MOST PEOPLE OVER 40 vividly remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred 31 years ago this week. But who else was killed in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, apparently by the same assassin?
Except for historians or others who have read a lot about the Kennedy assassination, Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit is remembered by few. But it was the murder of Tippit that helped convince Dallas police that Lee Harvey Oswald was the president's assassin. Of course, many conspiracy theories question Oswald's role in either slaying.
The Dallas police's involvement with Oswald began moments after Kennedy was killed. A police officer stopped Oswald inside the Texas School Book Depository as he stood calmly by a soda machine. Oswald was released, however, after his supervisor positively identified him as an employee. The Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination, later concluded that shots that killed the president came from the book depository.
Later that day, when Oswald did not report for an employee roll call at the book depository, his absence was reported to police. The Dallas Police Department broadcast a physical description of Oswald to its officers, noting that he was wanted for routine questioning to explain his sudden departure.
Where did Oswald go?
The Warren Commission concluded that he left through the main front door, took a bus for several blocks and then walked the rest of the way to his rooming house.
Inside, he rushed past his landlady to his room, and apparently got a handgun before leaving again on foot.
Not far from the house, Oswald was stopped on the street by Tippit, an 11-year veteran of the force who was alone in his cruiser. Tippit, 39, may have noted that Oswald fit the description aired on the police radio. Some eyewitnesses say Tippit pulled up to a man walking along the sidewalk and asked him to stop. They say the man stopped and leaned casually on the passenger-side window to talk with Tippit.
What happened next depends on which eyewitness account you believe.
One eyewitness said she saw Tippit stop two men, one short and heavy (Jack Ruby?), the other thin and tall. The shorter man shot Tippit when the officer got out of the cruiser, and the pair left the scene, according to the eyewitness. Cab driver William Scoggins saw only one gunman who muttered as he ran by the cab: "Poor dumb cop!" Several eyewitnesses said the killer threw bullet shells into some bushes.
Later, in a nearby movie theater, where he was tracked down and arrested, Oswald was slugged when he tried to pull a gun, which later was identified as the one used to kill Tippit. Dallas police and the Warren Commission would conclude that Oswald killed Tippet to avoid being taken in for questioning, which eventually could have led to his being charged with murdering the president.
Had Oswald survived Jack Ruby's bullet and stood trial for the assassination of the president, the case against him would have been highly circumstantial. Apparently no eyewitness saw him fire on the president. But several eyewitnesses claimed to have seen him kill Tippit. So the case against him for the Tippit slaying was airtight -- or was it?
In 1975, author Robert Sam Anson's well-crafted study, "They've Killed the President!" noted that Tippit's police radio dispatcher "Told him to proceed to central Oak Cliff," miles from his district. " 'Be at large for any emergency that might arise.' " Oak Cliff was Lee Harvey Oswald's quiet residential neighborhood.
At the theater where Oswald was arrested, a war film was showing as the arresting officers entered. Mr. Anson writes that a man in the theater instructed the police where to find Oswald. "The man the police were looking for, he said, was sitting on the ground floor, in the center, about three rows from the back." After a brief tussle, Oswald was taken into custody. But what about the mystery man who "fingered" Oswald? He rose from his seat, walked outside, and quietly disappeared into the murky mists of time and history, never to be heard from again, officially.
Who was this mystery man? Ruby? An Oswald accomplice? An innocent bystander at the right place at the right time? We'll probably never know.
Earline Roberts, Oswald's landlady at 1026 N. Beckley St., told the Warren Commission that before the Tippit killing she'd seen a Dallas police car parked in front of her home. The officer in that car blew his horn as if to signal Oswald when to leave the house, she said. Some conspiracy theorists have asked: Was this mysterious officer J. D. Tippit, and was he in some way involved with Oswald?