Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lee Harvey Oswald gravestone wanted back from Roscoe museum

by GREG STANLEY / Rockford Register Star

Wayne Lensing stands next to Lee Harvey Oswald's tombstone in the Oswald Room on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, at Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe. Lensing has owned the stone for about 1.5 years. In the background is the ambulance that picked up Oswald after he was shot by Jack Ruby in Dallas. [Max Gersh | RRStar.com]

A tombstone doesn’t typically come with a title or a deed of ownership, which is too bad in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, because one could have helped settle a brewing lawsuit.

The infamous assassin’s gravestone has been on display since 2009 at Historic Auto Attractions, a private museum in Roscoe. But David Card of Dallas says the artifact rightly belongs to his family. Card is determined to bring the tombstone back to Texas and is preparing to sue the museum for ownership. He also intends to sue his stepcousin, Holly Ragan, for selling it.

The story of how the tombstone ended up in Illinois is one of circumstance and luck.

Four years to the day after the Kennedy assassination, vandals stole it out of a cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas. It didn’t take long for police to find the thieves and return the tombstone to Oswald’s mother, Marguerite. In what was likely an attempt to avoid future vandalism, Marguerite held on to the original granite tombstone — complete with Oswald’s engraved name, dates of life and a cross — and replaced it in the cemetery with a plain stone that reads simply “Oswald.”

The original, she kept in a crawl space underneath her house in Fort Worth.

Memorabilia on the move

Shortly after Marguerite Oswald died, Card’s father and stepmother bought her house in the early 1980s. About three or four years later, an electrician discovered the tombstone in a crawl space, Card said.

“Now, what do you with it?” Card said. “It stayed at my parents’ house for a period of time before my stepmother got a little paranoid that someone would break in to steal it. So my parents transferred it to her sister’s house, which was in a more remote location away from the city.”

The sister sent it to stay with her son (Card’s stepcousin), Johnny Ragan. Over the years, Card’s parents died and so did his stepaunt, but he and his siblings always knew they could find the stone with Ragan and his wife, Holly.

When Johnny Ragan died in 2008, Card and his stepsister, Cleo Lowe, contacted Holly hoping to get the stone, Card said.

“She denied any knowledge of it,” he said. “We asked her about it three separate times. There just wasn’t much we could do about it until it surfaced, which it did. We found it on the Internet in May of 2011.”

Holly Ragan sold the stone in 2009 to Wayne Lensing, owner of Historic Auto Attractions, for an undisclosed price.

Card claims she had no right to sell it.

“It was the property of my parents until they both died,” he said. “The interest proceeded to us. It’s theft and deception.”

Lensing opened Historic Auto Attractions in 2001 next door to his business, Lefthander Chassis, which manufactures race cars and parts. The museum began with Lensing’s growing collection of cars owned by the famous and infamous, including Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Mercedes, John Dillinger’s 1932 Studebaker, Harry Truman’s presidential limousine and a dozen others.

The museum expanded into a hodgepodge of other collectibles, including famous movie cars like original Batmobiles, the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” the remodeled ambulance in “Ghostbusters” and the Griswold family’s wagon from “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

JFK collection hot

One big attraction has been the 1956 Cadillac that Secret Service agents were driving directly behind Kennedy the moment he was shot. Lensing picked up on the public’s keen interest in all things Kennedy and kept his eye out for other related memorabilia. He added the ambulance that transferred Oswald after Jack Ruby fatally shot him, the shoes Ruby wore during the murder and the checkered taxicab Oswald hailed moments after he shot the president.

The museum now boasts the largest collection of JFK memorabilia in the world, according to Lensing.

And it’s growing. In May, Lensing will pick up a piece of the cake Marilyn Monroe famously climbed out of to sing “Happy Birthday” to the president.

So, when Lensing was contacted in 2009 about the possibility of buying Oswald’s headstone, he hopped in his small plane and flew to Texas to inspect it.

“Holly Ragan had Heritage Auctions contact me about it,” Lensing said. “I went down there and worked out a deal, inspected it and brought it back here.”

Waiting on legal action

Lensing’s attorney, Bob Calgaro, doesn’t believe the ownership dispute will wind up in court.

“We’ve received a prelude to possible legal action in November,” Calgaro said. “We have not received any evidence that substantiates Card’s claim. We’re waiting to see what they want to do, but I suspect they’re not going to do anything.”

It’s difficult to have a tombstone appraised, but Card estimates it could be worth up to $100,000.

He may not be far off. In December 2010, an anonymous bidder paid more than $87,000 to buy Oswald’s original wood coffin.

“This isn’t a crank pursuit of a quirky item,” Card said. “It’s a serious pursuit of a historical artifact. We want the artifact returned to its rightful owners. I’d like to see it displayed here in Dallas in one of our local museums. We want to put it in its proper place.”

Card will continue to gather his case and evidence of the tombstone’s ownership. He then will find an Illinois attorney and begin legal action.

“A lot of times with these historic items, people come out of the woodwork to claim ownership,” Calgaro said. “Every situation is kind of unique.”

Source: Rockford Register Star