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I Saw Lee Harvey Oswald Gunned Down

I happened to be the only Canadian journalist in the underground garage of the Dallas police station that bright Sunday morning two days later, when JFK's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down by Jack Ruby.

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Every anniversary since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, I've been asked to comment or review what happened that sorry day.

I happened to be the only Canadian journalist in the underground garage of the Dallas police station that bright Sunday morning two days later, when JFK's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down by Jack Ruby.

Police had planned to move Oswald to the county jail at 5 p.m., but advanced the timing to Sunday morning.

In those days I was a reporter with the old Toronto Telegram, and as soon as the news came over the wire that the president had been shot, several of us were dispatched to Washington where the late Gordon Donaldson was bureau chief.

It was a Friday, and within the hour Ken McTaggart, Dorothy Howarth and I were on our way with news still breaking. Ken and Dorothy are dead now -- arguably, both the greatest reporters of their day.

We worked all that night, and on Saturday realized we had no one in Dallas to cover the accused assassin. The Toronto Star was there -- Rae Corelli, a street-wise, old-time reporter. One of us had to catch the 1 a.m. milk-run flight to Dallas. Me.

I remember the endless flight to Dallas, landing at various spots en route, and feeling a deep depression and sense of personal loss at Kennedy's death. The flight was the first chance I'd had to reflect, without having to cover some aspect of the tragedy.

In Dallas I checked into the hotel -- I forget which one. I was exhausted and intended to sleep until the 5 p.m. advertised time of Oswald's transfer.

It was around 9 a.m. on the Sunday, and I remember thinking of my army days and the admonition: "Time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted." An agitated conscience persuaded me to check out the police station before bedding down. I wanted to know the lay of the land for the 5 p.m. move. I'd still catch a couple of hours sleep.

The police station was quiet, but stairs leading to the underground garage was alive with the babble of voices. I went down, prepared to show what credentials I had and to explain my dishevelled, unshaven presence if there was a security check.

There was none. I found myself on the police side of the garage, TV cameras and journalists packed and hollering across the driveway. I began chatting with a plainclothes cop, hoping to discourage others from questioning my presence.

I think local cops assumed I was FBI, while the FBI figured I was a local cop.

Soon, out of a doorway, came sheriffs, escorting Oswald who was wearing a sweater, had a bruise mark on his face, and was furtively darting glances side-to-side.

I began to shift down towards the car that would take him, when suddenly from the packed crowd of journalists, a hunched figure wearing a fedora lunged at Oswald and there was the sharp "pop" of a handgun being fired into his side.

Oswald crumbled, shrilly moaning "Oh... oh... oh." The gunman vanished under a pile of police bodies.

Pandemonium erupted. I thought I recognized the gunman as a Chicago Tribune reporter I'd met during the Saskatchewan Medicare crisis a year earlier, and was relieved when it wasn't him, and I wouldn't have to try and remember our conversation at the time, which I'd totally forgotten.

The plainclothes detective and I both felt the shock waves of the gun being fired. We nodded at each other and remarked that we were lucky the gunman was a good shot. Had he missed, we felt we were in the line of fire.

Oswald was dragged inside. The police were frantic. There was yelling and shouting. A TV crew was held at gun point to explain themselves. Individual reporters faced guns as police hunted for accomplices. It was a nervous time. Hysteria beckoned. Still, no one questioned my presence.

Oswald soon reappeared on a stretcher, being taken to an ambulance. The big question was whether he was alive, and would he live?

He was at my feet, the grey colour of cement. His eyes flickered. He was alive, but it was clear to me that he was already dead. Or soon would be. His sweater was rolled up and I could see the shape of the bullet beneath the unbroken skin, around his kidneys.

What I remember, that seems rarely to get mentioned, is the cheer from the crowd lining the street outside the police station when they heard that Oswald had been shot. This was Dallas -- no friend of Kennedy, but a city embarrassed that he'd been shot there.

In those days I'd spent more time covering wars, revolutions and crises abroad than stories at home, and was not used to on-the-spot TV reporting. I phoned the Telegram to reassure the Sunday editor that I had the story covered. I was mildly surprised and disappointed he wasn't more enthused. He said they knew I was there because I was on TV all morning. It was my first exposure to TV news coverage.

Unbeknownst to me, the rival Toronto Star was also looking at live TV coverage from Dallas and saw the Tely man, and wondered where their guy was. They phoned his hotel and woke him up. He still thought 5 p.m. was the moving time.

Better him than me, I thought when I heard the details. More evidence that time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. As punishment, the Star suspended Correlli without pay for a couple of weeks.

In Dallas, attention shifted to the gunman -- small time bar owner and criminal wannabe Jack Ruby, whose trial I covered three months later.

Over the years, and in innumerable interviews, I've been asked about the case. Was it a conspiracy? Maybe Ruby was a hitman for organized crime? How about Oswald's Cuban connection? And/or the Soviet connection, where Oswald had defected as a Marine and then re-defected back home? Was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson involved? How about a gunman on the grassy knoll? How could Oswald have shot so accurately and so fast? What about so many skeptics of the assassination dying suddenly?

To all these and other theories, I simply don't know. I was just there.

What I do know is that over the past 48 years, no memoir, no diary, no deathbed confession has materialized that indicates a conspiracy. This absence in America, which is a chatterbox nation that can't keep secrets, seems substantial evidence that Oswald acted alone.

Yet even now, theories keep emerging. A woman claiming to be Oswald's lover has recently written a book claiming inside knowledge that Oswald didn't kill Kennedy, but was trying to prevent his assassination. What nonsense!

There's recently been a claim that Oswald's shot didn't kill the president -- it was a Secret Service man's gun firing accidentally that hit the president's head, killing him. This lapse supposedly has been covered up.

And so it goes.

Perhaps the conspiracy theories rage because it's difficult to accept that this shining hope for America and the world was extinguished by a pathetic nonentity, unworthy of notoriety. We may never know. The crime of the century seems destined to provoke questions and theories, far into the 21st century -- just as the assassination of President Lincoln did in 1865.

The violent, untimely deaths of both these presidents has guaranteed them a form of immortality, which is more than can be said of most presidents.

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