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Home of Oswald's tombstone stirs Texan's anger

Hometown U.S.A.: Roscoe, Ill.

The headstone of President Kennedy's assassin is on display at an auto museum in rural Illinois. A Dallas pub owner says the artifact is his and plans to fight for it.

March 31, 2012|By Ted Gregory, Tribune Co
  • Wax figures of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, left, being shot by Jack Ruby are on display at Wayne Lensing's museum.
Wax figures of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, left, being shot by Jack Ruby… (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune )

Inside Wayne Lensing's auto museum, down a remote road from a body shop, visitors can see Elvis Presley's 1972 Lincoln, the Mayberry squad car from "The Andy Griffith Show" and three Batmobiles.

A few steps from a Cadillac that has been covered in 120,000 coins, the curious also can view a decidedly different artifact: Lee Harvey Oswald's tombstone.

That's right. The 130-pound gray granite slab that marked the final resting place of one of U.S. history's more notorious figures is about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, on the outskirts of Roscoe, Ill., best known perhaps as the hometown of race car driver Danica Patrick.

How the stone got there is a tale of thievery that involves an electrician who made a startling discovery in a crawl space and a woman who isn't saying much. Whether it remains in the museum may end up as a courtroom drama between Lensing and the owner of a legendary live music club.

The name of the museum, Historic Auto Attractions, might not suggest the full range of exhibits, but it fits perfectly with Lensing's main interest as a builder of racing car bodies.

The headstone, he said, is in one of the more popular sections of the museum, "Kennedy Day in Dallas."

"Nobody ever wanted anything to do with it throughout all those years, until they found out the thing got sold," said Lensing, 64. "So now, after 25, 30 years … they all come out of the woodwork."

David Card, owner of Poor David's Pub in Dallas, sees things differently.

"They screwed us out of it," said Card, 72, who contends that the stone is part of his father's estate. "And I want it back."

The man who killed President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas was buried in Rose Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Fort Worth. His body was placed there after nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald while he was under police escort two days after Kennedy's death.

On the fourth anniversary of the assassination, a couple of high school pranksters stole the headstone, which features Oswald's name and the dates of his birth and death etched around a cross. Authorities found it in a park in Bartlesville, Okla., and returned it to Marguerite Oswald, the assassin's mother.

Concerned that other thieves and vandals might strike, she tucked the stone in the crawl space of her Fort Worth home, Card said. A few months after her death in 1981, Card's father and stepmother bought the house.

About four years later, an electrician rooting around in the crawl space found the headstone. Fearful that someone might steal it, Card's father and stepmother hauled the stone to the home of the stepmother's sister, who later sent it to her son.

It sat in his garage until the son, Johnny Ragan, died in 2008, Card said, leaving the tombstone in the hands of Ragan's wife, Holly.

That's where its odyssey gets murky. Card contends the stone is among items his father and stepmother acquired when they bought the home. Lensing maintains that Johnny Ragan's will left it in his wife's possession.

Holly Ragan is less than inclined to discuss the matter publicly.

In a brief phone conversation from Fort Worth, she said Card was spreading "a lot of incorrect information" and "cannot show any proof of ownership." Then she hung up.

In a second brief phone conversation, Ragan said Card will never get the stone.

"It's over with," Ragan said. "It's history." Then she hung up again.

Lensing said he acquired the stone in late 2010; he declines to discuss the purchase price. He said that Ragan tried to sell the stone to at least one auction house in Dallas, but "they didn't want anything to do with it." He added that the auction house recommended she contact Lensing because of the range of his Kennedy collectibles.

These include suits worn by the president, 18 outfits donned by Jackie Kennedy and clothes that belonged to the couple's children. Also on display: the 1956 Cadillac that was directly behind Kennedy's limousine when he was shot, and the shoes Ruby wore when he shot Oswald.

Lensing began exhibiting the tombstone last May, which is when Card's brother saw it featured online.

The museum, which Lensing opened in 2001, has a rocking chair used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a swatch from the chair that Abraham Lincoln occupied when he was assassinated, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ivory cane. A guitar autographed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson is mounted on a wall. A Marilyn Monroe nightgown, a James Dean sweater and a deerskin jacket that reportedly belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody are also on display.

Card maintains it's no place for the tombstone. He said he would donate it to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, a nonprofit based in the Dallas building where Oswald fired at Kennedy.

To underscore his seriousness, Card has hired an attorney and sent a letter to Lensing stating that Card "will pursue whatever legal means necessary to recover" the headstone.

Lensing maintains that any statute of limitations expired years ago, that he obtained the stone legally and that Card may end up spending thousands of dollars with little to show for it.

tgregory@tribune.com

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