JFK Assassination: Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald

lee-harvey-oswald-355On November 24, 1963, when Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station he lit the fuse of what became fifty years of controversy. Had a jury convicted Oswald for the murder of President Kennedy in a legal proceeding that was perceived to be fair and impartial, perhaps the public’s acceptance of his guilt would have been universal. But Ruby’s feat that Sunday morning meant there would be neither a trial nor a conviction.

What we were left with was a presidential commission overly concerned about its public image that worked outside the adversarial procedures of American jurisprudence. After the Warren Commission’s posthumous conviction of Oswald, Jack Ruby’s motive for killing him became a tough sell because of its obvious outcome of silencing the one person who could have shed light on the crime of the century.

The Michigan congressman (and future president), Gerald Ford, became the Warren Commission’s chief publicist for the lone gunman theory through an influential article inLife magazine in 1964 and a book, Portrait of the Assassin (1965). Ford promised that the “monumental record of the President’s Commission will stand like a Gibraltar of factual literature through the ages to come.” (Quoted in Meagher Accessories After the Fact 1967, 386) But this “Gibraltar” failed to look very deeply into Jack Ruby’s relationship with the Dallas Police Department (that everyone in Dallas seemed to know about), or into his ties to organized crime.

Three-Part Series by Joseph Palermo:

JFK Assassination: Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald

JFK and the Lone Gunman

Had John Kennedy Lived

Jack Ruby

It’s simply unbelievable that a mobbed-up strip joint owner from Chicago would choose for no good reason to throw his life away to kill a suspect in the Kennedy assassination. Ruby later signed a written statement recanting what had become the most widely disseminated version of his original motive: “that he had shot Oswald in order to keep the widow [First Lady Jacqueline] Kennedy and her daughter Caroline from having to come to Dallas for Oswald’s murder trial.” Ruby said it was a cover story concocted by his first lawyer, Tom Howard, to try to win sympathy. (Kantor The Ruby Cover-Up 1978, 156)

jack-ruby-350Throughout that long, terrible weekend in Dallas Ruby was ubiquitous, lurking around Dealey Plaza, Parkland Hospital, and the Police Station — where he became the first man ever to commit murder on “live” television. The night of the assassination he was at the police court building, he later admitted, with a loaded gun. He brought to the station sandwiches for the police and reporters and passed out cards advertising his strip clubs. Everybody could hear Ruby interrupt Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade after he misspoke saying that Oswald was associated with the “Free Cuba Committee”; Ruby correctly pointed out it was called the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee.” (Kantor 1978, 101)

On the morning of the assassination, Julia Ann Mercer saw Ruby parked in a truck near the embankment along the motorcade route unloading suspicious items with another man. (Garrison On the Trail of the Assassins 1988, 251-253) Seth Kantor and Wilma Tice testified that they saw Ruby at Parkland Hospital right after the assassination. (Meagher 1967, 394-397) Given that Ruby murdered a handcuffed, helpless man on Sunday he could have been up to anything on Friday and Saturday.

For four weeks Ruby was mum about how he got into the basement of the police department to kill Oswald. The story that finally emerged absolved the Dallas police of any misconduct or even negligence. Multiple officers held that Ruby found his way down a Main Street garage ramp undetected just moments before he “spontaneously” shot Oswald. Yet the officers’ answers to questions by Commission counsels were marred by inconsistencies. The Commissioners chose to overlook evidence that pointed to the possibility that the police concocted the story after the fact. (Meagher 1967, 405-413)

The Commission was incurious about whether or not officers or reservists could have assisted Ruby on November 24. (Meagher 1967, 424-433) It never followed up on leads pointing to Ruby’s potential accomplices on the inside (including several senior officers who Ruby had known for years). A good friend of Ruby’s, the boxer Reagan Turman, told the FBI that “Ruby was acquainted with at least 75 percent, and probably 80 percent, of the police officers on the Dallas Police Department.” (Quoted in Meagher 1967, 423) Ruby’s arrest record over a ten-year period shows that he got special treatment; he appeared to be immune to prosecution even after multiple violations of the law. (Lane, Rush to Judgment, 229-239)

