Jim Leavelle, lawman at Lee Harvey Oswald's side, dies at 99
By DAVID WARREN | Associated Press and Stars and Stripes staff | Published: August 30, 2019
DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — A fraction of a second stands out from all the other notable experiences in James Robert Leavelle’s long, notable life.
He was among the first sailors at Pearl Harbor to see Japanese Zeros attacking the U.S. fleet. He was a Dallas detective who solved all but two of the multitude of cases he handled. (He was pretty sure what happened in the two unsolved ones.)
But on Nov. 24, 1963, he was the cowboy-hatted man in the light-colored suit handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald as Jack Ruby fired his fatal shot on live TV. That moment became one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century.
Leavelle died Thursday, his daughter Karla Leavelle confirmed. He was 99.
Both Pearl Harbor and Oswald’s shooting were imprinted in Leavelle’s mind.
“It’s kind of like a camera, once you took it in, you never got rid of it,” he said in February 2014.
Oswald’s shooting wasn’t an incident he discussed easily in its aftermath. For Leavelle and others linked to the events that colored national perceptions of Dallas, it was years before they felt comfortable opening up.
“Particularly as he got older, he felt an obligation to tell what he knew, to dispel the conspiracy theories,” said daughter Tanya Evers of San Antonio. “He felt like he had a responsibility.”
Just last week, Leavelle had celebrated his 99th birthday in Dallas with about 50 friends.
“We have a photo of him blowing out all 99 candles,” Karla Leavelle said.
She and Evers remember Leavelle as a devoted father who believed in discipline and conviction, and as a compassionate and loyal man who maintained lifelong friendships.
“If you became his friend, you were his friend forever,” Evers said.
Among those friends was a radio newsman who had reported on the shooting; he and Leavelle regularly visited each other even after the reporter moved to South Texas. Another was a woman who had been in middle school when she wrote a letter to Leavelle, seeking information about the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath.
“He wrote her back, and they’d been corresponding ever since,” Evers said. “Now she’s grown with two kids of her own, and I don’t know if he influenced her, but she’s in law enforcement in West Texas. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Born in the country in Red River County near Detroit, Texas, Leavelle seemed destined to live an exciting life. A Detroit High School classmate predicted in the 1939 yearbook that Leavelle would become a big-city detective.
“I don’t know how the others fared, but he hit me right on the head,” Leavelle said.
He joined the Navy immediately after graduating from high school but had to wait for enough other men to enlist to form a training company in early 1940.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Leavelle was on the deck of the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender, about two miles from Pearl Harbor. He was talking to a boatswain’s mate when the officer spotted the enemy planes attacking Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. The boatswain blew his whistle, signaling the call to the battle stations into the intercom.
“He closed it off by saying, ‘This is no bull---- either,’” Leavelle said.
Leavelle went to his battle station, but the 6-inch gun he was assigned to was too big for the close-up fighting.
“It was designed to shoot 30 or 40 miles,” he said. “I didn’t fire a shot that day, because if they’d fired that one, they would have killed somebody … on the other side of the islands.”
After the air attacks ended, the sailors were on edge about a possible land invasion.
“It kept us on our toes for the rest of that day and night,” he said.
Leavelle’s days at sea ended when the Whitney was trapped in a typhoon for three days. He was tossed off a stairwell and fell about 10 feet to the steel deck when a large wave jolted the ship.
He landed on his knees, which he said swelled to the size of footballs. He became ambulatory again after treatment stateside, but his request to return to sea duty was denied. He took a civilian assignment with a military warehouse.
After the war, Leavelle came to Dallas, where he worked a number of jobs before he became a police officer in April 1950.
Leavelle was a patrolman when he had his first encounters with Ruby at his dance hall on South Ervay Street. At the time, officers were often assigned to shake down beer joints near closing time to check for rowdy customers who might create disturbances.
He recalled in his Sixth Floor Museum oral history that Ruby made a prophetic comment during one such shakedown.
“He told me, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to see two police officers in a death struggle with somebody about to lose their life, and I could jump in and save them,’” Leavelle said.
The morning after Oswald was shot, Leavelle recalled Ruby’s statement about wanting to be a hero.
“I told him, ‘You know you didn’t do us any favor by shooting Oswald,’” Leavelle said. “He said, ‘All I wanted to do was to be a hero, and it looks like all I did was foul things up. … ’
“And I said, ‘Well, you can say that again.’”
Leavelle found himself in several life-threatening situations during his police career, and he easily recalled details of the events more than a half-century later.
In May 1959, Leavelle responded to a hostage situation in southwest Dallas. A man who wanted revenge on former Texas Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel was holding four people hostage and already had killed a man who tried to escape.
Leavelle and another officer were trying to rescue the homeowner through a window when the suspect opened fire with an automatic rifle.
“He cut down on me, and he put four bullets in the window frame just about four inches from my head,” Leavelle said. “The splinters flew off and hit me in the face and everything.”
