It is a picture emblazoned on the pages of American history, the picture of Jack Ruby, his left shoulder prominent to the right of the picture, his left hand almost clinched into a fist, leaning forward as he thrusts a .38 caliber revolver into Lee Harvey Oswald’s midsection, the grimace of pain and astonishment on Oswald’s face as he absorbs the bullet.
Equally prominent in that picture is a large, tall man in a white western Stetson hat wearing a light tan suit with dark tie. His name is James Robert Leavelle, a Dallas police detective who is handcuffed to Oswald. Leavelle also looks astonished as Ruby pulls the trigger.
It was 11 a.m. Nov. 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. Oswald had been arrested in a Dallas movie theater on suspicion of murdering Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippett approximately 45 minutes after the Kennedy shooting.
Sunday marks the 57th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.
Leavelle was transferring Oswald from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail. As they walked into the basement of the headquarters building, which by now was swarming with the media, law enforcement officials and others, Leavelle quickly recognized Ruby, who was standing near where Leavelle would pass with Oswald. Leavelle knew Ruby well from when he was a street officer making sure the nightclub’s were closing by midnight according to state law.
Oswald’s right hand was handcuffed to Leavelle’s left hand. With that hand, Leavelle was grasping Oswald’s belt.
Suddenly, Leavelle and Oswald were facing Ruby. According to later accounts by Leavelle, Ruby was holding the revolver in his left hand, pressed against his left leg.
In an instant, Ruby flipped the handgun to his right hand. Leavelle saw Ruby coming and knew what was going to happen. He quickly tried to grab Ruby, getting his hand on Ruby’s shoulder, but it was too late.
Ruby got one shot into Oswald point blank, hitting him about four inches to the left of his naval. As Ruby tried to get off another shot, Leavelle’s partner, Detective L.C. Graves, grabbed the cylinder of the revolver and would not let go. Leavelle knew neither Ruby nor anyone else was going to pull the trigger as long as Graves was gripping the cylinder.
Still, Ruby was working the trigger, trying to get off another shot. Had he been able to do so, he would have hit Leavelle square in the chest.
As Oswald collapsed, Leavelle was finally able to get his free hand on Ruby’s shoulder.
Leavelle unlocked the handcuffs and remained with Oswald until the ambulance arrived.
Dr. Robert McClelland, who treated Oswald at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, has said that while at Parkland, he noticed that Leavelle was waiting outside the hospital room.
McClelland said Leavelle told him that after Oswald was shot, he “leaned over Oswald and said, ‘Son, you’re hurt real bad. Do you wanna say anything?’
“He looked at me for a second. He waited like he was thinking. Then he shook his head back and forth just as wide as he could. Then he closed his eyes.”
Leavelle asked if the bullet could be removed from Oswald’s body. The outline of the bullet was visible just under the skin on Oswald’s right side. A doctor pinched Oswald’s skin and the bullet popped out “like a grape seed.”
Dallas County medical examiner Earl Rose announced the results of the autopsy: “The two things that we could determine were, first, that he died from a hemorrhage from a gunshot wound, and that otherwise he was a physically healthy male.”
Rose’s examination found that the bullet entered Oswald’s left side in the front part of the abdomen and caused damage to his spleen, stomach, aorta, vena cava, kidney, liver, diaphragm, and 11th rib before coming to rest on his right side.
Leavelle was involved with the interrogation of Oswald, but only about the Tippet murder. He said Oswald was polite and answered the questions, but of course his answers were not truthful.
Leavelle later said he took notes during the interrogation, but they were never found.
Detectives connected Oswald to Kennedy’s assassination when they asked him if he had shot Tippet. His response was that he had not shot anyone. When asked where he worked, Oswald said at the Texas School Book Depository. It was then that he became the major suspect in Kennedy’s slaying.
In a 2006 interview, Leavelle said he was the first to interrogate Oswald, about the Tippett murder, after his arrest. He said he joked with Oswald before the transfer, saying, “Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are,” meaning that the person would hit Oswald instead of Leavelle.
Leavelle said Oswald’s last words before he was shot were, “You’re being melodramatic. Nobody’s going to shoot at me.”
Leavelle said later that complimenting Oswald about his shooting was a mistake because that’s what he wanted, people to compliment him, to think good about him.
Leavelle said Ruby shot Oswald for the same reason. He wanted recognition and to be well thought of and respected.
It fell to Leavelle to escort Ruby from the police headquarters to the county jail. Ruby was nervous, fearing he might be the next assassin’s target. He wanted to borrow Leavelle’s hat and jacket as a type of camouflage. Leavelle said he told Ruby he was not worth killing.
He said Ruby crawled into the back of the squad car and lay face down with Leavelle’s feet on his back.
Leavelle spent many months investigating the Kennedy assassination and whether Oswald may have had collaborators. He found nothing. He said he continued to believe Oswald acted alone for personal glory.
Upon graduation from Detroit (Texas) High School in Red River County, Lavelle joined the Navy. He was at Pearl Harbor, aboard the USS Whittington, when the Japanese attacked Pearl on Dec. 7, 1941.
Leavelle died Aug. 29, 2019, at age 99 in a Colorado hospital after breaking his hip while visiting his daughter.
It is a historical irony that Laevelle was at both Pearl Harbor and the scene of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, two of this nation’s most historical events. Few if any others can make that claim.