Sacramento stories: Epic photo defined Gerald Ford assassination attempt (September 1975)
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme roomed with fellow longtime member of the Charles Manson family, Sandra Good, on P Street in Sacramento in the mid-1970s. Fromme lived in the area to be near Manson, who was then incarcerated at Folsom Prison. She was a part of the midtown scene, even growing her own vegetables at the Ron Mandella Community Garden.
The Manson disciple was never implicated in the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and others. Manson is still in state prison for the killings.
Forty-one years ago Monday, Fromme stalked President Gerald Ford with a handgun in Capitol Park. She was arrested and served time in prison before being released in 2009.
Ford died on Dec. 26, 2006, at his home in Southern California at age 93.
Now-retired Sacramento Bee photographer Dick Schmidt took a picture of Fromme’s arrest under a Capitol Park tree on the day of the assault on Ford. Schmidt, equally known for his ability to photograph hard news as well as stunning feature pictures, provides this first-person remembrance of the day:
On Sept. 5, 1975, President Gerald Ford was making a one-day visit to Sacramento, and I was part of a team of reporters and photographers dispatched by The Bee, with the hope of photographing him interacting with people, to convey that he was in our town.
Ford had given an address earlier in the morning at a breakfast and was scheduled to meet with Gov. Jerry Brown before addressing a joint session of the California Legislature in the Assembly chamber. He had been driven to and from the breakfast, and the only public exposure he would have would be during a brisk walk from the Senator Hotel, across L Street, to the east steps of the Capitol, about 100 yards.
I started out beside Ford, in a tight knot of photographers with access inside security lines, photographing him as he smiled and acknowledged bystanders.
Within seconds, after crossing L Street and nowhere near approaching the Capitol’s east steps, I suddenly found myself out of position and left far behind the press corps close to the president.
I agonized being distanced from what I had preconceived as the place to be during his public walk.
Bee photographer Owen Brewer and I had started out together with Ford, he on one side and me on the other; he was able to continue on, close to Ford, while I was left in the dust, eliminated from the tight pool of photojournalists at the head of the parade.
I watched the group disappear from me. A comparison might be that the group around the president was like a scrum in rugby, and I had been suddenly excluded. Once that position is lost, it’s virtually impossible to get through the crowd and security lines to regain access.
As I stood there, trying to come up with a strategy as to what to do next (how to get inside the Assembly chamber via an alternative Capitol entry to photograph him addressing the Legislature), I noticed a scuffle of some kind coming in my direction. A phalanx of security agents hustled a young woman away from the crowd, stopping with her under a magnolia tree in Capitol Park – right where I stood. That was the moment. Unknowingly, I actually had been in the right place at the right time.
As I photographed Secret Service agents and Sacramento city police officers handcuffing her, I heard someone in the background say, “She had a gun!” It had not gone off, but Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, as we later learned, was 2 feet from President Ford when agents took her to the ground.
And it drove home to me once again that a photojournalist always must be ready for the unexpected. I was standing where I thought my efforts had become a total waste, yet this is where it happened and I was the only person to photograph that capture.
I’ve been asked how one can compose an image in such a second-by-second situation, and it’s an impulsive, subconscious process that is activated. This whole scenario took place in just about a minute, with only a few seconds under the magnolia tree. Within moments after the photo was taken, a Sacramento police car was driven onto the lawn, and she was swiftly put in the car, which drove off immediately. It all took place so fast that many people in the vicinity didn’t know it had happened.
I took six or eight pictures before she was whisked away, and the decisive moment is about the middle of that sequence. It was an event where national media outlets across the country wanted photos of her confronting Ford, and yet, with so many newspaper, news service and TV photographers right next to him, not a single photo exists with her and President Ford in the same frame. It happened that quickly.
The photo of her being arrested is made additionally powerful by the body language of everyone in the frame – police officers and Secret Service agents – and particularly the way she passively looks back at authorities as they handcuff her. It was part luck to secure that photo in just a few seconds, but pure luck I was standing at that location because it was not at all where I had earnestly wanted to be a minute or two earlier.
Dick Schmidt is a retired Sacramento Bee photographer.