Remembering Dallas (TX) Police Homicide Detective James Leavelle

“When I walked out, of course, the lights for the TV cameras come in. It kind of blinded me, but I could see underneath the light. Then I could even see [Jack] Ruby as I walked out the door. He was standing there and he had the pistol in his hand. He had it right against his leg…And just as soon as I saw it, I jerked back on [Lee Harvey] Oswald, but he was right against me and I didn’t have any leverage, so all I did was turn his body. So instead of [the bullet] hitting him dead center, it hit him about three or four inches to the left on the left side of the navel…”
-Retired Det. James Leavelle, Oral History Interview

Imagine going to work one day and finding yourself in the middle of an event that makes national history. That happened to Dallas (TX) Police Homicide Detective James Leavelle on November 24, 1963. Leavelle was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald while escorting the accused presidential assassin to a car for transport to the county jail. Suddenly, an acquaintance of Det. Leavelle, Jack Ruby, stepped out of the crowd and fatally shot Oswald. This moment was captured by Bob Jackson of the Dallas Times Herald in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.
When I met James Leavelle last year during his visit to the National Law Enforcement Museum, he brought along printed copies of this famous photograph in a briefcase. As he met people that day in the Museum, he would sign one of these copies, always adding a personalized note. I was one of the lucky recipients of this special gift because Leavelle and I sat down for an oral history interview that day. He spent almost an hour walking me through his experiences in late November 1963—from the moment he heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot, to leading the investigation into the shooting of Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit by Oswald, then finally to when the famous photograph was captured.
I was sorry to hear that Mr. Leavelle passed away on August 29 at the age of 99. It was a true pleasure meeting him and hearing his amazing story firsthand. He will be fondly remembered at the National Law Enforcement Museum as a longtime friend and supporter.
If you would like to watch last year’s oral history interview in full, you can find the video here.
Chelsea Hansen is the curator of the National Law Enforcement Museum.