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Meeting the man who last walked beside Lee Harvey Oswald

State Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville), right, and his Roving Elephants group met Jim Leavelle in 2013. The retired Dallas police officer, pictured here in his famous white hat, is part of history for being handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was assassinated Nov. 24, 1963. Leavelledied Thursday.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

History seemed to follow Jim Leavelle, the retired Dallas police officer handcuffed to infamous Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot in 1963. And few in Henry County go where history leads with more fervor than State Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville).

So when the 99-year-old Leavelle died Thursday, it was much more than a historical footnote to Saunders, who had the privilege of meeting the man face-to-face six years ago on one of his popular “Roving Elephant” trips.

“He was a nice old guy to sit down and talk to,” Saunders said in an interview with The Courier-Times Friday. “He spent a couple of hours with us on our trip to Dallas six years ago.”

Leavelle had a knack for being in historical places. In addition to his role with Oswald, Leavelle was serving his country when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Saunders said the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby on Nov. 24, 1963, just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, might never have happened if authorities had taken Leavelle’s advice.

“He told us he wanted to move Oswald at like 2 o’clock in the morning, in the middle of the night, so there wouldn’t be anybody around because they’d had some threats on Oswald’s life,” Saunders recalled.

“But the Chief of Police overruled and said ‘we wanted to do everything transparently so everybody sees what’s going on,’” Saunders quoted Leavelle as saying. “‘If they had listened to me, we’d have moved him in the middle of the night.’”

That moment on Nov. 24, 1963, when Leavelle was escorting John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald through the basement of Dallas Police headquarters seemed frozen in time – and Leavelle’s mind – as he talked to Saunder’s tour group.

“Oswald never said anything, never admitted anything,” Saunders remembered Leavelle saying. “They handcuffed him to Leavelle to lead him down downstairs.”

When they stepped off the elevator, Leavelle said he saw the gun Ruby was holding immediately.

“‘If you look at the picture, I’m looking at Ruby and I’m trying to pull Oswald sideways so he wouldn’t have as much of a target to hit but unfortunately I didn’t get him pulled quick enough,’” Saunders quoted Leavelle saying.

Leavelle said he rode to the hospital with Oswald and Oswald never regained consciousness.

The shocking turn of events left the nation without a trial to question the man accused of killing the nation’s 35th president and forever set in motion multiple conspiracy theories about who really orchestrated the shocking shooting of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

But in their conversation with Leavelle, Saunders said the man with the big white hat seemed sure of what really happened.

“He told us ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter of the President of the United States,” Saunders said of Leavelle. “One of the ladies with us said ‘Oswald said he was a patsy.’ Leavelle said ‘oh, I kind of doubt it. Hush up, sit down and listen to what I’m going to tell you.’”

The story of Oswald’s capture amid the chaos after Kennedy was shot also captivated Saunders and his 40-member tour group when they met with Leavelle.

Leavelle arrested Lee Harvey Oswald at a Texas theatre – not for the shooting of the president, but for his involvement in the shooting of another Texas law enforcement officer, J.D. Tippit.

“He took Oswald back to the police station and had him in interrogation,” Saunders said of Leavelle. “He said ‘I had been interrogating him for a couple of hours. Across the hall, they were investigating the assassination of the President. I stepped out of the interrogation and when I got out in the hall and talked to one of the guys investigating the assassination, they said they were looking for a Texas School Book Depository employee named Oswald they couldn’t find. He said ‘Well, I got Oswald across the hall. I’m interviewing him for the shooting of Tippit.’

“He said ‘how do you spell that?’” Leavelle continued as he spoke to Saunders’ group. “Anyway, they came and took Oswald. He said ‘that’s the last I had to interrogate him.’”

Saunders says there is no secret to how he manages to meet face-to-face with prominent national figures in history. He does it the old-fashioned way. 

“I wrote him a letter,” Saunders said of Leavelle. “His granddaughter called and told us he got the letter and would be glad to meet with us.”

Saunders said the white suit Leavelle was wearing when he escorted Oswald that day is now in a museum at the Texas School Book Depository. Leavelle did have, however, his trademark white hat the day he met with the Roving Elephants. Saunders even got to try the hat on for size.

“I never figured I would be part of history, but because of where I was on a certain day, I’ll be forever remembered as the guy handcuffed to the president’s killer,” Leavelle was quoted by Saunders as saying.

Plans are currently under way for the 18th Roving Elephant trip, this one to Boston and other nearby places of interest. Saunders has led as many as 24, if presidential inaugurations are included. Who knows what rendezvous with history awaits him and his group next?

“Just to hear those stories like those shared by Mr. Leavelle,” Saunders said. “I think we’ve been pretty lucky to be able to hear firsthand about things we’d previously only read about.”