While 45 years may have dulled the pain for many of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the wounds of that weekend are still fresh for two who had an unwanted front row seat to the events that unfolded before the world.
James R. Leavelle and Marie Tippit are not household names like Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby, whose names have withstood the test of time in the annals of infamous Americans.
Leavelle was a homicide detective for the Dallas Police Department on that Friday when three shots rang out in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. The rounds are alleged to have come from a bolt action rifle fired from the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository by Oswald.
Oswald was later arrested in a theater for the shooting death of Dallas patrolman JD Tippit after a brief encounter on a Dallas street. Leavelle questioned the suspect in an interrogation room in Dallas police headquarters about 15 minutes.
“I didn’t know he was wanted in connection with the shooting of the president at the time, I wanted to question him about killing Officer Tippit,” Leavelle said.
Over that weekend, Leavelle worked the phones and leads that came into the department.
Had it not been for an attempted transfer of Oswald on Sunday morning to the county jail, Leavelle may have just become a footnote in a case that has spanned two generations. Placing a set of handcuffs on Oswald’s wrist and then handcuffing his left wrist to Oswald’s right wrist, Leavelle and Detective L.C. Graves followed homicide Capt. Will Fritz onto an elevator that would take them to the basement to a waiting car. Walking through reporters and police officers who assembled to witness the transfer, a night club owner named Jack Ruby rushed from a group and fired one shot into Oswald.
“I saw Ruby standing there in front of the reporters holding the pistol by his leg. I knew what was going to happen and I tried to pull Oswald behind me, but only ended pulling him into the line of fire,” Leavelle said.
The bullet went into Oswald’s left side, hitting his vital organs and lodging just under his skin on the right side under his chest. Riding in the ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital, the same hospital Kennedy died in three days before, Leavelle said Oswald groaned, shook and may have died, despite the official time of death listed at 1:07 p.m. by Parkland doctors who attended to him.
“He never confessed to the killing,” said Leavelle, who after four and a half decades later is still sought out for talks and autographs.
This anniversary is no different in the days leading up to the fateful day. He has appeared on numerous local television, radio station and newspaper interviews. Over the course of several days, the 88-year-old West Texas native met in public forums to discuss the case that has dogged him since his photo wearing a white suit and Stetson hat hit the front pages of newspapers around the world, making him one of the most recognizable figures in the assassination, which only gains steam as new scholars and a new generation take interest.
Leavelle retired from the Dallas Police Department after serving 26 years on the force and vehemently argues the case that Oswald is alleged to have acted alone. Today, he lives in his Garland home with his wife of 60 years, Taimi. At times, it’s hard for the former detective to just do grocery shopping or eat at a restaurant because usually someone will recognize him and want to strike up a conversation about the events of that November weekend.
Over the years, Marie Tippit has made very few public appearances and normally shies away from media attention. She joined Leavelle at the Dallas police department headquarters building to autograph copies of the book “In the Line of Duty,” with proceeds going to honor fallen police officers. In addition, she was also promoting a 400-print run medallion which had her husband’s badge with number 848 struck on one side, and his patrol car number 10 with American Hero and a headline from a Chicago newspaper proclaiming, “President is killed,” struck on the opposite side.
Marie Tippit had been married to JD Tippit for 18 years when he was killed on a Dallas street following the slaying of the president. According to witnesses at the time of the 35-year-old officer’s death, Officer Tippit stopped Oswald as he was walking along Patton Street in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. Why Tippit stopped to question Oswald is not clear, but many believe he recognized Oswald from a description put out via police radio. When Tippit left his vehicle and approached Oswald, it is believed that Oswald pulled out a handgun and fired four rounds into the officer before he had a chance to draw his weapon.
Tippit, like Kennedy and Oswald, was buried the following Monday, with full police honors. Marie received calls from Attorney General Robert Kennedy as well as President Lyndon Johnson. She later received a framed photo of the president and his family with a handwritten note by Jacqueline Kennedy.
Forty-five years later, Marie Tippit still feels the loss of her husband.
“You never get over it when you love someone,” she said.
In May 2008 Marie Tippit went to Washington, D.C., to take part in ceremonies honoring fallen law enforcement officers and for the first time went to visit the grave of the late president.
“You know, this year I had a chance to go to Arlington to see the president’s grave and eternal flame, and I thought about what Mrs. Kennedy once told me, ‘the flame would burn for both our husbands,’” she said.
Marie Tippit is 80 and continues to enjoy a close relationship with her late husband’s family which was evident by the constant attention given her by her sister-in-law, Joyce Tippit Debord.
“I have to give Joyce and the rest of the family a lot of credit for standing by me all these years,” Marie said. “Without them, I would have never done it.”