Stavis “Steve” Ellis
Dallas Police Department
“Sarge, the president’s hit!… Hell, he’s dead! Man, his head’s blown off…!”
Born in 1918 in Laredo, Texas, and raised in San Antonio, “Steve” Ellis graduated from Brackinridge High School and later attended college in the military. During the Second World War, he joined the National Guard and served as an MP. Ellis began his career with the Dallas Police Department in 1946 as a patrolman and became a solo motorcycle officer fifteen months later with a promotion to sergeant in 1952. Sergeant Ellis was the officer in charge of the motorcycle escort for the motorcade through Dallas.
I always liked riding motorcycles and had ridden them half way around the
world in the Army. I guess I liked that kind of work. You work on your own;
you’re out there by yourself; you don’t have a partner that will do the
driving for you. When I was a kid, my father owned a restaurant in San Antonio
just a block or so from the Municipal Auditorium. Whenever the San Antonio
police officers came to work traffic in and around the auditorium, they’d stop
by the restaurant and drink coffee with my dad. Since I was there quite often,
they became my idols. That’s why I had it in my mind to become a motorcycle
officer, and it’s what I did for almost thirty-one years.
The motorcade assignments were, I believe, made up by Captain Lawrence and Chief Lunday. I’m just guessing at that because Lawrence had been making up all the assignments, and they’d ask me a question or two about who should be put here or there in the motorcade. I recommended the four guys that I had to ride immediately to the rear of the President’s car: Chaney, Hargis, Martin, and Jackson because they made a neat appearance, and I knew that I could count on them and the job would be done properly.
That morning was rainy. It wasn’t raining hard, but hard enough in riding your motorcycle that you needed a rain suit. So, as we left the garage on our Harleys, we put our rain suits on and headed out to Love Field where we racked our motorcycles and waited for the motorcade to begin. A few minutes after we arrived, the rain quit, the sun came out, and we pulled our rain suits off and put them in the saddle bags.
Kennedy had arrived but there was a bit of a holdup. There was a huge crowd and he wasn’t ready to go right away as he had walked over to a little fence and was talking to everybody and shaking hands. Some of the Secret Service boys seemed worried about this while other agents were taking the bullet proof top off the car. When that had been rolled up, he got in, and we took off on the escort.
We didn’t have any idea that anything was going to happen. Our job was to look for any kind of interruption en route: maybe some radical might run out and holler or otherwise try to stop the motorcade. We were always on the alert for that and were prepared to take quick action to get them out of the way.
I was in charge of the actual escort of the President’s car. All the other officers had their assignments, but some were just assigned to us as surplus. At the airport, Chief Curry told me, “Look, you see that double-deck bus up there? That’s full of news media. Now they’ve got to get to the Mart out there where the President is going to talk, but we don’t want them messing up this motorcade. Just give them one of your men back there and tell him to escort them there on time but to keep them out of the motorcade and not to mess with us.” So I got M. L. Baker and told him exactly what the chief had told me. That put him behind us quite a bit.
This motorcade was no different than many others that I had helped escort. I was riding between Curry’s lead car and the President’s. There wasn’t anybody close to me. I’d slow down and let them catch up then check to see if the interval was right in town and so forth. You want to increase the interval between the cars on the freeways and keep it tight in town; that’s your usual operating procedure. When we came through the traffic along Lemmon Avenue from Love Field, I gave them a sign to close it up tight.
Everything went smoothly except for one time on Lemmon Avenue when a group of little girls from a Catholic school, dressed in those little uniforms, standing out there with the sisters, got too far out into the street. When Kennedy approached, they naturally ran out into the street, the car stopped, and Kennedy was shaking hands and touching them. While this happened, the rest of the crowd moved out in the street against the car so that it couldn’t move anymore. I made a U-turn and came back down the left side of the car to clear everybody back to the side so we could move on. Some grown people got back when they saw the motorcycle coming. Meanwhile, Curry, in the car in front of the President’s, was waiting for me to get it clear. As I approached the disruption, I looked up and saw Secret Service agents grabbing those little girls and slinging them out of the street like they were sacks of potatoes. By the time I got there, they had the street cleared and said, “OK, let’s go!”
As we turned off Harwood onto Main, the crowds were bigger. Many times when I’ve escorted other presidents, there wasn’t but a handful of people on the streets and we were able to move quickly. But Kennedy wanted people to see him and he wanted to see everybody, so we traveled slowly.
