Assassination is so ingrained in American culture that it’s practically a national pastime. Every single president since Lyndon Johnson has been the target of an assassination attempt; with plenty more before LBJ also finding themselves on the wrong end of a bullet. That’s before you take into account the lower-ranking politicians attacked, the civil rights figures, the sportsmen, the artists… All we’re saying is that, if assassination was an Olympic sport, team USA would be beating everyone but Russia.
The one upside is that American assassinations usually end with the assassin themselves dying. Think of Lee Harvey Oswald, gunned down by Jack Ruby. Or John Wilkes Booth, shot to pieces by Federal troops. But “usually” isn’t the same as always. Just occasionally, an American assassination ends with the attempted killer surviving. And surviving. And surviving. The following 10 have survived for so long now that you’ll probably be surprised to learn they’re not dead from old age.
10. Sirhan Sirhan
The 1960s were a terrible decade to have the surname Kennedy. After JFK was gunned down in Dallas in 1963, Democrat hopes were pinned on his brother Bobby. Fast forward five years from John’s death, and Bobby Kennedy was also gunned down, only moments after becoming the Democrat party’s pick to run for president. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was a Palestinian native born in Jerusalem. As the life bled out of yet another Kennedy, he was heard to shout “I did it for my country!”
Sirhan’s guilt was pretty well established. Even the conspiracy theorists think he fired at RFK (they disagree on whether there was a second shooter). Although Sirhan later claimed he couldn’t remember a thing of the killing, prosecutors treated it as an open and shut case. On April 23, 1969, the Palestinian assassin was given the death penalty. So what’s he doing on our list? For that, you can thank the state of California.
California outlawed the death penalty in 1972, before Shiran got his chance to dance the hangman’s jig. When it was reinstated a year later, all those who had previously been sentenced to death – including Shiran and one Charles Manson –were now on life imprisonment. Nearly 50 years after he was incarcerated, Shiran is still hoping to be released.
9. John Hinckley, Jr.
On March 31, 1981, President Ronald Reagan stepped out the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, and into a hail of bullets. In a matter of seconds, John Hinckley Jr. squeezed off six shots, wounding two officers and putting a bullet through the Press Secretary’s brain. The President himself was badly wounded; a slightly different angle and Reagan would now be known as the fifth White House incumbent to be gunned down.
So what happened to the man who nearly killed four people? Where is Hinckley now? Err… at home, in Virginia, living with his mother.
After the shooting, Hinckley was found not-guilty by reason of insanity and committed to an asylum. This angered a lot of people, both because Hinckley had just committed what is usually a serious crime, and because he was a spoiled rich kid who had never yet had to deal with the consequences of his actions. Things didn’t improve much in hospital. Hinckley was discovered exchanging letters with Ted Bundy and trying to contact Charles Manson.
Hinckley was eventually released in 2016. At time of writing, he was still confined to a fifty mile radius around his mother’s home and was receiving psychiatric treatment.
8. Squeaky Fromme
If the name “Squeaky” Fromme sounds like a kids’ cartoon character, the actual personality of its owner couldn’t be any different. Born Lynette, Squeaky was a member of the Manson Family.
Although she wasn’t involved in the killing of Sharon Tate, the young dancer was obsessed by the cult leader. When Manson was moved between jails after his conviction, she moved town to follow him. She had other, equally shady connections. Not long after Manson was imprisoned, Squeaky was arrested for the brutal murder of a couple. Again, she avoided jail while, again, her associates – this time members of the Aryan Brotherhood – were imprisoned for the crimes.
But even her connections with California’s weirdest cult and a buncha neo-Nazis has nothing on the time she tried to kill a US President.
The year was 1975. It was a warm fall day in Sacramento. As Gerald Ford passed through a crowd, Squeaky suddenly emerged from between two people, pulled out a loaded gun and pointed it right at the president’s chest. The gun jammed.
