In the early hours of Saturday 17 June 1972, five individuals broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate offices in Washington, D.C. The purpose of this covert mission was to both tap the building’s phone lines and procure sensitive documents in the lead-up to the presidential election. But having been the target of a break-in just a few weeks earlier, security was on high alert and before the intruders were able to make a successful escape, they were apprehended by the authorities. It was soon revealed that the suspects all had government affiliations, with one member of the group a security coordinator for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, an organisation often referred to by the press as CREEP. Using a wealth of inside knowledge from an FBI source known only as Deep Throat, two Washington Post reporters were determined to uncover the truth behind the espionage, and in less than two years the scandal had implicated the highest levels of the government. Facing an impeachment and public trial, President Richard Nixon eventually resigned from office.
Watergate, as it would become known, shocked America to its foundations and with the country still in turmoil over the war in Vietnam, the revelation that their leader was embroiled in illegal activities cast a cloud of paranoia over the nation. ‘Mr. Nixon has never made an attempt to rebut charges involving each overt act of which he was accused,’ reported the New York Times on the day that Nixon resigned as commander-in-chief. ‘Mr. Nixon, however, reiterated that if the evidence was looked at in its entirety, rather than as isolated incriminating statements, it would show he made mistakes but had committed no impeachable offence. This was a theme that ran through his defence as the tapes of his conversations were made public.’ Nixon was succeeded by his Vice President, Gerald Ford, and retreated from the public eye, his entire presidency under scrutiny following his highly-publicised fall from grace. Despite receiving a pardon from Ford soon afterwards, Nixon will forever remain the epitome of political corruption, and the name Watergate synonymous with scandal and government cover-ups.
Just after 9pm on Thursday 8 August 1974, sixty-one-year-old Nixon took his seat in the Oval Office to address the nation for the final time, a moment of melancholy for the President after months of accusations, newspaper speculations, and a nation of confused and disillusioned voters who, for a time, had believed that their leader was rescuing them from the broken promises of the sixties. In a little over a decade, the American people had witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the murders of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, thousands of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam and a stock market crash that threatened to return the country to another Great Depression. Earlier in the year Samuel Byck, a disgruntled businessman, had hijacked a flight from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. with the intention of crashing into the White House, eventually killing the co-pilot and security guard before taking his own life. A nationwide fuel shortage and rising unemployment would cause further civil unrest, and by the time Nixon appeared before the cameras to announce his resignation, the United States of America no longer felt so united.
‘In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the nation,’ he would claim during his farewell speech which, over sixteen minutes, would attract a record-breaking hundred and fifty million viewers. ‘Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.’ Despite leaving in disgrace, in truth Richard Nixon had achieved more in his five-and-a-half-year presidency than many of his thirty-six predecessors. While Kennedy had been the one most responsible for America sending troops to Vietnam, it would be Nixon that had instigated the first withdrawal from the region, while also entering into negotiations to free prisoners-of-war. A few months prior to Watergate, he had visited China in an effort to improve relations between the two countries after decades of political tension. He had also signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, effectively leading the charge in researching both treatments and a cure against the deadly disease. But all this would seem inconsequential following the discovery that President Nixon had perverted the course of justice.
During his address to the nation on that summer evening, Nixon announced that his successor would be his Vice President, Gerald Ford. Just six months younger than Nixon, Ford had succeeded in the role after his predecessor, Spiro Agnew, had resigned following accusations of bribery and extortion. And now once again, he was set to step into the shoes of a disgraced politician. With little aspirations of becoming President, in less than a year Ford had advanced from House Minority Leader to leader of the free world. ‘In the wake of Watergate and the withdrawal of American forces from the war of Vietnam, an ugly tide of recriminations swept over much of the land,’ Ford would recall five years later in his memoir A Time to Heal. ‘Charges were made, denied, then levelled again; some members of the Washington press corps seemed to operate on the premise that all government officials were liars, unless and until they proved they were telling the truth. Two Washington Post reporters had been instrumental in toppling a President; other investigative journalists smelled blood in the water, and the competition for scope began.’
With Nixon stepping down from the office of the presidency, amidst a highly-publicised web of corruption and humiliation, his successor was forced to ascend to the position of commander-in-chief. ‘At 12:30pm on 9 August 1974, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger as the thirty-eighth President of the United States, in the East Room of the White House,’ stated former Secret Service agent Clint Hill in his 2017 book Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. ‘Standing there in the same room where President Kennedy’s body had lain in repose, now crowded with television cameras, members of Congress staff, and Ford’s wife, children, and friends, I was witness to yet another unprecedented event in our nation’s history. After taking the oath of office, President Ford stepped up to the podium. ‘The oath that I have taken is the same oath that was taken by George Washington and by every President under the Constitution. But I assume the presidency under extraordinary circumstances never before experienced by Americans. This is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.’’
