Sunday, October 27, 2013

For readers of The Dallas Morning News the pain of republishing old lies

Paul G. McCaghren

Updated: October 27, 2013 12:32 AM

They were on the front lines of a presidential security operation that could not have ended worse.

So it’s natural that some of the Dallas police officers on duty on Nov. 22, 1963, still wonder if things could have been different. They’re still bothered, after 50 years, by questions from outsiders, especially the conspiracy buffs. The pain lingers like the trauma of war.

“I have been at the bedside of numerous officers who have passed away and who were there at the time of the assassination,” said Paul G. McCaghren, a retired assistant police chief. “I have heard a number of them say, ‘I have never had such a horrible day in my entire life.’”

Yet, there are reasons to be proud of the police work done in the tumultuous hours and days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Dallas officers say their department investigated the murders of JFK and Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit with professionalism and without succumbing to emotion. Tippit, a decorated 11-year veteran of the force, was gunned down on an Oak Cliff street when he stopped Lee Harvey Oswald for questioning less than an hour after Kennedy was shot.

Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald two days later — right under the noses of the police charged with guarding the world’s most infamous criminal suspect — was broadcast on live TV to a horrified nation. That was a debacle, an embarrassment of unthinkable dimension for the Dallas police. Department leaders had no choice but to acknowledge the security
failures. It may seem a small consolation, but investigators were able to rule out any involvement by police personnel in the death of Oswald.

Here are a few recollections from four Dallas officers who served during that trying period.

Bill Johnson, 74

Bill Johnson was among the first Dallas police officers to greet the Kennedys upon their arrival at Love Field. His prestigious assignment: help secure the perimeter of Air Force One.

“It was nerve-racking; it was tense,” he said. “It was, ‘Wow, I’ve got to protect the president of the United States, even though I was a little bitty small peg.’”

Johnson still wonders what might have happened had he been working his regular beat that day, in Oak Cliff with his partner: Tippit.

“I just wish that I could have been with J.D., because, you know, it might have saved his life,” Johnson said.

After Kennedy was shot as his motorcade passed through downtown Dallas, it didn’t take long for the news to trickle back to those stationed at the airport. A short time later, they learned that Tippit had been killed. Initially, it wasn’t clear that the two events were connected.

Johnson wanted to leave, to learn more about his partner’s fate. But he was ordered to remain at Love Field.

On that day, he saw the president and the first lady up close. Later, he watched as Kennedy’s coffin was loaded onto Air Force One. But as vivid as those memories are, the image he can’t escape is something he never witnessed.

“I just see my partner laying on the ground on 10th Street,” Johnson said. “That’s what I see.”

Of Oswald’s bloody death two days later, the retired cop simply says: “He got his just end.”

Elmer ‘Sonny’ Boyd, 86

There’s no one still living who spent more time with Oswald in his final hours than Dallas Detective Sonny Boyd. He and Detective Richard M. Sims, who died last year, were with Oswald through much of his time in police custody, escorting him, for example, to interrogations.

Oswald, Boyd recalled, would talk about anything except Kennedy and Tippit, whom he denied shooting.

“We were with him most of the time that he was out of his jail cell,” Boyd said, “except that one time — when he got shot that morning.”

“That morning” was Sunday, Nov. 24. Oswald was being transferred from a holding cell in the downtown police headquarters to the more-secure Dallas County Jail.

As Oswald was being led through the basement of the police building, Ruby, a strip-club operator well known to the police and local reporters, stepped forward from the crowd. In his right hand was a .38 revolver. Before anyone could react, Ruby shot Oswald in the torso at close range.

Oswald was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital — where doctors two days earlier had labored in vain to save the president’s life — but Ruby’s bullet had done its intended work. Oswald was pronounced dead at 1:07p.m., less than two hours after he was shot.

According to a report prepared for Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, Ruby had slipped into the police building’s basement during a “momentary breakdown in the security measures adopted” for the transfer of Oswald.

Ruby said he was in the area to wire money to a stripper in Fort Worth. Noticing a commotion near the police station, he walked over and slipped unnoticed past an officer who was supposed to be guarding a ramp to the basement. The officer, Ruby said, had stepped into the street to direct traffic.

Many police officers would say later that they were apprehensive about moving Oswald in so public a manner. But city leaders persuaded Curry to do it that way — they wanted to show the world that Oswald hadn’t been beaten or otherwise mistreated while in the custody of the Dallas Police Department.

Boyd wasn’t part of the detail in charge of moving Oswald, and he had nothing to do with how the transfer was handled.

He’s convinced that things might have turned out differently had he and Sims been in that basement. Ruby, he said, knew and liked Sims.

Boyd recalled that after Oswald’s death, Ruby asked Sims if they were mad at him.

“No, Jack, we’re not mad at you, but what you did is a terrible thing,” Boyd quoted his fellow detective as saying.

Ruby told Sims that he didn’t want Jackie Kennedy to have to return to Dallas for Oswald’s trial. But according to Boyd, Ruby added: “If you and Mr. Boyd had been with him, I might not have shot him.”

Paul G. McCaghren, 81

After Oswald’s murder, Curry assigned a team of investigators to determine whether anyone had helped Ruby gain access to the police headquarters basement. Paul G. McCaghren, a police lieutenant at the time, says he’s the only surviving member of that team.

The investigators conducted more than 120 interviews.

McCaghren still stands by the conclusion that was delivered to Curry: Ruby slipped in on his own.

“In my investigative experience, from what I’ve seen, there was no treachery,” he said.

McCaghren, who now has a grandson on the Dallas police force, said he and his colleagues got through the dark days of November 1963 by focusing on the job.

“If anything, the work productivity picked up instead of going down,” he said. “I noticed these officers and detectives, they really got immersed in their work. … I think that was to drive away thinking about what had happened.”

It is still a challenge for him to articulate to outsiders what the trauma was like for those within the police ranks. A Marine veteran of the Korean War, he likened the police department to a band of soldiers who witness death and destruction together.

“We related to the officer that was killed,” McCaghren said. “We related to the fact that Kennedy was killed on our watch … and we felt responsible for that, to a certain degree.”

Tom Wafer, 72

He was just a “dumb rookie” whose first night on patrol wouldn’t come until two weeks after the assassination. But Officer Tom Wafer faced the same challenges as his more senior fellows.

Even as the devastation of Kennedy’s death rippled throughout the world, the residents of Dallas needed their police force.

“Police work goes on,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference what transpires. … There were still cops on the street answering disturbance calls, burglaries, robberies, rapes, whatever was going on at the time.”

Over his long career and into retirement, he’s heard countless war stories from fellow cops. But they almost never brought up the Kennedy assassination.

That was for outsiders to do, often in an insulting way.

“It irritated the hell out of me,” he said.

Sometimes, the rookie would make a routine traffic stop. The motorist he pulled over would say, “Instead of messing with me and writing a ticket, you should be out here trying to find the murderer of the president.

“That really ticked me off,” Wafer said. “And that happened to me a lot.”

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