006-12-27 04:00:00 PDT Washington -- But for some quick action,
Gerald R. Ford's presidency, and his life, could have ended amid
gunshots outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel on the
afternoon of Sept. 22, 1975.
As Ford emerged from the historic Union Square hotel's Post
Street entrance at 3:30 p.m. after addressing a World Affairs
Council audience, he paused before getting into his limousine to
wave to the crowd across the street.
In a flash, two shots rang out. The first narrowly missed the
38th president of the United States and the second was deflected
by a bystander who grabbed at the arm of the shooter, a 45-year-
old middle class housewife, dabbler in extremist politics and
FBI informant named Sara Jane Moore.
A young San Francisco police patrol officer then subdued Moore
before she could fire her .38 Smith & Wesson handgun again.
Secret Service agents pushed Ford into his limousine and in
seconds had the presidential motorcade racing south toward San
Francisco International Airport to get the president out of the
city and back to the safety of Washington, D.C.
The Secret Service had good reason to believe it best to hustle
Ford out of the state. After all, Moore's failed shooting was
the second attempt on Ford's life in California within about two
weeks. On Sept. 5, 1975, Charles Manson groupie Lynette
"Squeaky" Fromme had tried to fire at Ford on the state Capitol
grounds in Sacramento as he walked from the Senator Hotel across
L Street to a meeting with then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
Fromme never got a shot off, even though her gun was loaded with
four rounds, before a Secret Service agent wrestled her to the
"Ford was puzzled by these shooting attempts," recalled Ron
Nessen, who was then the presidential press secretary and who
witnessed both incidents. "But it was the '70s in San Francisco
and California, and there was lots of anti-Vietnam War activity
and lots of anti-government activity."
The big Bay Area news of the time was the kidnapping of
newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst by the radical Symbionese
Nessen remembers both attacks like they were yesterday. "The
president decided to walk through the Capitol park to meet Gov.
Brown. He was on a path, and we were parallel to him on the
grass. Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity. The Secret
Service rushed the president into the Capitol, and we ran into
the Capitol, too.
"He went ahead with his meeting with Brown," Nessen recalled.
Fromme, armed with a .45 Colt automatic, was tackled before she
could remember to rack a round into the handgun's firing chamber.
Within three months, Fromme was convicted of trying to kill Ford
and sentenced to life in prison. She is now in a federal prison
in Fort Worth, Texas, and still pledges allegiance to Manson,
the mastermind behind Los Angeles' notorious Tate-LaBianca
murders of 1969.
For San Francisco police Capt. Timothy Hettrich, the first law
enforcement officer to reach Moore, the attempted shooting
outside the St. Francis prompted an instant reaction.
"I grabbed the gun immediately," he said, "just two or three
seconds after she fired it."
Moore's gun hand initially had been deflected by another person
in the crowd, Marine Vietnam veteran Oliver "Bill" Sipple, who
had come to see Ford.
"It was a big crowd," remembered Hettrich, then a patrol officer
who is now a captain commanding the San Francisco police
narcotics unit. "We were stationed 10 feet apart.
"You get the adrenalin going. I grabbed her, wrestled the gun
from her hands. It was pointed at me, and other people were
jumping on her."
Hettrich and others took Moore into the St. Francis, and he
turned the gun over to the Secret Service.
Nessen recalls that as the shots rang out, he looked for a car
in the waiting motorcade that already had its doors open. He
jumped into a car with Donald Rumsfeld, who was then Ford's
White House chief of staff.
After racing from downtown, the Ford motorcade drove onto the
tarmac at the airport, and the presidential party hurried aboard
Air Force One. Before it could leave, however, the plane had to
wait for first lady Betty Ford, who had been carrying out her
own schedule of events on the Peninsula.
Nessen, who now lives in suburban Maryland, said the first lady
had no idea that her husband had been attacked. "She said
something like, 'How are you, dear? How did your day go?' "
"I think it was Rumsfeld who finally told her that someone took
a shot at the president. ... We took off and what had happened
sunk in. I can tell you that quite a few martinis were consumed
on the flight back," Nessen added.
Moore decided to plead guilty, avoiding a trial. After a
sentencing hearing at which Hettrich was a main witness, she was
sentenced to life in prison, just like Fromme. Moore, now 75, is
at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin.
For Sipple, his moment of heroism was also his undoing. On Sept.
24, 1975, The Chronicle ran a story saying that one reason the
White House had yet to thank Sipple for his potentially
lifesaving gesture was that he was a gay man.
It turned out that Sipple's family had not known he was gay, and
the disclosure resulted in him being alienated from his
relatives. Sipple sued The Chronicle for damages, but his case
was eventually dismissed.
He slid into alcoholism and died in 1989 in his Van Ness Avenue
apartment at age 47. Among his prized possessions was the letter
of thanks he eventually got from the White House.
Moore and Fromme share another distinction. They both escaped
briefly from the women's federal prison in Alderson, W.Va.
Peninsula author Geri Spieler, who has written a yet-to-be-
published biography of Moore, has known her since 1976 and
doubts Moore will ever be freed from prison.
She said that Moore, who was married five times and who is the
mother of four, is still dangerous.
"She has personality disorders. She has no sense of the
consequences of her actions.
"She's not totally a violent person, unless you don't do what
she wants you to do. ... She's narcissistic and self-righteous,
and she will flip the minute you don't do what she wants,"
In her long interviews with Spieler, Moore never expressed any
remorse for shooting at Ford.
"She calls herself a political prisoner. This is Sara Jane's
version of the truth. She never looks back at the pain and
suffering she has caused so many people," Spieler added.
As for Ford himself, the former president was dismissive of both
of his would-be assassins.
"Squeaky Fromme certainly was off her mind. Sara Jane Moore, the
same way," he told CNN interviewer Larry King in 2004.
"People said to me, 'Why don't you stay in the White House and
not go out to meet the public?' My answer to them was, a
president has to be aggressive, has to meet the people, and
therefore, I did," Ford added.
The White House never announced it, Nessen said, but after the
St. Francis incident, Ford always wore a thin bulletproof vest