Gerald Ford would enter the White House during a time in American history when the country was plagued with paranoia, accusations, assassinations and civil unrest, with the Vietnam War still proving an embarrassment for the government, the shame of the Watergate controversy casting extreme doubt over the competency of its leaders, and a serious economical crisis that threatened to return the United States to the Great Depression of the thirties. ‘When Ford became President, the nation’s economy was in trouble. The United States was out of Vietnam, but the war had been costly,’ explained biography Mary Mueller Winget in 2007. ‘During the seventies, the United States also faced a severe oil shortage and gasoline. The cost of other goods was rising too. The country was experiencing inflation. In times of inflation, prices keep getting higher. At the same time, the number of unemployed people was rising. Business was slowing down. Companies did not need as many workers as before. This combination of a stagnant economy and high inflation was called Stagflation. Usually raising taxes or cutting the federal budget helps control inflation. But these measures can also slow down business. Cutting taxes often helps businesses. But it also increases inflation. That was the dilemma facing Ford.’
Thirteen months into his presidency, Ford was scheduled to make a speech at the annual Host Breakfast in Sacramento, California before attending a meeting with the recently-elected Governor, Jerry Brown. Having become the country’s first unelected president due to the resignation of Nixon the previous year, Ford now faced an election the following November, and so had travelled to the west coast in the hope of securing the California vote. With Brown having declined an invitation to talk at the breakfast, its hosts, an assortment of powerful business and political figures, had decided instead to invite the President in his place, an action that they had intended as a statement against the thirty-seven-year-old Governor. Leaving his suite at the Senator Hotel at approximately 10am, on Friday 5 September 1975, Ford made his way up a walkway into Capitol Park where he was greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic voters, excited that the President had visited their city. Despite his initial intention of heading straight along the path to the State Capitol, where he would meet with Brown, Ford decided to slow down and shake hands with some of the waiting citizens.
The brightness of the dress attracted my attention
‘Approximately halfway between L Street and the State Capitol, I noticed a person in the second or third row in a brightly-coloured dress, who appeared to want to either shake hands or speak, or at least wanted to get closer to me,’ Ford would later explain in a testimony given during the subsequent trial. ‘I stopped, because I was gradually moving to the State Capitol, and that was my first impression of a person who had a dress on. I, of course, didn’t know who it was. The brightness of the dress attracted my attention, and in the process of noticing the dress I thought her face did appear to be somewhat weathered. I noticed this lady in a brightly-coloured dress, who wanted to apparently move closer toward me, and I assumed to shake hands. And so I hesitated, instead of keeping moving as I normally do, and as I stopped I saw a hand come through the crowd in the first row, and that was the only active gesture that I saw.’
As he moved along the line of rope that had been set in place to form a barrier, he continued to exchange pleasantries with the crowd, but the young woman draped in red seemed eager to make his acquaintance. While he had a schedule to keep, he understood that securing the vote of the nation’s youth would help in the upcoming election, and so took a moment to allow the girl to approach. She was in her mid-twenties, a redhead with a face adorned in freckles and boasting something of an old-fashioned appearance. The mysterious girl came eye-to-eye with the President, and as she raised her arm toward him she remained focused on his face, staring into the eyes of the man before her. Ford would only have a moment to process before realising that within her grasp was a .45-calibre pistol, aimed directly at his centre of mass. The crowd would remain oblivious as his entire life flashed before his eyes, the girl maintaining eye contact before pressing her forefinger against the trigger. Gerald Ford had almost become the fifth American President to have been assassinated while in office, but unlike Kennedy, luck was on his side.
‘When twenty-seven-year-old Linda Worlow saw the pistol in Fromme’s hand, she ‘fell to the ground,’ which alerted Ford’s agents,’ claimed Mel Ayton in Hunting the President: Threats, Plots and Assassination Attempts, from FDR to Obama. It would be Secret Service agent Larry Buendorf that first became aware of the imminent danger. ‘I was watching to make sure nobody hangs on or grabs his watch or whatever,’ he recalled in 2018. ‘She is back, not at the front of the line but back a little bit, and had a .45-calibre strapped to her ankle. It came up like this. When I see it coming, I stepped out in front of the President. She was probably pulling back on the slide. Afterwards, you think about it and you think if she had a round in the chamber already, she would have shot through me and him.’ As she was surrounded and the weapon forcibly removed from her hand, Lynette Alice Fromme lay limp, devastated that her well laid plan had failed. Within twenty-four hours, it was revealed that the disturbed young woman was a devoted follower of convicted murderer Charles Manson.
