- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

This is the second of two excerpts from “JFK: Breaking the News” (International Focus Press) by Hugh Aynesworth, Dallas bureau chief of The Washington Times. Mr. Aynesworth, as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, witnessed the assassination of JFK, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald and the killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby.

The murder of Officer J.D. Tippit occurred just before 1:15 p.m. in a scruffy, working-class neighborhood of aging frame houses in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald, it turned out, roomed in a house within a mile.

Officer Tippit, in his ‘63 Ford police cruiser (Car No. 10), probably heard the all-points bulletin a half-hour earlier and was alert to anyone fitting the description of a man seen firing down on President Kennedy’s motorcade from the book depository in Dealey Plaza.

“I saw this police car slowly cross and sorta ease up alongside the man,” witness Helen Markham told me.

Mrs. Markham, 47, was a waitress at the Eatwell Restaurant, a popular 24-hour eatery downtown (strip-club owner Jack Ruby was a regular). She was walking to the bus stop at Patton and Jefferson about 1:12, headed for work, when she saw a man walking east on Tenth, away from her.

She watched as he casually walked over to the police car, leaned down and spoke with the officer through the open passenger window.

Mrs. Markham was shaken, scared. I had arrived on the crime scene after a wild ride from Dealey Plaza, three miles away. Someone appeared with an empty Coca-Cola case and placed it on the pavement as a seat for her. The waitress gratefully accepted the favor, composed herself a bit and went on.

“I thought it was just a friendly conversation, you know,” she said. “But then all of a sudden the man stepped back a couple of steps, and the officer opened his door and got out. I still thought they were friends. Then all of a sudden I heard three shots, and the officer fell in the street.”

“Did the shooter see you?” I asked.

“Oh, for sure, for sure,” she said. “Strangest thing. He didn’t run. He didn’t seem scared or upset. He just fooled with his gun and stared at me. I put my hands over my eyes when I saw him looking at me. I was afraid he was fixin’ to kill me, too. And then as I peeled my fingers away to look again, I saw him starting to jog away.”

She waited until the killer was half a block away before she ran to Officer Tippit and knelt over the dying cop.

“I was screaming for someone to help me,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘Somebody has killed a policeman! He has killed him! Killed him! Oh, God, help us!’”

The more I learned about the Tippit shooting as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, the clearer it became that it was impulsive, unplanned. Nine people or more saw the murder occur or watched as the shooter fled, tossing away spent shells from a handgun. This was not a clever, experienced criminal.

By now it was about 1:30, just an hour after the president had been shot. Dr. Kemp Clark had pronounced Kennedy dead at 1 at Parkland Hospital, but JFK press aide Malcolm Kilduff wouldn’t relay the devastating news to the rest of the world until 1:33.

I knew nothing of this at that time. The intersection of 10th and Patton just then was a considerable psychic distance from the main story of the day. It was the epicenter of a massive manhunt for a particular kind of criminal, the cop killer, for whom brother officers typically reserve a special vengeance.

I don’t know how many members of the Dallas Police Department believed, as I did, that if they caught Officer Tippit’s slayer they also would have in custody the president’s assassin, but I do remember how angry and determined they were. There was a lot of muttering about what they should do with this criminal when they caught him.

Cornering Oswald

After chasing two false leads, I heard on an FBI car radio that a suspect had run into the Texas Theater, six or seven blocks up Jefferson. I took off at a run.

My stomach hurt. I realized I was hungry. I had skipped breakfast because my wife had been suffering morning sickness with our first pregnancy.

The first squad car arrived in front of the movie house at 1:47. I wasn’t far behind. I raced beneath the marquee: “Cry of Battle / Van Heflin / War Is Hell.”

Julia Postal was at the ticket counter. “Oh, my God! I just heard the president is dead,” she said. This was the first I’d heard of it.

I ran into my News colleague, reporter Jim Ewell, who’d hitched a ride from Dealey Plaza with the police. Jim decided that he would head up to the balcony while I took the first floor of the auditorium, where I saw four or five policemen standing on the stage.

I counted no more than a dozen patrons. The film was still running, and the house lights were up partway, which created an eerie confusion, like being halfway into a dream. A voice was coming from behind the stage, directing the officers’ attention to the man in the brown shirt.

Johnny C. Brewer, manager of the Hardy’s Shoe Store six doors to the east, later described to me how he pointed out the man, whom he had seen slip into the movie house without buying a ticket minutes before.

“I showed the officers which one he was,” Brewer said. “Then he got up and walked to his right to the aisle, stopped a moment, then turned around and walked back and sat down.”

The man turned out to be Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, an improbable loner, a confused and chronic malcontent.

I didn’t see the suspect get up and move, but I probably missed that when I moved from the first entry door to the second — closer to where most patrons sat. As I eased the door open, just a few feet behind and to the right of Oswald, I saw two officers walking up the aisles.

