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I Shot The Sheriff:

The Manhunt For Lee Harvey Oswald



By Chris Oakley


He was one of the most infamous assassins in American history, and the subject of a six-week-long pursuit by local, state, and federal law enforcement authorities. From the moment that ex-Marine turned Communist Lee Harvey Oswald fled Dallas shortly after he shot President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, he was a marked man; when the chase for him finally reached its inevitable grim conclusion, he met his end the same way Kennedy had-- at the business end of a sniper’s rifle. Oswald not only had Kennedy’s blood on his hands but also that of a Dallas police officer, and at the time he was killed there was a warrant out for his arrest on charges he had murdered a Mexican police patrolman. Desperate people do desperate things, and Oswald was desperate to reach political asylum in Cuba.

As we’re about to see, however, Oswald’s asylum hopes were fated to go unrealized...


Oswald’s first mistake in his desperate bid to reach Cuba’s shores was leaving his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle behind in his haste to get out of the Texas School Book Depository. This gave the police physical evidence which they could use to tie him to the Kennedy assassination, especially since his fingerprints were all over the antiquated bolt-action rifle. His second, and perhaps most critical, mistake was to shoot Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit as he was fleeing Dealey Plaza; this act earned him the undying hate of lawmen on both sides of the Rio Grande and gave the US Justice Department added incentive to hunt him down.

Within hours after Oswald gunned Tippit down, he’d stolen a car and was driving out of the city just as fast as he could go. In the beginning his flight from justice was more a thing of instinct than of forethought, but his had always been a devious nature, and when he saw his chance for escape he took it without batting an eye. He made it as far as Uvalde before his stolen vehicle finally ran out of gas; determined not to get caught before he reached the perceived safety of the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, he hid himself in the freight car of a train bound for Mexico and jumped off when the train crossed the Rio Grande.

Once in Mexico, Oswald disappeared into the faceless masses who roamed the underworld of Mexico City’s streets; in the meantime, back in the United States a multi-agency task force which included the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department had been organized to track down the accused presidential assassin. This task force pursued dozens of leads in its pursuit of the ex-Marine, most of which sadly turned out to be dead ends. Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother and then US attorney general, was frustrated by this and more than once privately vented that frustration in verbal tirades that alarmed his friends and political colleagues and scared the living daylights out of his wife Ethel.

Oswald might have made it to Cuba but for an unfortunate encounter he had with a police patrolman one afternoon in the Mexico City suburb of Iztapalpa four weeks after his escape from Dallas....


Hippolito Velasquez, like most people on both sides of the Rio Grande, had been shocked when he first heard the news of President Kennedy’s murder. He’d seen his share of gruesome homicides in his twelve years as a police officer in Iztapalpa, but for him even the worst of those paled in comparison to the cold-blooded murder of a head of state. He had no way of knowing or even suspecting that he was about to come face-to-face with Kennedy’s assassin....or that the encounter would end with Velasquez shot twice through the heart with a revolver Oswald had bought illegally on the street.

Oswald had just left a local cantina and was on his way home to the apartment he had rented under an assumed name when Velasquez ran into him on a sidewalk at the edge of town; Oswald, waiting for a bus ride back to Mexico City, panicked when Velasquez recognized him and pulled out his revolver. While the suspected assassin of JFK fired two shots at Velasquez, it only took one to kill the Mexican policeman.

When word of Velasquez’s murder hit the front pages of Mexico City’s major newspapers the next morning it sparked horror, outrage, and demands for the execution of Velasquez’s killer. The US embassy in Mexico City duly submitted a detailed report on the murder to the Justice Department in Washington, and before long US and Mexican  federal agents were engaged in a combined manhunt across northern Mexico to catch the fugitive Oswald, who by this time was at the top of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

Back in the States, Oswald’s wife Marina, who’d been left behind when her husband fled Dallas in the wake of JFK’s assassination and J.D. Tippit’s murder, was lapsing into a severe depression. From the moment she’d learned of her husband’s escape into Mexico Marina had felt both a painful sense of abandonment and a gnawing dread that Lee would be killed sooner or later; those fears for his safety would be heightened as the print and broadcast media broke the story of the joint US-Mexican effort to bring Oswald to ground.1 Paralyzed by those fears as well as her depression, Marina was placed in psychiatric care at the request of her brother-in-law Robert Oswald, who feared she might kill herself if left alone for too long and who was trying to cope with his own anxieties over what had become of Lee Harvey.

Two days after he murdered Ippolito Velasquez, Lee Harvey Oswald fled Mexico City and disappeared into the Mexican countryside. This time, he wouldn’t be able to escape the long arm of the law; not only did Mexican state and local police pursue him like bloodhounds, but a joint task force of FBI agents from the US and Mexican federal police was scouring the Mexican interior with the intent of cornering Oswald and then arresting the suspected presidential assassin. Oswald, for his part, was just as intent on staying out of prison and getting to Cuba...


....but in reality the ex-Marine was a doomed man. In early January of 1964, six weeks almost to the hour after his bullets killed JFK, Mexican and US federal agents cornered him in an abandoned shack in the Mexican desert. Armed with the same handgun he had previously used to kill J.D. Tippit and Ippolito Velasquez, Oswald opened fire on the agents; he was unaware that a trained sniper had taken position on a hill overlooking the shack and was ready to shoot him on orders from the senior agents with the US-Mexican task force.

Resisting repeated demands that he throw down his weapon and surrender, Oswald reloaded his handgun and kept firing on the agents. The senior Mexican federal agent on the scene signaled the sniper to take Oswald out, and a single shot was fired from the sniper’s nest directly into the ex-Marine’s brain. Oswald was dead instantly, blood gushing from the top of his skull like Texas crude from an oil well as his body toppled limply onto the shack floor. When informed that his brother’s killer had been liquidated, Robert Kennedy said: "I only wish we’d had a chance to get him(Oswald) into a courtroom and put him on trial before he bit the dust."

