GERALD FORD: 1913 - 2006

Attempt on Ford's life still vivid, puzzling

Published: Monday, Aug. 19, 2013 - 2:22 pm

Originally published Dec. 28, 2006

Veda Federighi admits she has a "wretched" memory. She forgets names, vacation highlights and all sorts of other details.

But the former Sacramento Union reporter recalls virtually everything about the morning of Sept. 5, 1975.

That's the day she was standing just a few feet from President Gerald Ford in Sacramento's Capitol Park when Lynette Alice Fromme, better known as "Squeaky, " tried to shoot him.

"I not only remember it intellectually, " said Federighi, who now works for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. "I have these snapshots in my mind. Without any effort, I can call up these three pictures and see them again clear as day."

The first, she said, was Ford's face. It turned white when Fromme, a disciple of notorious murderer Charles Manson, pointed a loaded .45-caliber gun at Ford as he walked toward the Capitol from the old Senator Hotel. The nation's 38th president was scheduled to deliver a speech in the Legislature, which he did about 90 minutes after the incident, on law and order and gun control.

"The second thing was her big gun, " Federighi said. "I was standing right next to the president and when they grabbed her, the gun brushed right past my leg."

And the third snapshot etched in her memory, Federighi said, was Secret Service agents wrestling Fromme to the ground. She was then handcuffed to a tree.

"I was there to do a color story, " said Federighi, who wound up writing a front page "eyewitness report" with the headline "I Watched Three Feet From Ford."

Bee columnist Dan Walters, then a political reporter for the Union, wrote the lead piece.

"I never cry, " Federighi wrote in her report. "I'm not a woman who cries. But I remember collapsing into (Walters') arms, in tears, the horror still with me. I couldn't stop shaking."

Sacramento, a town that in 1975 had a sleepy feel to it, suddenly was in headlines across the world.

Not only had the president survived an aborted assassination attempt, but his would-be assassin was linked to Manson, whose role in a string of brutal Los Angeles-area slayings in 1969 stunned the world.

Fromme, a 105-pound woman with a shock of red hair, was also the first female ever to attempt to kill a U.S. president.

An aeronautical engineer's daughter who had joined Manson's band of gypsies about a decade earlier, Fromme was one of several female devotees who attended his trial and carved an "X" onto her forehead to declare her devotion to him.

When Manson was imprisoned at the state penitentiary in Folsom, Fromme was often seen in Sacramento. She was one of several women who regularly demonstrated on his behalf and visited him frequently in prison.

It was while she lived in Sacramento that she made the attempt on Ford's life. As agents in Capitol Park swarmed her, eyewitnesses said Fromme yelled: "He's not a public servant. He's not a public servant."

News reports at the time said she also shouted, "The country's a mess. The man's not your president."

Although Ford was controversial for his pardon of Richard Nixon, the attempt on his life seemed to be a national puzzle.

"Of all the presidents, Ford was such a nice, friendly guy, " said George Frank, a United Press International reporter assigned to follow Ford as he walked from the Senator Hotel to the Capitol. "He was the last guy you'd expect to have something like this happen to him."

Frank was standing so close to Ford that he ended up in a photo that ran on the cover of Life magazine as well as in numerous other publications.

Secret Service agents shielded Ford from Fromme, and all Frank could see was an apparent scuffle. Because no shot was fired, Frank said he thought Ford might have fallen down as he walked on the sidewalk in Capitol Park.

"That's what I thought at first, because I never saw Fromme, " Frank said. "But I was so close to him that there was testimony at the trial that if he was shot, the bullet probably would have hit him in the shoulder, gone through him and hit me."

In a bizarre coda to the Sacramento incident, Sara Jane Moore, a radical political activist and former FBI informant, fired a gun at Ford three weeks later in San Francisco in yet another attempt on his life.

Unlike Fromme, Moore was able to get a shot off, but the bullet missed its target. Fromme pulled the trigger, but her gun never went off. Witnesses said they heard a click, and while news reports said there were four bullets in the clip, the gun's firing chamber was empty.

Robbie Waters, a former Sacramento County sheriff who worked on the city's homicide team when Ford came to town, interviewed the president minutes after the incident.

"I asked him what happened, and he said, 'That woman tried to shoot me, ' " Waters recalled.

By noon, about 90 minutes after the shooting attempt, Ford was inside the Capitol, addressing a joint session of the Legislature as planned. He talked about gun control and other criminal justice issues but made no mention of the attempted shooting.

Before that, however, Ford addressed reporters at the Senator Hotel.

"I saw a hand coming up from behind several others in the front row, " Ford said. "Obviously, there was a gun in that hand. I then saw almost simultaneously, instantaneously, very quick and very effective action by the Secret Service in taking care of the matter.

"I was very thankful to the Secret Service for doing a superb job, but once I saw they had done it, I thought I had better get on with the rest of the day's schedule."

Fromme, now 58, was denied parole in October 2005. She is serving a life sentence and is incarcerated as part of the general prison population of Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

Gary Delsohn, a former Bee staff writer, prepared this story before going to work for the Governor's Office.

Read more articles by Gary Delsohn

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