Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, the memories of that tragic day have faded for many Americans. But for two people who unwittingly were tied to the harrowing events that unfolded Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, the mental anguish never will subside.
The involvement of James R. Leavelle and Marie Tippit is not as well known as that of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was charged with the assassination, and Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald two days later. Leavelle was a homicide detective for the Dallas Police. Tippit is the widow of J.D. Tippit, a Dallas officer who was shot and killed by Oswald as he made his way through a nearby residential area following Kennedy’s shooting in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. Tippit reportedly spotted Oswald and tried to question him.
After Oswald was arrested later that day for Tippit’s death, Leavelle questioned him for 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, who is now 93, said.
Throughout that weekend, Leavelle followed leads. Had it not been for Oswald’s attempted Sunday-morning transfer, Leavelle may have become just a footnote in the case.
Preparing to escort the suspect, Leavelle handcuffed himself to Oswald and, along with Det. L.C. Graves, followed homicide Capt. Will Fritz to an elevator to the basement, where a car was waiting. As they walked through a crowd of reporters and officers who had assembled to witness the transfer, Ruby, a nightclub owner, rushed forward and fired one shot at 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 hit Oswald’s left side. Riding in the ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy died three days earlier, Leavelle said Oswald groaned, shook and may have died then, even though doctors listed Oswald’s time of death as later.
“He never confessed to the killing,” Leavelle said.
Over the years, he has appeared on numerous television and radio shows and has had newspaper interviews. In the days leading up to the 50th anniversary, Leavelle, a Red River County, Texas, native, participated in forums to discuss the case.
He retired from the Dallas PD after 26 years and now lives with his wife of 65 years, Taimi, in an assisted-living complex about 18 miles northeast of Dallas. At times, it’s hard for him to accomplish everyday tasks like eating out because someone usually recognizes him and strikes up a conversation about the assassination.
Unlike Leavelle, Marie Tippit, now 85, has made few public appearances and shies away from media attention. In 2008, however, she joined Leavelle at the Dallas PD headquarters to autograph copies “In the Line of Duty,” with proceeds going to honor fallen police officers. Tippit also was promoting the sale of medallions created to commemorate her husband’s service.
Marie Tippit had been married to J.D. Tippit for 18 years when he was killed. The officer, like Kennedy, was buried the following Monday. Tippit received full police honors. Marie Tippit received calls from then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. She later received a framed photo of the president and his family with a handwritten note by Jacqueline Kennedy.
Fifty years later, Marie Tippit still mourns her husband.
“You never get over it when you love someone,” she said.
In 2008, Marie Tippit went to Washington, D.C., for ceremonies honoring fallen officers and, for the first time, visited Kennedy’s grave.
“I had opportunity 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 will burn for both our husbands,’” she said.
Marie Tippit maintains close relationships with former Dallas officers. During the recent premiere of “Capturing Oswald” at the Texas Theatre, where Oswald was apprehended after shooting J.D. Tippit, Marie received hugs and kisses from Leavelle and former homicide Det. Elmer Boyd, who was J.D. Tippit’s close friend. Boyd spent two days escorting Oswald around the police station while he was in custody. Marie Tippit also is close with her late husband’s family, including her sister-in-law, Joyce Tippit Debord, who joined her a few years ago at a poster-signing.
“I have to give Joyce and the rest of the family a lot of credit for standing by me all these years,” Marie Tippit said. “Without them, I would have never done it.”