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  • Dick Schmidt / Sacramento Bee file

    Sacramento police and Secret Service agents handcuff Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme under a Capitol Park tree after she tried to shoot President Gerald Ford on September 5, 1975.

  • Anonymous / ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme is handcuffed after attempting to shoot President Gerald Ford in Sacramento, Calif. as he walked from his hotel to the California state Capitol building on September 5, 1975.

  • Carl Grandstaff / Sacramento Bee

    Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme is interviewed by Sacramento Bee reporter Wayne Wilson at the Federal Correctional Institution in Alderson, West Virginia in 1980. The interview was Fromme's first public comment on her 1975 assassination attempt of President Gerald Ford in Sacramento.

  • Sam Stanton / Sacramento Bee

    Videographer Patrick Kuske transferring the Ford tape to DVD.

President Ford video testimony released on 'Squeaky' Fromme assassination attempt

Published: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 - 2:53 pm
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 - 11:53 pm

On Sept. 5, 1975, at around 9:30 a.m., a young woman left her $100-a-month attic apartment at 1725 P St. and began the short stroll to the state Capitol.

Dressed in a flowing red robe and carrying a loaded Colt .45-caliber pistol in a leg holster, the 26-year-old headed for the L Street side of Capitol Park near 12th Street, where she became part of American political history.

There, at 10:06 a.m., Lynette Alice Fromme pulled the pistol out from under her robe and pointed it at President Gerald R. Ford, who was about two feet away shaking hands with well-wishers as he headed for a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown.

The gun didn't go off, and Fromme was wrestled to the ground by a Secret Service agent, a Sacramento police officer and bystanders.

Within weeks, the red-haired young woman known as "Squeaky," a devout follower of cult leader and mass murderer Charles Manson, was facing trial in federal court in Sacramento.

After a 19-day trial, she was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for attempting to assassinate the 38th president of the United States.

Today, nearly 38 years later, a federal judge in Sacramento has allowed the release of a largely unseen relic of the Fromme assassination attempt: the videotaped testimony Ford gave that would later be used in her trial.

The 20 minutes of testimony, which Ford gave in room 345 of the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House on Nov. 1, 1975, was conducted at the request of Sacramento defense attorney John Virga and played for jurors during Fromme's trial.

The tape, which includes several minutes of audio discussion among lawyers and the judge before and after Ford's testimony, was later sealed and has been largely forgotten and removed from public view in the years since.

The trial judge, Thomas J. MacBride, originally ordered three copies of the tape made to ensure that at least two were usable for trial. Once that was established, one tape was destroyed, a second was given to the president's legal counsel and the third was shown at trial, then sealed.

One of the prosecutors in the case, Don Heller, believes the intent at one time was to destroy the tape following the trial. Instead, the tape remained in the possession of the court and, in 1987, MacBride ordered it unsealed. However, he restricted viewing and copying to the grand jury room of the federal courthouse, and only in the presence of a court clerk.

TV reporting crews trekked to the courthouse at the time to make tape copies, but access in the intervening years has been difficult. (The other copy of the videotaped testimony ended up in the possession of Ford's presidential library in Michigan.)

The release of the tape for widespread public viewing is the result of a motion filed last month by the Eastern District Historical Society, a 12-year-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of the federal court based in Sacramento.

The society petitioned U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller for the tape's release "to preserve the historically significant deposition."

In a recent interview, Virga said it is not a deposition. MacBride, who was present, convened court and called the case in the room where Ford testified, and it is trial testimony that was not immediately used, Virga explained.

Michael E. Vinding, an attorney and secretary for the historical society, sought permission to transfer the color videotape to DVD to preserve the president's testimony.

"Despite the news report regarding the unsealing of the tape, I have been unable to view, much less copy, the taped deposition for safekeeping in the Historical Society's archives," Vinding wrote in his July 24 motion to gain access to the tape.

One week later, The Sacramento Bee filed a motion to join the effort, arguing "there is an obvious public interest, and historical interest, in the testimony of a president."

The federal government did not object to the requests, and Mueller issued an order allowing the tape to be copied to DVD "to preserve the deposition for perpetuity."

Mueller's order allowed Vinding to pick up the tape from the federal courthouse downtown accompanied by Secret Service Special Agent Brian J. Korbs. From there, the tape was delivered to Sacramento videographer Patrick Kuske to copy it to DVD "without damage or alteration."

The tape was ordered returned to the court after copying, with a DVD copy to be provided to The Bee and two to the court – one for the court clerk to retain and the other to be sent to the National Archives in Washington.

Until now, access to the tape of Ford's testimony has been limited since it was shown in court on Nov. 15, 1975. That day, four 25-inch color televisions were brought in from McClellan Air Force Base to play the tape for a jury of eight women and four men and a courtroom jammed with reporters and spectators.

