'I Wanted To Be A Hero'

WHY DID JACK RUBY shoot Lee Harvey Oswald? One theory is that the pugnacious Dallas strip-joint owner was simply overcome by emotion and trying to play hero. Other theories stipulate that he was hired--by the mob, the CIA or other dark forces--to silence Kennedy's assassin so that Oswald couldn't implicate others in a plot. Thirty years later, it is still hard to persuade conspiracists of the simpler explanation, because government investigators left so many critical questions about Ruby unexplored. When one of J. Edgar Hoover's top deputies wrote a memo warning that "a matter of this magnitude cannot be fully investigated in a week's time," the FBI director scrawled a note at the bottom saying: "It seems to me we have the basic facts now." The date was Nov. 26,1963.

There was plenty in Ruby's background to suggest that he was just a luckless lout trying to avenge Kennedy's death. The son of a violent, alcoholic father, Ruby was nicknamed "Sparky" as a hotheaded youth in Chicago, where he ran with a gang that delivered envelopes for Al Capone. He worked, at turns, scalping tickets, selling tip sheets and doing union organizing. Even when he owned a series of nightclubs in Dallas, he hustled everything from sewing-machine attachments to arthritis remedies to raise cash on the side. He also frequently carried a gun and had a habit of punching out patrons who wouldn't pay or who bothered women at his clubs. And he loved to play the big shot, boasting of his friends in the mob, cultivating buddies among the Dallas police and pestering reporters for publicity. Whenever anything exciting happened in Dallas, Jack Ruby turned up.

Still, there were many signs that Ruby wasn't just a harmless scoundrel, and the investigation into his background was remarkably--almost willfully--shallow. FBI agents inter-viewed hundreds of his acquaintances, but they barely followed up on obvious leads about his underworld friends and his trips to Cuba. Two attorneys assigned to investigate Ruby for the Warren Commission, Leon Hubert and Burt Griffin, wanted to explore rumors that he was a payoff man between the local mob and the Dallas cops. They also were curious about his cash-only style of operations, his Cuban connections and his ambiguous sex life. They sent repeated requests to the CIA for any material it had on Ruby. But the Agency ignored them until 11 days before the Warren report was issued in September 1964. Then it replied that a search of its files "has provided no information on Jack Ruby or his activities." Thirty years later Griffin, now a judge in Cleveland, believes more strongly than ever that Ruby wasn't part of a conspiracy. But he still wonders: "Why did it take them five to six months to say they had no information?"

One of the murkiest of the unanswered questions concerned Ruby's travel to Cuba in 1959. He clearly lied to the Warren Commission when he testified he'd gone only once, for pleasure. The House Select Committee on Assassinations later determined that he made at least three trips to Havana that summer and that he'd visited a safe-deposit box in Dallas in the meantime. That same year, while Oswald was defecting to Russia, the FBI contacted Ruby nine times, trying to recruit him as an informant. But Hoover withheld that information from the Warren Commission. And the CIA failed to disclose a report that Ruby may have visited Santos Trafficante, later the mob boss of Florida, while he was jailed in Cuba at the time. There were tantalizing unconfirmed reports that Ruby was selling guns or jeeps to Cuba, or smuggling prisoners or gambling assets out. But the most plausible explanation is that Ruby was trying to horn in on more harebrained moneymaking schemes. He told the FBI in December 1963 that he had had in mind "making a buck" by possibly acquiring some jeeps but that nothing had come of it.

Ruby did make a flurry of calls to his underworld contacts in the months before the Kennedy assassination. But the calls were probably just what he said they were: he wanted help in persuading the union representing his strippers to crack down on rival clubs using amateur talent. journalist Seth Kantor, who wrote two books on Ruby, speculated that he did borrow money from the mob and that the mob later called in the debt when it wanted someone to silence Oswald. But in many painstaking reconstructions of Ruby's actions the weekend of the assassination, there is no hard evidence of such a contact.

What Ruby did do that weekend was make a conspicuous pest of himself--he was hardly acting like a hired hit man in a dark plot. On the contrary, in a breach of security that today would be unthinkable, he roamed the halls of the Dallas police station, handing out free passes to his clubs. During Oswald's brief press conference that Friday night, Ruby even stood on a table and corrected District Attorney Henry Wade when he said Oswald belonged to the Free Cuba Committee--"No, it's Fair Play for Cuba," Ruby called out, later explaining that he'd heard that on the radio. Ruby passed within three feet of Oswald in the corridor that night. If he had been hired to silence him, why didn't he shoot him then, rather than give Oswald two more days to tell his story?

Later that night Ruby took sandwiches to an all-night radio station, where he bragged about how he'd seen Oswald up close. He boasted of it again to night-shift printers at the Dallas Times Herald, where he was inspecting the ads for his clubs (he closed them out of respect for the dead president.) He was also strangely obsessed with an anti-Kennedy ad signed with a Jewish name that appeared in The Dallas Morning News that day, fearing that Jews like him might be blamed for the assassination. That Sunday morning, Ruby left his beloved dog, Sheba, in his car when he sauntered into the police station and shot Oswald in the gut. Friends said he'd never have done that if he'd planned the shooting in advance and known he'd be taken into custody.

James Leavelle, the homicide detective who transferred Ruby to the county jail the next day, told NEWSWEEK recently that he asked Ruby why he did it and his answer was simple: "I wanted to be a hero. It looks like I folled things up." That may have been Ruby's most honest explanation. Afterward, it was difficult to tell just what his motivation was, given the circus trial and the mental breakdown that followed. Flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli presented a bizarre defense that Ruby had psychomotor epilepsy and had shot Oswald during a blackout. The jury took less than three hours to convict him of premeditated murder and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. That was later overturned, and a new trial date was set.

But by then, Ruby had become delusional. When the Warren Commission interviewed him in 1964 he begged to be taken to Washington so he could prove he wasn't part of a conspiracy, and he was terrified that the John Birch Society was trying to kill him. Later he was convinced that Jews all over America were being slaughtered because of his actions-he could hear their screams, he said, in the basement of the Dallas county jail. One psychiatrist concluded that Ruby was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, which had probably begun years earlier. He died of cancer in custody in January 1967, still haunted by his private demons.