The gunman then turned and fired on another officer at the window.
“He didn’t want to hit the old lady, because that was the only hostage he had left,” Leavelle said. “He was shooting to the side, that’s what saved us.”
When all the hostages were out of the house, homicide Capt. Will Fritz made a final appeal to the gunman to surrender.
“He said, ‘I’m going to lace that wall with this Thompson (submachine gun). I’m going down to the end and back with it. Then you go and kick that door in.’
“I said, ‘Have at it.’ He cut that Thompson loose like a sewing machine.”
Leavelle kicked the door in and found the gunman dead, apparently by suicide.
In April 1972, Leavelle had another close call when he and two other detectives were ambushed by a fugitive they were arresting at an East Dallas apartment.
A woman answered the door at the apartment after the detectives knocked and identified themselves. The suspect — wanted on narcotics and forgery charges — fired at the detectives as Leavelle opened the door wider.
“That gun wasn’t more than 8 to 10 inches from my head when he fired it,” Leavelle said. “It missed me, but I got powder burns on the left side of my face.”
Realizing that he didn’t have time to draw his weapon, Leavelle grabbed the man by his hair and jerked him out of his chair.
“Fortunately, he had a good head of hair,” he said.
The man fell spread-eagle on the floor but still had his weapon. As he freed the weapon, Leavelle noticed that a third detective had wounded the suspect.
The suspect was later convicted as part of a forgery ring.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Leavelle was assigned to be available in case something came up, he said in a 2002 oral history interview for The Sixth Floor Museum.
Leavelle made an arrest that morning, after an armed robbery suspect he was after was spotted in North Dallas.
“It was always interesting to solve some kind of mystery,” Leavelle said in 2014. “I only had two unsolved murder mysteries when I left. One of them I don’t think was a murder, it was an accident.”
Leavelle and a patrolman arrested the man and took the suspect to the city jail. The motorcade was nearly through downtown Dallas when he arrived at the jail. When they reached the third floor of the jail, Leavelle learned the president had been shot.
He went to the Texas School Book Depository, where other detectives were investigating the crime scene. Leavelle organized other officers to take witness statements.
Leavelle then learned an officer had been shot in Oak Cliff. He arrived at the scene after Officer J. D. Tippit’s body had been removed.
“They called me on the air to tell me that they … had arrested a suspect at the Texas Theatre,” Leavelle said in his Sixth Floor history.
Leavelle instructed the dispatcher to have the arresting officers take the suspect to his office. Oswald was alone in an interrogation room when Leavelle arrived downtown.
“I sat down and started talking to him strictly about the shooting of Tippit,” Leavelle said in his oral history. “I had no clue that he was going to be the suspect in the presidential assassination. That was the farthest thing from my mind.”
About this time, Capt. Fritz returned from the book depository and asked Leavelle the name of his suspect.
“So I lost my prisoner in that case,” he said. “They took him to Capt. Fritz’s office … so I never did any more questioning of him.”
Leavelle was handcuffed to Oswald for the Sunday morning transfer from City Hall to the county jail. Threats had been made to take the prisoner away from officials and do all sorts of harm.
“So if they took him, they had to take me, too, and that wouldn’t be easy,” Leavelle said in his oral history.
Leavelle thought someone might try to shoot Oswald once they left City Hall. But as the transfer car was being maneuvered into the basement, Leavelle caught Ruby and his gun in his peripheral vision.
“I tried to pull … (Oswald) behind me, but all I succeeded in doing was turning his body, so that instead of hitting him dead center, it hit him just about four inches to the left of the navel,” Leavelle said.
The detective later timed video recordings of the shooting to better understand what happened.
“From the time that I saw him in the center of that driveway to the time he pulled the trigger on that .38 pistol that he had, it took just a little over one second, like 1,000 and one, one.”
Leavelle retired in 1975 but was often sought for interviews about his role in history. But he deferred to his granddaughter, Kate Griendling, when it came to granting access for a documentary about the assassination’s 50th anniversary.
“He had plenty of other offers,” said Griendling, a filmmaker who had enjoyed a close relationship with her grandfather. “He’s the reason people spoke to me who had never spoken to the press.”
That documentary, “Capturing Oswald,” premiered in 2013.
On Sunday, Griendling recorded her last interview with her grandfather.
“It was really important for him to emphasize that what mattered most to him were the times that he helped people,” she said. For instance, the time that he was called to a store where a woman had been caught shoplifting toys for her kids; he ended up buying them gifts for the holidays.
“I just feel really lucky,” Griendling said, “because a lot of people loved my grandpa. But I feel fortunate to have known him in a way that had nothing to do with JFK.”
Leavelle’s wife, Taimi Sneima Leavelle, died Oct. 1, 2014.
In addition to his two daughters, Leavelle is survived by Griendling, two other grandchildren and a great-grandson. Services are pending but are expected to be in Dallas.
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