Thursday, August 27, 2015
The man who interrogated JFK's assassin
He had been around so long at the Dallas Police Department that Captain John William Fritz had been part of the manhunt for Bonnie and Clyde. On November 22, 1963, he was 68 and chief of the department's homicide and robbery bureau, which he had organized in 1934. When his shift began, Fritz and the rest of the police were working on the presidential visit. By the end of the day, he would be interrogating past midnight the man who murdered the president.
After two days of on-again and off-again interviews, Fritz knew one thing: Lee Harvey Oswald killed Officer J.D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Before I go any further, let me dismiss any notion of a conspiracy to kill JFK; if there were one, someone would have taken care of his widow, Marina Nikolayevna Oswald Porter, and their children.
Fritz was a police detective's police detective.
Born on June 15, 1895, in Dublin, Texas, Fritz grew up near Lake Arthur, New Mexico, where the family traded mules and horses. After serving in the Army in World War I, Fritz sold three horses to pay for tuition and enrolled in enroll in Tarleton State College in Stephenville, Texas. In 1921, joined the Dallas Police in 1921 as a patrolman, quickly moving up to detective. He was good at it. He developed a reputation as an excellent interrogator. In a 10-year period, the Dallas Police cleared 98 percent of its homicide cases.
A self-educated detective, Fritz was known to arrest vagrants so they could get a shower and a hot meal at the jail. If anyone was better suited to interrogate Oswald, I have yet to hear of him.
When the assassination happened, Captain Fritz took charge. He went to the sixth floor of the book warehouse -- the scene of the crime -- and not only found the rifle but had the name and address of Oswald, the employee who left the building after the assassination.
Police arrested Oswald for the murder of Officer J.D. Tippit, who had stopped Oswald shortly after the assassination. The arrest was in a movie theater independent of Fritz and the assassination investigation, however the arresting officers knew they had the presidential assassin. Tippit did not die in vain because his confrontation detoured Oswald who was on his way out of town.
With the arrest came the interrogation.
The police politics of the assassination investigation were obvious. The FBI and Secret Service wanted in because of the presidential assassination. The Texas Rangers wanted in because of the shooting of Governor John Connally, who would survive for another 30 years. Yet all deferred to Fritz, such was his reputation.
FBI Agents James W. Bookhout and James Patrick Hosty Jr. also participated. Hosty had done a background check of Oswald when he returned to America after a failed attempt to defect to the Soviet Union. Oswald was a trained Marine sniper. But Hosty was a trained FBI man. During the interrogations -- there were several in a 48-hour period -- Hosty was hostile to Oswald. Whether this was a good cop/bad cop scenario, I cannot say. But being in the same room with the presidential assassin had to exact a price given the anger that it happened, and the shame that it happened in Texas.
Fritz worked to get a confession. Linking Oswald to Tippit was quick. There were two good witnesses and some physical evidence. But the presidential assassination had no real witnesses. Frit wanted a confession, but quickly realized Oswald lied and was too narcissistic to ever admit what he had done.
But the physical evidence was there. Oswald owned the murder weapon and worked at the building where the three shots were fired. At midnight, less than 12 hours after the assassination, Fritz had enough evidence to charge Oswald. Maybe not enough evidence to convict, but enough to take the case to the grand jury.
However, the FBI took over the case almost immediately. President Johnson even called Fritz to tell him, "You have your man, we will take it from here."
Of course, the case never went to trial. Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald on November 24, 1963.This left it up to the Warren Commission -- headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren -- to decide.
Fritz testified before the commission. But that was about all Fritz said publicly. He gave no lengthy interviews on the presidential assassination and wrote no book, although he did meet with reporter Bob Sorkin on September 10, 1977, when Sorkin left WFAA for a promotion to ABC.
"I asked Fritz the burning question: 'Captain, would you consider sitting down with me, for an on-camera interview about that phone call you took from the White House on November 22, 1963? 'With that, Fritz dropped his fork on his plate, raised his head and stared at me long, hard and coldly. 'Not now. Maybe I'll write something, someday,' Fritz curtly replied. Disappointed, I finished my breakfast, politely said goodbye to Fritz and left for my new position in Atlanta," Sorkin wrote.
No money in the world could get Fritz to talk. That is admirable.
The Dallas Police forced him to retire in 1970 at age 75. He had been at the department for 49 years. He lived alone near police headquarters, although he had a wife and a daughter. Having the FBI take over the case saddened him. On April 19, 1984, Fritz died either of cancer or a heart condition. He suffered both. He was 87 and perhaps the best detective Dallas ever had. Certainly he was the right man at the right place on November 22, 1963.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.
Volume 2's publication will be on Tuesday, September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.