“It didn’t go off!” was Squeaky’s defense when arrested, and it sure as heck didn’t fly. She was jailed for attempted assassination and only released in 2009. She currently resides in NYC. Interestingly, she wasn’t the only young woman to try and kill Ford…
7. Sara Jane Moore
Sara Jane Moore looks like the world’s least offensive grandma. Here, follow this link and watch her talking to CNN. Ain’t she just adorable? Can’t you just imagine her baking you cookies when you were ten, raising money to fund her church’s new roof, and spending her weekends tending to her lawn?
Well, never has the truism “don’t judge a book by its cover” ever been truer. Only 17 days after Squeaky’s lame attempt to off Ford, Sara Jane Moore smilingly raised a gun in San Francisco and fired at the President’s head. Her lone bullet missed his skull by inches.
Perhaps weirdest of all about Moore is how boring her life was before that moment. While Squeaky was the kind of girl whose life choices were always gonna boil down to assassinate a president or drink the Kool-Aid, Moore was unbelievably average. She’d been married. She worked as a bookkeeper. She enjoyed amateur acting. In her CNN interview, she says the only trouble she’d previously had with the law was for jaywalking.
The only sign she was an up-and-coming fruitcake was her association with the Symbionese Liberation Army, the leftwing radical cell that kidnapped Patty Hearst. Even crazier than Moore’s boring life? She’s now something of a minor celebrity, appearing on news programs to discuss the time she almost killed a president.
6. Thomas Hagan
You don’t know the name Thomas Hagan, but you’ve certainly heard of his victim. Hagan was the guy who killed Malcolm X, shooting the civil rights leader dead while he addressed the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965. At least, he was the only guy who admitted to the killing. Up to three others were involved, possibly with the backing of Malcolm X’s old organization Nation of Islam, who he’d recently fallen out with. Interestingly, while two others went to jail alongside Hagan, no one seems to know for sure if they were even at the scene of the crime.
For Hagan’s part, he has repeatedly said he wishes he hadn’t shot X, once stating: “I don’t think it should ever have happened.” At the time he clearly felt differently. Hagan justified the shooting by saying Malcolm X had slandered Nation of Islam’s leader, and that his leaving had threatened to destroy the organization. The crowd who watched him shoot X evidently didn’t care. They beat Hagan half to death before police intervened.
Today, Hagan is a family man with a full time job, living outside prison on parole. Prior to that, he was on release Monday to Friday, only serving weekends in jail.
5. Arthur Bremer
You probably know George Wallace for his “segregation now, segregation forever” speech. But the Alabama governor was nearly so much more. In 1972, he was favorite to win Maryland in the Democratic primaries to run for president. He’d already won Michigan, stretching his support outside the Deep South. He might have even become the first Democratic nominee from the party’s Dixiecrat wing.
“Might” being the operative word, there. We’ll never know, because on the day before the Maryland primary, Arthur Bremer stepped out a crowd and shot Wallace in the abdomen.
Strikingly, Bremer didn’t try to kill Wallace for some grand civil rights cause. He shot the governor because his plan to kill Nixon had fallen through when he saw how well-guarded the president was, and decided to set his sights a little lower. In videos of the event, he can be seen in the crowd with an eerie grin on his face, his eyes obscured by sunglasses, looking for all the world like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Wallace survived the assassination attempt, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Bremer was jailed, despite claiming to be schizophrenic, and kept inside for 35 years. Released in 2007, he is now said to have a steady job. Conditions of his parole, however, mean he still can’t go anywhere near elected officials.
4. Francisco Martin Duran
Francisco Martin Duran’s attempt to kill Bill Clinton has to be one of the most ham-fisted assassinations in history. Duran hid an assault rifle in his trench coat, took it up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and waited till he saw the President emerge from the White House. He immediately began firing across the lawn, cracking a window and… ummm, that’s it.
