Jack Ruby's Family and Lawyer Battle for Possession of the Gun That Killed Lee Harvey Oswald

updated 05/22/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 01:00AM

From this small handgun came one of the few shots that truly was heard round the world. On Nov. 24, 1963, as Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy's killer, was being led through the basement of the Dallas jail, and as millions of viewers watched on TV, Jack Ruby, a stocky figure in a dark suit, lunged from somewhere behind the camera and fired. Oswald recoiled, his face twisted in anguish. He died less than two hours later at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Afterward, Jack Ruby insisted that he had acted alone, his only accomplice a .38 caliber Colt Cobra that he had bought in 1961 at a Dallas pawnshop. Now, more than 25 years later, the revolver, reportedly worth as much as $250,000, is the focus of a legal struggle between Dallas attorney Jules F. Mayer and Ruby's two brothers, two sisters and a nephew. The case will be heard this week in Dallas probate court.

To the siblings, the matter is a test of wills. In 1950 Ruby, then a nightclub operator, signed a will naming Mayer, his lawyer, as executor. The family says that in 1967, as Jack lay dying in Parkland Memorial, he dictated another will that would have left them the gun. Ruby failed to sign it, they say, because he lapsed into a coma before arrival of the doctor who was to witness the signature.

"When I spoke to Jack on his deathbed," says Earl Ruby, 74, "he said he had written a will many years before with this Jules Mayer, but sometime after that he had a disagreement with him and told him to tear it up." Mayer never did, and now the family is outraged that he should benefit by Ruby's death. "Even though Jack was in jail for over three years," says Earl, "Mayer never called or came to visit."

Mayer's attorney, Peter Bargmann, says the issue is not one of contending wills, but of how the Ruby estate should finally be dispersed. Bargmann says the family has been seeking possession of the gun—which is in a safe-deposit box—for years. "But the courts always ruled in favor of Mr. Mayer," he says.

Part of the problem, says Bargmann, is that at the time of his death Ruby owed more than $40,000 to the IRS, as well as unpaid taxes to the state of Texas. At this point, says Bargmann, Mayer would happily relinquish the gun to Ruby's family if they would post a bond to ensure that all claims against the estate would be paid. Among those claims is Mayer's own, for more than $60,000 in expenses and fees.

Earl Ruby says he wants the gun for much the same reason as Mayer—"to pay off Jack's debts." (He is not anxious, however, to pay $60,000 to Mayer, who he says "deserves maybe $5,000.") Earl, who once owned a highly successful dry-cleaning business, insists that he is not interested in personal gain, and as he sits in the comfort of his large house in a Detroit suburb describing yet another home in Boca Raton, Fla., it is not hard to believe him. What does interest Earl, he says, is "clearing" his older brother's name.

He admits that Jack had a hot temper, but he resents the idea, put forth over the years, that his brother was working as a hit man for the Mafia when he killed Oswald. "I know he wasn't involved with the mob," says Earl, "because the money he needed always came from me, my family and his friend Ralph Paul. If he was in the mob, he wouldn't have been so desperate for money, would he?"

Earl says that Jack shot Oswald—as Jack himself always insisted—purely on the spur of the moment, in a fit of patriotic anger. "If Jack had been 30 seconds later," Earl says, "he would have missed Oswald." But he was not and did not, and thereby was created his legacy—a snub-nosed .38 that has become the most coveted of his worldly possessions.

—William Plummer, Benita Alexander in Detroit

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