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.

When he returned, he found nothing but chaos: Reporters had taken over the third floor of the Police and Courts Building. The scene, according to one FBI agent in the Warren Commission's report, looked like "Yankee Stadium during the World Series." Curry could barely get to his office, which was at the end of the hallway on the third floor.

For the next two days, reporters swarmed the chief whenever he stepped out of his office or entered the building. Television stations broadcast live his every word, though he knew little about the interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald, which was being handled by Captain Will Fritz, the head of homicide, who wanted to run the investigation his way, without interference. All Curry could tell the reporters was that, yes, they had charged Oswald with the murder of Tippit; yes, the police had physical evidence also linking Oswald to the assassination of Kennedy; and yes, Oswald had refused to take a polygraph examination to clear his name.

Curry stood in the hallway for what seemed like hours, answering questions until he ran out of things to say. On November 23, Curry told reporters that a source had told him the FBI had known that Oswald was in Dallas and that he was a potential threat to Kennedy. Hours later, the FBI special agent in charge of the Dallas office, J. Gordon Shanklin, called Curry and told him to retract the story, which he promptly did--sort of, telling reporters "I do not know if and when [the FBI] interviewed" Oswald.

Shanklin had insisted to Curry that "the FBI did not have Oswald under surveillance," but that was not true: The Bureau had had Oswald under surveillance since 1959, according to the FBI's own files. History would later prove Curry right, but not before Hoover brought down the wrath of the bureau on Curry.

Most of all, reporters wanted to know when Curry would be transferring Oswald to the county jail. For some reason, it seemed like a matter of life or death to the members of the media; they didn't want to miss such a historic moment, and asked Curry about it repeatedly. Finally, late on November 23, Curry told the assembled journalists that if they would show up to headquarters by 10 the next morning, they wouldn't miss a thing.

They didn't.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover always maintained that he sent Jesse Curry a message on Sunday, November 24, demanding that Oswald be "afforded the utmost security" during his stay with the Dallas police. Curry always said Hoover never sent the message--or if he did, well, the chief just didn't receive it. Only last year, when 40,000 pages of Warren Commission documents were made public, there was the note.

But Curry didn't need to be told by Hoover or anyone else how important it was to guard Oswald. He wasn't about to let anything happen to the man. Not if he could help it.

Normally, the Sheriff's Department would have sent someone to fetch Oswald from the city jail; that was standard procedure after charges had been filed with the District Attorney's office. But according to an interview with sheriff's detective Bill Courson, which appears in Larry Sneed's 600-page oral history No More Silence, Sheriff Bill Decker didn't care whether the police department or the sheriff's department moved Oswald to the county jail. Although Decker had originally planned to retrieve Oswald, Courson, who died in 1990, insisted that Decker was happy to let Curry make it his problem. After all, Decker had known about the threats being made against Oswald; there had, in fact, been a phone call to police headquarters warning the cops that a hundred men were heading to Dallas to take Oswald--peacefully or by force.

Courson recalls that Decker told his officers, "Let them transfer the son of a bitch. I don't care nothing about it! They'll screw it up again!"

In a letter he wrote to City Manager Elgin Crull a month after the assassination, Curry explained that he had phoned Decker that Sunday morning. He told the sheriff that the police department was finished with Oswald and prepared to turn over its prisoner. In his book, Curry claimed he was surprised when Decker acted as if it didn't matter who moved Oswald. So Curry decided that the DPD had more manpower to guard him during the transfer, and that his officers would take the responsibility. Bill Courson, however, believed "that Jess Curry yielded to political pressure from Mayor Earle Cabell for the city to transfer Oswald."

When Curry got off the phone with Decker, he found assistant chief Charles Batchelor and deputy chief M.W. Stevenson, head of the Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.), and told them the police were in charge of the operation. They agreed that the safest way to move Oswald would be in an armored car, so Batchelor called Harold Fleming, the owner of the Armored Motor Service, and ordered two cars sent over right away. Fleming would call the police as soon as the cars were dispatched.

In his letter to Crull, Curry said that Batchelor and Stevenson then went down to check the basement, and in his book, Curry added that Stevenson also told the commanders in C.I.D. to stand by in case its officers were needed during the transfer. Other officers had been dispatched to intersections along Elm Street to clear traffic along the route to the county jail.

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