Sunday, May 3, 2015

William F. “Bill” Alexander dead at 95


He was a colorful character – shrewd, sharp, and street-smart – the kind of person anyone would want as a friend and fear as an enemy.

William F. “Bill” Alexander, the former Dallas County assistant district attorney turned U.S. attorney, died Sunday, April 26, at his Dallas home of congestive heart failure. He was ninety-five.

I met and interviewed Alexander more than thirty years ago about his connections to the Kennedy assassination investigation and those interviews easily rank as the most memorable of the many interviews I’ve conducted over the years.

He was born William Franklin Alexander in Wichita Falls, Texas, on February 8, 1920, to Edgar B. and Mary E. “Mamie” (nee Green) Alexander.

He attended public school until he was fifteen and graduated from the New Mexico Military Institute in 1937. He attended the University of Arkansas where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1940 and a law degree from Southern Methodist University in 1941.

He was licensed to practice law in January 1942 but a month later was inducted into the Army as a second Lieutenant. He served in the infantry during WWII in France, Italy, Nigeria, and Germany and rose to the rank of Captain.

Alexander became an assistant district attorney in Dallas in 1952, and during his first eight years tried about sixty murder cases, prosecuted gamblers, and managed special grand jury investigations. By late 1963, he was the chief felony trial attorney at the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, where he secured more than a dozen death penalty convictions following appeals.

November 22nd

On November 22, 1963, Alexander took an early lunch in Oak Cliff and stopped at a hardware store to gear up for an expected deer hunting trip. Returning across the Houston Street viaduct, he was near the Dallas Morning News building when he heard the sounds of sirens. He thought there had been an industrial accident.

“I parked down on what they used to call ‘investigators row’ on Market Street,” Alexander told me in a 1983 telephone interview, “and I could see that traffic was absolutely jammed on Commerce Street. As I made my way toward the Records Building, where our offices were, a lawyer that I knew was running east and he said, ‘The president’s been shot!’ “

He made his way to the Texas School Book Depository to gain more information and was standing in front when he heard T.F. Bowley’s urgent broadcast that a police officer had been shot on Tenth Street in Oak Cliff.

Alexander joined Dallas police officers en route to the scene and like many other police officers and reporters involved in the investigation that day decided that the two shootings had to be connected.

Upon arrival, Alexander drew his gun and joined officers searching two second-hand furniture stores on east Jefferson. Alexander later told author Larry Sneed,” I always carried a gun because I didn’t want to have to go home and get one. If something happened, it’s a lot easier to explain to twelve jurors than it is to six pallbearers.”

Alexander was with officers in the alley in back of the Texas Theater when they received word that the Tippit suspect, later identified as Lee Harvey Oswald, had been apprehended inside and was en route to city hall.

He returned to police headquarters and soon obtained and was present for the execution of a search warrant at Oswald’s rooming house. He and Captain J.W. "Will" Fritz conducted interrogations of Oswald, and Bill personally prepared the indictment against Oswald that same evening.

Two days later, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald during his transfer to the Dallas County Jail. Bill became the chief prosecutor in the murder trial of Jack Ruby and successfully secured a conviction of murder with malice and the death penalty.

He was Past President of the Dallas County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, a Past Master of East Dallas Masonic Lodge No. 1200, a Past District Deputy Grand Master, a 33° Scottish Rite Mason, and served for many years on the Jurisprudence Committee of The Grand Lodge of Texas.

He very much enjoyed the practice of law for more than 60 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney in State and Federal courts.

Never completely satisfied

Alexander was never completely satisfied with the Warren Commission’s version of Oswald’s escape route. The Commission concluded that Oswald walked to the Tippit crime scene and was walking east when the patrolman who was driving east pulled up behind him.

“I know what I thought [in 1963],” Alexander told me twenty years later, “I know what I believed, I know what the witnesses say – I believe that Oswald was walking west and that Tippit was driving east.”

House Select Committee investigators wrote in a 1978 report that Alexander had claimed that Oswald was walking east however this is clearly an error. Alexander was always puzzled by Oswald’s western direction of travel and couldn’t understand how Oswald had managed to get to Tenth Street in the time allotted without being seen. He suspected he had gotten a ride by some innocent, unsuspecting citizen.

“Beats the hell out of me [how he got over there],” Alexander said with frustration. “I have no idea. We walked it, we ran it, we tried to figure out bus schedules and – this is opinion, not fact – there are enough old people that live in that neighborhood that are at home, that in order to make that distance, he would have to have doubled-timed a big part of the way, thus drawing attention to himself. Somebody would have seen him. Negative. I don’t know how he got there, and nobody else does either.”