Duran’s firing was super-erratic, and lasted only a couple of seconds before bystanders managed to wrestle him to the ground. It later emerged that the man Duran thought was Clinton hadn’t been the President at all, who was inside watching TV. Not a single person was hurt during the attempt.
Duran later tried to claim he’d been fighting aliens, briefly turning his bungled assassination attempt into a nationwide source of amusement. As excuses went, it was even weaker than Squeaky’s insistence that failing to accurately load a gun means you can’t have been trying to kill someone. Duran was convicted in 1995 after 60 witnesses were found who agreed he might not have mentioned aliens before, but sure as heck had mentioned killing Clinton.
3. Kenneth McGriff
McGriff is the odd one out on this list, as he’s the only person we don’t know for absolute sure killed their target. A drug trafficker and gang member, McGriff was the kingpin of New York’s Supreme Team – a fancy name for a gang of hoodlums who killed people over crack debts. He’s currently in prison for hiring people to kill his enemies, but law enforcement thinks he was also behind one of the most-notorious music assassinations of the 21st Century: the killing of Run DMC member Jam Master Jay.
Jay was killed in 2002 in Queens, NYC, while sat inside a recording studio. Two gunmen entered and shot him through the head. The murder remains officially unsolved, but McGriff is suspected of it. He’s also suspected of a possibly-related plot to kill 50 Cent, who Jay had mentored in the late 1990s, before the younger rapper was rediscovered by Eminem. In 2005, federal agents even released an affidavit they’d written in 2003, fingering McGriff for the two assassination attempts.
In short, McGriff is one bad dude, and quite likely the shooter behind one of the most notorious hip hop killings not featuring Biggie or Tupac. However, as we say, this has never been definitively proven.
2. Claudine Longet
Winter sports fans of a certain age will remember Spider Sibach. A skier from California, he competed in the 1968 Winter Olympics for team USA, before going on to smash the cup circuit. But most of you are gonna remember him from how he died. In 1976, Spider was shot dead at his home in Aspen, Colorado. To this day, no-one knows if it was an accident… or a deliberate assassination.
What everyone agrees on was that Claudine Longet was the one who shot him. A singer and actor once married to Andy Williams, Longet had interesting pedigree where shootings were concerned. She was close friends with Bobby Kennedy, and was there the night Sirhan Sirhan gunned the poor guy down. At first, things seemed almost as clear cut with her own killing. She was found standing over Sibach’s body with the murder weapon in her hands. Incredibly, she tried to claim she’d been showing her victim the gun when it “accidentally” went off.
The case was a media sensation. It soon came to revolve around whether Longet had been seeing Sibach at the time, or whether they’d broken up after a brief fling and she’d returned to kill him. Thanks to police bungling the evidence, the judge had to go with the latter, and Longet was never convicted of murder. She still lives in the Aspen area, a twisted little detail we really don’t want to think too much about.
1. Mark David Chapman
After two entries clouded with uncertainty, it’s grimly reassuring to report there are no such ambiguities with our last killer. Mark David Chapman is the guy who shot John Lennon dead for being famous. Not for being a symbol of some ideas Chapman disagreed with. Lennon was simply the most famous man Chapman could think of. And so this overweight loser decided to kill him to make himself equally famous. The worst part? It kinda worked.
On December 8, 1980, Chapman walked up to Lennon’s Manhattan building. He saw the singer leaving and got him to autograph a copy of his latest album. As a result, we still have a photo of John Lennon and Mark Chapman standing together like a pair of friendly acquaintances. After Lennon left, Chapman then hung around for a few more hours, before finally shooting the ex-Beatle as he returned to the building just before midnight. Famously, Chapman didn’t flee, instead standing around reading The Catcher in the Rye.
Today, the portly assassin is in his sixties and still resides in jail. It’s gotten to the point where denying Chapman parole has almost become a sport, with regularly played fixtures and an easy to guess outcome. It seems unlikely he will ever be released.