We came west on Main Street to Houston Street and took a right, facing right into that building. The building with the window [the Texas School Book Depository—KAR] was looking right at us as we came up to Elm Street and made a left, heading back toward the Triple Underpass. Midway down Elm I remember waving at my wife’s niece and nephew, Bill and Gayle Newman, who had apparently come out to see the President. About the time I started on a curve on Elm, I had turned to my right to give signals to open up the intervals since we were fixing to get on the freeway a short distance away. That’s all I had on my mind. Just as I turned around, then the first shot went off. It hit back there. I hadn’t been able to see back where Chaney was because Curry was there, but I could see where the shot came down into the south side of the curb. It looked like it hit the concrete or grass there in just a flash, and a bunch of junk flew up like a white or gray color dust or smoke coming out of the concrete. Just seeing it in a split second like that I thought, “Oh, my God!” I thought there had been some people hit back there as people started falling. I thought either some crank had thrown a big “Baby John” firecracker and scared them causing them to jump down or else a fragmentation grenade had hit all those people. In any case, they went down! Actually I think they threw themselves down in anticipation of another shot.
As soon as I saw that, I turned around and rode up beside the chief’s car and BANG!…BANG!, two more shots went off: three shots in all! The sounds were all clear and loud and sounded about the same. From where I was, they sounded like they were coming from around where the tall tree was in front of that building. Of course, I’m forming an opinion based on where I saw that stuff hit the street, so I knew that it had to come from up that way, and I assumed that all the others came from the same place.
But all the time I was moving up, I still didn’t know it was shots until Chaney rode up beside me and said, “Sarge, the President’s hit!” I asked him how bad, and he replied, “Hell, he’s dead! Man, his head’s blown off!”
“All right, we’re going to Parkland,” I said. This had been the prearranged plan in the event that someone was shot or injured; it was normal procedure. Chaney and I then rode on up to Curry’s car. Curry was driving with the Chief of the Secret Service, Forrest Sorrels, in the front seat with him. “Chief,” I said, “That was a shot! The President was hit and he’s in bad, bad shape! We’re going to Parkland!”
He said, “All right, let’s go!”
Chaney and I then got in front of Curry’s car and I told him, “All right, we’re going to Parkland, I’m going to Code 3, everything we’ve got!”
“All right, hit ‘em,” Chaney said. So we took off and headed toward Parkland with the President.
Of course there was a lot of transmissions on the radio. Chief Batchelor was asking one of us if he was dead. Well, we couldn’t tell him for security reasons. We knew that this was far-fetched, but it could have been a Russian bombing raid in flight and we couldn’t retaliate if they knew our president was dead. They could make their drop in safety because we couldn’t retaliate with atomic weapons without a president. These things were going through our minds at that time. Curry, more or less, told Batchelor to shut up.
But really, in a situation like that, you don’t really have time to think. All you’re trying to do is not do something wrong to fall or hurt yourself on that motorcycle. You know that you’ve got a mission to accomplish and you know that if you fail, you’re not going to do them any good because they’re not going to make it either. So you’re just sitting there tight trying and hoping that everything goes right.
But it was tense, real tense. We were under terrific pressure. We knew Governor Connally had been wounded; we knew that Kennedy was dead, but we also knew that we had to get there as quickly as possible, so we gave it all she’d take. I don’t remember looking at the speedometer, but we were going way too fast!
Chaney and I took the Stemmons Freeway and exited onto the service road to Industrial. The service road hits Industrial right under Stemmons, and we took a right heading toward Harry Hines where the hospital was located. As we sped by where he was to give his speech at the Trade Mart on Industrial, Sergeant Striegel was out there trying to flag us down and Batchelor was there telling him, “Stop ‘em! Stop ‘em!” Of course, we were going Code 3 and they didn’t know that we were headed to the hospital.
As we approached Harry Hines, it was almost a square turn; there was a high bank over on the side. All I could see was that big, tall, green bank and hoping that I’d stay on the ground going around that. Chaney and I were side by side with Martin somewhere behind us and the President’s car right on my tail. I was kind of teed off at that agent for staying so close. Chaney would look back, and I’d look back; we’d speed up and look back and there he was on our back bumper. I don’t care how fast we went, the bumper of the President’s car looked like it was right behind us. He was directly behind us all the way to Parkland! They shouldn’t ride that close on an escort because if we had to take some evasive action or brake, they’d run over us. We didn’t like that too much but it couldn’t be helped under the circumstances.
