Fame Through Assassination: A Secret Service Study

It's well known that in March 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. What is not well known is that several years later, the life of  President Reagan and the life of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, were threatened again — in fact, not just once.

Joseph Corbett (center), who was convicted of killing millionaire Adolph Coors III, is led to the Jefferson County courthouse in Golden, Colo., in 1961. i i

hide captionJoseph Corbett (center), who was convicted of killing millionaire Adolph Coors III, is led to the Jefferson County courthouse in Golden, Colo., in 1961.

John F. Urwiller/AP
Joseph Corbett (center), who was convicted of killing millionaire Adolph Coors III, is led to the Jefferson County courthouse in Golden, Colo., in 1961.

Joseph Corbett (center), who was convicted of killing millionaire Adolph Coors III, is led to the Jefferson County courthouse in Golden, Colo., in 1961.

John F. Urwiller/AP

"In the space of 18 months, four situations came to the attention of the Secret Service," says Robert Fein, who in the mid-1980s worked with the Secret Service as a psychologist. In two of these incidents, he says, people with weapons and an intent to kill appeared at public events. In the two other incidents, the would-be assassins were intercepted before the events. Ultimately, all four cases were prosecuted. Two were convicted, and two were sent to psychiatric facilities, Fein says, though the government didn't exactly advertise it.

"These were not stories that hit the news, but they were situations that caused great concern for protectors," he says. "So after these incidents, the Secret Service leadership got together and said, 'We really would like to know more about the behaviors of these people.' "

Creation Of A Study

So Fein and Secret Service agent Bryan Vossekuil undertook the most extensive study of assassins and would-be assassins ever done.

  • John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865.
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    John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865.
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  • Charles J. Guiteau, a U.S. lawyer, shot and killed President James A. Garfield in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1881.
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    Charles J. Guiteau, a U.S. lawyer, shot and killed President James A. Garfield in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1881.
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  • Leon Frank Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901 at a public greeting in Buffalo, N.Y.
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    Leon Frank Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901 at a public greeting in Buffalo, N.Y.
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  • Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine, assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963, with three high-powered rifle shots, according to the findings of the Warren Commission.
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    Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine, assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963, with three high-powered rifle shots, according to the findings of the Warren Commission.
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  • Talmadge Hayer was a member of the Nation of Islam and is Malcolm X's only confessed assassin.
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    Talmadge Hayer was a member of the Nation of Islam and is Malcolm X's only confessed assassin.
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  • Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian, shot and killed presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the slain president, in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
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    Sirhan Sirhan, a Christian Palestinian, shot and killed presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the slain president, in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
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  • James Earl Ray fatally shot the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., while the civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of his second floor motel room in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
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    James Earl Ray fatally shot the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., while the civil rights leader was standing on the balcony of his second floor motel room in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
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  • Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in San Francisco on Sept. 22, 1975.
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    Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in San Francisco on Sept. 22, 1975.
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  • Dan White, a former San Francisco supervisor, shot and killed city supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco on Nov. 27, 1978.
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    Dan White, a former San Francisco supervisor, shot and killed city supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco on Nov. 27, 1978.
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  • John Hinckley, Jr., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1981, in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster.
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    John Hinckley, Jr., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., on March 30, 1981, in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster.
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In the Secret Service Exception Case Study Project, they identified 83 people who had completed assassinations or made assassination attempts since 1949 — some cases known to the public, some not — and collected every document they could find. Fein and Vossekuil also went to visit many of these people in jail.

Fein says they went with a very particular pitch: "We'd say, 'We're here because we're in the business of trying to protect people and prevent these kinds of attacks. You are one of the few experts because you've engaged in this behavior. We would like to talk to you to understand your perspectives, your life.' "

Most said they'd be very glad to talk, Fein recalls.

