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'I failed': Cop handcuffed to JFK killer describes Oswald's death

He's the detective who escorted Lee Harvey Oswald when the alleged presidential assassin was shot and killed. NBC'S Lester Holt reports.

When former police Det. Jim Leavelle interrogated Lee Harvey Oswald in connection to the shooting and killing of a fellow officer, he had no idea he was face-to-face with one of the most notorious killers in the history of the United States -- the man behind President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“When I asked about the officer, he said, ‘I didn't shoot anybody.’ And, so, that was a little unusual, of course,” Leavelle told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview for NBC Nightly News.

But as the investigation continued and Oswald was named a suspect, Leavelle would find himself handcuffed to the alleged assassin, escorting him in a jail transfer that would end with Oswald getting shot and killed.

Upon the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, Leavelle’s granddaughter, Kate Greindling, explored what she said was the heroism and “remarkable” detective work by Dallas police following the assassination, which did not get the credit it deserved. Greindling captured Leavelle’s story and that of other retired Dallas law enforcement officials present at that historic time in the documentary “Capturing Oswald,” airing on the Military Channel.

“It’s pretty astounding that back in 1963, without the walkie-talkies, without the GPS, that they were able to capture Oswald in 88 minutes,” she told Holt.

On the day Oswald was killed, Leavelle chose to handcuff himself to the suspect while transferring him in order “to protect him” after the Dallas Police Department was flooded with threats to Oswald’s life.

“I told him, I hope if anybody shot at him, they was as good a shot as he was, meaning of course that if they'd hit him and not me; he kind of laughed,” Leavelle told Holt. “And he said, ‘Oh nobody's going to shoot at me.’”

But soon after, Oswald was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby.

Leavelle said it was a miracle the bullet did not pierce him as well. The bullet entered through Oswald's stomach and hit his rib before bouncing off.

NY Daily News via Getty Images

Daily News front page Nov. 25, 1963 - Headline: THE FATAL SHOT - Jack Ruby aims at presidential assassin Lee Oswald in Dallas and shoots.

"Hitting that rib saved me," he said. "If it hadn't have hit the rib and went between them, the bullet would have come on through and caught me."

As the officer in charge of escorting Oswald, Leavelle said that despite Oswald’s alleged crimes, he felt he failed in his duty to protect the suspect.

“As a police officer, when you've been it for several years, as I had, you don't let personalities involved in it,” he said. “You do what you can to save them, even if it's -- even if it's the suspect himself.”

Leavelle added: "He died, didn't he? So, I... so yeah, I failed." 

Griendling said national attention has often been focused on Oswald’s death and not his capture.

“I think the majority of people want to focus on the death because had Oswald not died, there would be no conspiracy theories,” she told Holt. “It would have gone to trial, and he would have been proven guilty.”

But focusing on the capture, Griendling said, has showcased the hard work local law enforcement put in to swiftly capture and detain Oswald.

“I think there's not one officer or one person that should be credited for capturing Oswald,” she said. “It is the work of the entire Dallas Police Department.”