Friday, November 22, 2013

The Murder of J.D. Tippit: Five Decades Later the Slain Cop Gets His Due


Fifty years ago this day, Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippit was shot to death on an Oak Cliff side street.

Few people today know who J.D. Tippit was and even fewer know that it was his murder that led to the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the Texas School Book Depository employee who later would be accused of assassinating President Kennedy.

Hopefully, by days end, that will change.

Tonight, two television specials will air that will throw a long overdue spotlight on the Tippit murder. First up is “Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination,” (NBC, 9 p.m. EST) a two-hour special hosted by Tom Brokaw that features a rare interview with the slain officer’s widow, Marie Tippit, who recounts the pain and anguish she endured the day her husband was killed.

Second is “Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live," (History Channel, 10 p.m. EST) a two-hour special tracing Oswald's actions in the minutes, hours and days following the events in Dallas. Filmed at the actual locations, the special recreates the Tippit shooting, Oswald’s arrest, incarceration, interrogation, and murder at the hands of Jack Ruby.

I was involved in the History Channel production and was reminded – quite vividly – of the brutality of Tippit’s murder as I saw it unfold before my eyes, especially given the brilliant sunshine and chirping birds that enveloped Tenth Street on the day we filmed. And it was more than a little eerie to note that it was exactly 1:15 p.m. when cameras captured the sound of echoing gunfire five decades after the fact – something that hadn’t been planned.

In 1998 I wrote what many consider the definitive book on the subject – With Malice: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Murder of Officer J.D. Tippit. Last month, a revised and expanded update of With Malice was released chronicling Tippit’s life and tragic death in words and photographs.

The introduction to the new edition of With Malice is reprinted below. It seems a fitting tribute to the ordinary hero from Red River County who gave his life in the performance of his duty fifty years ago today. Lest we forget.

Ordinary hero

In 1980, Lizzie Mae Peterson, J.D. Tippit’s mother, went to a movie theater with her daughters, Christene and Joyce, to see a screening of Coal Miner’s Daughter, the bio film about the life of country singer Loretta Lynn.

In an opening scene, Loretta’s future husband, Doolittle Lynn (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) bets a group of miners that he can drive his jeep up a steep incline. Mustering considerable bravado, he manages to accomplish the difficult task amid the cheers of the men gathered below.

As he stood atop the hill and waved his cap to the crowd below, Mae leaned over to Joyce and whispered, “That’s J.D.”

To his family, J.D. Tippit was a funny, prankster who loved cigarettes, cars and horses. He rarely drank, always seemed to have his sleeves rolled up, and loved the western-swing music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. His favorite was “Dusty Skies.”

“Get along doggies we’re moving off of this range
I never thought as how I’d make the change
The blue skies have failed so we’re on our last trail
Underneath these dusty skies
These ain’t tears in my eyes
Just sand from these dusty skies.”

For the Tippit family, this is a personal story. The murder of one so loved was devastating beyond words. It was difficult for many of them to find peace in the weeks and months after his death, in particular J.D.’s mother.

One afternoon, Mae Peterson had a vision. She lay down to take a nap and was startled when her father, Alford Rush, who had died when she was five, and her son J.D. appeared to her. There was a peaceful, soothing feeling about their presence, she said, and they told her, “Don’t grieve anymore.” It seemed as if a great weight was lifted from her shoulders at that very moment.

Other family members reported similar occurrences.

“I was having a hard time with his death too,” niece Linda Chaney remembered, “and he came to me in a dream and winked at me, like he always used to do. It was very soothing, and I felt better immediately.”

J.D.’s younger brothers – Don, Wayne, Edward, and Ron – idolized him. For a long time, his brother Don dreamed about J.D. every single night.

“It’s tough,” niece Linda said. “You forget how painful it was; how much pain we went through until you relive all this. And to see Uncle Donnie get tears in his eyes just the other night – some thirty odd years after the fact, it just kind of brought it all back.”

Particularly painful were the allegations that J.D. was somehow involved in a conspiracy to kill the President or to murder Oswald.

“After Uncle [J.D.] was killed,” niece Carol Christopher said, “you just wouldn’t believe the people – especially if they didn’t know who we were – that would claim that they knew something, or knew Uncle [J.D.] and would tell these big elaborate stories that were just the biggest lies.”

Of course, anyone who really knew J.D. Tippit knew that the idea of him being involved in a conspiracy to kill anyone was preposterous.

“The conspiracy stuff is so untrue, so totally unfounded,” J.D.’s widow, Marie, said in a rare 2003 interview. “That was really difficult for me. Everyone that knew J.D. knew better. That part really made me angry. But we in the family know its all total lies.”

“People want sensationalism,” J.D.’s youngest son, Curtis, added. “Mom’s been abused by conspiracy theories and tabloid publications, and as a result wouldn’t talk to anybody about it for years. Too many people want to cling to a false history, believing my father was in on something with Jack Ruby, and went to meet him, and all this stuff. Really, it’s all kind of silly and funny. If anybody knew the facts, they’d see how false these theories are. But a whole lot of people thrive on it.”

“J.D. being involved in a conspiracy is laughable to say the least,” his sister Joyce DeBord declared. “It is laughable because that wasn’t J.D. in any way, form or fashion.”

Her husband, Alvie, agrees, “Anybody that knew J.D. knew that he couldn’t be involved. His personality just wasn’t that way.”

“No, J.D. wasn’t involved in any conspiracy,” J.D.’s boyhood friend Robert A. ‘Junior’ Ward laughed. “He was just a common man who knew only one way to make a living and that was to work for it and treat his fellow man like he would like to be treated himself. No, nobody will ever make me believe that J.D. was involved in any kind of conspiracy.”

