A while back the Mayor of Claycord uncovered an interesting story about the notorious radical terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army—how, in their early days, the group was headquartered in Concord. Between 1973 and 1975, the SLA—“a self-styled urban guerilla warfare group,” as described by Wikipedia—committed bank robberies, two murders, and, most famously, the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in February 1974.
As they often say, it’s a small world, especially in the East Bay suburbs and especially when we’re dealing with famous local criminals and their acts. A new book uncovers another intriguing SLA/Patty Hearst kidnapping link to the East Bay suburbs—specifically in the form of Sara Jane Moore, the middle-aged Danville housewife and mom who, in September 1975, tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
The new book is a biography of Moore, who a year ago was paroled from the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, where she had been serving a life sentencing for taking a shot at the president outside a San Francisco hotel. The new book is called Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford. The author is Bay Area investigative journalist Geri Spieler, and it hits the book stores January 12.
Before I tell you about what Spieler learned about Moore’s connection to the Hearst kidnapping case, I’ll mention that Diablo magazine in September 2005 published an article by Spieler, “Don’t Blame it On Danville,” that chronicled Moore’s time in Danville, where she lived between 1967 and 1974. In that article, as in the book, Spieler explains that Moore’s decision to kill the president didn’t come from some experience in her suburban life that pushed her over the edge.
Rather, Spieler wrote, “Information that until recently had never been released—from reams of investigative reports generated in her case, as well as interviews with her former Danville neighbors—tells a somewhat different story. It becomes clear that Moore’s attempt to kill the president was just the latest outburst in a stormy life, one driven by a constant need to be the center of attention.”
Still, if you want to read about Moore’s time in Danville, you can read the Diablo magazine article or pick up Spieler’s book and read the chapter called “The Doctor’s Wife.”
Yes, Moore was married to a doctor who worked at Kaiser hospital in Walnut Creek. The couple and Moore’s young son settled into a new upscale housing development in Danville. Spieler tells how Moore had been married twice before and earlier given birth to four other children, whom she abandoned to her parents in West Virginia to raise. Now settled in Danville, Moore dressed well and attempted to fit in with the other Danville wives by using her Southern-bred charm and good manners. Ultimately, her personality and poor social skills, that haunted her throughout her life, turned off her neighbors and the other Danville moms in her son’s play group. In time, Moore’s marriage to the doctor also deteriorated and the break-up became contentious.
Meanwhile, Moore had become bored with her suburban routine and was looking for her next big project that would allow her brilliance to shine. Like a few other bored, middle-class suburbanites, Moore had become intrigued by the politics of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The counter-culture movement emerged from campaigns for Civil Rights, women’s rights and gay rights, and against the Vietnam War. The Bay Area, with its Summer of Love and groups like the Oakland-based Black Panthers, was a hotbed of counter-culture agitation. In her book’s most compelling chapters, Spieler documents how all sorts of groups, some more legitimate than others, formed around the more established progressive organizations.
Some groups on the outer fringes embraced Mao-ist, Communist doctrines, hated the prevailing white-dominated establishment, and even embraced the idea that violence was necessary to shake up the status quo and usher in the revolution that would remake American society. The SLA was one such fringe group.
No, Moore didn’t join the SLA, but she jumped into the middle of the action after Patty Hearst was kidnapped. One of the SLA’s demands for Patty Hearst’s release was that her father, San Francisco Examiner publisher, William Randolph Hearst, set up a program to distribute food to the Bay Area’s poor. The program was called People In Need (PIN). Hearst set its operations up at a warehouse in San Francisco’s China basin and hired some staff. But PIN was mostly run by a motley assortment of volunteers, including militant blacks, teenagers, pensioners, hippies, graduate students professionals, society matrons, ex-cons, and even some former prison gang members.
Spieler says that Moore eagerly volunteered to become PIN’s accountant, but also pushed her way into the forefront of the organization by becoming its self-designated public information officer. She sent out press releases and "commandeered all of the press questions about the food distribution program; by doing so, she made the name of Sara Jane Moore known to most of the newspapaper reporters in the Bay Area."
She eventually caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst himself, who noticed her at work in the warehouse and summoned her for a private chat. The father, desperate to secure his daughter’s release, thought Moore might be able to get close to some of the less than savory volunteers whom, he suspected, might have contacts with the SLA.
Unbeknownst to Hearst, Moore had already attracted the attention of the FBI, who recruited her to become an informant in a similar way. As Spieler notes, the FBI had a long tradition, thanks to J. Edgar Hoover, of trying to infiltrate and destabilize organizations it deemed a threat to U.S. domestic security. The FBI’s targets included Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., anti-Vietnam War groups, and the Black Panthers.
Spieler contends that Moore, in her usual craving to be the center of attention, was flattered both by the notice of the FBI and William Randolph Hearst. She happily agreed to become a protégé of Wilbert “Popeye” Jackson, “a muscular and charismatic” ex-con and black revolutionary who had known Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze while both were serving time in San Quentin. Cinque started the SLA in 1973 after escaping from Soledad prison, where he had been serving time for armed robbery.
From Danville doctor’s wife to radical study groups held in storefronts, apartments, and church basements of then-seedy San Francisco neighborhoods. That was the path Moore was careening down. And then to wanna-be presidential assassination. Spieler explains the “duality” that emerged in Moore’s ideology and actions and that ultimately contributed to her decision to try to kill President Ford in September 1975.
“In the beginning, she idealized her FBI work and saw informing on the radical left as work for the greater good,” Spieler writes. “But the deeper she went, the more she found herself agreeing with the movement’s agendas.”
One idea that intrigued her was that violent action might be necessary for the revolution that would lead to real social change. And, most likely, with her need to be the center of attention, Moore hit on one way to become truly famous and respected by her radical compatriots: kill the president.
And, as Spieler describes in her Diablo piece, “On September 22, 1975, the 45-year-old Moore stood in a powder-blue trench coat outside San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel and aimed a .38 at President Gerald Ford as he walked out. When she opened fire and sent a bullet whizzing past Ford’s forehead, Moore became the ninth person in history to attempt to kill a U.S. president, and proved unquestionably that she was not your typical housewife after all.”
If you want more information about Spieler, her book, or her appearances in the Bay Area visit her website at www.gerispieler.com.