On Sept. 22, 1975, a seemingly unremarkable 45-year-old named Sara Jane Moore shot at President Gerald Ford in San Francisco. She missed, but only by about 6 inches. Wrestled to the ground and disarmed, Moore insisted she was not insane, refused a trial and pleaded guilty.
Sentenced to life in prison, she never fully repented and never fully explained her assassination attempt. In 2007, at age 77, Moore walked out of prison a free woman, assuming she met the conditions of her supervised parole.
The month after her arrest, Moore sent a handwritten note to Geri Spieler, then a Los Angeles newspaper journalist. Three months later, Spieler visited her. They stayed in touch after that.
Spieler relies heavily on their acquaintanceship in "Taking Aim at the President," an unusual book about an unusual criminal.
Because I am 60 years old, I remember the assassination attempt well and figured decades ago that I knew enough vital information about the shooting and about Moore herself to move on to other topics. Spieler's book shows the error of my thinking.
Although the book contains no breaking news, it provides two fascinating, disturbing threads that I'd either long forgotten or never knew.
Thread one: The day before Moore's assassination attempt, she told a law enforcement officer about her plan to carry a gun to a public appearance by Ford. The police officer made sure the authorities confiscated Moore's weapon, and notified all agencies entrusted with protecting the U.S. president. But nobody placed Moore in custody. She purchased another gun, and the next day shot at Ford's head.
Thread two: Despite a privileged upbringing in Charleston, W.Va., with professional parents and four caring siblings, success as a student, good looks and a modicum of charm, Moore (born Sara Jane Kahn), starting as a teenager, demonstrated unusual personality traits and bizarre behaviors. Perhaps the strangest episode of all: At age 26, already divorced from two husbands and the mother of three children younger than 5, Moore called her parents from Los Angeles. Still in West Virginia, her parents knew almost nothing about their daughter's life. They told Moore that she and the children would be welcome to visit.
One of Moore's brothers waited at the Columbus, Ohio, airport. Passenger after passenger emerged from the plane, without a sign of Moore. Finally, the brother saw his 4-year-old nephew and his 3-year-old niece walking toward him. A flight attendant followed the children, holding Moore's 9-month-old son.
Spieler reports that the Kahns "were shocked beyond belief. They were sure that something terrible had happened to Sara Jane. They called the airline, the hospitals, and the police. They called her home phone, but it had been disconnected. As the days went by with no call from Sara Jane, they even called [the children's father]. ... He had no idea of his ex-wife's whereabouts."
Finally, the Kahns "realized that she was not hurt or sick. Sara Jane had carefully planned this maneuver, effectively abandoning her children to her mother's care."
Moore called her parents from a pay telephone 10 weeks later. She said she would show up in West Virginia soon. She never did, and three months later she stopped calling.
Moore moved on with her life, marrying and divorcing, marrying and divorcing. She gained experience as a bookkeeper-accountant and held regular jobs. But behind her facade of competence, she let the work slide at each job, until she felt it was time to move on.
Drawn to San Francisco, she became radicalized politically during the early 1970s. Moore seemed to sincerely believe in the critiques of numerous groups at odds with authority. Yet, simultaneously, she became an undercover informant for the San Francisco Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Talk about truth being stranger than fiction!
The book is frequently captivating. Spieler is not a gifted stylist, but the strength of the material carries the chapters forward well. Spieler also fails to explain how she knows much of what she writes, but the source notes are sometimes helpful.
Despite its flaws, the book is quite likely to interest readers who remember that assassination attempt in downtown San Francisco.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo. His most recent book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller." E-mail him at email@example.com. This article appeared on page E - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Causes Geri Spieler Supports
Gobal Tolerance, Village Harvest, harvesting produce for the homeless and hungry. American Lung Association, Big Brothers and Big Sisters,