Did Oswald Recognize Ruby?

by Russ Tarby

The photographic record of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder appears to support theories linking Oswald to his killer, Jack Ruby.

In 1998, the American public re-focused its attention on the JFK murder after the July release of the MPI Home Video Image of An Assassination, featuring six computer-enhanced screenings of the Zapruder Film. Now, at assassination symposia and on the Internet, a debate rages over alleged edits or alterations which may have been made to Abe Zapruder's original home movie.

But another slaying was also caught on film that awful weekend in 1963, and even aired live on NBC-TV. Like the much more closely studied Z-Film, the archival footage of Oswald's last moments may yet reveal evidence of a conspiracy.

On Sunday morning, Nov. 24, 1963, an estimated international television audience of 60 million people saw it all flicker in front of them in black-and-white, as Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby shot accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Police Department.

Now, at the Museum of Radio & Television in Manhattan, NBC reporter Tom Pettit's live report on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 11:21 a.m. CST, can be seen again, and it vividly captures the chaos enveloping that unlikely killing ground. Even more revealing, however, is a CBS-TV videotape called "One Sunday in November," which also details the Oswald shooting.

Although NBC-TV aired Oswald's murder as it actually happened, CBS producers chose to broadcast live funeral services from Washington that morning rather than the routine transfer of the prisoner in Dallas. Nevertheless, cameraman George Phenix of the Dallas CBS affiliate KRLD-TV, dutifully shot what was supposed to be the simple delivery of the accused assassin to a car waiting to take him to the County Jail, one mile away.

Phenix --- positioned just a few feet behind Ruby as the assailant awaited his prey --- squeezed off several feet of clear black-and-white film footage depicting a manacled Oswald, flanked by two big DPD plainclothesmen, Jim Leavelle and L.C. Graves, emerging into the basement.

Texas-bred CBS reporter Dan Rather, whose career blossomed quickly after his on-the-scene coverage of the events in Dallas, narrated Phenix's film as it replayed endlessly before a national viewing audience on the afternoon of Nov. 24:

Now we will show you the film of Oswald being shot, still-framed," Rather says. "Watch the hat in the right-hand corner of the frame. Watch Oswald's eyes as they seem to catch the eye of the assassin [Ruby]. His head turns, he looks at the assassin and his eyes never leave him. The assassin moves in ... and a few inches from {Oswald's} abdomen, fires a shot.

Perhaps not as egregious as his unfortunate description of the Z-Film that weekend, Rather erred on one point here: Oswald's eyes did in fact "leave" Ruby, literally an instant before the gunman lunged from the crowd. In the famous still photograph by Dallas Morning News lensman Jack Beers, Oswald looks dead ahead, as do the officers at his side, while Ruby --- his .38-caliber Colt Cobra revolver aiming point blank into Oswald's stomach --- advances from the victim's extreme left.

In any case, as Rather throws CBS's Nov. 24 afternoon broadcast back to anchorman Charles Collingwood in New York, he describes Dallas as "grim, solemn and shamed." Collingwood, meanwhile, reminds viewers that the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald only "deepens the mood of national misgiving." Which seemed to be a polite way of saying that, "The Oswald snuff proves that the fix is in."

Certainly, many viewers who saw the film of that shooting, especially the CBS version which showed Oswald looking at Ruby, became instant conspiracy theorists.

In his book The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald, former U.S. House of Representatives and Senate photographic expert Bob Groden printed several images from Phenix's film, with one close-up captioned, "{Oswald} seems to be thinking, 'What are you doing here, Jack?'"

But far more credible commentators also noticed the suspicious eye contact. Although he wasn't personally present in that basement, Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry wrote in his awkwardly-titled 1969 memoir, Retired Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry Reveals His Personal JFK Assassination File that, "Witnesses to the shooting {of Lee Harvey Oswald} wondered if there wasn't a gleam of recognition in Oswald's eye when Ruby stepped out from the newsmen." Curry must've picked up the scuttlebutt from the DPD locker room that afternoon or thereafter.

The ever-careful historian and photographic analyst Richard Trask warns, however, that "It's all but impossible to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the direction of the eyes of any photographic subject." In researching his indispensable 638-page book Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy (1994; Yeoman Press, Danvers, Mass.), Trask interviewed former Dallas Police detective Jim Leavelle, the man in the white suit hand-cuffed to Oswald's right arm during the shooting. Leavelle --- who knew Ruby by sight --- claimed that the television lights were so bright in that basement that he couldn't recognize anyone in the crowd. The Warren Commission estimated that between 40 and 50 newsmen and approximately 70 policemen were assembled in the DPD basement at the time of Oswald's murder.

The Warren Commission studied the videotapes and films showing Oswald's ill-fated transfer, "and has observed no facial expressions which can be interpreted as signifying recognition of Ruby by Oswald," it wrote in its Official Report, which also described the lights from the TV cameramen in the basement as "blinding."

Contradicting both the Warren Report's assertions and Leavelle's testimony about the "blinding" media lights, however, the photographic evidence actually indicates that the lights aimed in Oswald's direction ALSO illuminated the first row of men standing on either side of the intended walkway.

George Phenix's film as well as Jack Beers' still photo clearly show light spilling onto the first line of reporters and cops immediately to Oswald's left, a group that included Ruby.

While Oswald, Leavelle and Graves certainly encountered bright lights, they could still have focused clearly on anyone upon whom this light was spilling --- including Ruby. Persons standing behind the range of that illumination, on the other hand, would have appeared as mere shadows to them.

For those watching CBS-TV that surreal Sunday, Dan Rather's words continue to resonate: "Watch Oswald's eyes as they seem to catch the eye of the assassin {Ruby}. His head turns, he looks at the assassin and his eyes never leave him. The assassin moves in...and a few inches from {Oswald's} abdomen, fires a shot."

Mary LaFontaine, co-author of Oswald Talked (1996; Pelican Books, Gretna, Louisiana), which argues convincingly that Oswald and Ruby collaborated in a pre-assassination gun-running scheme, recalls her own reaction to that Sunday shooting:

"When those of us who are old enough saw Ruby shoot Oswald, we knew there was something wrong. There was some kind of conspiracy, and this man was being silenced."

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Russ Tarby is a Senior Editor, covering books and music, for the Syracuse New Times. He can be reached via e-mail at:


The Museum of Television and Radio is located at 25 West 52nd St. in New York City; (212) 621-6600.

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