Journalist Hugh Aynesworth was an eye witness to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He later watched as police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald for Kennedy’s murder, and he was there when Jack Ruby shot Oswald.
One of the greatest parts of my job as a student media adviser is when I get to learn from legendary journalists right along with my students. That happened today at National College Media Convention where we heard Aynesworth speak the morning after the Trump administration released thousands of documents related to the assassination.
Aynesworth was a science and aerospace reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He was irritated that he wasn’t assigned to cover anything related to President Kennedy’s Dallas visit, despite many reporters being dispatched to the event because of expected protests.
Aynesworth decided to go to the parade anyway. It was his day off and he wanted to see what happened. He wasn’t able to stand where most of the other reporters and onlookers were because it was just too crowded and he couldn’t see above the mass, so he kept walking further down the road. He stopped when he saw a couple of men he knew, thinking he would watch the parade with them. Little did Aynesworth know, he had positioned himself for a prime view of the president being shot.
“I really didn’t know that it was going to change my life forever, though it did. But I had a pretty good clue after that weekend,” he said.
Aynesworth thought the first gunshot was a motorcycle backfiring, but it became almost immediately clear that wasn’t the case when two more rounds were fired. He said people started screaming and throwing their children to the ground to cover them.
Aynesworth realized what he was witnessing and that he didn’t have anything to write with.
“I was quite a reporter. What was I to do,” he joked to the convention crowd.
He looked over and saw a little boy on his father’s shoulders. He had a jumbo pencil with a flag on top of it that he was waving in the air. Aynesworth paid the boy 50 cents for the pencil, grabbed two unpaid utility bills from his own back pocket and started reporting.
Aynesworth’s reporting led to him driving around in a television van with a couple of reporter friends, looking for Oswald and listening to the police scanner. He heard on the scanner that there was a suspect in the theater. As he ran up, Aynesworth said he asked the stupidest question he’s asked in all of his Kennedy-related reporting.
“Did he buy a ticket,” he asked the ticket agent of Oswald. He said she just looked at him with contempt and told him the suspect was inside.
Inside police officers combed the theater’s rows looking for Oswald, who was sitting in the back, just feet from where Aynesworth was standing. As police rushed to arrest Oswald, the man yelled “I protest this police brutality.” Oswald tried to fire his gun at police officers as they arrested him, but an officer was able to stop him.
Aynesworth’s reporting following Oswald’s arrest led him to the rooming house where Oswald was staying. He also spent several days figuring out Oswald’s exact timeline before and after he shot the president, a story that ran five days later.
Oswald was in the city jail. Aynesworth kept getting calls from people claiming that Oswald would be killed. Aynesworth woke up Sunday morning to find out that Oswald had not yet been moved to the county jail. He said he “ran like the devil” to get to city hall and had just gotten there when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. Aynesworth heard it happen, but said he didn’t see it because television cameras blocked the view. Aynesworth knew Ruby before the shooting.
“I was surprised, but not too much because he was a show off and self promoter,” he said.
Aynesworth went on to continue reporting on Kennedy’s assassination and the players involved. He said it’s possible that the president’s murder could have been avoided if the FBI, CIA, city police, and Secret Service had communicated about their interest in Oswald and, even more so, in his wife. The CIA was watching Oswald in the days before the assassination, but had lost him.
“They were like Keystone cops,” he said.
Despite a lack of communication, Aynesworth said there was no conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
“I do not believe there is any evidence of a conspiracy at all,” he said.
He said no one would be more excited to break a huge story like that than he would, but “it just doesn’t exist.”
“I think everybody loves a conspiracy,” he said. “It’s more fun and often it’s true. In this case, however, it isn’t.”
Least you think Kennedy’s assassination was Aynesworth’s journalistic one-hit wonder, I should note that he met Fidel Castro the day before the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was playing basketball with some other men outside their hotel in Cuba. Castro rode up in a Jeep and asked if he could join them. They agreed. The men played basketball and Aynesworth scheduled a later interview with Castro. The dictator no showed.
Aynesworth is known for his coverage of Kennedy’s assassination and said it’s the most difficult story he’s ever covered. He also reported on Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the Murrah Building bombing, and he interviewed serial killer Ted Bundy on death row.