Tale of ‘Squeaky’ Fromme assassination try recalled by trial participants

After the lights in Sacramento’s federal courthouse went dim Tuesday evening, some old friends got together in the 16th-floor ceremonial courtroom to kick around a favorite subject: the saga of Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme.

They reminisced about their respective roles in Fromme’s Sept. 5, 1975, attempt to shoot President Gerald R. Ford in Capitol Park, and the incident’s aftermath.

Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the court’s historical society.

Doug Duncan, the Secret Service’s special agent in charge in Sacramento at the time, was with Ford when Fromme walked up to the president and raised a .45-caliber pistol, but it did not go off.

Duncan told an audience of approximately 200 who gathered to hear the discussion that he recalls Secret Service Special Agent Larry Buendorf yelling “lady with a gun .45,” as Buendorf jumped between Ford and Fromme.

“I looked around,” Duncan said, “and Buendorf had her under control with his hand over the gun pointed at the ground.”

Also on Tuesday’s panel were Dwayne Keyes, a retired superior court judge who was then the U.S. attorney and led the prosecution; Donald Heller, now in private practice who was then an assistant U.S. attorney and the other prosecutor; and John Virga, the Sacramento attorney who defended Fromme.

Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb, founder of the historical society, moderated the discussion. The sixth man on the dais was Jess Bravin, a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of a Fromme biography.

Shubb related that Sacramento was “abuzz” in anticipation of the president’s arrival to speak to a breakfast for California business leaders and pay a visit to select members of the Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Nobody could have foreseen that, as a result of the visit, one of the town’s most notorious residents would wind up on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines.

Bravin reviewed Fromme’s rebellious young years in Southern California up to the time of her 1967 chance meeting with Charles Manson on a sidewalk bench in Venice. Manson went on to lead a quasi-commune that included Fromme. He was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the gruesome murders of four people carried out by members of the group. He did not dispatch Fromme on that fateful mission.

The highlight of the evening was the opposing attorneys exchanging anecdotes and good-natured barbs.

Heller recalled he was phoned by the Secret Service and told to get to the Sacramento Police Department, where Fromme was being held. He said he grabbed a law book on his way out the door and found the statute – passed after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – that says an attempt on a president’s life falls within federal jurisdiction.

Thus, Robbie Waters, former sheriff and city councilman who then was a detective lieutenant in the Sacramento Police Department, transported Fromme to the custody of deputy U.S. marshals. Waters was in the audience Tuesday.

Fromme and E. Richard Walker, who was then the federal defender, didn’t hit it off. So U.S. District Judge Thomas J. MacBride, now deceased, appointed Virga as Fromme’s attorney.

Virga said his client was a “charming” woman and they got along well, both abiding by a pact to be honest with one another. Her only noticeable quirk was her rabid loyalty to Manson, he said.

“You could put her in a room with 100 other women and, as long as she couldn’t talk about Manson, you wouldn’t be able to pick her out,” he said.

He said she was insistent Manson attend her trial, and the only way he could think of was to subpoena him to be brought from prison and “testify of her peaceful nature.” MacBride did not see Manson as a viable character witness, and he was not called.

Fromme also pressed Virga to keep the members of the jury pool who expressed animosity toward her on the panel.

“Her theory was,” Virga said, “they were probably telling the truth and the others were lying.”

Virga said the most memorable thing about the case for him was when he took the videoed testimony of Ford in the old executive office building next to the White House before the trial and subsequently played it for the jury. It is the only time a sitting president has ever given testimony at a criminal trial.

“I subpoenaed him to Sacramento,” Virga said. “The government was strongly opposed. I argued, ‘He’s a percipient witness. If he’s above the law, he doesn’t need to be here. If he’s not above the law, he needs to be here.”

MacBride agreed and arrangements were made for the judge and his court reporter, Virga, and Keyes to make the trip to Washington, D.C.

Bravin said that, in researching his book, he learned that the U.S. Department of Justice wanted to fight the subpoena “all the way,” but the president favored cooperation.

Ford had just been through tremendous “blow-back” from his pardon of Richard Nixon, Bravin recalled, and he did not want to appear to believe he was above the law.

Keyes told of preparing Ford for his testimony in the Oval Office the night before.

Virga said that after he cross-examined Ford, the president invited the group to lunch, but MacBride vetoed it.

Keyes remembered that, during his closing argument at the trial, Fromme took an apple out of her flowing robe and threw it. It hit Keyes in the face and knocked off his glasses. While he was composing himself, MacBride asked Fromme if she had any more apples. She told she did not, and that one was meant for the judge.

“I took an apple for the judge,” Keyes told Tuesday’s crowd.

Shubb asked Virga what he thought of that.

Virga said he did not know his client came to court armed that day. But, he hastened to add, “Sandy Koufax couldn’t have thrown a better pitch.”

Fromme was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. She was paroled in 2009 after serving 32 years and now lives in upstate New York.