Who was the man in the back of the room?
October 16, 2013
The man just seemed to materialize there in back of the crowded room.
One second he was not there.
Next second he was.
Came through the wide-open door behind me, I suppose.
From the second he showed up, it was obvious he was friendly.
He wanted to talk.
Mostly, it seemed, to be heard.
To be noticed, seen.
He was stocky, like he ate often, exercised little.
Pasty faced, like he did not get out in the sun much. Probably a night person.
Wore a dark suit, white shirt, tie with a semi-wide knot.
Sported a fedora, gray with a darker hat band.
Seemed to want to be helpful.
Seemed to go out of his way to ingratiate himself.
No sooner had he shown up than he began asking if he could get us refreshments.
He would repeat the offer several times in the relatively short time we were there.
We began to wonder why he was there.
He did not have a note pad and ballpoint pen like we reporters.
He did wear that hat, though it was different than the hats worn by many of the detectives there.
But if he were a detective, why wasn’t he up there in front of the room like many of the other detectives?
Why was he here in the back of the room.
Just a Dallas Police Department hang-around, we guessed.
We Fort Worth reporters had come to use that term at the Fort Worth Police Station, Fort Worth City Hall and at the Tarrant County Courthouse and other places of government around town – a term we assigned to those who seemed to show up often at each place with no discernible reason for being there.
They would show up, hang around, sip coffee and chit-chat with those who did have reason to be there – police officers, sheriff’s deputies, judges, administrators, clerical workers, others.
They would hang out in the lobbies, drift in and out of the offices, sometimes use government telephones, help themselves to coffee.
Sometimes, they would get into confrontations with city council members, county commissioners, others and law enforcement officers would escort them out and onto the street.
Maybe those hang-arounds were just curious.
Maybe they just wanted to be where they considered the action to be.
Maybe they just had nothing better to do.
No where better to go
So we just surmised the man to our left at the police press conference was one of the hang-arounds.
He seemed to know his way around.
He would point out some of the detectives, tell us who they were.
It was easy to see how he got there; security did not really even seem to be a consideration. Not a prior thought; certainly not an afterthought.
Anyone who wanted to be there could be.
And it looked like they were.
Just walk right in.
See, hear, witness the news as it was being played out on the world stage.
Yet, at the front of the room stood a man whom you might think those in charge would be taking extreme precautions to protect.
A man with a cut above his right eye.
A black left eye.
At times displaying a half-smirk.
A man beginning to look in need of a shave. The stubble showed it.
A man who in his police mug shot would be identified as prisoner No. 54018.
A man whom the world had been told had killed a president.
A man whom the world had been told had killed a police officer.
A man whom had been in police custody for what now was getting close to a dozen hours.
A man who claimed a police officer had hit him.
Who said he had not killed the president.
Insisted he did not kill a police officer.
Indeed, who said he killed no one.
Who said he wanted legal counsel.
Who seemed at relative ease, considering the circumstances.
Maybe, one could conclude – and we did – to be relishing the limelight.
There was confusion.
Reporters shouted questions.
Other reporters tried to outshout them.
Photographers jockeyed, elbowed for position, trying to get the choice camera angle.
Dozens of news people were in the room, although no one seemed to be checking identifications.
At least, no one asked to see my press credentials.
I just walked right in, like the man who now stood to my immediate left.
Several detectives were there, at least that was the assumption, since they were wearing detective-style hats. We also recognized some detectives whom we had encountered earlier in the day in other parts of the police building.
We had no idea who some others in the crowded room were.
One of those, of course, was the man in the fedora at my immediate left who sometimes pursed his lips, stared intently at the man surrounded by detectives at the front of the room.
Now and then, the man at my left would speak obscenities in the direction of the prisoner.
Whomever this man at my left was, he made no secret of the fact that he held in disdain the man at the front of the room.
In minutes, the late night press conference would be ending and the man to my left would ask one last time if we wanted a Coke or a sandwich and we would tell him no, thank you, and rush off to claim a telephone we had spotted earlier in another part of the room and call the city desk at the Star-Telegram to dictate our report.
Later, we would go to another room at the police department and pick up a mug shot of the prisoner who was said to have killed a president, killed a policeman.
Having been up about 20 hours, we found a table there with chairs in that now-empty room. We sat down, folded our arms on the table, put our head on our arms and tried to sleep.
But sleep would not come.
Sleep would have to wait.
We had a hotel room not far away but we knew we would not be able to sleep there either.
Finally, we walked back to the grassy knoll – where we had spent some time earlier in the day – where this horrific story had begun.
We stayed there awhile – there in the now-eerie silence where a feeling of heaviness seemed to have taken hold, weighing down, even crushing those there — and then found a telephone, called the city desk and dictated stories for the Saturday Evening Star-Telegram.
We continued our coverage that Saturday, Nov. 23, for the Nov. 24 Sunday Star-Telegram, returned to our unused hotel room, got a few hours of fitful sleep, got up early Sunday morning, drove home, went to church with our family.
After church, we went home looking forward to a needed nap, turned on our black-and-white television and saw the developing story:
The man to our left there at the back of the room at the police press conference who wanted to get us refreshments had gone to the police station basement that Sunday, entered unencumbered – just as he had entered the late night police press conference on Friday night — and shot from mere inches away and killed the prisoner who had had his say at the front of the police station press conference room.
The whole, wide world saw it on television.
Some guy with a pistol, later said to be a .38 caliber.
Some guy who was a police station hang-around.
Some guy of obvious police familiarity.
And vice versa.
Some about-town, hang-around guy in a fedora.
Some guy they knew as Jack Ruby.
Roger Summers is a journalist and essayist who spends time in Texas, New Mexico and England and in a world of curiosity and creativity. He can be reached at [email protected]