Feds Probed Jack Ruby's Friendship With Former Las Vegan

Lewis McWillie is only a footnote in American history but 50 years ago the then-Las Vegas casino manager with reputed ties to organized crime figures became a focal point of the investigation into the shooting death of alleged presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

FBI agents interviewed McWillie in Las Vegas on Nov. 25, 1963, the day after friend and Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald in that Texas city. That's also where Oswald was suspected of gunning down President John F. Kennedy two days earlier.

McWillie, who resided at 3627 S. Eastern Ave., worked at the now-defunct Thunderbird hotel on the Strip at the time.

As reported by the FBI: "McWillie said that since Ruby's name had first come to his attention in connection with the killing of Oswald, he had searched his mind concerning a possible motive and had come to the conclusion in his own mind that Ruby must have been brooding over the death of the president and that this was an insane act on the part of Ruby."

Less than seven months later, in June 1964, Chief Justice Earl Warren and future U.S. President Gerald Ford were in the interrogation room of Dallas County Jail.

They were there to interrogate Ruby, who had since been convicted of murder. Warren and Ford were chairman and member respectively of the Warren Commission, which was tasked with investigating the Kennedy assassination and Oswald killing.

The incarcerated Ruby, who requested the meeting, rambled on about how he emotionally reacted to the assassination, and how he believed he could get a fairer shake if the commission interviewed him instead at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

When it finally came time to describe his motivation for killing Oswald, Ruby said he "felt very emotional and very carried away for Mrs. (Jacqueline) Kennedy, that with all the strife she had gone through -- I had been following it pretty well -- that someone owed it to our beloved president that she shouldn't be expected to come back to face trial of this heinous crime."

Ruby then mentioned McWillie not once, but 22 times. The first mention occurred while Ruby described his emotional state as he shot Oswald.

"A fellow whom I sort of idolized is of the Catholic faith, and a gambler," Ruby said. "Naturally in my business you meet people of various backgrounds. And the thought came, we were very close, and I always thought a lot of him, and I knew that Kennedy, being Catholic, I knew how heartbroken he was, and even his picture of this Mr. McWillie flashed across me, because I have a great fondness for him.

"All that blended into the thing that, like a screwball, the way it turned out, that I thought that I would sacrifice myself for the few moments of saving Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of coming back to trial."

Ruby later said that "I idolized McWillie."

McWillie became involved in the gaming business in the Dallas area in the early 1940s, where one of his colleagues was a young Benny Binion of future Horseshoe Club fame. Binion at the time reportedly ran the gambling rackets in Dallas before moving to Las Vegas.

A 1978 deposition that McWillie gave to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which revisited the Kennedy and Oswald murders years after the Warren Commission disbanded, offered the following background on the McWillie-Ruby connection:

It was in 1951 in Dallas when McWillie first met Ruby, and they would occasionally run into one another at a late-night restaurant.

One night, Ruby approached McWillie with a plea for help. Ruby, who was Jewish, was running into a problem with discriminatory curfew enforcement against one of his nightclubs. McWillie got in touch with a prominent Jewish community leader to clean up the mess. Ruby was so grateful that in the years to follow leading up to the late 1950s, McWillie couldn't get rid of him.

"He was around me all the time," McWillie told the committee.

As for his impression of Ruby, McWillie said: "Like I said, Jack Ruby wanted to be a big man. He wanted to be the biggest nightclub operator in Dallas. That is my assumption. Like I said before, he was kind of an egotist and wore a hat all the time, which was very unusual I thought at the time. Nobody else ever wore a hat around Dallas."

McWillie's mother, Blanche McWillie of Miami, also recalled spending time with Ruby in Dallas whenever she visited her son. She told the FBI a month after the assassination that Ruby visited nearly daily.

"Mrs. McWillie stated that she had always considered Ruby to be a well mannered individual who did not drink or smoke, and that she had never heard anything unfavorable concerning him during the time she was visiting her son in Dallas," the FBI reported.

McWillie later moved to Havana, Cuba, where he took a job in 1958 to help supervise gambling at the Tropicana Club, whose owners included mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. of Tampa, Fla. Trafficante figured so prominently in the House committee's investigation of alleged Kennedy murder plots that the committee concluded the mobster "had the motive, means, and opportunity to assassinate" the president.

As an aside, McWillie wasn't the only Las Vegas resident linked to Trafficante. Robert Maheu, who served as an aide to reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, also allegedly dealt at least indirectly with Trafficante when the latter engaged in a failed plot to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

"Trafficante had recruited Cuban nationals to help plan and execute the CIA's assignment to assassinate Castro," the committee reported. It then added in parenthesis: "(The CIA gave the assignment to former FBI Agent Robert Maheu, who passed the contract along to Mafia figures Sam Giancana and John Roselli. They, in turn, enlisted Trafficante to have the intended assassination carried out.)"

To drum up more publicity for the Tropicana, McWillie said he contacted Ruby in the spring of 1959 with the idea of having both Ruby and Ruby's friend Tony Zoppi, an entertainment columnist for the Dallas Morning News, come to Havana. Years later Zoppi would become publicity and entertainment director for the Riviera resort on the Strip.

The day Ruby killed Oswald, the FBI interviewed Zoppi.