Perhaps the sharpest retort came from J.D.’s life long friend and brother-in-law Jack Christopher.

“It’s pathetic to think that anybody could think that a working man like J.D. would be involved in any kind of conspiracy,” Jack said firmly. “I knew him his whole life and I know that he was not. So anybody that claims that he was involved in a conspiracy is just guessing, making it up, or writing a book about something that couldn’t possibly be proved whatsoever.”

A few times, early on, the Tippits attempted to tell their story to reporters only to have their words misquoted or twisted into a lie. One writer suggested that J.D. wasn’t bright enough to be involved in a conspiracy. It seemed like they couldn’t get anyone to understand.

In May, 1978, a young man well-known to believers in a vast JFK assassination conspiracy approached J.D.’s sister Joyce using a false name and asked about doing some extensive interviews with her for a proposed book about her brother’s murder. He told her that he was interested in getting some information on J.D. through the Freedom of Information-Privacy Act and wanted her help.

She had always been open to talking about her brother and so she agreed. Over the course of three visits, Joyce shared personal stories and family photographs with the young man sitting at her kitchen table. On the last visit, his true conviction that J.D. was involved in a massive conspiracy surfaced, and Joyce, feeling betrayed, asked him to leave. He refused. Her husband, Alvie, heard the commotion and ran the young man off.

Her encounter with the conspiracy advocate soured the whole family on having any more contact with persons expressing interest in J.D.’s personal life. Family members discussed the matter and decided to quit talking altogether. Even at the yearly family reunions, the subject of the assassination and J.D.’s death became a closed subject.

In 1999, shortly after the publication of the first edition of [With Malice], J.D. Tippit’s niece, Carol Christopher, posted a comment on an Internet bookseller’s website, “Research excellent, accuracy correct. Thankful Mr. Myers wrote the account which proves Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed Officer Tippit, and disproves any conspiracy rumors.”

It was a heartening sign that the twenty-plus year family resistance to talking about the life and death of J.D. Tippit might have begun to wane. That posting led to an initial contact that quickly blossomed into numerous telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, and a warm, affectionate, and truly genuine embrace from a family that had guarded their privacy and their brother’s story for so many years.

“Reading your book brought back memories of where we’d come from – on the farm with nothing,” J.D.’s 72-year-old sister Chris told me. “We didn’t have a lot of pictures of him. We didn’t realize that, until he was killed. When we were kids, we just didn’t take pictures much. It ended up not all that many.”

The few surviving pictures of J.D. and life on the Tippit farm have long since faded. The dirt road J.D. Tippit knew in his youth is overgrown with foliage. The farms that once dotted the countryside have vanished. And many of the places he frequented or patrolled in Oak Cliff as a police officer have been demolished. But the warm memories of good times and good friends linger still in the hearts of those who knew him well, as it should be.

“I guess J.D. had a pretty good life while he was here on Earth,” his sister Chris said. “And your book brought that all back to me. I hadn’t really put that all together, in a long time. He had a job he liked, a home for his family, and no real problems. He had worked hard to buy their home, and he was very proud of what he had to offer his wife and children. It seems simple, but that is a great accomplishment for a farmer from Red River County.”

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve worked closely with the Tippit family to trace their family lineage, restore precious family photographs, erect a State historical marker near J.D.’s boyhood home, and fully document the story of this forgotten hero. At its core, it is an ordinary tale of hard work, dedication to duty, and love for one’s family. It has been a tremendous privilege to be embraced as a friend of the Tippit family and to be trusted to accurately tell their story and that of their dear, departed brother, husband, father, and friend.

In addition to the family story, there have been a few changes to this edition [of With Malice] regarding the circumstances of J.D. Tippit’s death – additional information that was uncovered since this work was first published, most of it bringing clarity and detail to that final day. The most important contribution to this work, however, is the long overdue, personal account of the ordinary man who came to be at the center of one of the most controversial moments in American history nearly fifty years ago.

For some men, there are no banners, no fanfare; no medals that could ever say more than what has been engraved in the hearts of those they’ve touched. In their passing we discover that part of the human spirit truly worthy of our adoration.

J.D. Tippit is one of those ordinary men who, through extraordinary events, had the moniker of hero thrust upon them. And although his role in America’s darkest days will forever be remembered it is his likeable spirit that has left the deepest impression.

Duty, honor, and love - essential ingredients of a hero of the ordinary kind.


Leland L. Cogdell, Jr. said...

It's a shame, Dale. I have watched between two and three hours of coverage today. Not one mention of Mr. Tippit have I heard, not one. He was a husband, father of small children, public servant, and World War II veteran, too, just like JFK. It is stated in "Killing Kennedy," that Oswald had an above average I.Q. But, if you are that smart, why wouldn't you have a get-out-of-town plan after killing the president (and later, Officer Tippit). Or, maybe this "nobody" wanted to get caught so that he would be a "somebody." Makes you wonder....

Jon Boles said...

Wonderful tribute.

Ordering the revised edition later tonight.

Steve M. Galbraith said...

Mr. Myers: I missed this post previously.

Thanks for it and thanks for your efforts on this entire sad chapter in our history. Proponents of some sort of conspiracy don't seem to realize exactly what they're claiming. They seem blinded to the fact that they're smearing good decent men with involvement in what would be the greatest act of treason in our history.

Good, decent men like JD Tippit.

I can't and won't speak for the family but I'm certainly grateful for you protecting his name and the other decent men and women who are being, intentionally or not, attacked.