The researchers asked prisoners how they chose targets, how they prepared. They inquired about their motives, every intimate detail of their process. After they asked these questions, they combined the answers with other sources and analyzed the information. In 1999, they published their results in The Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Assassins Included In The Study

Assassins and attackers described in the Secret Service Exception Case Study Project, or ECSP, published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences ranged from a teenage girl with an unhealthy celebrity infatuation to a radical right-wing group. The 83 subjects studied were people known to have attacked or who have come close to attacking a prominent public figure in the United States between 1949 and 1996. In some cases, researchers agreed to withhold the names of attackers as a condition of obtaining an in-depth interview. Here's a sampling:

Ruth Steinhagen
"Ruth Steinhagen, although employed as a secretary, believed she had no future and thought she would be better off dead. Steinhagen became obsessed with Chicago Cubs first baseman Eddie Waitkus. She collected clippings about him, went to more than 50 baseball games, wrote many letters to him (which were not answered) and slept with his picture under her pillow. Steinhagen came to believe that she could achieve her goals of getting in the limelight and of dying by shooting Waitkus," authors of the ECSP study wrote. At age 19, Steinhagen made an attempt on Waitkus' life in 1949.

Sirhan Sirhan
"Sirhan Sirhan had few employable skills and was living at a level far below his expectations. Sirhan was failing at work, at school and in social life. He began to think that if he shot a national figure whom he believed to be an enemy of the Palestinians — President Lyndon Johnson, Ambassador Arthur Goldberg or presidential candidate (and senator) Robert F. Kennedy — he could achieve the status he wished for and perhaps even change the situation of the Palestinian people," study authors wrote. Sirhan shot and killed Kennedy in 1968.

Mark Chapman
"Mark Chapman, although at one time a successful child care worker and counselor with the YMCA, believed he was a failure. Chapman became obsessed with being a 'nobody,' felt betrayed by cultural figures that he saw as 'phonies,' and saw John Lennon as the 'biggest phony of all.' In September 1980, Chapman decided to kill Lennon. This action, he believed, would send a message about phonies and would bring attention to the book The Catcher in the Rye, which Chapman believed held important lessons for the world," study authors wrote. Chapman assassinated Lennon in 1980.

'FT'
"FT was a lonely, angry young man with few job skills, living with a mother who was ill with cancer and other ailments and who demanded his constant attention. FT was watching a television show about the state gubernatorial election when he suddenly thought, 'How weird it would be to assassinate the governor.' He then started to read and learn about assassination and assassins and spent the next 18 months preoccupied with selecting and shooting a national leader," study authors wrote. (No public information is available on whom FT attempted to assassinate or when.)

Arthur Jackson
"Living in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1981, Arthur Jackson became intensely interested in the actress Theresa Saldana after seeing her in the movie Raging Bull. Jackson decided to kill Saldana both because he desired a special relationship with her and because he believed that murdering her would force the U.S. government to execute him. Jackson hoped to be executed at Alcatraz prison, the site of the attempted escape and death in 1946 of Joseph Cretzer, a criminal whom Jackson admired and with whom he felt a special bond," authors wrote. Jackson attacked Saldana with a knife in 1982, but she survived.

Sara Jane Moore
"Sara Jane Moore, a woman with considerable intelligence and job skills, found herself caught in a swirl of turbulent social forces and causes in a place (the San Francisco Bay area) and at a time (1975) when there was great tension between political radicals and law enforcement authorities. Moore became a police informant, a fact she revealed to her radical associates. Moore worked and lived in a community and in a political climate where talk of 'offing the pigs' and shooting the president was not uncommon. Moore fastened on the idea of shooting President Ford once she began to believe that her situation as both political radical and police informer was becoming increasingly untenable and possibly dangerous," authors wrote. Moore attempted to assassinate Ford in 1975.

Joseph Corbett
"Corbett observed and analyzed the lifestyle and habits of business executive Adolph Coors III [the grandson of the founder of the Coors brewery] for several years before he attempted to kidnap him. Foiled initially when Coors and his family moved to a new home, Corbett drew back, watched and developed new plans. On a February morning in 1960, Corbett used his car to block a one-lane wooden bridge that Coors had to cross on his way to work. The would-be kidnapper confronted Coors with a gun. Coors resisted, Corbett fired and Coors was killed. Corbett fled to the East Coast, where he abandoned his car then traveled to Toronto. He was arrested in Vancouver, British Columbia, in October 1960. A tip from a reader of Reader's Digest Magazine, which had published an 'the FBI is looking for this man' article, led to Corbett's capture," authors wrote.

