death.
Leavelle appears to scowl as Oswald’s face is contorted in pain. He told the New York Times decades later that he was in the ambulance with Oswald when he took his last breath on the way to Parkland Hospital, where President John F. Kennedy had died two days earlier.
Leavelle, a survivor of Pearl Harbor, made countless appearances over the years in front of audiences who wanted to hear his story. So he told them about being among the detectives who questioned Oswald; about his belief that most of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories were bunk; about the last words he shared with the suspect.
Before they left police headquarters, Leavelle made a joke about the possibility of someone shooting at Oswald, who laughed him off.
“Well, if there’s any trouble, you know what to do,” Leavelle told Oswald, according to Vincent Bugliosi’s exhaustive book on the assassination, “Reclaiming History.”
“Hit the floor.”
“I’ll do whatever you do,” Oswald replied
“In that case,” Leavelle said, “you’ll be on the floor.”
Like many of the Dallas police and newspaper veterans who remained on the case after that ugly November weekend, Leavelle believed the preponderance of evidence pointed to Oswald and Oswald alone, and that, yes, it was possible an angry little Communist could have taken down a president.
He believed he had a “responsibility” to tell his story, Leavelle’s daughter, Tanya Evers, told the Denver Post.
“He really felt a need to address the theories. He wanted to make sure that people knew there was no conspiracy and that one misguided person could take a shot at a president and succeed.”
Still, conspiracy theories and theorists abounded. None were as reckless as the ideas put forth by director Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, “JFK.” In what for many Americans is the definitive account of an assassination they were too young to remember, Stone indicts high-level government officials, everyone from the Secret Service to Vice-President Lyndon Johnson.
So Leavelle had his work cut out for him over the years, including answering mail that came nearly every day from Americans who wanted answers on the assassination and turned to one of the crime’s oldest living witnesses.
In a Dallas Morning News video from 2010, Leavelle described the seconds before the shooting, when he recognized Ruby, a familiar presence at police headquarters.
“I could see Ruby standing in the middle of the driveway, and he had his pistol in his right hand, holding it tight against his right leg,” Leavelle recounted. “I knew exactly what was going to happen then.”
What happened was recorded in the photo by Dallas Times Herald photographer Bob Jackson that won a Pulitzer Prize and made Leavelle famous. (Less than a second earlier, Jack Beers of the Dallas Morning News had captured Ruby as he approached Oswald, gun drawn.)
“They’ve kinda hung the celebrity deal on me,” Leavelled acknowledged in the Morning News video. “But I don’t feel like a celebrity.
“ I was just doing what my job called for me to do.”