On the right was Maurice “Nick” McDonald, 35. He was the first to reach Oswald, who was sitting three rows from the back, five seats in from the aisle.

Stopping a few rows in front of Oswald, McDonald had two other men stand as he searched them for weapons. McDonald recalled: “I looked over my shoulder, and [Oswald] sat there quiet, just looking at me.”

‘It’s all over now’

When McDonald reached the suspect’s row, the policeman turned suddenly and said, “Get on your feet.”

“Well, it’s all over now,” he heard Oswald reply.

Except it wasn’t. Not quite.

Oswald stood up, raised his hands in apparent surrender, then socked McDonald in the face with his left fist. With his right hand, he pulled a .38 Smith & Wesson from his belt.

The poorly lit scene exploded into a blur. A motorcycle officer named Thomas Hutson, 35, jumped Oswald from behind as McDonald recovered with a fist of his own into Oswald’s face or head.

A plainclothes cop, Sgt. Gerald Hill, 34, grabbed an arm, and he and another cop finally got handcuffs on Oswald.

A couple seated near the melee abruptly jumped up and fled toward the exit, brushing past me. The woman screamed until they were outside.

I remember Oswald crying out, “I protest this police brutality! I protest this police brutality!”

There was quite a tussle. The cops knocked Oswald around a lot, and he had a forehead cut and black eye to show for it. By the time he was subdued, five or possibly six cops had been there hands-on.

As they marched him out the theater door, a crowd of several hundred was gathered outside. I have no idea how they came together so quickly; it was only 1:50 when the police put Oswald in Sgt. Hill’s unmarked squad car for the ride to the police station at City Hall.

The onlookers were in an ugly mood.

“Get him! Kill him!” they chanted.

A disgusted Ruby

After I saw Jack Ruby that Friday morning in the News cafeteria, he headed for our second-floor ad department to visit with ad salesman Don Campbell.

Ruby complained that the two venues he operated, the Carousel Club, his strip joint on Commerce, and the Vegas Club, an after-hours destination in the Oak Lawn district, weren’t doing well financially. He also bragged about a recent altercation where he had to kick two or three customers out.

“He said, ‘They didn’t know what hit them when I inserted myself,’ ” Campbell recalled [him saying]. “He said it was a good thing he was in such good shape, because ‘you just can’t find too many take-charge guys around.’ ”

Ruby was known to bully and abuse his patrons, especially if they were too tanked to fight back. In the spring of 1962 at the Carousel, I saw him toss a drunk down the long flight of stairs to the street. He ran after the man and kicked him as he scrambled out the front door.

Campbell departed at 12:25, leaving Ruby to work out his usual tiny ad for the weekend papers. John Newnam, another ad salesman, noticed Ruby seated near Campbell’s desk reading that morning’s paper.

“Look at this dirty ad,” Ruby exclaimed in disgust as he pointed at the black-bordered, full-page ad attacking Kennedy, paid for by the anonymous American Fact-Finding Committee.

Just then someone ran in shouting, “The president’s been shot! I just heard it on the radio.”

Everyone gathered to watch the television in promotion director Dick Jeffrey’s office. WFAA anchor Jay Watson had broken into “The Julie Benell Show,” a local women’s program.

Watson read United Press International’s newsbreak: “President Kennedy and Governor Connally have been cut down by assassin’s bullets in Dallas.”

“He sat there staring unbelieving at the television set,” ad man Dick Saunders said of Ruby. “He was virtually speechless, quite unusual for Jack Ruby.”

Ruby on the move

There’s no doubt that Ruby was highly agitated in the wake of the assassination. For the next two days, he was a blur around Dallas. Ruby had a manic need to talk, if not listen.

One of those he called was his youngest sister, Eileen Kaminsky, in Chicago. Her brother was “crying incessantly,” she said. “He couldn’t seem to stop. He told me he was going to leave Dallas, that he could never live this down.”

Ruby learned at the News that the ad attacking Kennedy had been placed by one Bernard Weissman and somehow connected that to the fact that he and Weissman both were Jews.

The “dirty ad” upset him, Ruby told many of those he telephoned. The second theme of his conversations was “those poor Kennedy kids,” several recalled, as well as John Jr. and Caroline’s widowed mother.

Friday evening, Ruby headed for City Hall. He was a familiar figure to many cops, and so it was not surprising (though appalling) that he could insinuate himself into the tumult on the third floor. Ruby clearly can be seen in a film record, standing on a table, during Oswald’s impromptu midnight remarks to the press after the night’s final interrogation session.

About 4 a.m. Saturday, Ruby appeared at the Dallas Times Herald, where he spoke with Roy Pryor, an employee in the composing room. Ruby told Pryor about attending Oswald’s “press conference.” He called Oswald “a little weasel of a guy” and turned tearful and agitated when he talked of Kennedy’s children.

