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Oliver Sipple: The Bystander Who Saved Pres. Ford's Lfe

Doesn't the person who saved the life of the President of the United States deserve a name?

The woman who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore, has her name out there. Although we still know little about her.

But we hear nothing about the person who foiled Moore's second shot. He was just a bystander.

Just a bystander?

To correct a common error, Sara Jane did get off one shot at Ford before Sipple knocked her arm and caused the bullet to miss by several feet. No one was looking at Moore when Ford first appeared. All eyes were on the President.

After the loud bang, those nearby most affected turned and saw the "neighbor lady" getting ready to fire again. Sipple, a former U.S. Marine, jumped into action and grabbed at her arm just as Moore pulled the trigger.

He saved Ford's life. Sara Jane's first shot missed Ford's head by a mere six inches and only because the gun had a faulty sight.

Richard Vitamanti, the lead FBI case agent working with Superior Court Judge Samuel Conti, Judge Conti himself, the U. S. Secret Service and the San Francisco Police, specifically Tim Hettrich, will confirm, the only reason she missed was due to her using a gun she was not familiar with.

The chilling fact is that Sara Jane Moore was a southern girl with three brothers. She knew her way around firearms. She was in the Women's Army Corp and she had been practicing with her .44 Charter Arms revolver.

At her sentencing hearing, January 16, 1976, Judge Conti told Moore:

"The only reason the President was not killed was not through any fault of your own, was a malfunctioning of that gun. Your aim was straight. The gunshot to the right a little bit. If it were a correct gun you would have killed the man. It isa terrible thing for one individual to kill another individual, and perhaps, as I say, the only consequence it was a faulty gun sight made the attempt on the President's life unsuccessful."

And what of this bystander, Oliver Sipple, who happened to be nearby, happened to have been trained as a Marine and happened to have the presence of mind to go towards the bang rather than away?

His life was ruined.

President Ford wrote a thank-you note to Sipple three days after the attempt, but never invited the man who saved his life to the White House or gave him a commendation.

Sipple, on psychiatric disability leave from the military, lived in the Tenderloin District. He refused to call himself a hero was a very private person trying to live below the radar of San Francisco's Gay community. He was involved with Gay activist events, but kept his personal life very circumscribed and did not want his sexuality disclosed.

Suddenly Sipple's life became public fodder for the press and local government. News reports mentioned that he was gay even though Sipple had not yet come out to his family. His mother disowned him and he filed a $15 million dollar invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the newspapers that outed him.

But he could not hold back the tide and he became a hero among gay organizations. There has been speculation from sources who wish to remain anonymous that Harvey Milk was responsible for the public outing of Sipple. The reason, some say, is that his actions were motivated by revenge. Sipple had been involved with an ex-lover of Milk's, Joe Campbell. When Sipple and Campbell broke up, Campbell attempted to kill himself.

Milk took advantage of the opportunity to illustrate his cause that public perception of gay people would be improved if they came out of the closet. He told friends that Sipple being gay was too good an opportunity. "For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms." (Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1989).

Although many in the Gay community told Milk it was not his place to out Sipple, Milk would not back off. The San Francisco Chronicle exposed Sipple as gay and a friend of Milk's. (Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, St. Martin's Press.

Sipple was found dead in his bed in 1989 with a half-gallon bottle of bourbon at his side. He had been dead for two weeks. President Ford sent a note of condolence to the family.

Geri Spieler is the author of, Taking Aim At The President: The remarkable story of the woman who shot at Gerald Ford. Palgrave Macmillan