The case was the first in history featuring oral testimony from a sitting president in a criminal trial, and Ford calmly described seeing a woman in a bright red dress and thinking she was drawing near to shake his hand.

"My first impression was that she wanted to come closer and extend – I thought at the time – a hand to shake, or to say something to me," Ford says on the tape.

Then, he said, he noticed the gun, adding that "the weapon was large."

White House lawyers and prosecutors objected to having the president testify, but MacBride ordered the videotaped session and took pains to protect its confidentiality. He arranged to be present during the session, with Virga and U.S. Attorney Dwayne Keyes among the few allowed in the room.

Others present included Richard L. Thornburgh, then an assistant attorney general, court reporter Richard Fong and Robert Mead, the president's television adviser. David H. Kennerly, the president's personal photographer, Secret Service agent Jack Merchant and a number of technicians and camera operators also were there, according to Ford's daily White House diary.

The entire episode made hardly a dent in the president's Saturday morning routine, according to the diary, which Ford's library has made available online.

The president had breakfast at 8:41 a.m., went to the Oval Office for a few meetings – including one with Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld – and proceeded to the deposition at 9:57 a.m. He returned to the Oval Office by 10:27 a.m.

Virga hoped to use the testimony to show that Ford never heard the pistol click, indicating Fromme never pulled the trigger – and bolstering the defense's contention that she never intended to kill Ford.

The pistol was loaded with four rounds, but there was no bullet in the firing chamber. Fromme would later claim she ejected the round onto the floor of her apartment before heading off to meet the president.

Fromme, who did not testify at trial, has always maintained that she was not planning to kill Ford.

In her first public comments five years after the event, she told Bee reporter Wayne Wilson in an interview inside a West Virginia prison, "I was not determined to kill the guy."

Despite Virga's efforts, the jury convicted Fromme of attempting to assassinate the president, the first time the statute had been used since it was adopted following the shooting of President John F. Kennedy 12 years earlier.

She was convicted on Nov. 26, 1975, after 19 hours of deliberation and following a series of raucous outbursts by Fromme. At times during the trial, she was ordered removed from court because of her tantrums and bizarre ramblings about the environment, saving the redwoods and other topics.

At one point, she dropped her voice to a whisper and told MacBride, "The gun is pointed, Your Honor. The gun is pointed. Whether it goes off is up to you."

At another, she alluded to the fact that she knew where MacBride lived, mentioning the baby grand piano in his living room that could be seen from the street.

That visibly shook the judge, Heller recalled, and led to increased security around him.

At least once, Fromme had to be carried into court by a deputy U.S. marshal after refusing to attend the trial. After closing arguments, she hurled an apple at Keyes, hitting him in the face.

In contrast, Virga said his relationship with his client was quite good.

"We had a deal," he recalled. "She promised to be honest with me, and I told her I would be honest with her. We kept those promises and got along just fine. From my point of view, she was not a difficult client."

Fromme eventually was sentenced to life in prison and, although she became eligible for a federal parole hearing in 1985, never sought one. After 30 years in prison, the government was required to hold a parole hearing and she won her release in 2009. She now lives near Utica, N.Y.

Seventeen days after his encounter with Fromme in Capitol Park, Ford was the target of a second assassination attempt, this time outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, where Sara Jane Moore fired a shot at him.

Moore had been associated with radical groups, including the Symbionese Liberation Army, and later would say she regretted firing the shot. Like Fromme, Moore was sentenced to life in prison. She was eventually released in 2007.

Ford's political career ended in a 1976 loss to Democrat Jimmy Carter as he sought to win a full term as president. He served for many years as a Republican House member, then ascended to the presidency after being selected to replace Spiro T. Agnew as Richard Nixon's vice president in 1973. He became president after the Watergate scandal drove Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.

Years after the Fromme incident, Ford returned to Sacramento for a 1998 speech and recalled the attempted assassination.

"I drove by the place where Squeaky Fromme tried to take a shot at me and, obviously, it was interesting," he told The Bee at the time. "That was what, 24 years ago? Well, I'm glad to be here as I am."

Ford passed away at his home in Rancho Mirage on Dec. 26, 2006, at the age of 93.

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.


Sept. 5, 1975: Assassination attempt in Sacramento

Nov. 1, 1975: Deposition on Sacramento assassination attempt


Gerald Ford: 1913 - 2006: Attempt on Ford's life still vivid, puzzling

Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme: Manson follower is due for release within days

Did she act on impulse or purpose?

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Ford assassination attempt in Sacramento, Wikipedia

Inside Edition Finds Squeaky Fromme

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

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