‘He was only two blocks away. I said, ‘I got to go and talk to him.’ And then I thought, ‘That’s foolish, he’s not going to stop and talk to you,’’ claimed Fromme more than a decade later. ‘And I actually said to myself, ‘Are you going to use this gun that’s on your leg?’ This weighty piece that was walking me down there to the Capitol Building, and I said, ‘Let’s just go and see.’ Ford had his hands out and was waving, and had just come from breakfast with the businessman; he looked like cardboard to me. But at the same time I had ejected the bullet in my apartment, and I used the gun as it was. The Secret Service agents were frantic, and they had the gun, and they kept going after my hand. They were bending my arms and my hand, and I said, ‘It’s okay.’ I had no hand free. I was telling them, ‘It’s okay, it didn’t go off.’ And there was a picture of that, I’ve seen it. And in fact, I was so relaxed there was some guy, who I would like to contact me, he came through all that fear and held my hand up like this, just touched it and held it up. And that’s how relaxed it was, I was telling him, ‘Take it easy, it’s okay.’’
Just twelve years earlier and 1,740 miles away, in the Texan city of Dallas, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, less than three years into his presidency, had been assassinated as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza, his final moments caught on camera and broadcast for the whole world to see. It had been the first of several assassinations that would shake the United States to its core, followed by human rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and Kennedy’s younger brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. But the death of President John F. Kennedy, and the subsequent accusations of a government conspiracy, would cause many American citizens to lose faith in their leaders. Following the attempted assassination of Ford more than ten years later, authorities feared that history would repeat itself. ‘The government has turned up no evidence ‘thus far’ of a conspiracy to assassinate President Ford, Dwayne Keyes, United States Attorney, said today,’ reported the New York Times. ‘‘There is nothing to indicate a conspiracy,’ said Mr. Keyes, who is the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California. He said searches had found several unmailed letters to companies that had been accused of damaging the environment.’
But how could an all-American girl transform into a member of a cult and an intended assassin of the American President? The country had already suffered through so much tragedy over the previous decade that the public murder of the commander-in-chief, particularly following the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Nixon, could have destroyed the nation’s faith in its leaders once and for all. Fromme had long ago turned her back on the system, and after embracing the hippie lifestyle in the late sixties, had grown increasingly angry and political in the years since Manson’s incarceration. Having served as the unofficial leader of his Family, the name given to Manson’s group of followers, during his absence, she had remained true to his beliefs, but after the publication of Helter Skelter, the tell-all document of the trial by District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, the truth surrounding their unorthodox lives and the brutal murder of Hollywood star Sharon Tate in 1969 had finally been revealed. While she had not been involved in the horror that had taken place six years earlier, she now faced the charge of attempting to assassinate the President, an act that would like have made Manson proud.
Seventeen days later, on the morning of Monday 22 September, a forty-five-year-old by the name of Sara Jane Moore stepped out of her home in the small town of Danville, and made the thirty mile drive to San Francisco, where she hoped to meet the President. While the recent attempt on his life had been well-documented in the media, he had remained in good spirits and had continued with his scheduled commitments, having once again found himself in California. His purpose for the visit had been to give a speech to the World Affairs Council, and with his obligation fulfilled, he was making his way from the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, when Moore finally set her eyes on him. Despite the appearance of a housewife, what no one present that day could have suspected was that this innocent-looking middle-aged woman had purchased a handgun earlier that day. Just four days earlier Patty Hearst, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of a publishing tycoon, had been arrested following her involvement in numerous criminal activities committed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, initially as a hostage and later a participant. Outside of the hotel were numerous protest signs, one allegedly demanding, ‘Release Patty Hearst, Arrest Gerald Ford.’
The life of Sara Jane Moore bore no resemblance to that of Lynette Alice Fromme, and yet fate would bring them both to infamy through their attempts to assassinate the President of the United States of America. ‘This reporter has known Sara Jane Moore, who police have identified as the woman accused of firing that pistol, for more than a year and a half,’ detailed CBS News reporter Richard Threlkeld shortly after the incident. ‘She is a nice, quiet, forty-year-old, middle-class, white divorcee with a small child, who lives in San Francisco’s East Bay, near Berkeley, leading a nice quiet, middle-class life, until one day in March of 1974, when Patty Hearst had been kidnapped and Randolph Hearst had started the People in Need programme, a two-million dollar effort to feed poor people, to answer the ransom demands of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Sara Jane Moore walked into the Hearst Corporation offices off the street and volunteered to help. Over time she struck up a close relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Hearst, Patty’s ex-fiancé Steven Weed, acting as a kind of liaison with the various minority groups who made up the coalition, administering people in need.’
God has sent me
In an article published by Time in October 1975, journalist Richard Corliss further elaborated on Moore’s initial exposure to the world of politics. ‘As if from nowhere, the dumpy, determined woman descended one day in February 1974 on the headquarters of the Hearst food-giveaway programme in San Francisco,’ he wrote. ‘‘God has sent me,’ she declared, and rapidly took over as bookkeeper for the charity operation, known as People in Need, or PIN, that Randolph Hearst and his wife Catherine, in response to demands of the Symbionese Liberation Army, had hastily set up, in an attempt to win their daughter Patty’s freedom. Within a short time, Sara Jane Moore had elbowed her way into the programme’s inner circle, but not without leaving some bruises. ‘She was pushy, nosy, and wanted to take over,’ said the programme’s former director, A. Ludlow Kramer. Through her involvement with PIN, Sara Jane Moore soon became a kind of radical groupie. During the next eighteen months, as she wandered through the small, semi-clandestine parties, splinter groups and cells that make up ‘the Movement’ in the Bay Area, Moore turned from enchanted novice into an FBI informer, and then into a Marxist convert, only to be ostracised as a despised pariah after she confessed her informant role.’
By the mid-seventies the American people were finding it increasingly difficult to trust their government, and with Hearst, who had been kidnapped by the terrorist group nineteen months earlier, now under arrest and facing a prison sentence, the public were struggling to differentiate between the heroes and villains. While Ford was looked upon by many citizens as a second chance following the failure of Nixon, to others he was just another politician and one who could not be trusted. As a man stepped out of the hotel Moore reached for her gun, but immediately realised that she had made a mistake, leaving her weapon concealed and allowing the President’s aide to continue with his duties unharmed. A few minutes later Gerald Ford emerged from the darkness of the hotel and, seeing the crowd before him, took a moment to acknowledge his fans. Moore cautiously made her way through the crowd, slowly removing a .38-calibre revolver from a purse and raising the weapon, taking aim at the President. A gunshot echoed across the neighbourhood but the bullet failed to hit its mark, prompting the shooter to aim a second time. But in the blink of an eye, a former Marine standing nearby in the crowd had become aware of the imminent threat and grabbed the gun, allowing Secret Service agents to take Moore safely into custody.
‘We elect our presidents, we don’t appoint them. And Gerald Ford was appointed, and he was appointed by a crook,’ Moore told CNN on the fortieth anniversary of the shooting. ‘So it wasn’t a unique feeling; it was partly that there were other people who had talked about it, who I thought were much more important to what we were thinking of as a revolution, and we really truly thought there was going to be one. And I thought somebody like me, I was a nobody, it would be better coming from somebody like me, and not destroying these people who I felt were leaders. And if they did this it would destroy their leadership. I think the enormity of it had dawned on me before. As I said in a letter that I wrote to President Ford later, I think life was more import then than it is now. It was an awesome decision to make, to make a decision to take somebody’s life. I don’t think people feel like that now, but at the time it was. And the thing that surprised me, and this is going to sound very silly, is I was concerned about the publicity, but only in the Bay area. It never occurred to me that this was a story that was going to go all over the world.’
While the perpetrator of the first assassination attempt had easily been identified as a member of the infamous Manson Family, when the authorities attempted to uncover the truth behind the second shooter, they would find this to be something of a challenge. ‘Sara Jane Moore, the matronly woman accused of attempting to assassinate President Ford here yesterday, has for years deliberately sought to obscure her background and identity,’ stated a San Francisco correspondent for the New York Times. ‘Through a series of assumed names, misstatements and false documents, Miss Moore, who will be sent to San Diego for a psychiatric examination, has left a murky transcontinental trail that investigators have just begun to discover. She startled the investigators with what seemed to be a confession of her intention to shoot the President, when she told Secret Service that she would have hit President Ford, if the police had not confiscated a .44-calibre pistol from her the day before.’ One would-be assassin was a former hippie and cult member, while the other would later be revealed as a political activist and FBI informant. And both wanted President Ford dead. But their reasons and the lives that brought them to this point would be worlds apart.
By all accounts Lynette Alice Fromme was born into a traditional American household. Her father had received a degree in engineering and had immediately obtained a career in this field, moving into a house in Santa Monica with his new wife, and on 22 October 1948 their daughter was born. Lynette Fromme was of the baby boomer generation, the product of post-World War II passion, and barely a year later she had a younger brother. Strong-minded and opinionated, Fromme would spend her childhood regularly arguing with her father, and with both refusing to back down, they were often far from being on speaking terms. While the children were never beaten and were provided for, the relationship between father and daughter was a difficult one that would plague the young girl throughout her adolescence; reaching a nadir on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. ‘Outside the classroom, my best friend and I bumped through gloms of other slightly hysterical teens until officials closed the school and sent us home,’ Fromme recalled in her autobiography Reflexion. ‘Her house was farther so we ended up on the piano bench at my house, pounding out obnoxious duets and excess adrenaline, until my father rushed in from the back of the house, roaring about our lack of respect. I didn’t know that he cared about President Kennedy, or that he was even home. He ordered my friend out of our house and returned to his den. It was a sad and discombobulated time.’
