Killing Kennedy: The Cop Who Slapped The Cuffs On Lee Harvey Oswald
That’s a picture of me with a man who played a role in one of the biggest stories in U.S. history. A few months ago a friend of ours, Kathy Throop, mentioned in passing to my wife that her father was going to be interviewed by Tom Brokaw for an upcoming NBC special. Her dad was a retired Dallas police officer who put the handcuffs on Lee Harvey Oswald. “Would Mark be interested in talking with dad for a story?” “I’m pretty sure he would,” my wife told her. She was right.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Most of us who are old enough will never forget the moment we heard the president had been shot in Dallas. For Kathy’s father, November 22, 1963 started out much like any other day. But it ended with a violent struggle with someone he would later learn had just shot the President of the United States.
Here’s the incredible story of the man who played a little known, but important role, in a tragedy that would change our nation forever.
I met Ray Hawkins on a sunny, but chilly late October Tuesday morning. He had just pulled up in front of the movie theater, stepped out of his truck, and slowly shuffled to the back of the vehicle. I watched as he lifted up the handle with one hand, pulled down the tailgate with the other, and then struggled to take a walker from the truck bed. It was one of those walkers on wheels that doubles as a portable chair to sit on when you get tired of standing. I offered to help him, but he refused. I could tell he had performed this tiring ritual many times, and wanted to continue doing it on his own as long as he was able.
Only when Hawkins safely planted his legs on the sidewalk, leaning slightly forward with his walker firmly in his grip in front of him, did he say anything. “I’m Ray Hawkins.” Short and succinct. We had met only on the phone before now. I had called him three weeks earlier with my request. “Oh I don’t know,” he told me then. “I really don’t have that much to say.” But I knew he did. And I had hoped he would agree to meet me, because I knew this man had played an important role in one of the biggest stories in American history. A role very few people knew about, in a tragedy that would shape our nation for decades to come.
Before this day I had only seen a picture of Hawkins. A much different, much stronger looking man. The black and white photo showed someone full of swagger, his confident smile and cool shades worn as easy as the badge on his chest and white-handled pistol sticking out from his hip. It was a photo of him as a young police officer. Ray Hawkins was a cop, or used to be, sworn to protect and serve the citizens of Dallas, Texas. He spent decades on the job. But I was interested in only one day in his long career in law enforcement. One day. November 22, 1963.
We met in front of the theater, but we weren’t there to take in a movie. In fact, at this hour of the morning, it was closed. We waited for the manager to let us in, just us, for a special showing of sorts. The Texas Theatre is tucked in among normal shops along West Jefferson Boulevard in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. For 80 years, it’s been home to the biggest stars in Hollywood. But it’s most famous for a visitor who slipped in without paying on a late November afternoon 50 years earlier.
As we waited to be let in, Hawkins and I chatted. He sat down in his walker and asked if he could turn his back to the bright morning sun. He coughed, tried to clear his throat, and then coughed again. I could tell he wasn’t feeling well. “I don’t know where this cough came from,” he mumbled. I assured him I wouldn’t take up too much of his time.
We began talking about the President’s much-anticipated visit to Dallas so long ago. The city was abuzz. Thousands of people lined the streets. Kids waved small American flags. Women and men waited for hours to catch a glimpse of Kennedy and the striking First Lady. And security was extremely tight. For Hawkins though, it started much like any other day. He was assigned to cover traffic and accidents. Traffic and accidents. This day was nothing special, nothing different for him. He wouldn’t be anywhere near the President’s motorcade as it wound its way through town. But it turns out he was. And the day would be one he’d never forget. And one America would never forget.
Like most people who are old enough, Hawkins can remember the moment he learned the President had been shot. “I was at an intersection and they (the motorcade) had to pass me to go to Parkland Hospital. So I called the dispatcher and asked them what the emergency was. They told me the President had just been shot.” 50 years later, the emotion is still there. “I thought surely it couldn’t be true,” his voice quavered. “That that had happened. Especially in Dallas. As nice a place as we are.”
We were let in. I can imagine the Texas Theatre looks much like it did a half a century ago. A poster of Jean Harlow in “Hell’s Angels” hangs next to photos of dozens of famous directors, from Hitchcock to Huston and Stone to Spielberg. Hawkins and I were then ushered into the large darkened theater room. Row after row of empty red cushioned seats. Hawkins sat down, directly behind one of the most famous movie chairs in U.S. history. Third row from the back, fifth seat in. It immediately brought back his memories of a violent struggle with a man he would later learn had just murdered the most powerful person in the world.
After killing Kennedy in Dealey Plaza, Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit 45 minutes later. At this point, no one knew the two murders were connected. No one, except Oswald. A tip from a clerk was called into police of a suspicious looking man in a shoe store along West Jefferson Blvd. Before police showed up, the man left the shoe store and slipped into the Texas Theatre as it was showing “War is Hell”. That’s where a small army of officers headed, including a young Ray Hawkins. It wasn’t long before the theater was “raining police”, as he described the scene. “I don’t know how the word got back there,” he said, “But I do know an officer jumped off the balcony. It was pretty hectic for a while.” And Hawkins had a front row seat to a real life drama no movie script could ever make up.
Oswald was sitting in the third row from the back, fifth seat in. Hawkins and officer Nick McDonald were the first to get to him. Oswald started to run, but three seats closer to the aisle the two officers grabbed him. As Oswald drew his gun and aimed to fire, Hawkins says McDonald caught the hammer between his thumb and finger. It was that close.
- Me: “You didn’t know that this man had just killed the President of the United States?
- Hawkins: “No, I didn’t know then.”
- Me: “So you didn’t know the struggle that ensued here would take on national implications?”
- Hawkins: “No, I really didn’t. It was rather hectic for a while.”
- Me: “And you slapped the cuffs on him.”
- Hawkins: “Yes sir.”
The only words Hawkins remembers Oswald saying was “I ain’t done nothing,” followed by screaming as they took him away. He recalls Oswald was roughed up a bit during the arrest. Again, they didn’t know he had shot the President. All they knew was he had just killed one of their own. Yeah, they roughed him up all right.
- Me: “Did you contribute to that?”
- Hawkins: “(laughing) Not that I know of (laughing).”
- Me: Not that you know of?”
- Hawkins: “(again laughing) Not that I can remember.”
Hawkins never saw Lee Harvey Oswald after that. Of course, two days later Jack Ruby would shoot and kill Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station. Hawkins told me that while Oswald was in the interrogation room, an officer popped his head in the door and said they were looking for a guy named Oswald in connection with Kennedy’s killing. Without a word, the other officer pointed to the man they believed had just killed Officer Tippit. That’s the first time they put two and two together. In one harrowing, life-and-death moment, Hawkins had captured a cop killer AND a presidential assassin.
For Ray Hawkins, what happened inside the Texas Theatre the afternoon of 11-22-63 is now a hazy, distant memory. But it’s one he says turned out as well as could be. And to play a role in a slice of American history … dark as it may be … any actor who’s graced the big screen here, would be proud of. “If there had to be something like this,” he says, “Well, it was great to be part of it.”
Here’s Ray Hawkins’ story that aired on Tulsa’s Channel 8: