Witness to History: The Shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald

Retired Dallas (TX) Police Detective James R. Leavelle

Witness to History: The Shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald

Retired Dallas (TX) Police Detective James R. Leavelle Shares his Story with the National Law Enforcement Museum

Two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated during a visit to Dallas, Texas, then Detective James R. Leavelle of the Dallas (TX) Police Department was given a special assignment. His job was to escort the President’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from police headquarters to the county jail. The date was November 24, 1963.

On Tuesday, June 7, Mr. Leavelle, 90, made the trip from Texas to Washington, DC, to be the first speaker in the National Law Enforcement Museum’s new Witness to History lecture series. Mr. Leavelle joined Museum staff, supporters, board members and friends, who listened intently to a living legend recall with detailed precision his account of the infamous event.

Linked to Oswald by handcuffs during what Det. Leavelle hoped to be a safe and smooth transport through the basement of police headquarters, he recalled the words he exchanged with Oswald. Shackled side-by-side, Leavelle said in his genial, teasing style, “Lee, if anybody shoots, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are.” According to Mr. Leavelle, Oswald kind of laughed and said, “Well, nobody’s going to shoot at me.”

Moments after these “famous last words”—as Mr. Leavelle appropriately dubbed them—were uttered, local nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald.

The shooting was captured on national television and by a Dallas Times-Herald Pulitzer Prize-winning black and white photograph (above). Detective Leavelle is pictured dressed in a light-colored suit and matching cowboy hat, cuffed to Oswald as the fatal bullet hits—a photograph that undoubtedly made him one of the most recognizable police officers in America.

During the Witness to History event, Mr. Leavelle displayed a slideshow of photographs that seemed to come alive as he guided the audience through the events that led to the shootings. Leavelle responded to audience questions, including why he was the detective chosen to escort Oswald. He explained that Oswald was the prime suspect in the murder of Dallas (TX) Police Officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed minutes after President Kennedy was shot. Since then Det. Leavelle was assigned to investigate the murder of his colleague, the alleged gunman and chief suspect in the investigation—Oswald—was in his charge. 

Mr. Leavelle continued to escort Oswald after he was shot, now to the hospital instead of jail. When the bullet was extracted from Oswald’s body, Det. Leavelle made sure the surgeon carved the initials “LHO” into the bullet, to avoid more controversy. The next day, Leavelle transferred Jack Ruby to prison, but this time he didn’t handcuff himself to Ruby as he did to Oswald. According to Mr. Leavelle, Jack Ruby said the reason he shot Oswald was because he wanted to be a hero. “You didn’t do us any favors by killing Oswald,” Leavelle recalled saying to Ruby.

In addition to his Witness to History appearance, Mr. Leavelle recorded a detailed oral history, now part of the Museum collection. His testimony will be available to researchers and others interested in gaining knowledge of these historic events. His unscripted and unedited recording will forever document his law enforcement service and will preserve his unique and remarkable story to be shared with millions of Museum visitors.

The Museum is currently planning the next Witness to History event, which will be held in early September. Please stay tuned for more information about the forthcoming event in this exciting new Museum program.

July 2011—Insider
Volume 3 Issue 5

Clint Eastwood takes on new role as Honorary Chairman for Memorial and Museum

Witness to History: The Shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald

Exhibits of the National Law Enforcement Museum:
To Serve and Protect

Artifact Detective: July 2011

Meet Marion Ramey, Member of the Museum’s Advisory Council

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