Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Cop Who Captured Lee Harvey Oswald

I was in my first year of high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and like many who still remember exactly where they were on that terrible day, I’ve never lost the desire to learn what really happened.

That has led to reading many of the books written about the assassination, all of them offering differing facts and contradictory theories of who or what was behind it.

Like most people, I’ve never fully accepted the official “lone guman” story. But I’ve also never found an alternative truth I can completely accept. Cubans. The Mob. The CIA. Lyndon Johnson. Texas Oil Barons. Vietnam War Hawks. Even in convoluted combinations, they never seem to logically add up.

But almost 30 years after the fact, I had the chance to meet a man barely mentioned in most accounts of what transpired in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. The beat cop who captured Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1990, I was writing the CBS series “Top Cops”, a show in which real police stories were dramatized, hewing as closely as possible to recreating the actual events of our police cases.

The series was heavily lawyered, with network suits always worried about potential lawsuits from the dozens of real life people we were portraying each week.

That meant that final cuts were often tweaked to eliminate moments, sometimes entire scenes, that might get us into tricky territory.

Thus, we faced the very real possibility of ending up with an episode that fell short of our required running time.

The solution was to create a series of mini-documentaries of three to five minutes that could be plugged in to fill out our already multi-story shows.

One of the first subjects we found was Officer Nick MacDonald, a low-key, publicity shy and retired Dallas police officer, who had arrested Kennedy’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.


Nick flew up to Toronto to narrate his story and we spent a day going over what he would say about his involvement in the aftermath of the Kennedy killing.

He clearly had accepted the Warren Commission’s Official version of the events of that day and retained a veteran beat cop’s attention to detail. He didn’t care about theories or possibilities. His was the classic Jack Webb, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.

This is what he saw. This is what he knew. Everything else was spin or speculation or something that happened somewhere he wasn’t.

But after we’d shot his narration, something he’d said kept bugging me.

The tape of Nick’s appearance on “Top Cops” appears below. It’s a no nonsense report from a pretty ordinary guy who just happened to be dropped into an event of historic proportions.

But there’s a moment –- at the 50 second mark –- where MacDonald describes being sent to scene of the murder of Officer J.D. Tippett, beginning the chase that would quickly lead him directly to Lee Harvey Oswald.

Why Tippett had confronted Oswald and why Oswald had shot him remain two of the unsolved mysteries connected to the assassination.

While Nick had made reference to police dispatchers for his prior radio calls, at this point he says, “Suddenly, I heard an unfamiliar voice on the radio. He said a policeman had been shot…”

Maybe it was nothing of import. But it was odd that in a small, close knit police department, he’d never been able to identify the voice that sent him to his unique place in history.

When I asked Nick about the voice, he became quiet for a moment, then in the same casual manner he’d told his story he said, “You know, there is one thing about that day that’s never made sense to me…”

It seems that in 1963 all the Dallas police dispatchers were women. Civilian employees who knew the city backwards and in an era with few if any female officers couldn’t be confused with other cops or detectives in a chaotic or emergency situation.

But when Nick got to work on the morning of November 22nd, he happened to walk past the dispatch office and noticed all the ladies were quite excited.

They had all arrived at work to find envelopes waiting at their dispatch stations. Envelopes containing invitations for the banquet to which Kennedy’s motorcade from Love Field was taking him.

Therefore, the women who best knew the city, the police units and Dallas police protocols weren’t on the air when shots were fired in Dealey Plaza and all hell broke loose.

All the voices on the police radios were unfamiliar that day, and well-trained cops like Nick MacDonald just did what they were told and went where they were directed.

Maybe that’s of little consequence. Maybe it’s just another in a confluence of unexpected events which usually have to coincide to precipitate a tragedy. 

Or maybe it’s something more.

Today, I noticed both a new set of revelations about the Kennedy assassination in my morning news feeds, as well as one previously accepted set of facts being debunked.

The silly season preceding the 50th anniversary of the assassination has begun.

And at this point I’ve come to believe that there’s so much confusion, constructed conspiracy and self serving drivel that we’ll probably never know what actually happened or be able to discern the truth if we actually heard it.

But Nick MacDonald’s “Just the facts”story remains refreshing and worthy of repeating.

1 comment:

jimf said...

One of the witnesses who found Officer Tippit after he'd been shot said he figured out to work the police radio and called it in. So that may have been the voice MacDonald heard, and it's not unusual why it was an unfamiliar voice. I still think Oswald was innocent though.