Tensions between Fromme and her father would escalate over the next few years, and in the summer of 1967, at the age of just eighteen, she was told to leave home. ‘My father and I, we argued one night and he said, ‘Get out and don’t ever come back,” she claimed in the 2019 documentary Manson Girls. With no one to turn to and her future now uncertain, Fromme travelled to Venice Beach to mourn the argument with her father and to weigh up her options. With little in the way of possessions, she had found herself homeless, hungry and unemployed, and so had resigned herself to sitting on a bench and staring out to sea. An older man appeared and tried to make conversation but Fromme, hardly in the mood for small talk, remained defensive. ‘Animated, smiling, he was old, or young, I couldn’t tell,’ she recalled. ”My name’s Charlie,’ he said, looking directly in my eyes. ‘In San Francisco they call me the Gardener.’ Sensing my alarm he simply said, ‘It’s alright,’ and I felt, within the tone of his voice, that it was. He moved with smooth confidence. He appeared both big and small. I was enchanted, yet flustered and mentally hiding, and then he wasn’t there at all, until I sought him back in earnest and he was seated on the wall.’
The moment that Charles Manson walked into her life everything changed. Fromme may have rebelled against her parents, but she was still no different than any other young woman in the sixties, and yet within just two years she would be the most devoted follower of the most notorious murderer in America. But in the spring of 1967, Fromme was a lost and frightened teenager. ‘When I spoke it was with concern,’ Manson would later explain in the 1986 book Without Conscience. ”You look like you have problems,’ I said. ‘It isn’t anything I can’t handle.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘If you’re sure I can’t help. I just thought you might need a friend.’ With that I got up and left. By the time I reached the corner she was right behind me saying, ‘Where are you going, can I come along?’ The girl’s name was Lynette Fromme, sometimes known as Squeaky…Lyn wasn’t the norm of the neglected or abused children who ran away from home. Her reasons for being on the streets alone were very similar to those that had caused my mother to leave her parents’ home.’
By the time that Fromme had first crossed paths with Manson, Sara Jane Moore was just a few months away from marrying for a fifth time. Born Sara Jane Kahn on 15 February 1931 in Charleston, West Virginia, to Olaf and Ruth Kahn, their daughter started her academic achievements in 1944 when she attended Stonewall Jackson High School in her home town. But when she was sixteen-years-old, Moore failed to arrive at school and was declared missing, until she mysteriously reappeared three days later with no explanation given. Barely into her twenties, Moore married a Marine but this would prove to be short-lived, and by the end of the year they had divorced, allowing her to find a new husband. When this marriage ended four years later she had two children, and after a second attempt with the same husband, she would tie the knot two more times before finally splitting from a doctor in the early seventies. ‘After the breakup of her most recent marriage, to a San Francisco-area doctor, she was forced to leave her $75,000 home in Danville for failure to meet mortgage payments, and she eventually moved into San Francisco’s Mission District, an uneasy mixture of ethnic blue-collar families and counterculture groups,’ detailed Corliss for Time.
An even more powerful antipathy
When her fifth and final marriage fell apart, Moore had begun to develop an interest in politics, and more specifically those radical parties that protested the actions of the government. With civil rights marches and demonstrations from the Women’s Liberation Movement challenging racial and gender equality, the youth of America were free to express any ideology they wished, and with the war in Vietnam continuing to dominate the news, there was no shortage of causes to support. While she had offered her services to the re-election campaign of actor-turned-politician George Murphy, who was determine to remain Governor of California, he was finally defeated and so Moore was forced to find a new venture that she could dedicate her life to. ‘The new generation of people shouting, marching and taking to the streets, which Sara Jane had been watching on the news as she had been decorating her home, looked a lot more interesting than life in Danville,’ wrote Moore’s biographer Geri Spieler in Taking Aim at the President. ‘Sara Jane tended to live in rigid categories of black-and-white, and so the Watergate scandal turned her strong distrust in Washington into an even more powerful antipathy.’
While Moore fought to bring balance to the American government, a little over three hundred and fifty miles south in Los Angeles, Fromme had started a journey which she felt was destined to conclude with the end of the world as she knew it. In the two years proceeding the murder of Sharon Tate, Charles Manson was merely a former convicted criminal who had made his way to San Francisco during the Summer of Love and, through a mixture of hallucinogens, sexual liberation and his charming philosophies, slowly began to attract an assortment of lost and disillusioned youths that he liked to refer to as his Family. ‘He was twenty-four when a judge in Los Angeles sentenced him to ten years for trying to cash a cheque he won in a poker game,’ said Fromme on how he had first come to be incarcerated at the notorious Terminal Island. ‘He sounded blasé about it, a little surprised that this ‘rink-dink $37.50 cheque’ had gotten him so much time.’
The Family had divided much of their time between the Hollywood mansion of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson and the former film studio Spahn Ranch, a dilapidated location that had allowed Manson and his followers to retreat from the world that they felt had rejected them. ‘They said I had a great Family and I was the leader; there were no followers and leaders,’ insisted Manson in 1981. ‘A bunch of kids out at the ranch playing, to me. Playing at living.’ None of the restless youths that had joined Manson’s Family during the late sixties had expected it to lead to murder. Yet one summer evening in 1969, three of his followers entered the house of an acclaimed filmmaker in the Benedict Canyon neighbourhood close to Beverly Hills, and proceeded to butcher his pregnant wife and several of her close friends. Frustrated at what he had perceived as a failure, the following evening Manson personally escorted another group of his loyal subjects to a different area of the city and mutilated a middle-aged couple. The Helter Skelter, as he had dubbed it, had begun. But it wouldn’t take long before Manson and those responsible were apprehended and their faces immortalised on newspaper and magazine covers across the country.
