Ford’s would-be assassin is heard years later

sstanton@sacbee.comApril 24, 2014 

The interrogator’s voice is measured as he begins questioning one of the more notorious – and quirky – criminal suspects in American history.

“What are you charged with, Lynette?” psychiatrist James R. Richmond asks politely.

“Attempted assassination of the president of the United States,” Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme replies evenly.

Nearly 39 years after the former Manson “family” member leveled a Colt .45-caliber pistol at President Gerald R. Ford in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, one of the last and most intriguing pieces of evidence from the case has been made available to the public: the audiotape of Fromme’s pretrial psychiatric examination while she was being held in jail.

The 132-minute recording offers a glimpse into the mindset of the would-be assassin and her matter-of-fact demeanor as she tries to convince the psychiatrist that she should be allowed to act as her own lawyer at trial.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller granted release of the recording in response to a motion filed in November by The Sacramento Bee. The judge’s order, issued last week, followed her decision in August to release another historic piece of evidence: the videotaped deposition of President Ford, part of the evidence used by the government to obtain a guilty verdict from a jury.

The Fromme recording, portions of which can be heard on www.sacbee.com/history, was made Sept. 21, 1975, just more than two weeks after Fromme, then 26, aimed her pistol at the president while he was on his way to a meeting with then-and-current Gov. Jerry Brown.

The gun did not go off. Fromme was wrestled to the ground by a Secret Service agent, a Sacramento police officer and bystanders, and was arrested.

During the recording, Fromme speaks clearly and confidently about her ability to represent herself and win an acquittal. She also discusses her past drug use and her interactions with convicted mass murderer Charles Manson.

Listen to portions of Fromme's psychological exam. (Edited by Bee Photographer Hector Amezcua)

“If you were to be found guilty of this offense, what penalty do you face?” Richmond asked.

“From a number of years to life in prison,” Fromme replied.

“OK, so that’s a pretty heavy offense that you’re charged with,” Richmond said.

At the time of the interview, Fromme already had made three court appearances and pleaded not guilty, and she told Richmond she was confident of her persuasive powers before a jury.

“What would you estimate to be your percentage chance at this point of being found not guilty?” Richmond asked.

“Oh, I feel, I feel definitely I have probably a 70 percent chance on the percentage scale,” Fromme replied, adding, “I don’t feel that I’ll be convicted of attempted assassination.”

Her confidence was misplaced. Fromme was found guilty after a 19-day trial and later sentenced to life. She was released in 2009 after a parole hearing and settled in upstate New York. Manson, now 79, remains incarcerated at California State Prison, Corcoran.

While in prison, Fromme maintained she never actually wanted to kill Ford.

Richmond told Fromme during the interview that he was precluded from asking her about the events of the day she pointed her pistol at Ford because of an agreement with her lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Robert Holley. The president’s name is never mentioned on the recording.

Instead, Richmond queried Fromme about her upbringing, her eating habits and other personal inclinations that could be used to evaluate her mental state.

“The press has made a number of comments to the effect that you’re a rather daft broad wandering about in this world, following ill-begotten causes and so forth,” Richmond said. “How do you feel about that?”

“I’m working through it the best way I can,” she answered. “I feel this trial, conducted with a little bit of dignity, would help tremendously.”

Fromme had been an ardent disciple of Manson and the cult-like “family” that supported him even after his murder convictions, and she had been a frequent visitor to The Bee newsroom to advocate for him. But she insisted to Richmond that news accounts about Manson and his followers were overblown.

“We did not have sex orgies and drug orgies or cult meetings or hanging Christ in effigy or pretending Charlie was Christ or anything of that nature,” Fromme said. “This all comes out of people’s imagination. We were actually pretty healthy.”

Fromme also took issue with news accounts indicating she had used LSD hundreds of times, telling Richmond that she thought a fairer estimate was about 30 times.

“Yeah, what did it do for you psychically?” Richmond asked.

“Oh, that would be a long, long explanation,” Fromme replied.

He also asked her how she was feeling physically, after she said she had lost about six pounds in jail.

“How’s your appetite been?” Richmond asked.

“Well, doc, the food here is not the type of food that I eat.”

“Leaves something to be desired?” he asked. “What kind of a dietary trip are you on?”

“A healthy one,” she said. “Vegetables, yeah, I’m a vegetarian. I try and avoid additives, sugar; I ordinarily don’t eat any sugar, starch.”

The recording was made to determine her competence to stand trial and whether she could act as her own attorney. In a four-page report to U.S. District Judge Thomas J. MacBride one day after he interviewed Fromme, Richmond reported that she was competent, and if she desired, could seek to represent herself.

Fromme ultimately was represented by Sacramento defense attorney John Virga, who was court-appointed as her lawyer. She did not testify at the trial, but engaged in so many raucous outbursts that she was ordered removed from the courtroom.

That behavior was far different from the demeanor she exhibited during her interview with Richmond, according to his report to the trial judge, which also was unsealed last week.

“She expressed awareness that there would be attempts to make her out to be a bad person, stating that she could remain calm under such a situation ... ,” Richmond wrote. “She anticipated no difficulty in conducting herself in a ‘businesslike’ manner.”

Alas, during trial she wound up beaning the prosecutor in court with an apple meant for MacBride.

Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.

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