Officer down

Thirty-five years ago, Jesse Curry was Dallas' respected, popular police chief. Then Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, and Curry became just one more victim of the Kennedy assassination.

He describes Dallas as a "turbulent city" in 1963, a place that bred such organizations as the John Birch Society and something called the Indignant White Citizens Council. He mentions on the very first page of his book the attempt made on the life of General Edwin A. Walker, the right-wing zealot who referred to Dallas as a "Commie cell" and made it his life's mission to eradicate the Red forces from the city. Walker was sitting at a desk in his Turtle Creek mansion on April 10, 1963, when a bullet zinged through a window and landed in a wall just above his head.

Only after the Kennedy assassination would police discover from federal investigators that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired the shot at Walker. But at the time of the incident, Curry and his men thought it was further proof that a "small and violent minority were in danger of upsetting the stability of the whole city." Their opinion was reinforced on October 24, 1963, after United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson came to town and was hit with placards and spat upon by "extremists" (as Curry described them) when he tried to enter the Adolphus Hotel on Commerce Street, just a few blocks from police headquarters.

After Curry learned in early November that John Kennedy was coming to Dallas to heal some lingering wounds in the Democratic Party--and woo voters in the process--the chief wasn't too thrilled. He worried that Kennedy's visit would be too much for the city to bear, that the extremists could not be contained. He fretted about the "dark shadow" that hung over the city; he would later write of "hatemongers" lurking behind buildings.

But on November 18--the day the Dallas police and the Secret Service finalized the route that Kennedy's motorcade would take from Love Field to the Trade Mart--Curry had convinced the City Council to pass an ordinance that would make it unlawful for anyone to insult, threaten, or intimidate the president. He also held a televised press conference warning citizens that police officers would "take immediate action if any suspicious conduct is observed, and we also urge all good citizens to be alert for such conduct." He concluded his remarks by saying that "I am sure that all but a handful of our citizens will cordially welcome the president of the United States to Dallas." Curry made sure the FBI and Secret Service had a list of the extremists and hatemongers among us.

Years later, it would be revealed that FBI special agent James Hosty, assigned to the investigation of Kennedy's murder, had been tailing Oswald, knew he was in Dallas--but didn't warn police officials about his presence. Then again, there was no reason to: From information the FBI knew at the time, Oswald had never made a threat against Kennedy or anyone else. In Curry's book, the chief insisted that "had FBI files been available to us, the individuals involved, such as Oswald, would have been placed under surveillance." It echoed something Curry told The Dallas Morning News in April 1964: If police had known about Oswald, they would have been "sitting on his lap" during the motorcade.

Hosty would, in his own book, refer to Curry's comments as "idiotic." He insisted that Dallas police "had a long list of well-known Communists in Dallas, and not one had a police officer sitting on his lap on November 22." Hosty complained that Curry was just trying to cover his ass--and humiliate the FBI in the process.

There were 168 Dallas police officers assigned to the parade, and Curry was one of them. In fact, he and Sheriff Bill Decker rode in the lead car, scouting for trouble. But Curry was delighted when, on the ride from the airport to downtown, there was none. The morning's rain and gloom had given way to bright, warm smiles all along the parade route--it was a "tumultuous" scene, according to the Warren Commission report, but a reassuring one nonetheless.

Curry was beginning to relax and enjoy the parade when the motorcade turned west off Houston onto Elm in front of the Texas School Book Depository. At that moment Curry noticed "a few unauthorized people on the overpass and wondered how they got there." Then he heard the first gunshot and uttered a few words that became the blueprint upon which conspiracy theorists built their shrine to a cover-up.

"Get a man on top of that triple underpass," he shouted over the police radio, "and see what happened up there!"

Not the sixth floor of the School Book Depository. Not the grassy knoll. But the top of the triple underpass. Curry would later admit that he was just guessing, that it sounded as though the shots came from there, but he couldn't be absolutely certain. Yet even until his death, Curry suspected there might have been more than one assassin--he was convinced, however, that Oswald was definitely one of them.

Immediately after Curry realized Kennedy had been shot, he ordered the motorcade to Parkland Hospital, where Curry remained for about an hour. At Parkland, he learned that police officer J.D. Tippit had been shot and killed. Once Kennedy's death was confirmed, Curry took personal charge of Lyndon Johnson's security, escorting the vice president to Love Field, where U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes swore him in as president. Curry remained on board Air Force One for the brief ceremony, but was "anxious" to get back to City Hall to see just what in God's name was going on.

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