As fate would have it, Fromme was nowhere to be seen at the time of the murders, having been charged with violating vehicular laws following a raid on their camp, and spending several weeks behind bars. Yet despite the subsequent trial of Manson and his associates, Fromme remained loyal to her leader, believing that his acquittal and release were imminent. ‘Phrasing commands almost as questions or observations, Manson assigned Lyn hundreds of tasks; people to be contacted, animals to be cared for, children to be watched,’ documented author Jess Bavin in the 1997 biography Squeaky: The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme. ‘Outside the jail, Lyn would serve as Manson’s courier, bringing messages, their affiliates, and their attorneys. Since she had no phone or permanent address, it was impossible for Paul J. Fitzgerald or the other lawyers to reach Lyn when they needed her. Sooner or later, however, she would show up unannounced, bearing the latest setoff nebulous instructions from Manson.’
With Manson facing the death penalty alongside the other guilty parties, Fromme would keep the spirit of the Family alive, staging vigils outside of the courthouse and publicly pledging allegiance to their leader. The summer after his arrest, several of the girls within the group made a dramatic statement. ‘Charlie had arrived one morning and brought gasps from many spectators. He had carved a bloody X in his forehead,’ said Susan Atkins, one of those responsible for the death of Tate, in her memoir Child of Satan, Child of God. ‘Outside, our colleagues distributed a typewritten statement from Charlie. ‘I have Xd myself from your world,’ it declared.’ As District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi would elaborate in his own book Helter Skelter, ‘Over the weekend Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten lit matches, heated bobby pins red-hot, then burned X-marks on their foreheads, after which they ripped open the burnt flesh with needles to create more prominent scars…A day or so later, Sandy Good, Squeaky, Catherine Share and most of the other Family members did the same thing.’
Fromme would remain outside the courthouse throughout the trial, while also being instrumental in bringing Manson’s music to the masses, with the underwhelming release of his debut album in the spring of 1970. When he was transferred from San Quentin to Folsom Prison, she too relocated in an attempt to feel closer, moving into a house in Sacramento with Good. She had already expressed interest in writing a book on the Family, purely as a way to disprove Bugliosi’s bestseller, which she had dismissed as fantasy, yet it was a slow process and would remain unfinished for over forty years. While her housemate enrolled at university, Fromme would indulge in conspiracy theories with her new friends, but finally decided to follow in the footsteps of Good and return to academic life, enrolling at Sacramento City College. It would be during this time that she would strike up another important relationship when she made the acquaintance of a sixty-something retired draftsman called Harold Boro.
‘A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted Manson cultist Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme on a charge of attempting to assassinate President Ford,’ revealed the Lodi News-Sentinel on 11 September 1975, less than a week after she had come face-to-face with the commander-in-chief. ‘The twenty-two member jury handed up the indictment after an all-day session that included an appearance by Harold ‘Zeke’ Boro, the owner of the loaded weapon Miss Fromme drew from a leg holster. Boro, a retired federal government draftsman, who is described in state intelligence as a ‘sugar daddy’ to Miss Fromme, was whisked in and out of the court building amidst tight security. He wore a yellow baseball cap and dark glasses. The indictment charged Miss Fromme ‘did knowingly attempt to kill Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States of America.’ U.S. Attorney Dwayne Keyes told newsmen after the indictment, which was handed up with several routine cases, that he expects to go to trial in sixty-to-ninety days.’
In the twelve months leading up to the day that she would meet President Ford, Fromme’s behaviour had grown increasingly erratic. In one of her more outlandish escapades, she had become pen-pals with an admirer, a former mental patient called Edward Vandervort who, several years her senior, resided in Pennsylvania with his mother. Desperate to win her affection, he was willing to make a bold statement in her name, but when Fromme requested that he murder the president of the Kaiser Corporation, an industrial empire regularly accused of environmental violations, in a way that would pay tribute to the murder of Tate, Vandervort immediately severed all ties with the disturbed young woman. Feeling angry at his rejection, Fromme turned her attention back to raising funds for a legal defence, in an effort to have Manson released from his sentence. Yet she remained frustrated by the government’s lack of action with regards to reducing pollution, and with Vandervort unwilling to carry out her request, she felt there was only one choice left and that was to make a powerful statement, one that the government would be unable to ignore.