Fortunately, everything fell into place just beautifully! Nothing got in our way. After we turned onto Harry Hines, the first signal light we caught was Amelia which led to the emergency entrance. We went right through without having to shut down our engines. We just went right on in.
As we entered the emergency entrance, we pulled to the left to let the car go in when they unloaded. Curry hollered to me when he went by, “Cut ‘em off right there! Don’t let anybody else in that’s not in that motorcade!”
So when Martin rode up, I told him, “Bubba, when that car gets in, cut it off! Don’t let anybody in!”
Man, in just a matter of minutes that place was just swarming with people around in back of the hospital. It seemed like everybody was trying to get in closer to the emergency area where they could see. There were just oodles of people climbing over high places like a bunch of ants toward the back of that hospital. That’s when the perimeter was set up.
When the President’s car was unloaded, I was maybe fifty feet away. I wasn’t able to see much because there was a lot of people from the hospital around him. I don’t remember seeing Connally at all. But when the car pulled up, the hospital people were coming out the door like a bunch of ants. They were right on him.
I walked by the limousine after they were taken in. The thing that impressed me was in the seat and on the floorboard there were puddles of blood. Right in the middle one of those puddles lay a beautiful red rose. I never forgot that! I can still see it, that red rose in that blood!
Some of the jockeys around the car were saying, “Looky here!” What they were looking at was the windshield. To the right of where the driver was, just above the metal near the bottom of the glass there appeared to be a bullet hole.
I talked to a Secret Service man about it, and he said, “Aw, that’s just a fragment!” It looked like a clean hole in the windshield to me. In fact, one of the motor jockeys, Harry Freeman, put a pencil through it, or said he could.
I remember a little kid I had first seen out at Love Field who had a little home camera with the old reel type of film, and he had taken some pictures there. I saw him again on Lemmon Avenue where he had taken more pictures, and again in town. Well, he also showed up at Parkland and was taking some pictures of the hearse that they had brought in. He was one of a bunch of people in the back of the hospital taking pictures. A Secret Service man ran up, grabbed that camera out of his hand, opened it up, shook the film down and gave it a kick. You know how those reels of film unroll? I’m sure it exposed everything he had. I felt sorry for him. I got into a little hassle over it and told the Secret Service man, “I don’t think that’s right the way you did that. That poor kid’s been taking pictures ever since we left Love Field and now you’ve exposed every one of them!” He made some smart comment to the effect that he didn’t think it was right for me to say anything to him about it. But I didn’t appreciate it a bit! I understand that they were under pressure, but they were awfully uncouth, all of them!
After staying at the hospital for a short while, we were told that we had to take LBJ to Love Field immediately. Chaney and I took him, and maybe Martin, Code 3. As I recall, two or three others escorted the hearse. Shortly after we got to Love Field a squad car brought Judge Sarah T. Hughes for the swearing in of Johnson. We were standing there by our motors when the swearing in took place. I’m not sure of this, but I was told that it was only thirty-eight minutes from the time the President was killed till we had Johnson out there and sworn in.
Upon completion of our assignment, we then went back into service. That evening, after Oswald had been arrested, and all the news media was trying to talk with him, most of us motor jockeys were assigned to the third floor of City Hall for security where we remained until our shift was over. Since I had enough seniority, I was off the rest of that weekend. That’s when I saw the shooting of Oswald on TV, and that’s when we got a lot of unjust criticism from the news media.
One of those high powered news reporters made me mad several times by putting it on us that we were a bunch of dummies because Oswald was killed. But, before that, the President was killed in our presence, and in just a few minutes, an officer sacrificed his life trying to arrest the guy that killed the President. The Dallas Police Department was back on top of the world for being a good, efficient outfit. Then, when Oswald was shot, our stock dropped right to the bottom again, as if it were our fault. But it wasn’t our fault; we had orders to move him like that.
Chief Curry told me later that evening, “I want you and one jockey to come down here, and we’re going to move Oswald to the county jail at two o’clock and nobody will know about it.” Then what happened?