War between the States

In 1985, friend and fellow writer John Lusk and I met with Alexander personally in his Dallas office while he was serving in the U.S. District Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Texas. By then I had become convinced that Dallas law enforcement investigators had been short changed by the media and told him so when arranging the interview. He later told me I wouldn’t have gotten the interview if I hadn’t handled myself the way I did.

Lusk and I were greeted in the outer office and led back to Alexander’s inner sanctum where he calmly whittled at a Styrofoam coffee cup as we talked.

Occasionally, when we hit a sore spot, Alexander would stop whittling, lean forward, and deliver a stern, measured answer to our inquiry. Then, he would lean back, relax and joke with us again, like we were good friends. He was a colorful fellow.

And there was certainly no love lost between the former Dallas County assistant district attorney and the media – especially northern-based reporters who had written stories over the years.

“The war between the States ended in 1865, but goddamn, it almost started again in 1963. Those Yankees come down here with unchristian Communist names and think we’re all a bunch of inbred, Mongoloid idiots. I say, f**k ‘em! Just f**k ‘em! Those Yankee motherf**kers.”

Alexander told us that for all intent and purposes, the investigation into the assassination was wrapped up Friday night, November 22nd, and that the next two days only added detail to an already tight case against Oswald.

“Even subsequent investigations have only added to what the Dallas police had gathered by Friday night,” he said.

Oswald under fire

Bill said that Captain Will Fritz was one of the best interrogators of “all time” and that “any police department would have been proud to have him.”

Alexander said that Fritz was “kindly” in his approach, but not weak; courteous, but shrewd.

“A lot of people took Fritz’s approach as a sign of weakness,” Alexander said, “but they were reading the man wrong. Fritz had a high IQ and was very sharp. His approach was light-handed, but this was only in a disarming fashion. He remained in control at all times. And if Fritz was questioning a suspect, you kept your mouth shut!”

He described Oswald as “pretty cool under fire” and nearly always answered a question with a question.

He said the only time he saw Oswald lose his cool was when FBI agent James P. Hosty, Jr., entered the interrogation room. Oswald shouted at Hosty for “accosting” his wife, Marina.

God bless J. Edgar Hoover

It was Alexander who found Oswald’s address book during the search of Oswald’s room in Oak Cliff. He noted that it contained Hosty’s name and office telephone number in it and when he returned to police headquarters he saw Hosty standing in the Homicide and Robbery Bureau outer office. He pulled him aside and waved the address book under Hosty’s nose.

“I grabbed Mr. Hosty by the arm,” Bill told us, “and said, ‘Mr. Hosty, I have something here that I want to show you. Now, you may look at this, but you can’t keep it. You can hold it, but you’re going to give it back. Now, god bless J. Edgar Hoover and god bless the FBI, but goddamn I know how you boys operate. Now, I want you to answer a question. What is your name doing in Oswald’s address book?’ “

Alexander told us that Hosty “him’d and haw’d” – seemingly surprised that his name was in the address book. Hosty suspected that Marina had given the information to Oswald after one of Hosty’s visits to see her.

Alexander said that he suspected that Hosty and Oswald knew each other, though he had no evidence to prove such an allegation. He seemed to be basing his belief on the fact that the FBI had an open file on Oswald at the time of the assassination that Hosty’s name was in Oswald’s address book, and that Oswald reacted to Hosty when he entered the interrogation room.

Of course, nothing has come to light to indicate that Hosty ever met Oswald prior to November 22nd.

An international Communist conspiracy

When I asked how the story that Oswald was going to be charged with being part of an international communist conspiracy, Alexander said that he had gotten a call Friday night from Joe Goulden, who was on the city desk of Philadelphia Inquirer. Goulden asked him if Oswald was going to be charged with killing the president.

“Yea, we’re getting ready to file on the son-of-a-bitch,” Bill told him.

Goulden said that he needed something “more substantial” than that for his editor. Goulden’s comment really miffed Alexander.

“Well, how about charging him with being part of an international Communist conspiracy, then?” Alexander replied.

Goulden said thanks, and hung up.

Of course, anyone with any brains knew that there was no such charge. That didn’t matter. Within the hour, Alexander’s sarcastic remark was being broadcast nationally, bringing the ire of the White House, the FBI, and pundits everywhere down on the Dallas district attorney’s office and the police department.

I asked if there was anything he would have changed as far as the way Oswald was handled?

“Yea, I would clear the halls,” Alexander answered.

I said that I had heard the situation described “like Grand Central Station at rush hour,” and he shot back, “That’s an understatement.”

