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Friday, July 29, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: The SLA, FBI, and Assassination Attempts on Gerald Ford

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2016 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Shots ring out as President Gerald Ford emerges from the St. Francis Hotel. - GERALD R. FORD LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
  • Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum
  • Shots ring out as President Gerald Ford emerges from the St. Francis Hotel.

Manson acolyte Lynne "Squeaky" Fromme pulled a gun on President Gerald Ford on Sept. 5, 1975, but Ford was undeterred as he headed into an election year. He had been elected neither president nor vice president, ascending to both offices through Watergate. The 1976 presidential campaign held his one chance for electoral legitimacy, so he went on with his schedule of "contacting the American people as I travel from one state to another" as if nothing had happened.

Ford was back in California days later on Sept. 22, 1975 for a meeting with a labor organization at the St. Francis Hotel at Union Square. After the meeting, Ford emerged from the hotel's Post Street entrance, and paused to wave at the crowd of potential voters.

Oliver "Billy" Sipple had been waiting for three hours that day in the hopes of seeing the president. When Ford waved at the crowd, Sipple, an ex-Marine and Vietnam vet, saw a woman pointing a chrome-plated .38 right at the president.

"I screamed 'gun' as loud as I could, and grabbed her arm," Sipple told the Associated Press. "I seen a gun and dived for it. I don't even know what I felt."

The woman squeezed the trigger as Sipple lunged at her. A shot whizzed past the president, followed by another. Secret Service agents shoved Ford and White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld into the waiting limousine.

Ford was rushed to SFO and the security of Air Force One. As much as he may have wanted to get the hell out of California, he had to wait for three hours while First Lady Betty Ford wrapped up an event on the Peninsula. In those days before smartphones made all news inescapable, Betty Ford boarded the plane unaware that her husband had been shot at again.

"I think it was Rumsfeld who finally told her that someone took a shot at the president," White House Press Secretary Ron Nessen recalled to the Chron. "I can tell you that quite a few martinis were consumed on the flight back."

Ford's second potential woman assassin in two weeks was just as strange as the first, if not even more so. Sara Jane Moore was a middle-aged mom with a son in private school. She was also an FBI informant with ties to the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst, as well as the Hearst family itself.

Moore had even been questioned by SF police and Secret Service agents two days before the president's visit, and after she had told San Francisco police that she might try and "test" the president's security team. Police lieutenant and future mayor Frank Jordan confiscated a .44-caliber handgun from Moore, but federal agents deemed her “not of sufficient protective interest to warrant surveillance" and let her go. Nobody bothered to search her house.

Moore later told the Berkeley Barb that the gun she used to try and shoot Ford and the one that was confiscated were both purchased from a Danville gun collector as part of an ATF sting operation. Moore was first recruited as an FBI informant when she volunteered for People in Need, a food distribution program funded by the Hearst family to appease demands by the SLA.

Moore was sentenced to life in prison, and released on parole in 2007 at the age of 77.

Oliver Sipple, the man who saved the president, was outed as gay by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. Sipple hadn’t come out to his family, and the resulting alienation later drove him further into alcoholism.

"If I were a homosexual or not, it doesn't make me less of a man than what I am," Sipple told the press at the time.

Sipple received no hero's welcome to the White House Rose Garden, and a letter of thanks came only weeks later. Sipple died in his apartment on Van Ness in 1989 at the age of 47. The letter from the White House was still among his prized possessions.

The double assassination attempts sparked off a new round of debates on gun control that proved just as frustrating then as they are today.

"The attempted assassination is likely to start a new congressional debate on gun control, but it is already clear there will still be opposition to controls," an unnamed writer for United Press International wrote.

"It's something you learn to live with," Betty Ford said after the first attempt on her husband's life.
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Bob Calhoun

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