32 years after trying to kill Gerald Ford, Moore is freed

Times Staff Writers

After more than three decades in prison for a foiled attempt to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford, Sara Jane Moore was released on parole Monday.

Although Moore had been given a life sentence in the 1975 attempt on Ford’s life outside a hotel in downtown San Francisco, she had been eligible for parole for some time. Federal officials offered no comment as to why she was released Monday, but Moore had suggested in past interviews that she would probably not gain release until after Ford’s death. Ford died almost exactly one year ago at his home in Rancho Mirage.

Moore, 77, was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, a low-security facility for women 30 miles east of San Francisco, according to Mike Truman, a spokesman with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Michael G. Ford, one of President Ford’s four children, said the family would have no comment on Moore’s release. “We’re keeping a private, low profile on that,” said Ford, who is an administrator at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Moore, an accountant and a divorced mother of four, fired at Ford on Sept. 22, 1975, as the president was leaving a speaking engagement at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Her single shot from a .38-caliber revolver missed Ford by several feet after Oliver Sipple, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, grabbed her arm and pulled her down.


It came a little more than two weeks after Lynnette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of Charles Manson, pointed a loaded gun at Ford as he visited the state Capitol in Sacramento. Moore later said that Fromme’s effort did not inspire her own.

Before she fired at Ford, Moore had received psychiatric treatment several times and her attorneys were preparing an insanity defense. She pleaded guilty over their objections.

After she was sentenced, Moore expressed mixed feelings about her actions.

“Am I sorry I tried?” she said. “Yes and no. Yes, because it accomplished little except to throw away the rest of my life . . . . And, no, I’m not sorry I tried, because at the time it seemed a correct expression of my anger.”

James Hewitt, the now-retired federal public defender who handled Moore’s case, said the public should not be alarmed by her release from prison.

“She is pretty close to becoming an old lady,” Hewitt, who lives in Marin County, said Monday in a telephone interview. “She is probably too old to cause any damage.”

Besides, he said, the motivation she expressed in a jumbled and fragmentary fashion had to do with politics, not a broader hostility to society at large. Describing Moore as “a very confused person,” Hewitt said he never got a clear sense of what drove her. “I’m not sure anybody knows why she did it,” he said.

“This is a strange woman. Let’s hope she has gotten over her strangeness,” said Hewitt, 78. “I think she has had a lot of time to think about it.”

Although he said he has had no contact with Moore for more than 30 years, he said he also knows she blamed him for her sentence. “Hopefully, she won’t be contacting me now,” he said.

A native of Charleston, W. Va., Moore was an on-again, off-again FBI informant who became enmeshed in radical politics after moving to the Bay Area. A peripheral player rather than a leader, she volunteered for a group that distributed $2 million in food -- a ransom demand made by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the extreme leftist band that kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.

In a 1975 interview with The Times, Moore painted a picture of herself as desperate for the approval of a radical counterculture that dismissed her as a possible security risk. In frustration, she said, she would call the FBI from time to time and feed agents insider tidbits that she considered harmless.

Three days after her arrest, she said from behind a bulletproof window at the San Francisco County Jail that shooting Ford would have been “the ultimate protest against the system.”

Although she said she was glad the president was unhurt, she derided the security detail that was supposed to protect him, comparing her attempt to “target practice.”

In fact, San Francisco police had dealt with Moore in the past, and viewed her as a potential threat to the president.

Two days before the attempted assassination, they arrested her on the street with a .44-caliber revolver in her handbag and boxes of ammunition in her car.

Police alerted the Secret Service, who interviewed her and released her. Less than 48 hours later, she purchased her .38 from a friend, stationed herself outside the St. Francis in a crowd of several thousand and tried to shoot her way into history.

Her attempt damaged more lives than her own. Sipple, the ex-Marine who subdued her, said his life was ruined by publicity about him in the wake of his heroic act.

Retired from the Marines on a disability pension, Sipple was gay -- a fact that he said his relatives never knew until it came out in the newspapers.

He filed a $15-million lawsuit for invasion of privacy against seven newspapers, including The Times. A judge rejected it. Sipple died in 1989 at the age of 47.

Few of the employees at the posh St. Francis on Monday were working there when the assassination attempt took place. However, Jaime Gonzalez, 58, was at his post in the hotel garage, just as he had been when pandemonium broke out that September afternoon 32 years ago.

“I didn’t think a lady would do something like that,” he said. “Maybe someone else -- but not a lady.”

Gonzalez shook his head in disbelief at the news that Moore had been released.

“I really don’t know if this is justice,” he said. “I mean -- that was the president of the United States.”

Moore’s attempt on Ford’s life came 17 days after Fromme tried to kill Ford on Sept. 5, 1975, when she burst through a crowd at the state Capitol, dressed in a nun’s robe with a .45-caliber pistol strapped to her leg.

Fromme pointed the weapon at Ford from two feet away. Though the gun was loaded, there was no bullet in the chamber. A Secret Service agent disarmed her and slapped her in handcuffs.

Ford died on Dec. 26, 2006, of natural causes. Fromme remains in prison.

At the St. Francis, where Ford had come close to dying violently, visitors sometimes gaze up at a quarter-sized gouge on an exterior wall near the north entrance.

It’s said to be the spot where Moore’s bullet ricocheted -- a notion confirmed by a hotel employee who asked not to be identified.

“There hasn’t been a reason to do anything with it,” the employee said, acknowledging that tourists with a bent for American history sometimes stand on the sidewalk eyeing the spot, six feet or so above what is now a Bank of America automated teller machine.

Chawkins reported from San Francisco, Gordon and Winton from Los Angeles.



Other assassins and would-be assassins

Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President Kennedy in 1963, was killed by Jack Ruby while in police custody.

James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968, died of natural causes in prison in 1998.

Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, is serving a life sentence.

Arthur H. Bremer, who shot and wounded Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace in 1972, was released in November from state prison after serving 35 years. Wallace died in 1998.

Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme, a Charles Manson follower who was convicted for her failed 1975 assassination attempt of President Ford, remains in prison.

Mark David Chapman, who fatally shot former Beatle John Lennon in 1980, is serving a life sentence.

John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan in 1981, remains in a mental institution. He is allowed to leave for brief visits with his family.

Source: Times research