Robert G. Blakey, the chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that it was likely that a handful of Dallas police officers came up with the story of Ruby gaining access via a garage ramp for damage-control purposes, and that it was probably not true. (Scott Deep Politics and the Death of JFK 1993, 134) The HSCA determined in 1978 that Ruby probably had “gone down an inside stairway at the Dallas police station, intent on shooting Oswald,” which would require some inside help. (Kantor 1978, 408)

Ruby told the Warren Commission:

” . . . I am certain – I don’t recall definitely, but I know in my right mind, because I know my motive for doing it, and certainly to gain publicity to take a chance of being mortally wounded, as I said before, and who else could have timed it so perfectly by seconds. If it were timed that way, then someone in the police department is guilty of giving the information as to when Lee Harvey Oswald was coming down.” (5H 206) (Quoted in Meagher 1967, 421)

The Dallas journalist, Seth Kantor, who was a reporter for the Scripps-Howard wire service and a White House correspondent who rode in the motorcade, knew Ruby and testified that he exchanged words with him at Parkland Memorial Hospital at the time the official news of President Kennedy’s death was announced. The Commission dismissed Kantor’s account as being “mistaken” and put forth its own theory based on Ruby’s claim that he was not at Parkland that day. Even when a second witness came forward, Mrs. Wilma Tice, whose testimony corroborated Kantor’s, the Commission simply rejected her report as well.

The manner in which the Commission discharged Mrs. Tice is illustrative. It was done in a way that was not applied to witnesses who placed Lee Oswald in locations that either bolstered the lone gunman theory or gave credence to his participation in the slaying of Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit. Since Mrs. Tice had never seen Ruby before her testimony automatically became questionable in the eyes of the Commission (a standard not applied to the Oswald witnesses).

The Warren Report decided that both Kantor (who knew Ruby) and Tice (who didn’t know Ruby but identified him) were both “confused.” Kantor, the Commission argued, probably saw Ruby eleven hours later at the police station. But Kantor stood by his testimony and wrote a book, The Ruby Cover-Up (1978), denouncing his treatment by the Commission. The Commission chose to believe Ruby (a known murderer) over Kantor whose job as a journalist was to report facts. “Kantor probably did not see Ruby at Parkland Hospital,” the Warren Report states.

The Commission counsels, Leon Hubert and Burt Griffin, who were assigned to look into Ruby’s activities, took seriously Kantor’s testimony. On May 14, 1964, they wrote a memorandum to staff director J. Lee Rankin stating that Kantor had been “interviewed twice by the FBI and persists in his claim that he saw Ruby at Parkland Hospital shortly before or after the President’s death was announced. Ruby denies that he was ever at Parkland Hospital. We must decide who is telling the truth, for there would be considerable significance if it were concluded that Ruby is lying.” (Kantor 1978, 358; 384)

There indeed would be “considerable significance” if Ruby were caught lying about his presence at Parkland. Shortly after Kantor claimed to have encountered Ruby the “magic bullet,” (Commission Exhibit No. 399), was found on the floor of a public hallway after tumbling from a stretcher. No one at Parkland could say for sure if the bullet had come from a stretcher that had been used to move Governor John Connally or President Kennedy. (Kantor 1978, 364) About fifteen years later, the HSCA acknowledged Kantor’s testimony, noting that Ruby “probably” had gone to Parkland Hospital immediately after the mortally wounded president had been brought there. (Kantor 1978, 408)

The Warren Report portrays Ruby as an innocent rube who liked to hang around police officers because it made him feel important. But between 1949 and 1963, Dallas police had arrested Ruby eight times, and “[t]wo of the arrests were for carrying a concealed weapon. On both occasions, no charges were filed and Ruby was released on the same day.” Some of his arrests involved some pretty savage attacks. About a year before he clipped Oswald, Ruby was arrested for assault and found not guilty. (Meagher 1967, 422)