Recalling that the offensive ad in the News included a post office box, Ruby’s last stop was the downtown post office, where an employee refused to provide the box holder’s name.

Ruby couldn’t sleep, so he watched television at home through the morning. By about 1 p.m. Saturday, he was seen in Dealey Plaza, walking around, talking to people, handling the wreaths. A policeman who pointed out Oswald’s sixth-floor sniper’s perch for Ruby said he was deeply morose, obviously troubled.

In one call to KLIF radio announcer Ken Dowe, Ruby discussed Oswald’s coming transfer to the county jail. “You know I’ll be there,” he told Dowe.

Another ‘pop’

There can be no doubt that Ruby knew of Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry’s plan to move Oswald on Sunday morning. It was announced on radio and television numerous times.

If, as some conspiracy theorists have surmised, Ruby was part of a plot to silence Oswald, it stands to reason the club owner would have appeared with his gun at City Hall by the appointed hour, 10 a.m.

Instead, Ruby was awakened that morning by a call from his cleaning lady. He consumed a leisurely breakfast. His roommate and employee, George Senator, told me Ruby headed to the apartment building laundry room with a load of wash about 9 o’clock.

Telephone company records show that at exactly 10:19 one of Ruby’s strippers, 19-year-old Karen Bennett Carlin, called from Fort Worth demanding $25 for rent and groceries. Ruby told her he’d wire the money by Western Union that morning.

I awoke about 9:30, turned on the television and was surprised to learn that Oswald was still at the police lock-up, awaiting transfer that morning to Dallas County Sheriff Bill Decker’s custody.

“Curry’s taking a big risk,” I thought.

“Look,” I said to my wife, “we’ve got to get down there.”

I didn’t shave. I didn’t eat. We just threw on some clothes, and I drove like mad for City Hall.

Ruby had wired Miss Carlin her money and was walking back to his car, parked on Main Street, when he noticed a commotion a block away at City Hall. Curious, Ruby detoured toward the crowd, joining reporters who hoped to get into the basement to witness Oswald’s transfer.

There was confusion, pushing and shoving. Reporters from all over the world were in Dallas to cover the story, and I think every one of them was in the basement that morning.

Security was fairly tight. My wife was refused access. So she headed off for breakfast, where I planned to join her in a few minutes. Police guards checked my press credentials three times before allowing me into the area where Oswald was to be escorted to the back of a waiting police cruiser.

I didn’t see Ruby. He was standing perhaps 15 feet from me as Detectives Jim Leavelle and L.C. Graves brought their handcuffed prisoner out of the elevator and toward the car.

I remember a lot of talking and jostling and reporters trying to peer around other reporters, hoping for a glimpse of Oswald.

Then came that “pop” sound. It was 11:21.

Detective Thomas McMillon later testified that Ruby snarled, “You rat son of a bitch” at Oswald as he shot him in the heart.

But all I heard was that “pop.” Just once this time, and so faint and muffled that Jack Ruby’s Colt Cobra .38 sounded like a toy.

Postscript

Were it not for the pervasive influence of a handful of persons, there would be no plague of conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination.

The first of these regrettable characters was Jack Ruby, who by stealing the executioner’s role created generations of doubters, and not unreasonably so. It was an audacious, desperate act that would seem to make sense only if Ruby had a powerful, rational motive for killing Lee Harvey Oswald.

The truth is that he did not; the hard evidence supports no other conclusion. Based on indisputable facts, I believe Ruby acted spontaneously in the basement at City Hall. The opportunity to kill Oswald suddenly presented itself, and Ruby acted accordingly. He could just as well have been driving home from the Western Union office at that moment.

The second key character was Mark Lane, attorney and author of “Rush to Judgment” (1966), for whose predations I must shoulder some blame. I foolishly gave Lane a packet of then-secret witness statements in December 1963, believing him when he said his single motive was to act as devil’s advocate for Oswald.

Had I not, I wonder if people such as Lane — and later an unhinged New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, and his admirer, movie director Oliver Stone — would be viewed today as brave souls who fought to bring the light of “truth” to the assassination story.

I have been soundly criticized for my beliefs that Oswald acted alone and that Ruby was in no way connected with him. Some who have profiteered by manufacturing “facts” and “scenarios” consider me a bad guy because I have tried to point out the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of many of the scores of conspiracy theories. When there seemed no way to counteract what I had seen, been a part of or written about, these detractors called me a government agent, a liar or other choice denigrations.

Often I am asked why I do not believe there was a conspiracy in the JFK assassination. After all, most Americans do, according to several legitimate polls. I usually tell them I do not know if there was or there wasn’t.

All I know is, there is absolutely no evidence of it.

I’m still a reporter. Still looking for the evidence 40 years later. If it exists.

Copyright Hugh Aynesworth, 2003. All rights reserved. For information, visit jfkbook.com.


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