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November 26, 2014

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From Jack Ruby to Las Vegas: A gun’s trajectory

Weapon that killed JFK’s killer has been a recluse, and something of a circus freak

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Courtesy Photo

Jack Ruby’s .38-caliber Colt Cobra revolver — the gun Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald — will be auctioned as part of the Pugliese Pop Culture Collection at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

In Today's Sun

The only moment of clarity for this snub-nosed .38-caliber Colt Cobra came on the Sunday morning when Jack Ruby used it to kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Since that day, the tiny silver gun with a black handle has led a tortured life.

It sat for 20 years hidden in a safe deposit box in a Dallas bank vault while Ruby’s relatives fought with his lawyer over ownership. In the occasional moment it saw light, it was passed around among strangers who came to fondle its 2-inch barrel and aluminum grip. When it was finally sent to a loving home, it ended up being paraded around like a circus freak, or used to fire bullets that were sold as souvenirs.

“The gun used by Jack Ruby to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and change the world,” as it has been billed, is among the most famous weapons in history.

This weekend in Las Vegas, the gun Ruby bought in an industrial section of Dallas on Jan. 19, 1960, will be sold for a third time to that special breed of American who has a penchant for ghoulish history.

It is expected to fetch at least $1 million as one of 150 items in the Pugliese Pop Culture Collection going on the block at the Palms. You can also buy Christopher Reeve’s cape from the first two “Superman” movies, some of Cher’s leather clothes and Andy Warhol’s sunglasses.

But it is the Ruby gun that’s the headliner at a casino most known for catering to debutantes and hosting a scandalous MTV reality show.

The first sale was on a Tuesday. Ruby and a cop friend walked into Ray Brantley’s Ray’s Sporting Goods, a bright yellow building on Singleton Boulevard in Dallas. Ruby had purchased a few guns there, earning the nickname “Sparky” for the firearm always strapped to his hip.

The cop, Joe Cody, recommended that his friend pick up a Colt Cobra as a means to protect the wads of cash he took each day from his strip joint, The Carousel Club. The gun was lightweight and wouldn’t drag his pants down. It cost $62.50. Cody actually bought the gun because police officers did not have to pay tax on the sale, he told researchers from the Oral History Collection in The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas in 1999. Ruby gave the money to Cody and once outside, Cody gave the gun to Ruby. It saved him $18.

•••

Everyone has seen the grainy black and white newsreel footage from three years later. Ruby, in a dark suit and fedora, gripped the gun in his right hand, thrust it into Oswald’s abdomen and pulled the trigger.

That was 45 years ago, two days after one of the darkest moments in American history — Oswald’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Dallas Police Capt. L.C. Graves wrestled the gun from Ruby. He signed the gun’s evidence tag, and it was put in storage, where it remained until Ruby died of cancer on Jan. 3, 1967.

At the time, few people would have found it acceptable to try to profit from the weapon or other items from the assassination. Imagine the outrage, for instance, at trying to profit from selling World Trade Center scrap after 9/11. But as the years have passed, emotions surrounding the assassination have faded.

After Ruby died his lawyer, Jules Mayer, and his brother Earl Ruby began a 24-year legal battle over ownership of the weapon. Mayer put it in a white cloth bag and stashed it in a $20-a-year safe deposit box in a branch of the Texas Commerce Bank in Dallas. He would occasionally show it off to reporters and others. It still wore the evidence tag, along with a second tag from a court reporter naming it “Stx 6” — “State’s Exhibit No. 6.”

Finally, in August 1991, a Texas judge ruled the Ruby family was the rightful owner. Earl Ruby, owner of a Detroit coin-operated laundry, promptly sent it to the auction house. He owed $70,000 in lawyers’ fees. He was also in debt to the Internal Revenue Service for $86,000.

•••

On the day after Christmas 1991, the gun was sold in the 26th-floor ballroom of the plush Omni Park Central Hotel in Manhattan. A man calling himself Fred Roman paid $220,000 — and tried to sneak out of the building afterward using a back stairwell.

It didn’t work. Roman faced an immediate onslaught of media. He tried to cover his face with an auction program. He claimed he was representing a mystery buyer, the perfect purchaser for a weapon already part of dozens of conspiracy theories.

When he picked up the gun a few days later, it was wrapped in a purple cloth Crown Royal bag.

Then things got really weird.

Fred Roman sent the gun to appear on “The Larry King Show” in Washington. But it never made it back. A man working for Roman was stopped by police for carrying the gun around Capitol Hill. Police took the gun and threatened to melt it, as they do all confiscated weapons. So the gun lived in another evidence locker in another city. And it dealt with more lawyers.

•••

That’s when Roman’s true identity became known. He is really Anthony Pugliese III, a Florida real estate developer. “I would have preferred to be anonymous,” Pugliese said. “You didn’t have Google back in ’91. Now there’s no getting away from (the publicity).” Eventually, Pugliese got the gun back after a legal battle and a letter from a congressman.

The gun wasn’t going to sit in the dark anymore. Pugliese figured he might as well have some fun with the six-figure, six-shot gun. So he fired it, a lot, hundreds of times.

The bullets, which have the same markings as the one that killed Oswald, have been sold to benefit charities including the National Audubon Society and other environmental groups. The bullets each typically raised at least $1,000. Pugliese said he never made money from the bullets.

Between firings, the gun has spent most of its time over the past 17 years in a fireproof box, locked in a vault in Florida.

•••

Pugliese, 61, has had enough of the gun. “I got more than my 15 minutes of fame out of it,” he said. He said his passion for it and his other collectibles has faded, replaced by a desire to build a 64-square-mile eco-sustainable city in Florida for 250,000 residents.

So the gun has been brought to Las Vegas, a city still in its adolescence when the gun had its moment in history. By next week the gun will have yet another home. Pugliese would like to meet the new owner. “I’ll have to let them know what they are in for.”

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