This man is not your President
One decision later and all that stood between Lynette Fromme and President Gerald Ford was a pistol, time standing still as the young woman raised the weapon and pulled the trigger. A second would pass before either of them could process what had happened, and in that moment she realised she had failed in her mission. ‘‘This country is a mess. This man is not your President,’ the woman was reported to have yelled, but I don’t hear it,’ recalled Ford in 1979, two years after being succeeded by Jimmy Carter. ‘I do remember seeing Secret Service Agent Larry Buendorf reach for the woman’s hand and wrestle her to the ground. Ernie Luzania and other agents grabbed me immediately and hustled me along the sidewalk to the Capitol. It was important, I thought, to avoid panic, so when I saw that the danger had passed I told the agents to slow down. ‘Everything is alright,’ I said. Governor Brown was waiting for me in his office; members of our respective staff were there, and we concluded our business without my mentioning the incident, which he learned about after I left.’
From the moment the American media reported on the incident, the main focus was on Fromme’s affiliation with a convicted murderer, particularly one as infamous as Manson. With her bond set at $1m, Fromme was arraigned and relocated to the Sacramento Country jail, where she would remain until sentencing. Despite the obvious concern that her involvement in the Family could give the jury a biased opinion before she had even stepped foot in court, Fromme would continually agonise the authorities, even throwing an apple at the prosecuting attorney’s head after he had declared that her punishment should be severe. By the time the verdict had been read, the country was once again obsessed with Charles Manson, believing that his followers had remained brainwashed to his every whim. Yet despite her association with Manson, those close to Fromme would insist that he played no part in her actions towards the President. ‘Squeaky acted totally of her own volition,’ Good insisted in a statement given to reporters shortly after the assassination attempt. ‘Manson didn’t order her to do this. Squeaky is acting on the will of many people. I think she would have done it to someone killing the air, to some executive of big companies. The President happened to be right out here available, and lying and lying and lying. You can only take so much lying.’
On 17 December 1975, Judge Thomas J. McBride handed down the sentence, one that he clearly felt was deserving for someone that President Ford once referred to as aberrant. ‘I am aware of the awesome responsibility with which I am now confronted. I have no guidance to go by in the pronouncement of a sentence in this kind of case, for obvious reasons that this is the first time that a person has been convicted of the attempted assassination of a President of the United States,’ he announced to the court. ‘I suggest that the most precious natural resource in the world is a human life, and to casually and consciously take a life solely for the purpose of calling attention to a cause, is to me the most reprehensible and despicable crime that a person can commit. Moreover, a murder such as the one you attempted in this case would have impoverished a nation, and finally it would have done nothing to serve the cause you espouse.’ After being handed down her sentence, Fromme was reportedly escorted from the courtroom in hysteria, bringing the trial to a dramatic conclusion. ‘The scene was so intensely emotional that many of the spectators in the packed and tightly-guarded courtroom turned pale and remained momentarily speechless,’ claimed the San Francisco Chronicle.
Two days before Fromme was bestowed with a life sentence, Sara Jane Moore had shocked the court when she announced her decision to change her plea from the initial not guilty to guilty, thus taking responsibility for her actions. Moore had, for some time before the shooting, been working as an informant for the FBI, but following her attempt on President Ford’s life earlier in the year, the agency had severed all ties. Having insisted that she had acted alone, on 16 January 1976 she too was given life imprisonment. Yet unlike Fromme, who even after fifty years still professed her dedication to Charles Manson, Moore eventually expressed regret for what she had done. ‘I definitely think it was wrong. I think I was misled,’ she would confess on NBC’s Today following her release. ‘It was a time that people don’t remember. We had a war, the Vietnam War, you became; I became immersed in it. We were saying the country needed to change. The only way it was going to change was a violent revolution. I genuinely thought that might trigger new revolution in this country.’
On August 16 2009, thirty-four years after she had raised a pistol at the President of the United States, Lynette Alice Fromme was finally released from prison. While she had maintained her undying devotion to Charles Manson, she retreated from the public eye to enjoy a peaceful life, far-removed from her earlier rebellious and troublesome ways. Three years later, Moore, whose weapon was discharged in the direction of President Ford but had failed to reach its target, was also paroled. ‘The first time that they turned me down I was shocked, because one would have thought that the incident had happened the day before, the way they talked about me,’ she confessed in 2015. ‘I was in total shock. And they repeated much the same this time. They’re supposed to release you unless they feel that you’re going to commit another offence, and I don’t know what offence I would commit. Jaywalking, perhaps?’ Four years later, however, she would fall foul of the law once more, when she violated her parole after travelling to Israel. ‘According to a federal law enforcement source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Moore allegedly became ill in Israel and stayed longer than anticipated,’ reported Fox News. ‘She was rearrested in New York on a flight arriving from Spain and was slated to appear before a judge. She’s also expected to meet with a parole commission in the coming week, the official said.’
