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Officer handcuffed to Oswald can't escape photo

Retired Dallas police detective Jim Leavelle still gets letters from strangers because of that 1963 photo of him standing next to Lee Harvey Oswald.
Handcuffed To Oswald
In the famous photo from Nov. 24, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President John F. Kennedy, reacts as Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby, foreground, shoots at him a corridor of the police headquarters. At left, is Detective Jim Leavelle.Bob Jackson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Retired Dallas police detective Jim Leavelle still gets letters from strangers because of that 1963 photo of him standing next to Lee Harvey Oswald.

You know — THAT photo.

"Most just want autographs," Leavelle said. "One asked what effect the Kennedy assassination had on my life. The usual."

As the nation marks the 45th anniversary Saturday of the Kennedy assassination, the 88-year-old Leavelle remains one of the investigation's most famous figures.

Standing out in his tan suit and matching Resistol cowboy hat on Nov. 24, 1963, Leavelle was handcuffed to Oswald when Jack Ruby fired his .38-caliber pistol in an attack immortalized in the famous photo from the basement of Dallas police headquarters.

Leavelle leans back, his eyebrows furrowed and face stunned. Oswald grimaces. To the right, Ruby leans in and is still pointing his gun at Kennedy's assassin.

Face known worldwide
The photo made Leavelle's face known worldwide, and began a lifetime of explaining how he ended up handcuffed to Oswald more times than he can count.

"How many hairs are on a dog's back?" Leavelle said this week after another retelling at The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas.

The story begins the same each time: Leavelle didn't even have an assignment when Kennedy's motorcade came through Dallas.

But once word reached police headquarters that Kennedy had been shot, Leavelle made his way to the Texas School Book Depository to collect statements. He wasn't there long before hearing on a police radio that an officer had been shot in the nearby neighborhood of Oak Cliff.

The detective volunteered immediately to investigate. The death of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit — who Oswald shot after fleeing downtown following the assassination — later put Oswald in an interrogation room with Leavelle.

The two didn't get much time together. At least not until two days later, when Leavelle escorted Oswald out of Dallas police headquarters to be taken to the county jail.

Dozens of threats on Oswald's life had poured in. Before stepping out into a crowded basement of reporters, Leavelle took out his handcuffs and locked one cuff on his left forearm. The other he snapped on Oswald's right wrist.

Joke made Oswald smile
"I said to Lee, if someone shoots at you, I hope they're as good a shot as you are," Leavelle said. "He smiled. I think it was the only time he did."

Leavelle saw the gun in Ruby's hand right away. He tried to jerk Oswald behind him, but that wound up only exposing Oswald's body even more. Later, he was able to move the bullet lodged under Oswald's skin with his finger.

Leavelle doesn't believe in conspiracy theories. He said the number of people who claimed to have been on the grassy knoll when Kennedy was shot could fill the Cotton Bowl. And his ready quip about the photo? "I started to ask them to take it over. I didn't like the look of it."

He usually does television interviews in the five- and 10-year anniversaries of the assassination, including some overseas. Fewer requests came this year. But Leavelle knows why they always ask.

"The American people like a mystery," Leavelle said. "They don't like anything cut-and-dry."