Were They Insane?
When former White House Press Secretary James Brady died on August 4, 2014, tributes poured in saluting his courage.
In 1981, he was gravely wounded when John Hinckley, Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Reagan survived. Brady spent the next thirty-three years in a wheelchair.
In The Gift of Fear, security expert Gavin De Becker lists behaviors of stalker-assassins. Those listed below apply to Bremer and Hinckley.
- Fixated on a female “girlfriend.”
- Crisscrossed the country stalking their victims
- Bought several guns
- Kept a diary
- Studied other assassins
- Believed an assassination would make him famous
- Stalked a public figure other than his final target
But the outcome of their trials was very different.
A Troubled Childhood
Born in 1950, Arthur Bremer grew up in Milwaukee. His parents were abusive alcoholics. His two older siblings were illegitimate, fathered by different men. As a child, Bremer felt isolated and believed his peers made fun of him. Despite his problems, he graduated from high school in 1969. He attended Milwaukee Area Technical College but dropped out after one semester and worked as a busboy at a local restaurant.
When customers complained that he talked to himself, Bremer quit, bought a gun and began practicing at a firing range. In 1971, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. A court-appointed psychiatrist declared him mentally ill, but stable enough to live in the community. At the time, Bremer was working as a janitor at a middle school.
He began flirting with a 15-year-old student. Bremer, 21, had never had a date, but worked up the nerve to ask her out. Flattered by his attention, she accepted. Bremer was thrilled. Their first date went well, but the next time, Bremer showed her pornographic pictures and made graphic sexual comments. Repulsed, she ended the relationship. Bremer began stalking her, phoning her repeatedly, begging her to see him. She refused. Only when her mother threatened to call the police did Bremer stop bothering her.
In January 1972, Bremer bought a .38-caliber revolver. On March 1, he began his diary. His first words: “It is my personal plan to assassinate by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace.” His mission: “To do something bold and dramatic, forceful & dynamic, a statement of my manhood for the world to see.”
A Life of Privilege
When Bremer stated his mission in 1972, John Hinckley, Jr. was a high school student. Unlike Bremer, he led a privileged life. His father was a wealthy oil executive. His mother stayed home to raise her three children. John was the youngest, born in 1955 in Ardmore, Oklahoma. In 1959, the family moved to Dallas.
In grade school, John was twice elected class president, but in high school, his demeanor changed. He spent hours alone in his room, playing his guitar and listening to the Beatles. After he graduated in 1973, his parents moved to Evergreen, Colorado. John attended Texas Tech University, but spent most of his time playing his guitar. Hoping to become a songwriter, he dropped out in 1976 and went to Los Angeles. When he wrote to his parents asking for money, he mentioned a girlfriend, Lynn. But Lynn didn’t exist.
Hinckley was obsessed with Jodie Foster, who played a child prostitute in Taxi Driver. In thefilm, a disturbed taxi driver plots to assassinate a presidential candidate. The character was based, in part, on Arthur Bremer. When Foster enrolled at Yale University in 1980, Hinckley moved to New Haven and began stalking her. He slid notes under her door and repeatedly telephoned her. When she ignored him, he decided to do something dramatic to impress her: assassinate the president.
In April 1972, Bremer drove to Ottawa with a revolver to assassinate President Richard Nixon. However, due to the many anti-Vietnam war protestors, police closely guarded the motorcade’s path, thwarting him. Frustrated, Bremer wrote in his diary, “I’m as important as the start of WW I. I just need the little opening and a second of time.”
After studying Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, Bremer decided to target presidential candidate Alabama Governor George Wallace. But with far less enthusiasm. “If something big flares up in Vietnam,” he wrote, “a Wallace assassination wouldn’t get more than three minutes on the network TV news.” And Arthur Bremer wanted a lot more than three minutes of fame.
On May 15, 1972, armed with a gun and wearing dark glasses and a Wallace campaign button, Bremer attended a Wallace rally in Maryland. But the crowd heckled Wallace. He refused to shake hands with spectators after his speech, foiling Bremer’s plan. However, the crowd at the next rally that day was friendlier. After his speech, Wallace shook hands with spectators. Bremer pushed forward and shot Wallace four times. Bystanders wrestled him to the ground and police arrested him.
In 1979, Hinckley bought a gun and began stalking President Jimmy Carter, but he was arrested on a firearms charge in Nashville and sent home to his parents. He bought several more guns and studied Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy. Elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan became Hinckley’s next target.
Armed with a .22 caliber revolver, Hinckley rode a bus to Washington and checked into a hotel on March 29, 1981. The next morning, a news item said President Reagan would speak at the Washington Hilton that day. Hinckley loaded his revolver and wrote a letter to Jodie Foster. After professing his love for her, he explained: “By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. … with this historical deed I hope to gain your respect and love.”
Then he took a taxi to the Hilton. When Reagan left the hotel, Hinckley fired six bullets at him. None hit Reagan, but one ricocheted off his limousine and hit him in the chest. One bullet entered James Brady’s head, damaging his brain. Secret Service agents rushed Reagan to the hospital. Other agents and police subdued Hinckley.
Two Trials, Different Verdicts
Less than three months after shooting George Wallace, Arthur Bremer was put on trial in a Maryland courtroom. His defense team argued that he was legally insane at the time of the shooting. On August 4, 1972, the jury rejected this argument and found him guilty.
This drew scant attention, but ten years later, the trial of John Hinckley Jr in 1982 caused a media frenzy. Reagan’s popularity had soared and everyone sympathized with James Brady, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, his speech impaired. Hinckley’s defense team argued that he was legally insane at the time of the shooting. The jury’s verdict on June 21, 1982, caused a furor. Not guilty by reason of insanity.
A Terrible Toll on the Victims
Paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, George Wallace never again sought national office, but he was reelected Governor of Alabama in 1974 and 1982. He died in 1998. President Reagan survived a two-hour operation, was re-elected to a second term in 1984 and died twenty years later in 2004. Paralyzed on the left side of his body, James Brady and his wife Sarah lobbied for stricter handgun control. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in 1993. Forced to testify at Hinckley’s trial, Jody Foster held a press conference after the trial and never spoke of him again.
Bremer was sentenced to 63 years in prison. After serving 35 years, he was released on probation in 2007 at age 57. Conditions included electronic monitoring and staying away from elected officials and candidates. His probation continues until 2025. After Hinckley’s insanity verdict, many states passed laws forcing the defense to prove the defendant was insane. Since 1982, Hinckley has been confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. He was allowed to visit his family in 2000, but this privilege was revoked when officials discovered he had smuggled materials about Jodie Foster into the hospital. Later, his visits were reinstated.
An expanded version of these cases appear in DARK DEEDS, Volume 2.
What do you think? Should the insanity defense be allowed? Were these men insane?