While the Warren Report conceded that “Ruby was unquestionably familiar, if not friendly, with some Chicago criminals,” it nonetheless concluded “there is no evidence that he ever participated in organized criminal activity.” (Quoted in Kantor 1978, 416) “In no respect have the findings of the Warren Commission been more universally discredited,” writes Peter Dale Scott, “than in their specious effort to claim that there was no evidence linking Jack Ruby to organized crime.” (Peter Dale Scott 1993, 127) The HSCA found that Ruby had links to mobsters and had carried out tasks for them going back to the 1940s. The HSCA staff compiled “a chart of Jack Ruby’s known telephone toll calls in 1963″ and found “a significant upsurge” in his out-of-town calls in the seven weeks prior to the Kennedy assassination. Included among them were calls to people or places the committee deemed “suspicious.” (Kantor 1978, 407) One of them was a November 11, 1963 call to Barney Baker in Chicago who was Jimmy Hoffa’s 370-pound bodyguard and enforcer. (Kantor 1978, 56)

Late in the Commission’s investigation, on September 15, 1964, when the Warren Report was getting ready to go to print, the CIA informed Chief Counsel Rankin: “an examination of Central Intelligence Agency files has produced no information on Jack Ruby or his activities.” (Quoted in Kantor 1978, 416) Yet one set of CIA documents that was withheld from the Commission came to light about thirteen years later and showed Ruby had gone to Havana to visit the American mafia don, Santo Trafficante, who was in prison. (Kantor 1978, 417) One of Ruby’s trips to Cuba, which he claimed was for “social purposes,” lasted about twenty-four hours; he departed September 12, 1959 and returned the next day. (Meagher 1967, 392)

The FBI admitted that Ruby had been an informant for the Bureau throughout 1959 at the time of his quick trips to Cuba. He visited Lewis McWillie in Havana, and made several phone calls to McWillie in 1963; McWillie was an associate of Meyer Lansky’s gambling empire. (Kantor 1978, 61) Warren Commission enthusiasts sometimes write off Ruby’s calls to mobsters as being insignificant because they weren’t to “bosses.” But one couldn’t just pick up the phone and get Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli, Santo Trafficante, or Carlos Marcello on the line.

Ruby had links to Trafficante and other Mafiosi, such as Joseph Civello, who had attended the famous November 1957 Apalachin, New York summit of mafia kingpins. (Palermo Robert F. Kennedy 2008, 51) The mob loathed Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for his crackdown on organized crime, which included the deportation and humiliation of Carlos Marcello. Ruby’s mob associations have become more relevant over the years following the exposure of the CIA’s own assassination capability targeting Fidel Castro using Mafia hit-men (ZR/RIFLE). But neither the FBI nor the CIA came clean with the Commission about its Miami operations where mercenaries, anti-Castro extremists, and right-wingers of various ideological stripes intermingled to harass and wreak destruction on the island (JM/WAVE).

After a letter from Ruby’s sister was made public revealing that Ruby had contacted the Warren Commission desperately seeking to talk to its members it became politic to grant the request. In June 1964, when Chief Justice Earle Warren and Gerald Ford made their one and only brief trip to Dallas to meet Ruby on behalf of the Commission, Ruby practically begged them to take him out of the jurisdiction of Dallas law enforcement and move him to Washington. “I want to tell the truth,” he said, “and I can’t tell it here.” He talked about “a whole new form of government” that was “going to take over our country”; and predicted: “I know I won’t live to see you another time.” Ruby feared he would be silenced in jail because “maybe certain people don’t want to know the truth that may come out of me.” (Quoted in Meagher 1967, 453)

Warren denied Ruby’s entreaties, but on October 5, 1966, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Ruby had not received a fair trial in Dallas and ordered a retrial. Two months later, it designated Wichita Falls the site of the new trial with the proceedings to begin that spring or summer.

For a brief moment during one of Ruby’s many legal proceedings while under appeal he had a brief colloquy with the press:

Ruby: “Everything pertaining to what’s happening has never come to the surface. The world will never know the true facts of what occurred – my motives. The people who had so much to gain, and had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world”

Reporter: “Are these people in very high positions Jack?