Elgin Crull, the city manager, and Earle Cabell, the mayor, eventually gave Chief Curry direct orders, “No, you will not do that! You will notify the news media and the press so that they can be in the basement with their lights and cameras set up before you move him.” That’s what got him killed! But we took the blame for it, and all of us were called a bunch of dummies. It eventually cost Curry his job because somebody else laid it on him and it wasn’t him at all. But he wouldn’t speak up!
Curry was a very close friend of mine. After he lost his job as chief, I ran into him later at Fair Park, when I was getting my radio fixed. Curry was driving a van picking up parts and other stuff for a former policeman named K. K. Stanfield, who was in the building business. That day he was wearing old clothes driving that van. I made a U-turn when he flagged me down. As we talked, I told him, “I’m not going to be one to say I told you so, but I warned you ahead of time about what was about to happen, and you said you weren’t worried about your assistant chief. All right, why don’t you do this for us? Get on national television and make a statement or be interviewed where all the people in the United States can see it and tell them that you were ordered by Mr. Elgin Crull and Mr. Earle Cabell to do what you did and get the pressure off of you and all of us?”
“Oh, I can’t do that!” What had happened was that they had already offered him a job to keep his mouth shut because it wasn’t long after that they put him in charge of security for One Main Place, which was owned by all the big wheels in Dallas when it opened.
In 1961 I had been recalled to the military and was in charge of counterintelligence work stationed in Columbia, South Carolina. One of the agents who worked for me in my field office was Curry’s son. Batchelor, his assistant chief, and several other chiefs at that time were trying to undercut Curry, and I told his son about it. In a couple of weeks, he came back and said, “I got a letter from Dad. He said to tell you thanks, but he thought he could trust his assistant chief.” Curry, who had a drinking problem, was asked to resign after the assassination. But we wanted him to at least tell the world what really happened and why we moved Oswald in front of all the lights and cameras and to tell how Ruby got in. But he wanted to keep the pressure off the people who were going to hire him for security at One Main Place.
I know how Ruby got in according to what our reports showed. The orders were the same on Sunday morning as they were on Friday night when I was up there on the third floor. If a cameraman came up and said, “This is one of my crew,” I let them in as long as he identified himself as a cameraman. Ruby knew all those guys just like he knew some policemen from the Silver Spur. Wes Wise, a reporter who later became mayor, went up there. They all knew him.
I’m sure that he probably talked to some of these cameramen and said, “I sure would like to see what a guy that would do something like that would look like.”
And one of the cameramen probably told him, “Here, carry this can of film in,” and that’s how he got in.
The news media turned it around by saying, “Well, a lot of policemen drank downtown with him and, on account of that, they knew him and let him in.” That’s not true! The officer that was there, Roy Vaughn, was one of the strictest and most efficient officers that we had. I’m convinced that he came in just like I said: carrying a can of film. What they should have done was to have had each one of the news media identify every one of their people with a badge or a button.
What brought about this lenient attitude toward the news media was that shortly before, I had escorted Adlai Stevenson into town on the day shift. My men and I had him all day and nobody messed with him. We guarded him closely because we had heard that people were going to try to stop him. We got off at three o’clock and left him at the auditorium when Sergeant Bellah relieved me. That evening a woman spit in his face, and the news media told everyone what a bad bunch of people Dallas had. So we felt that the city fathers were trying to bend over backwards to be nice to the press to try to get a decent write up from the President’s visit to Dallas. As it turned out, the President was killed, then we really bent over backwards to be good to them, especially on the third floor of City Hall. In the dispatcher’s office, some news media guy came in, used the phone, climbed up on the table and began taking pictures. That shouldn’t have been possible!
There’s a guy I know out here in Oak Cliff who believes that all this was a conspiracy: Oswald didn’t do all this; we did Oswald in; the Secret Service and the FBI put it on him because they couldn’t get anybody else. You hear people talk on the street that wonder if Oswald killed him or not. These are people who are supposed to have good common sense! Then you have those that saw it happen like these motor jockeys. They know where the shots came from. They know that they didn’t come from the top of a building or the grassy knoll. If there had been any shots fired from the grassy knoll, I couldn’t have missed it since I was right even with that area when the shots were fired.