A gathering of circumstances

As far as Jack Ruby’s role in the assassination events, Alexander was succinct and to the point.

“Jack just operated in a different area than we did,” Bill explained. “I know of no believeable evidence to suggest that Ruby was involved in any kind of conspiracy or that any person motivated him to kill Oswald. I do not think that that was a ‘double cut-out’ as they say in the trade. I think it was just a gathering of circumstances. He happened to be at the place, at the time, had a pistol and was just overcome by the totality of the situation. And, as I said, I know of no evidence – now, I’ve got an open mind on a lot of things – you show it to me, prove it to me, and I’ll go for it. But, up to this point, I know of no believable evidence to suggest that Ruby was any part of a conspiracy to kill the President or to promote anti-American interests or to specifically kill Oswald.”

After about an hour, Bill Alexander ushered us to the elevator and saw us off. He seemed genuinely pleased that we had gotten together. I think he liked talking about the old days. It got his blood up.

I found him very sharp and always a step ahead. His language was frank, earthy, and at times a bit guarded.

“This subject has made me paranoid as hell,” he told me. “And it’s made me hate a good portion of the media – the irresponsible bastards. It’s also made me appreciate the good people; the intellectually honest investigative reporters. But then you've got a whole class of people that have made a living writing bullshit and half-lies. I despise them.”

It was refreshing to get a first hand look behind the scenes of one of history’s most tragic events with one of its most colorful characters as tour guide.

I liked Bill Alexander. But then, I was never on his wrong side. [END]


Anonymous said...

Definitely sounds like he was a real character, his "war between the States" comment was a good laugh.

His despising certain media members was certainly understandable, this case has had no shortage of dishonest members of the media.

Paul C. said...

It's interesting that he continued to believe the mode of Oswald's arrival at the Tippet murder scene was never fully explained, given the number of potential witnesses who would have noticed him on foot.

Dale K. Myers said...

Paul, I never found Alexander's reason ("...there were a lot of old people home at that time. Someone would have seen him...") for believing that someone would have spotted Oswald that compelling. On any other day, his reasoning might make sense, but at the time Oswald was hurrying toward his fateful encounter with Tippit, many Dallasites were just learning about the President being shot (e.g., Earlene Roberts) and no doubt were more interested in the story on television than a nondescript young man hurrying along the sidewalk. But, as Alexander observed, you'd just kind of like to know.

Barry Ryder said...

Hi, Dale

many thanks for passing-on the news about Bill Alexander. He lived a long and eventful life. My thoughts are with his friends, family and many colleagues who knew, liked and respected him.

You had the good fortune to meet him, of course, so your appraisal of him counts for a great deal.

For those of us who only knew the man through his connection to the JFK case, the written record provides a pretty good picture of him.

Alexander was a prominent personality in the Ruby trial, of course. He and Wade made a formidable team. 'The Trial Of Jack Ruby' and 'Moment Of Madness' books capture him well.

Bill was always very 'quotable' too, wasn't he?
His 'Jury & pallbearers' quip might easily be the credo of law enforcement officers the world over. His famous remark about allowing Ruby's defence team have his brain for examination 'after' he'd been executed shows him at his most irreverent.

I've always felt that he was one of the genuine 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' men. No frills, no polite deception; just take-it-or-leave it candour.

It may be that it was his 'candour' that ultimately prevented him becoming a judge. His suggestion that impeachment was "too good" for Earl Warren was pretty forthright. His suggested alternative may have been too much for the legal 'kingmakers' of Texas.

You say that you liked him, I think that I would have too.


Barry Ryder

He was very much a man of his own time and place. He always

Anonymous said...

Did he ever write a book or his memoirs?

Dale K. Myers said...

No, not that I am aware of.

Anonymous said...

Bill Alexander officed in 1201 Main Bldg. for a number of years and I was fortunate to office there also.I became intrigued by his no nonsense spare no words approach when I first saw him in the Dallas Criminal Courts in 1988...Bill was akin to a sunflower in a field of daisies. While genuinely courteous to the ladies, Bill expected female lawyers to handle their business..upon being accosted by a female Asst.DA with a flushed face and excited verbiage. Bill remarked to bystanders as the ADA stormed off "That woman must be on the estrogen jihad." Some of his more colorful remarks I hesitate to recall here but they were humdingers and always on point. After years Bill remarked that he considered me a friend (his devoted secretary told me I was his ONLY female friend) and I was deeply honored.I miss his gruff greeting "hello little girl" and his innate decency and kindness. Catherine Shelton Houston Texas.