December 27, 2006

Ford Assassination Attempts Recalled

WASHINGTON - In the fall of 1975, Gerald Ford's presidency was rocked by two assassination attempts within less than three weeks. The first took place on Sept. 5, 1975, in Sacramento, Calif., where Ford had spent the night at the Senator Hotel. The president arose early that day to address a group of about 1,000 California businessmen gathered at the hotel.

Ford then set out to walk across a broad expanse of lawn to the California statehouse to address the Legislature in a speech on crime.

"It was a nice, sunny morning and a crowd of about 500, many of them state employees, had gathered along the way to greet him," recalled The Associated Press' Howard Benedict, who was in the White House press pool that day.

"About five minutes after Ford left the hotel, all hell broke loose as several news people burst into the press room (on the first floor of the hotel) shouting things like, 'Someone pulled a gun on the president!' "

Walter Rodgers of AP Radio was among the first through the door, and he started dictating a story to his desk, Benedict said.

"I immediately relayed what he said to the San Francisco bureau, something like: 'A woman in a red dress pulled a gun on President Ford today, but she was wrestled to the ground by a Secret Service agent,'" Bennedict said.

Bennedict then ran out to the scene. The Secret Service had already hustled Ford into the statehouse, but agents "had the young woman pinned up against a tree, her hands behind her in handcuffs. I was struck by the fact that she was completely in red: long red dress, red bandanna and red shoes," Benedict said.

"The Secret Service said she had pulled a .45 caliber pistol while standing in the crowd about 4 feet from Ford and that her name was Lynette Fromme. She muttered something like: 'The gun didn't go off, it didn't go off. Can you believe it?' "

It was later determined that though the automatic pistol was loaded with five bullets, the slide had not been pulled to place a bullet in the firing chamber, making it impossible for the gun to fire.

Several women who witnessed the incident described it to Benedict:

"Ford was shaking hands with everyone and smiling when suddenly he turned ashen and froze as he saw the gun being raised only a few feet away. Then a Secret Service agent grabbed the woman with the gun and another hit Ford from behind, buckling his knees and knocking him to the ground. They got him on his feet and ran him to the Statehouse."

While relaying this information to AP's San Francisco bureau, Benedict mentioned the name Lynette Fromme.

"It brought an immediate response: 'Yeah, Squeaky. We've had run-ins with her before. She's a follower of Charles Manson, the one serving a life term for murder in San Quentin.' "

Meanwhile, reporters waited outside Gov. Jerry Brown's office with Secret Service agents while Ford and the governor conversed.

"Strangely, we learned later, Brown had not heard about the assassination attempt, and Ford did not mention it until one of his aides in the room brought it up about a half hour into the conversation," Benedict said.

But the legislators had heard, Benedict recalled, and they gave Ford a rousing reception when he walked into the chamber. Ford delivered his address on crime, but did not mention the Fromme incident.

In Washington, when Ford stepped off the helicopter from Andrews Air Force Base, the entire White House staff was on the lawn to give him a cheering return, Benedict said.

Fromme was convicted of attempted assassination of the president and is serving a life sentence.

The second assassination attempt occurred just 17 days later on Sept. 22, 1975 in San Francisco.

Ford had made a luncheon speech to a foreign affairs group at the St. Francis Hotel. The president then left the hotel to take the motorcade to the airport for the flight back to Washington.

Benedict was in the press room inside the hotel, while AP's Frank Cormier was in the pool that was to accompany the president. Cormier was standing outside his motorcade car when Ford emerged from the hotel with the hotel manager.

"Suddenly, Bob Pierpoint of CBS rushed into the press room, shouting something like, 'You won't believe this, but somebody just took a shot at the president and they have rushed him off to Air Force One,' " Benedict said.

"I quickly dictated what Pierpoint had said, and the initial bulletin on the shooting quoted him.

"Meanwhile, Frank heard the shot and saw Secret Service agents push the president down. He quickly jumped into the motorcade car, grabbed his phone and dialed Washington, reaching the bureau just after the Pierpoint bulletin cleared. A swift ride to the airport and a quick boarding of Air Force One got the president safely away from San Francisco."

Later, Benedict learned from press briefings and interviews that the shooter was Sara Jane Moore, a middle-aged radical turned FBI informant who had been standing in a crowd about 40 feet from Ford as he emerged from the hotel.

As she raised her .38 caliber revolver to fire, Oliver Sipple, a disabled former U.S. Marine who was standing next to her. He quickly pushed up her arm as the gun discharged. The bullet flew over Ford's head by several feet, ricocheted off the side of the hotel and slightly wounded a cab driver in the crowd.

Moore pleaded guilty to attempted assassination of the president and was sentenced to life in prison. She escaped prison in 1989, but turned herself in two days later.