It was a Monday many years ago, a regular office writing day for me in my newspaper’s San Francisco office. Wally Turner, the veteran bureau chief who had sources planted all over his city, suddenly appeared in my door. “Another woman tried to shoot President Ford,” he said. “Here’s her address.”
The modest apartment building was nearby. I knocked on the superintendent’s door. “Hello,” I said in my most innocent voice. “I’d like to see Sara Jane Moore’s apartment.” He asked why. I said I’d heard it might be available soon.
The superintendent had not heard that, but walked me to the first-floor apartment just in case and unlocked the door. I was not sure what I was looking for. A Nazi flag maybe. A Mao portrait. A photo of Charles Manson perhaps. One of his disciples had been arrested just 17 days before after confronting Ford with a .45 as he walked through a Sacramento park.
What is it with California and Gerald Ford? Or just plain California?
I saw nothing distinctive in Moore’s abode. It was a nondescript old lady’s apartment on a noisy city street with the blinds down. The super was describing its many attributes as, without knocking, a half-dozen large men burst impolitely into the room and spread out. Two of them approached me. And by approached, I mean surrounded, one close behind, one In front, also very close.
I answered no. Reached in my pocket, very slowly, for a business card. He suggested I vacate the premises forthwith. His partner took my arm so I wouldn’t get lost on the 20-foot journey to the door.
That was Sept. 22, 1975. Have you noticed only beauty queens and criminals seem to have middle names? Sara Jane, as we called her in the months ahead, was a West Virginia native who gave up her nursing studies and, over the years, five husbands.
Turns out, she was also a leftie. You may have noticed California has a surfeit of them, still. Like many folks who get in big trouble, they’re typically already on authorities’ radar. Think Boston Marathon bombers. They get interviewed, then released because, no crime — yet. The day before Ford’s visit, police picked up Sara Jane on an illegal gun charge and seized her powerful .44 with 113 rounds of ammo.
That may have saved the president’s life.
Next morning Sara Jane bought a cheaper .38 and set up in the crowd across the street outside the north door of the St. Francis Hotel. As Ford emerged, she took an errant shot. Everyone ducked, except Oliver Sipple, a Marine veteran nearby. He saw the would-be assassin’s arm aiming another shot and knocked it up.
The last time I was in San Francisco you could still see the chipped marble block about 10 feet above the sidewalk. That was supposed to be the last time a president used a public hotel entrance. Supposed to be.
When I worked for George W. Bush, I was always struck that the Secret Service escorts their important principal into hotel basements, next to smelly garbage dumpsters to ride in creaky freight elevators up to the banquet floor, then through the steamy kitchen with all the big knives to the ballroom.
Sara Jane pleaded guilty to attempted assassination. At her sentencing she said:
Am I sorry I tried? Yes and no. Yes, because it accomplished little except to throw away the rest of my life. And, no, I’m not sorry I tried, because at the time it seemed a correct expression of my anger.
Later, Moore expressed regret. She got life anyway which, as you may have noticed in modern America, doesn’t really mean life. It means about 30 years.
On Dec. 31, 2007, at age 77, Federal Inmate No. 04851-180 was released. In 2019, she was jailed for six months for failing to inform her parole officer of a foreign trip.
She was the first prominent would-be presidential assassin totally released. It seems like Americans, or at least some of their appointed officials and boards, are in a forgiving mood. If events proceed as expected, three more will soon have their liberties restored – Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sirhan Sirhan, and John Hinckley.
Fromme was a longtime fringe member of Charles Manson’s cult family, not implicated in the Tate murders. Oh, look, this was in California, too.
On Sept. 5, 1975, she went to Sacramento’s Capitol Park as President Ford visited the capital. Ostensibly, she wanted to plead with him over the perceived plight of California’s redwood forests.
That doesn’t explain the loaded .45 she was packing under a red robe. As Ford walked by, Fromme stepped from behind a tree, pulled out the gun, and, not surprisingly, was immediately restrained. Four bullets were in the gun, but either by accident or on purpose, none in the chamber.
She, too, got a life sentence, escaped once. On Aug. 14, 2009, Fromme was released on parole, moved to New York state with a boyfriend but said she still loved Manson. Manson’s death sentence was vacated when the state’s Supreme Court ended capital punishment in 1972. He died in custody Nov. 19, 2017.
Sirhan Sirhan was convicted of murdering Sen. Robert Kennedy in the basement of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel in June 1968 as Kennedy campaigned for Democrats’ presidential nomination to face Richard Nixon.
A Palestinian by birth, Sirhan’s death sentence was also vacated in 1972. Last month, after 53 years in prison, at his 16th parole hearing, a two-man panel recommended the 77-year-old be released as no longer any threat. Law enforcement and some Kennedys oppose his release.
But the final decision is now up to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
As our own Jennifer Oliver O’Connell reported fully here on Monday, the man who came closer than we realized at the time to killing President Ronald Reagan will become totally free next year.
After decades of in-patient treatment for mental illness, attempted suicides, and then gradually increasing outside life with his mother, a judge just made the decision that John Hinckley would have an unconditional release come June.
On March 30, 1981, just two months into his first term, President Reagan spoke at Washington’s Hilton Hotel. Contrary to Secret Service protocol since the Sara Jane incident, agents escorted Reagan to a side door, which had not been cleared. A small crowd had gathered just outside. It included Hinckley, then 25, who was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster with a spectacular murder.
His shots hit Reagan, a Secret Service agent, local police officer, and Reagan’s press secretary, who was paralyzed.
Of the 45 individual men who’ve served as president, four (nearly 10 percent) have been murdered in office.
— Abraham Lincoln in 1865, just days into his second term;
— James Garfield in 1881, the only House member ever to become president;
— William McKinley in 1901, who was succeeded by Teddy Roosevelt, who was later wounded in an attempted assassination. Knowing that McKinley died not from the gunshot but from a surgical infection while removing the bullet, Roosevelt lived the rest of his life with the bullet in his chest.
— John Kennedy in 1963, the first Catholic president.
There was, however, one other attempted presidential assassination, the first known one back in 1835. President Andrew Jackson was leaving a funeral at the Capitol when Richard Lawrence, an unemployed painter, confronted him.
Lawrence pulled out one pistol, which misfired, then a second, which also misfired. Unshaken, Gen. Jackson, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a previous duel, proceeded to beat Lawrence senseless with his cane. The assailant was then restrained by the president’s fellow Tennessean, Rep. Davy Crockett, who would go on to die at the Alamo.
Unlike modern-day assassins, however, Lawrence never regained his freedom. In fact, he spent the rest of his life in an asylum.