Four decades on and one critical question remains: why did two women from completely different backgrounds – one a former hipper and member of a notorious cult, the other a middle-aged housewife-turned FBI informant – both make the decision just weeks apart to assassinate the President? ‘Why Sara Jane Moore? How did this bright, intelligent, and artistically gifted women become an instrument of potential death?’ posed biographer Geri Spieller. ‘Those who know her will say, almost to a person, that she had become unable to manage her inner demons; much to the pain and distress of her family. Exactly what those demons were, though, no one could say for certain. She hadn’t shared much of herself or her thoughts with her parents or siblings, and she continued that pattern as an adult. Later on, in an interview by Andrew Hill, published in Playboy magazine in June 1976, she responded to a question about earlier events by saying, ‘I never talk about my past life at all. That’s the choice I’ve made.’ Individuals who had only the carefully-managed disinformation provided by the media to draw from saw Sara Jane Moore as a somewhat dishevelled, round-cheeked country club mom, who missed by a mile when she tried to kill the President. Many were surprised to learn that only a six-inch-in-forty-feet gun sight error had spared the President’s life.’
Fromme had come from another life altogether. One of thousands of teenagers during the sixties that felt unloved by their parents and disillusioned by their government, she had eventually found her way into the care of Charles Manson and, just a few short years later, the path of President Gerald Ford. ‘Many of Lyn’s childhood friends continued to nurse fond memories of her, even after her conviction,’ stated writer Jess Bravin. ‘‘We all came from houses with doors,’ Lyn wrote in the early seventies, when she was trying to make her life seem comprehensible to strangers. ‘Doors that were to be closed when there were things going on that we weren’t supposed to see, and when our pants were down. We girls had bras strapped on us and learned to ‘grow up.’ By painting our lips, and crossing our legs, and mowing down the soft hairs that grow on us that are not ‘lady-like,’ and finding out that the worst possible thing a girl could do was get pregnant! We learned early on that devotion and open love was laughably foolish. And, little by little, action by action, we learned not to believe in anything. In essence, we learned all the guilt, the heavy guilt, that makes bad out of feeling good.’
America desperately needed to change. Even as the country was reeling from the shocking revelation of Watergate, by the end of 1974, the government had once again been exposed as liars and criminals when the public discovered the horrific truth of Project MKUltra, an experimental programme run by the CIA based around psychological tests on students, mental patients and prisoners, that ranged from sleep deprivation to the use of LSD. The actions undertaken by both Fromme and Moore in September 1975 may have been irrational and unwarranted, but they represented the frustration and disillusionment that many American citizens were feeling during the mid-seventies; both confused and angry at a government that had repeatedly betrayed and let them down. And while most Americans would not have resorted to violence, perhaps it was no coincidence that two politically-minded women finally decided that change needed to come, and so targeted the highest level of government.
I feel it was fate
Despite her outburst in the courtroom following her sentence, Fromme eventually accepted a life of prison, only desiring to be at the same institution as Charles Manson, the leader of the Family and the man that she had loved more than her own father. ‘The parole board does not hold my life in its hands, and I don’t want to be too critical, but men tend to think they do. Charlie never thought he did. He never expressed all this desire for power, this desire for acceptance,’ she claimed in 1987. As for whether she regretted her actions, or wished that she was free from the oppression of prison life, she added, ‘That’s a hard question to answer. I have to say that sure, it would bother me, but at the same time I would rather be right with myself than to just take something short of what’s right. I thought, ‘I had to do this. This is the time!’ I was unprepared. If I had planned to be in prison, I would have gone to state prison in California. I feel it was fate.’
Both Lynette Alice Fromme and Sara Jane Moore had projected the distrust and the frustration that many Americans were feeling onto their new President, transforming Gerald Ford into the personification of corruption and deceit. But he had inherited a presidency that was awash with lies of guilt, and in being the first ever President to inherit the office without being elected, he became the target for disillusioned citizens. People like Fromme and Moore. ‘President Ford healed this nation to a great degree, and had he not had to assume some of the inherited responsibilities left over from the Nixon Administration, I think he would have been invulnerable to any sort of challenge, from me or within the Republican party,’ insisted his successor, Jimmy Carter, in 2004. During his inauguration on 20 January 1977, the newly-appointed Carter acknowledged the achievements of President Ford. ‘For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land,’ he declared.
Gerald Ford was never destined to be held in the same kind of regard as Kennedy or Theodore Roosevelt; he had inherited an impossible task. Richard Nixon had betrayed the trust of the American people and then resigned, leaving his Vice President to rescue the country from the brink. But with mass poverty and unemployment, the public were already disgruntled and resentful of their leaders when Ford reluctantly took office. ‘Soon our newspapers and magazines, our radio and TV shows, were full of stories about how our intelligence agencies had opened Americans’ mail, listened in on their telephone calls, logged their comings and goings and even used them as guinea pigs for drug experiments,’ admitted Ford when looking back on a decade of distrust. ‘The agency’s enemies on Capitol Hill had been waiting for the day when they could launch this kind of attack. Buoyed by their friends in the media, they latched onto and exaggerated incident after incident. Once the momentum got started, it was impossible to stop.’