Baker said that he saw something that would indicate that somebody was shooting out of that window. When he got off his motor near the front of that building, he told the man in charge of that operation and they went inside. They couldn’t get the freight elevator down, so Baker and the man went up the stairs. That’s when they encountered Oswald drinking a coke on the second floor. Baker was told that he was all right, that he worked there. That’s where Baker messed up! He should have sealed off the building and not let anybody out till it was ascertained that nobody there had anything to do with it. He could have saved an officer’s life had he arrested him there, had he done what he was supposed to have done. We don’t say anything to him about it; officers make mistakes just like everybody else.
On the other hand, Baker wasn’t real bright either. Before he went to Washington to testify to the Warren Commission, he went to Captain Lawrence’s office and said, “Captain, I’ve got to go to Washington. Don’t you think the city ought to buy me a suit?” Ain’t that some bull crap? I don’t know why, but the boys called him “Momma Son.” But he was always slow. That’s the reason I didn’t have him in a responsible position on that escort. When I got the assignment from the chief to put somebody on that press bus, I put him there to just trail along.
We had a similar case with another officer named McLain. We had a guy come to Dallas several years ago with a sound device listening to some noise on one of the police radios. He said that he counted seven shots. McLain told them it was his radio making the noise, so he was taken to Washington and questioned. Mac didn’t know what in the hell he was talking about. He was kind of a nit wit, and when he went up there, he made an ass out of our whole department. It was disgraceful! I think he just wanted a trip to Washington.
In a way, the Tippit shooting was closer to us that that of Kennedy. It was like family to us. If you heard about a guy being killed, that would be real bad, but if somebody from your family was killed, that would be even worse. That’s the way it was.
I knew Tippit, though not very well. He wasn’t known much outside his patrol unit because he was so quiet. Right after he was killed, his captain, Captain Solomon, told me that the reason he was killed was that when he talked to somebody he wouldn’t keep his eyes on him; he might look off and question them. He said that many times when Tippit worked for him he had to correct him about that. It may have been the reason that Oswald was able to kill him.
Some have suggested that it was unusual that Tippit was never promoted. It wasn’t. A lot of guys didn’t get promotions for more than ten years. Jim Chaney was about as efficient an officer as you’d ever find in all aspects of police work. He was good; he was great; and he didn’t make it. He made the sergeant’s list once after taking the promotion exam, I’m not sure how they do it now, but in those days they’d pick those who scored the highest on the promotion exam for promotion. Chaney worked himself up to number one on the list and was waiting for one of the other officers to retire. Unfortunately, the officer didn’t choose to retire and since an opening didn’t come up on the list, it was canceled and a new exam had to be given. It disgusted Chaney to the point that I don’t think he ever took another one. So there was nothing unusual about Tippit not being promoted.
After the assassination, the FBI did their investigative work on the curb where I had seen the shot and cut off the section to analyze. However, they cut off the wrong section. We later found the place where it hit. Sergeant Harkness knows. He was a three-wheel sergeant who worked traffic downtown.
He first became involved in all this several months earlier when one of his three-wheelers apparently saw Oswald passing out pamphlets about Cuba, which was illegal in the city of Dallas without a permit. Harkness was called in to investigate and, of course, Harkness was also in the downtown area when all this happened with the President.
Most of the officers I knew spoke in favor of Kennedy, though a few didn’t. I had a great deal of respect for him because I thought he had a lot of guts, especially in regard to the missile crisis. What teed me off was that somebody like Oswald, who was so sorry that he wasn’t worth the powder it takes to blow him to hell, kills a president, a young president, who was doing a good job for us.
Oswald went to Russia, stayed over two years, denounced our type of government, married a girl from over there whose uncle was in Russian intelligence, then comes over here and kills the President. The people of the United States made a big deal out of her and made her a millionaire. I was really teed off about that! And still there are these people in the United States who believe that Oswald was right. It’s ridiculous!
Ellis continued to ride motorcycles until his retirement from the Dallas Police Department in 1976. After twenty years of service, he also retired as an Army major and still lives in Dallas.
 The name Stavis has been a curiosity to a number of researchers, including the author. Sergeant Ellis’s father was a Greek immigrant who entered Ellis Island at the age of thirteen. His surname, Heliopoulis, was eventually changed to Ellis either as a shortened version of Heliopoulis or for Ellis Island itself. Stavis is the Anglicized derivation of the Greek “Stavros,” while “Steve,” as Ellis is known to his friends, is the Americanized version of Stavis.
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