Oswald’s mother Marguerite went into a state of catatonic shock when she was told of her oldest son’s death; his widow Marina was put on suicide watch. Robert Oswald, himself battling intense feelings of melancholy, flew down to Mexico City to claim his brother’s body and bring it back to New Orleans2 for cremation3. On January 10th, 1964, the ashes of Lee Harvey Oswald were scattered over Lake Pontchatrain.


Today, over four and a half decades after John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dealey Plaza, there is still considerable debate as to whether Oswald was acting by himself when he shot the president or was part of a larger conspiracy. Those who subscribe to the ‘lone gunman’ view see Oswald’s flight to Mexico as a tacit admission that he was directly and solely responsible for Kennedy’s death; adherents of the ‘conspiracy’ view believe Oswald was allowed to escape US soil as a means of distracting the Justice Department from mounting a serious investigation into who else might have had a hand in the President’s demise.4

A fringe group among the conspiracy theorists even alleges (in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary) that Oswald didn’t actually fire the fatal shots at all but was simply a "patsy" who was duped or coerced into taking the rap for JFK’s death while the real assassin got off scot-free. They have a very hard time, however, answering why the only fingerprints on Oswald’s handgun and rifle are those belonging to Oswald himself. Nor can they explain away the anti- American and anti-Kennedy sentiments expressed in letters and journals written by Oswald in the months prior to the Kennedy assassination.

But regardless of whether or not one agrees with the conspiracy theorists, Oswald has certainly left a deep and lasting impression on American history. Those who were alive when JFK was shot still recall where they were and how they felt when they learned that Kennedy had been killed; the Secret Service details that accompany the President when he is away from the White House are now much more stringent in  their security measures.5 At Arlington National Cemetery, an eternal flame marks the slain Kennedy’s final resting place; the school book depository room which Oswald used as his sniper’s nest is now part of a Dallas museum complex devoted to the Kennedy assassination; and in Boston an exhibit dedicated to Oswald’s life on the run in Mexico is part of the JFK Library.

In Mexico too Oswald has left a mark. Every December, on the anniversary of Ippolito Velasquez’s murder, a candlelight vigil takes place at the site where he was shot to death by the ex-Marine turned suspected presidential assassin and known cop-killer. The shack where Oswald met his own grim end is now the site of a training school for Mexican federal police commandos; the Mexico City apartment in which Oswald spent most of his final days became a popular visiting spot for  tourists and true crime connoisseurs until the apartment building was destroyed in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.


Oswald’s three murders and his desperate, ultimately futile flight from justice have for decades been fertile ground for writers, film directors, and playwrights to explore the psychology of killing. What might be the most famous and controversial meditation on Oswald’s last days came in 1993 with the theatrical release of the movie LHO, a three-hour drama starring Kevin Costner; a revisionist account of the ex-Marine’s rough and violent life, it sympathetically depicted him as the victim of neglectful parents and a sharply conformist society who shot Kennedy not out of willful intent but out of an unbreakable compulsion to quiet the demons in his head. As one might imagine, this depiction did not sit well with the Kennedy family-- or with most film critics for that matter. LHO played to overwhelmingly negative reviews and faded from the cineplex after less than a month, earning a place in movie history alongside other cinema bombs like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate.

Nor for that matter did it win the movie many fans south of the border; one Guadalajara theater that showed LHO became the scene of a brief but highly destructive riot because of the movie’s unflattering portrayal of Ippolito Velasquez, and the Catholic Archbishop of Mexico City raised stern protests over what he deemed anti-Christian subtexts in the movie’s script. Even Mexican leftists who might normally have been inclined to agree with Stone’s ideological point of view on other matters found it hard to accept the movie’s rendering of Oswald as a tragic figure.

In fact, most fictional portrayals of Oswald tend to show him as psychotic at best and Satan incarnate at worst-- which, in view of the magnitude of his crimes, is hardly surprising. By modern political and legal standards, Oswald could be viewed as a domestic terrorist; it’s terrifying to think of the damage he could have done had he possessed a weapon more sophisticated than the antiquated Italian rifle he used when he shot JFK from that sixth-floor window in Dealey Plaza.


The End



[1] Though most readers may not know this, Oswald almost was killed at one point prior to his fleeing to Mexico. A second-rate nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, who died of stomach cancer in 1966, was deeply fond of JFK and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and was infuriated by the President’s murder; Ruby’s plan was to wait for police to arrest Oswald, then infiltrate the Dallas County Jail and shoot Oswald dead as he was being taken to his cell. Ruby’s plan was foiled, however, by Oswald’s hasty exit from Dallas.

Because Ruby had in the past tried unsuccessfully to get into the Dallas underworld, rumors eventually arose that he’d been directed by the Mafia to kill Oswald in order to cover up alleged evidence that the JFK assassination was a mob hit. However, most credible accounts of Ruby’s life suggest that he was basically regarded on both sides of the law as a small-time loser, so even if such a conspiracy had existed it’s highly unlikely Ruby would have been part of it.

[2] Oswald’s hometown for much of his early life.

[3] Robert had originally intended to have Lee’s corpse buried but changed his mind for fear that vandals might desecrate the grave.

[4] Not that there is unanimous agreement on this point; some in the ‘conspiracy’ theory camp believe the Justice Department may have been secretly tailing Oswald from the moment he left Dallas in the hope that he might eventually lead them to the masterminds of the supposed conspiracy.

[5] For that matter, security measures at the White House itself have been considerably tightened, particularly since 9/11. Even before 9/11, the streets directly in front of the White House were closed off to traffic as a result of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.


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