Ruby: “Yes” (Quoted in Richard Belzer Hit List 2013, 34)

But on December 9, 1966, Ruby’s health had deteriorated to the point where he “was removed from county jail and admitted to Parkland Hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia. The next day his illness was identified as cancer.” (Meagher 1967, 452) On January 3, 1967, Ruby died while still in the custody of the Dallas authorities just as he predicted.

When Ruby murdered Oswald while he was under police protection the Dallas department came under withering criticism from the news media. Police Chief Jesse Curry and Captain Will Fritz were singled out as incompetent bumpkins who were out of their league and who badly loused up the case. But it took only forty-eight hours for the Dallas Police Department to draw the exact same lone gunman conclusion that the Warren Commission reached after nine months of diligent work from its small army of taxpayer-supplied lawyers and investigators. “It seems unfair that editorial writers first assailed the Dallas force with contempt,” Sylvia Meagher wrote in 1966, “and then wrote dazzling tributes to the Warren Commission without retracting their unkind words about the hapless Dallas police. If one accepts and endorses the Warren Report, one must also commend the Dallas police for their swift, sure work, and vindicate them in their finding that Oswald was the lone assassin and that the case was closed.” (Meagher 1967, xxvi)

Lee Harvey Oswald

In the summer of 1963, most of Lee Harvey Oswald’s associates in New Orleans were ferocious anti-communists, including the former FBI Special Agent in Charge in Chicago, Guy Bannister. He was also seen with the pilot who trained Bay of Pigs mercenaries, David Ferrie, who “had known Oswald since he was a teenage cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, where the older man was a trainer.” (Talbot 2007, 321) His August 1963 altercation with anti-Castro students while handing out Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) leaflets on Canal Street was covered in newspapers and local news shows, which made Oswald easily the highest-profile communist in the city.

lee-harvey-oswald-350Oswald was featured in a “debate” on WESU radio with Carlos Bringuier, the anti-Castro delegate of the CIA-connected Cuban Student Directorate (DRE), where he proudly proclaimed himself a “Marxist.” The host of the show introduced Oswald as the “treasurer” and sole member of the New Orleans “chapter” of the FPCC. Tapes of his radio “debate” with Bringuier were later “sent to members of Congress as proof positive that a communist killed the President.” (Garrison 1988, 28-29) In the months before he allegedly single-handedly killed Kennedy, Oswald did everything to show the world he was a Marxist short of walking the streets with a sandwich board reading: “Look At Me! I’m A Commie!”

The whole story about Oswald’s prodigious ideological loyalty to Marxism has a contrived appearance to it. The U.S. military trained him in the Russian language as a Marine at a time when U.S. intelligence was running fake defector programs to Eastern Bloc countries. His contacts in New Orleans and Dallas were not the types of people who would pal around with a devoted communist. In New Orleans he worked briefly as an “oiler” at the Reily Coffee Company, which was owned by a notorious John Bircher, William Reily, who had been for years active in the anti-Castro cause. (Garrison 1988, 30)

In Dallas, the Oswalds socialized with the White Russian oil Baron, George DeMohrenshildt, who was an outspoken anti-communist and a member of the Dallas Petroleum Club, the essence of Texas capitalism. In fact, DeMohrenschildt became the closest friend in Dallas of the young man whom the Warren Commission had found to have a “commitment to Marxism.” (Garrison 1988, 62) Yet the Commission never called DeMohrenschildt as a witness. And when the HSCA wanted to question him in March 1977 he was found in his Palm Beach villa with his brains blown out with a shotgun. It was ruled a “suicide.” (Belzer 2013, 236) In October 1962, Oswald landed a job within a week of his arrival in Dallas at Jagger-Stovall-Chiles that produced maps for the U.S. military and where many employees required security clearances, which was a strange place for an extroverted Commie defector to work. (Garrison 1988, 60)

One of the aspects of the Warren Report and its hearings and exhibits that the assassination researcher, Sylvia Meagher, found inexplicable was the apparent complete lack of interest on the part of the Marine Corps, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the FBI in any “special knowledge” that Oswald might have attained during his “defection” to the Soviet Union. Meagher found no evidence in the official record that the authorities “followed up with Oswald upon his return to the U.S.” (Meagher 1967, 341)