Members Of 'The Order': Robert Jay Mathews, Bruce Pierce, David Lane, Jean Craig, Richard Scutari
"Members of the Order, a right-wing group led by Robert Mathews, spent several months preparing to assassinate controversial Denver talk radio host Alan Berg in 1984. Jean Craig traveled from Idaho to Denver and spent several weeks surveilling Berg and learning about his schedule and travel plans. David Lane and Bruce Pierce made at least one trip to Denver before the assassination to plan the attack. The group also planned and executed their escape after the attack," authors wrote.

Nonpolitical Killers

The insights of this study are interesting to review in light of the Arizona shooting, though obviously we still don't know that much about Jared Loughner, the suspect in the attack, or his motives. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that according to Fein and Vossekuil, assassinations of political figures were almost never for political reasons.

"It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric," Fein says.

What emerges from the study is that rather than being politically motivated, many of the assassins and would-be assassins simply felt invisible. In the year before their attacks, most struggled with acute reversals and disappointment in their lives, which, the paper argues, was the true motive. They didn't want to see themselves as nonentities.

"They experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a 'nobody,' they wanted to be a 'somebody,' " Fein says.

They chose political targets, then, because political targets were a sure way to transform this situation: They would be known.

Murderers Searching For A Cause

"If the objective is notoriety or fame, that's the most efficient instrumental mechanism by which to achieve that. I don't mean to be flip about that, but a public official is likely to bring them a substantial amount of recognition instantly, without having to achieve something," says Randy Borum, a professor at the University of South Florida who worked on the study.

And one thing Borum and Fein say about choosing a political figure — as opposed to choosing a show-business celebrity — is that the would-be assassins are able to associate themselves with a broader political movement or goal. That allows them to see themselves as not such a bad person. In this way, Borum says, assassins are basically murderers in search of a cause.

"People make decisions to act, and then from that, construct for themselves and potentially for others a narrative about why that is OK, or what the rationale would be, or how this could be justified," Borum says. "It's sort of a reverse pattern from what we would typically think."

This can be seen very clearly, Borum says, from the way many of the assassins in the study chose their targets. Though occasionally they would fixate on a single person who represented a clear political position, many just went from target to target to target.

"About half of the assassins in this study had multiple targets or what sometimes are referred to as directions of interest, throughout the course of deliberating about an attack," he says.

For example, there was one guy who was fixated on his governor until he heard that the vice president was coming to his area.

"He said he had read enough to know that there hadn't been anybody who had attempted to assassinate a sitting vice president," Borum says.

So he made the vice president his target. He told the researchers he thought he'd get more attention from historians. "He said in the books on assassination, there might even be a whole chapter on him," Borum recalls.

Changed Perceptions

Another assumption people make about assassins is that they're insane — people completely divorced from reality. But this study — to a degree — rejects that idea as too simplistic. Yes, the authors write, many of the people were experiencing or had experienced serious mental health issues: 44 percent had a history of depression, 43 percent a history of delusional ideas, 21 percent heard voices. But, as Fein points out, the way these people sought to address what they saw as their main problems — anonymity and failure — wasn't inherently crazy.

"There's nothing crazy about thinking that if I attacked the president or a major public official, I would get a lot of attention. I would get a lot of attention. My goal was notoriety," Fein says. "That's why I bought the weapon."

And most of the assassins and would-be assassins weren't totally disorganized by mental illness, either.

"They were quite organized," Fein says. "Because one has to be organized — at least to some extent — to attack a public official."

Last Saturday morning at a Safeway in Tuscon, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords became the latest public servant caught in the cross hairs of an attacker's gun. This study suggests the attempt may have been driven by very powerful and personal motives.

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