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Crimes of the Century: Reagan Assassination Attempt

Aired August 10, 2013 - 20:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We don't know precisely what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my god. He has been shot.

THOMAS J. BAKER, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, FBI (RET.): The president of the United States has been shot.

HANK BROWN, ABC NEWS CAMERAMAN: I can see it through the view finder even now.

NARRATOR: An inch from his heart.


NARRATOR: Who is the shooter?

STEPHEN COLO, UNITED STATES SECRET SERVICE (RET.): And then he says, well, if you know about that, you know about everything.

NARRATOR: A bizarre motive.


PROF. RICHARD BONNIE, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: He was a really severely disturbed person.

NARRATOR: And his crime changed history. "The Shooting of Ronald Reagan," next.

On January 20th, 1981 Ronald Wilson Reagan was sworn in as the 40th president of the United States.

RONALD REAGAN, 40TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I, Ronald Reagan, do solemnly swear.

NARRATOR: As with most new administrations Reagan's first couple of months are rocky.

DEL QUENTIN WILBERT, AUTHOR, RAWHIDE DOWN: This is the 70th day of Reagan's presidency. Things were not going particularly well. He had a very low approval rating and the lowest of any president that early in his first term.

It's a Monday, and Reagan has one big event that day, is to deliver a speech ALF-CIO. It's 2:00. Kind of gray day in Washington. And Ronald Reagan's motorcade has just arrived for his speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel which is behind us. And this is the special entrance back here, the VIP entrance, that Reagan walked into at 2:00 p.m. when he arrived.

REAGAN: The government's first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.

NARRATOR: The event is covered by all the major networks. For ABC News photographer Hank Brown it's a routine job.

BROWN: We're the full crew that travel with the president wherever he goes. We wanted to get the picture of the president walking out of the hotel and getting in the limo.

WILBERT: Fifteen feet from that door was a rope line.

BAKER: All that the cameramen, everybody is laughing.

WILBERT: It was unsecured. No ID checks. People thought it was a press line. It wasn't. Anyone could be behind that line.

BAKER: You see Hinckley's face about three rows back. Totally passive. No reaction at all.

BROWN: I got my camera up, aimed it at the door. The president was coming out. I could see it through the viewfinder, even now.

WILBERT: Reagan is walking towards his waiting limousine. Secret Service agents are surrounding him as he goes towards the car.

Just 15 feet from him was John W. Hinckley, Jr. He pulls out his .22 caliber revolver and unleashes six shots in 1.7 seconds -- 1.7 seconds is the time it takes you to say 1.7 seconds. It's that fast.

The first shot it's Jim Brady, the press secretary has been hit.

NARRATOR: Brady is seen here between Reagan and Secret Service agent Jerry Parr.

WILBERT: The second shot it's Tom Delahanty, a D.C. police officer, in the back. Third shot goes high, hits that building across the street right there. The fourth shot hits Timothy McCarthy, Secret Service agent, square in the chest. He is not wearing a bullet proof vest. He falls to the ground.

The fifth shot hits the armored bullet proof window of the car. As Reagan and Parr flash behind it diving in. The sixth shot crafts across the driver. No one knows where that sixth shot went until later they realized it slapped off the side of the car, slipped through a gap between the door and the door frame.

REAGAN: I thought it was firecrackers. And the next thing I knew one of the Secret Service agents behind me just seized me here by the waist and plunged me head first into the limo.

NARRATOR: The agent is 50-year-old Jerry Parr, head of Reagan's Secret Service detail.

JERRY PARR, SECRET SERVICE AGENT: As we go in, I go in on top of him. I'm sure I hit my radio or my gun or something hit him in the back.

REAGAN: And I said, Jerry, get off. I think you have broken a rib.

WILBERT: Jerry Parr is looking out the window, and he is pulling out this way. Jerry Parr looked out the window, he says three men down. A bullet mark in the left window. He knows there's been an assassination attempt and that limousine is alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have shots fired, shots fired. Shots fired. There are some injuries.

WILBERT: Parr checks Reagan out really quickly. You know, he seems OK. Reagan thinks he is OK.

PARR: I ran my hands up under his coat. I felt around his belt with my hands. No blood. Ran my hands up under his arm. No blood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rawhide is OK. Follow up, Rawhide is OK.

PARR: Rawhide is Reagan's Secret Service code name. And on this day there's no better code name for a president than rawhide for Ronald Reagan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you want to go to the hospital or back to the White House?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going -- we're going to ground. Back to the White House. Back to the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We interrupt. There's been a late development. Shots reported fired outside the hotel where President Reagan spoke a short while ago. Here's Bernard Shaw in our Washington bureau.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. My apology. Details are very sketchy at this moment. We don't know precisely what happened. We don't know the sequence. First of all, the president is safe.