"Zoppi described Ruby as ‘highly emotional' and stated that he could change from one mood to another instantly and when in an angry mood ‘would not reason,'" the FBI reported. "Zoppi stated that in his opinion Ruby had no political beliefs one way or another, and in his opinion was strictly a character out of ‘Guys and Dolls.'

"Zoppi further informed that in his opinion Ruby was not the type of individual who would plan an act such as the shooting of Lee Oswald, but was capable of doing such an act on the spur of the moment."

As for the invitation to Havana, Zoppi declined. Instead, Ruby came alone to visit the Cuban resort city in August 1959, and he and McWillie spent eight days together. Ruby told the Warren Commission that the trip was strictly for pleasure and was non-political.

"I stayed at the Volk's Apartments with Mr. McWillie, lived in his apartment," Ruby said. "Ate directly in a place called Wolf's, downstairs. Wouldn't know how to speak their language … I probably had two dates from meeting some young ladies I got to dancing with, because my dinners were served at the Tropicana."

One highlight of the Havana trip for Ruby was that he got to see actress Ava Gardner, but he told the commission he left Cuba because he got bored and gambling wasn't his profession. He insisted the trip was his only one to Cuba.

But the House committee years later concluded there was enough evidence -- including documents gathered by the Warren Commision -- that Ruby made multiple trips to Cuba later in 1959. There was even speculation, though never proven, that when Ruby was with McWillie they met with Trafficante while the latter was detained with other mobsters in Cuba's Trescornia prison.

"Ruby may in fact have been serving as a courier for underworld gambling interests in Havana, probably for the purpose of transporting funds to a bank in Miami," the committee concluded.

Ruby conceded that sometime in 1959 he called Dallas gun store owner Ray Brantley claiming that McWillie wanted four Cobra handguns shipped to him in Havana. Ruby said McWillie "was a little worried of the new regime coming in, and evidently he wanted some protection." But Ruby said he had no knowledge that the guns were ever shipped, telling the commission that Brantley signed an affidavit denying he even received such a request.

Castro's rise to power in 1959 would spell the end of mob-controlled resorts in Cuba and forced many U.S. citizens, including McWillie, to return to this country with their assets having been confiscated by the revolutionary regime.

After returning to the United States, McWillie found himself the subject of a Jan. 7, 1961, story in the Miami Herald about an incident five days earlier. While on a flight from Havana to Miami, McWillie punched a 54-year-old Chicago man on the nose for praising Castro while badmouthing then-President Dwight Eisenhower. The blow knocked the other man down.

That man, a school teacher, was with a group of tourists dubbed the Fair Play for Cuba committee who visited the island nation in defiance of a U.S. State Department request that they stay home. The article generated phone calls and mail from throughout the country, all of it complimentary toward McWillie.

This incident was included in the FBI report when agents interviewed McWillie the day after Ruby killed Oswald.

"He (McWillie) stated that it would be his belief that Jack Ruby would also be very much opposed to any such organization and also pointed out that he had talked to Jack Ruby following this incident and Ruby had remarked to him that he had done the right thing in attacking this man," the FBI reported.

After returning to the U.S., McWillie in 1961 drove from Miami toward the West Coast, stopping in Dallas for a few hours for what he said was his last face-to-face visit with Ruby. McWillie took casino jobs at the Cal Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe and Riverside hotel in Reno before joining the Thunderbird staff in 1963.

Keeping in touch with Ruby, McWillie told the FBI he asked his old friend for help acquiring a firearm that McWillie intended to use around his Las Vegas residence for protection. Brantley, the Dallas gun store owner, told the FBI that on May 10, 1963, at Ruby's request he sent McWillie a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson Centennial revolver. But after discussing the matter with his wife, McWillie refused to pick up the handgun when it was delivered to a Las Vegas post office and the weapon was returned to Brantley.

McWillie also told the FBI that his last contact with Ruby was by telephone about two months before the assassination. The conversation had to do with some labor issues related to one of Ruby's nightclubs, with McWillie referring Ruby to the owner of the Riverside hotel in Reno for help.

For good measure the FBI studied records of all phone calls made from McWillie's home telephone, the Thunderbird's house phone and three of the hotel's pay phones for any Texas connections. But a check of those records from Sept. 26 through Dec. 1, 1963, turned up only one call -- made from the hotel house phone -- to a Dallas woman who turned out to be a dead end to the investigation.

As the FBI reported after interviewing McWillie on Nov. 25, 1963: "He stated he has never known Ruby to visit Las Vegas and is certain that if Ruby did he would have been in contact with him, as Ruby knows where he works and how to contact him."

Ruby's murder conviction was overturned in 1966 by a Texas appellate court that determined he should have been granted a change of venue by the trial court. But Ruby died in January 1967, a month before the new trial was scheduled.

As for McWillie, he had a mysterious side. When he first applied for a Social Security card in 1937 he listed his birthplace as Denver. When he applied again in 1940 he said Salt Lake City was his birthplace. He told the House committee in 1978 that his birthplace was Kansas City., Mo.

McWillie would go on to work for the Carousel and Horseshoe clubs and the Holiday Inn casino in Las Vegas before passing away in January 1986. His age was either 77 (he told the committee he was born in 1908) or 73 (1912 is the birth year on his gravestone).



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