Like the story of a Mafia-connected strip-joint owner “spontaneously” gunning down the President’s alleged assassin to protect the feelings of the First Lady, the story of a 20-year-old Marine nine days after his discharge renouncing his U.S. citizenship and “defecting” to the Soviet Union also has a peculiar ring to it. In September 1959, Oswald sailed off to Russia, and then worked at a radio factory in Minsk. He married a Russian woman (Marina) and then changed his mind about his “defection” (although he supposedly remained a hardened Marxist-Leninist) and returned with her to the U.S. in June 1962. A year later, he applied for a U.S. passport on June 24, 1963 and received a new one the next day. All the while U.S. authorities treated Oswald with kid gloves at a time when professors and other innocent travelers who simply visited an Eastern Bloc country routinely faced harsh grilling by government officials upon their return.

It sounds pretty convenient that a loudmouthed “communist” would be responsible for killing President Kennedy given that the city of Dallas was not known for its large Pinko population, but for its right-wing fanatics. Dallas was a hotbed of people like those who assaulted and spat on Adlai Stevenson when he visited the city a month before President Kennedy. The DRE, Alpha 66, and other anti-Castro Cuban groups despised Kennedy for what they believed was his pulling the plug on their CIA-sponsored attempt to retake the island. (In December 1964, anti-Castro Cubans fired a bazooka at the United Nations headquarters amidst a violent demonstration against Che Guevara speaking there.) Still, the Warren Commission maintained that Oswald’s one-man Marxist variety show simply fell off the radar of America’s fanatically anti-communist federal authorities.

It has never been explained how some of Oswald’s FPCC leaflets he was filmed handing out in New Orleans in August 1963 got stamped with “544 Camp Street,” which was the headquarters for anti-Castro activities in the city; or how the penniless Oswald could afford to pay young people to help him pass out the handbills. District Attorney Jim Garrison interviewed one of the young men that Oswald hired (Garrison knew his father). After interviewing Charles Steele, Jr.,

Garrison “discovered that Oswald paid him and others two dollars an hour to hand out pamphlets with him. Oswald had told them that they had to do this until the news photographers departed, after which they were free to go. This recruitment method was highly improbable for a true Marxist group. Most such groups had members to do their leafleting but almost no money. Oswald’s Fair Play for Cuba Committee, by contrast, had no apparent members other than himself but enough money that it could hire unemployed people.” (Garrison 1988, 27-28)

It’s also bizarre that a brazen yet destitute communist would have so many contacts with FBI agents: in Dallas with James Hosty, (Hosty’s telephone and automobile license numbers were found in Oswald’s notebooks), (Meagher 1967, 318); and in New Orleans with John Quigley and the former agent Guy Bannister, a member of the Anti-Communist League of the Caribbean.

The Warren Commission had to run down a press report that said Oswald had been a paid FBI informant who received $200 a month from September 1962 until his death with the I.D. number “S-172.” The source for this information “was Allen Sweatt, the chief of the Criminal Division of the Dallas sheriff’s office.” (Kantor 1978, 418-419) Dave Marston, who served as the lead counsel on Republican Senator Richard Schweiker’s subcommittee that investigated the assassination in the 1970s, concluded years later: “There were so many CIA people and other government agents scheming in Florida and New Orleans [in 1963], doing the crazy things they do – it’s inconceivable that they didn’t know about Oswald.” (Quoted in Talbot 2007, 379)

joseph palermoThe more likely explanation for the schizophrenic nature of Lee Oswald’s relationships – where a former “defector” to the Soviet Union with an all-encompassing dedication to Marxism constantly befriended right-wingers and people with ties to U.S. intelligence might be what his mother, Marguerite Oswald, had claimed going back to 1961.

His pro-Castro bona fides had been a carefully constructed ruse to enable him to infiltrate domestic left-wing groups. (Meagher 1967, 342) “We don’t know what happened,” Senator Schweiker told the press in 1976, “but we do know that Oswald had intelligence connections. Everywhere you look with him, there are fingerprints of intelligence.” (Quoted in Talbot 2007, 379)

Joseph Palermo

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on November 12, 2013
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).