NARRATOR: Safe, yes. But not OK.

WILBERT: Reagan starts complaining of pain in his back, his chest and his side. Not feeling so good.

REAGAN: And just then I coughed. And I had a handful of bright red frothy blood.

PARR: And he said I think I've cut the inside of my mouth. And I said, let me look, and it was pretty profuse.

WILBERT: Parr knows this is big trouble. So he has a decision to make. Do I head back to the White House, the safest place known in the universe, or does he avert to George Washington Hospital, the nearest trauma center where there's not an ounce of security?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want to go to the emergency room, George Washington?


WILBERT: Ronald Reagan's life literally on this day hung in the balance of a split second and a mere inch. And I'm not exaggerating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go to George Washington fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hustle, hustle, hustle. Let's hustle.

NARRATOR: Outside the hotel the scene was chaotic. In the bedlam the shooter is tackled.

BROWN: There was pushing, there was shoving.


BROWN: You hear the agent screamed, get him out of here. Get him out of here. And at the same time an ambulance was arriving.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, come on, back it up please.

BROWN: So I immediately went back to filming the scene. I thought, I had to preserve history.

It brought tears to my eyes. I still see Brady lying here. I still think about Delahanty. I see his face. I still see McCarthy being lifted up off the ground and being thrown back by the bullet.

NARRATOR: Within minutes of the shooting President Reagan arrives at George Washington Hospital. He insists on walking in.

REAGAN: The nurse met me, and I told her I had no trouble breathing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president was at the point where we in Minnesota say he was ready to crash.

REAGAN: The next thing I knew that's when my knees began to turn to rubber, and I wound up a gurney.

GIORDANO: If he had gone to the White House, they would have dragged him out of the car, looked him over, found out he was in big trouble, put him back in the car, and drove him to (INAUDIBLE), yes, it would have taken 10, 15 maybe more minutes. He didn't have that time.

WILBERT: And there's a nurse there trying to get the president's blood pressure and she can't detect it. She can't feel his blood pressure. He is not doing so good, and she's going, oh, my god, he is going to die. I'm going to lose the president of the United States.

REAGAN: I didn't know I was shot.

GIORDANO: I really do believe that he was minutes away from not making it.

REAGAN: The shot that got me careened off the side of the limousine and hit me while I was diving into the car. And it hit me back here under the arm, and then hit a rib and that's what caused an extreme pain and then it tumbled and turned instead an inch wise and went tumbling down to within an inch of my heart.

NARRATOR: First Lady Nancy Reagan is in the Solarium at the White House when she gets the news.

NANCY REAGAN, FIRST LADY: George (INAUDIBLE), who was head of my detail, he said there's been a shooting, but don't worry. The president is all right. And George kept saying, you don't have to go. He is all right. He hasn't been hurt. I said, George, I'm going. We better get the car because I'm going.

WILBERT: She comes into the E.R., and the first thing Ronald Reagan says to her is, honey, I forgot to duck.

NARRATOR: As he's prepped for surgery, Reagan stays in character and jokes with his doctors.

GIORDANO: He looked at me, he says, I hope you're all Republicans. And I'm a notorious liberal Democrat, and I said today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans.

NARRATOR: The surgical team is led by Dr. Benjamin Aaron.

WILBERT: As the main head surgeon, digging through Reagan's chest trying to find this bullet fragment, worried it slipped into an artery and shoot into the president's brain and kill him. Dr. David Adelburg reached his hand into the president's chest, gently cupped the president's beating heart in his hand and held it aside.

A 31-year-old surgical intern literally held the beating life of the president of the United States in his hands.

NARRATOR: While Reagan is in surgery, the suspect, John W. Hinckley, Jr. of Evergreen, Colorado, is being questioned.

BAKER: He admitted who he was. He made no attempt to hide who he was.

NARRATOR: The FBI and Secret Service have two questions. Why did he do it? And did he act alone?

BAKER: He said to them at the time you'll understand why I did this when you see my room.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: According to sources, John Hinckley, Jr., the accused gunman, may have tried to kill Mr. Reagan because of an infatuation with a young actress.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We can report that shots were fired as President Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel following that address we carried live here on CNN. The suspect was rushed to District of Police headquarters.

NARRATOR: John W. Hinckley, Jr., age 25, is a complete mystery to his captors.

COLO: When I walked in the room John Hinckley was just sitting quietly on a seat, showed no emotion.

NARRATOR: Secret Service agent Steven Colo is among the first to see Hinckley.

COLO: He told me that his wrist hurt because of the handcuffs that were placed on him and that his throat hurt. Someone hurt his throat when they arrested him. Well, certainly in my mind it was not typical that he was complaining about himself after he had just shot a number of people.

NARRATOR: As investigators begin to question Hinckley, White House press secretary Jim Brady's wife, Sarah Brady, is at home with their 2-year-old son.

SARAH BRADY, WIFE OF JAMES BRADY: We were sitting in our rec room watching television when they announced it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president did not appear to be hurt according to United Press International.

BRADY: I thought to myself, oh, that's great. Never dreaming that Jim would even have been with him for some reason. But the phone rang immediately. It was a friend of mine, and she had heard that Jim had been shot.

NARRATOR: The White House immediately sends a car to take Sarah to the hospital.

BRADY: For some reason I just thought he's been away. You know, it just never dawned on me that he was badly hurt or killed. I just kept thinking he was shot in the arm.

GIORDANO: It was very obvious that he was seriously injured with gunshot wound to the head. But he was alive.

WILBERT: He probably should not have made it, but he got exceedingly great medical care from a doctor named Art Kobrine.

NARRATOR: With her husband on his way to surgery, hospital workers usher Mrs. Brady into a secure waiting room.

BRADY: Mrs. Reagan came in, and she came over to me, and we hugged each other, and she said, I am so scared, and I said I am, too.

NARRATOR: While surgeons worked to save the shooting victims, suspect John Hinckley is transferred to the FBI's Washington field office for questioning. Two senior FBI agents are assigned to conduct the interview. As a courtesy, they invite Secret Service agent Steve Colo to sit in.

COLO: I was there in a liaison position at that time. Keep in mind, the Secret Service could not be part of the investigation because technically the Secret Service is at fault any time one of our protectees has been shot or injured.

NARRATOR: Before the questioning begins, the agents inventory Hinckley's personal possessions.

COLO: When they opened the wallet, there was a picture. The belief was that the picture of this attractive woman came with the wallet because she was somewhat recognizable as, like, a young starlet, but none of us knew her name. There was a piece of paper that was stuck in the bill fold section that had a telephone number on it. One of the FBI agents said, oh, that's a Connecticut telephone number. It meant nothing to me at the time.

NARRATOR: When the interview begins, Hinckley doesn't react well to the questioning by his FBI interrogators so they ask Agent Colo to step in. Within minutes Hinckley opens up.

COLO: He told me about the different doctors that he had been to. He talked about dropping out of school. He talked about his relationship with his parents and how annoyed they were with him. So I asked him, how could he explain his issues? And he says, I have no direction in life.

I decided to take a long shot, so I said to him I saw the piece of paper with the telephone number. The number that goes to Connecticut. When I said that to him, he all of a sudden became animated. Here was a guy who was almost stoic in his answers and all of a sudden now he is twitching, and he says, well, if you know about that, you know about everything.

And I knew I hit on a really important fact, and I had no idea what he was talking about. So I said to him, I know, but I have to hear it in your words. He said, well, that telephone number goes to Yale University. It goes to Jodie Foster's room, and, bingo, that was the picture in the wallet.

NARRATOR: Back at the hospital Dr. Kobrine is meticulously removing bullet fragments and damaged tissue from Jim Brady's brain. The surgery is slow, delicate, and dangerous.

WILBERT: At one point they're hearing on the radio that Jim Brady died. Someone rushes in to tell Art Kobrine, hey, they're reporting Jim Brady is dead. And Art Kobrine turns to the guy, and says, what do they think I'm operating on, a corpse? That's what he said.

BRADY: And they kept it totally away from us because we had no television or anything like that, which is really good.

NARRATOR: But a lot of people did hear, including friends who are watching TV with the Brady's 2-year-old son, Scott.

BRADY: When they announced his death, they showed his picture. Scott said, oh, there's my daddy and went up and kissed the screen. But of course, he didn't -- he didn't know that --

NARRATOR: After five hours Dr. Kobrine emerges from the operating room.

BRADY: The minute I saw his face, I knew it was successful. I mean, it was a miracle.

NARRATOR: Against all odds, Jim Brady survives, though he'll be permanently disabled and wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.

The other victims also undergo surgery and survived. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy was hit in the chest, and D.C. policeman Tom Delahanty was shot in the back.

That evening FBI agents searched John Hinckley's Washington, D.C. hotel room.

BAKER: Hinckley had laid out -- this was the bizarre thing. Really bizarre. He had laid out there from the morning's newspaper and the president's schedule. He had beside that a statement really in the form of a letter to the actress Jodie Foster.

NARRATOR: In his letter Hinckley writes, "I am doing all this for your sake, Jodie. I am asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historical deed to gain your respect and love. I love you forever, John Hinckley."

COLO: It was when we read the letter from the hotel room that we finally put the pieces together.

BAKER: It looked to all of us gut feeling this is a lone gunman, and there was the motive, to impress this actress.

COLO: We can understand political motives, but here we have a motive of love.