Manson's 'No. 1 girl'
Thirty years after being sentenced to life in prison for pointing a gun at President Ford, 'Squeaky' Fromme is locked in a Fort Worth cell, unrepentant and still devoted to the madman who helped put her there
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
On a September morning 30 years ago, Lynette Alice Fromme pointed a loaded pistol at Gerald Ford in a park outside the California State Capitol in Sacramento.
The gun didn't fire, but she was sentenced to life in prison for her crime.
No woman had ever attempted to assassinate a U.S. president.
Time and Newsweek put her on their covers.
The slender red-haired figure, who once shaved her head, gouged an "X" into her forehead and wore a crimson robe as a show of fervent devotion to convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, spent almost half her life in federal penitentiaries.
Fromme, now 56, is rarely heard from.
She hasn't been photographed in years.
Yet for those who remember the turbulent '60s and '70s in America, "Squeaky" Fromme is synonymous with Manson and his cult "family" and remains one of the most infamous, and enigmatic, female felons in the U.S. prison system.
This woman, who briefly escaped from a lockup in Alderson, W.Va., in 1987 -- she heard rumors that Manson was dying of cancer and wanted to see him -- has quietly served the past seven years behind the high fences and razor wire of the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth.
Fromme became eligible for parole in 1985.
Unlike several of Manson's former disciples who remain in prison, she has chosen not to seek her release.
"Your question is reasonable and straightforward, but my answer is likely to only create more questions," Fromme replied in a recent letter to the Star-Telegram.
"No parole hearing has been held for me, because I haven't requested one. I stood up and waved a gun [at Ford] for a reason. I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water and respect for creatures and creation."
A prisoner serving life in a federal institution for a crime committed before 1984 is entitled by law to a mandatory parole hearing after 30 years.
But an inmate can waive that hearing and apply for release at a later date, according to the U.S. Parole Commission.
In her two-page letter, penned on lined paper in elegant cursive, Fromme wrote about the majesty of ancient California redwoods and respectfully spoke the name of one of America's most notorious criminals.
"Manson," inmate No. 06075-180 wrote, "told me he could give me a natural world ..."
Evicted from her home by a workaholic, authoritarian father, she found herself alone and adrift on the Venice Beach boardwalk in 1967. Fromme, 18, was staring at the ocean when they met.
In his biography Squeaky, author Jess Bravin wrote:
"He spoke in a strange, scratchy, flat Midwestern male voice. . . . 'What's the problem?' "
"What she beheld was an unkempt elflike man in a cap. He looked, she thought, like a hobo with a touch of class.
"Up in the Haight [the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco], I'm called the Gardener," he said by way of explanation. "I tend to all the flower children."
This middle-class Southern California teen, who was attending her first semester at a local junior college but who now had nowhere to go, impulsively picked up her few belongings and followed him.
Manson became a messianic figure for a hippie-era group of disaffected youth that lived for a time at an old movie-set ranch outside Los Angeles. His name came to symbolize evil after he was convicted of orchestrating the bizarre, execution-style slayings of actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant, and six others in Beverly Hills in August 1969. Fromme wasn't implicated in what came to be known as the Tate-LaBianca killings.
"Why he didn't ask her to come along [on the two murderous nights], I don't know," said Vincent Bugliosi, the Manson trial prosecutor and author of the true-crime bestseller Helter Skelter. "Squeaky was the No. 1 girl. Whenever Manson left the ranch, she was in charge. Maybe he thought she didn't have it in her.
"Turns out," Bugliosi said, referring to her assault on President Ford, "she did."
Manson and three of his handmaidens -- Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten -- received death sentences during their trial in 1971. Charles "Tex" Watson also was convicted in a separate trial. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court struck down the state's capital punishment statute in 1972.
With Manson locked away, Fromme became the acting head of the family. She and another follower, Sandra Good, formed the International People's Court of Retribution, a fictional organization intended to frighten corporate executives into believing that they were on a terrorist hit list for polluting the environment. Good was later convicted for sending death threats through the mail and served 10 years in prison.
Fromme wrote her name into history on Sept. 5, 1975. The Manson "nun" dressed in a ceremonial red robe and slipped a borrowed .45-caliber pistol into a holster strapped to her left leg. As Ford greeted well-wishers outside the California statehouse, Fromme pointed the weapon at the president from a distance of two feet. A Secret Service agent wrestled away the gun and handcuffed her.
In his autobiography, A Time To Heal, Ford wrote, "Squeaky Fromme, I thought, was an aberration. There had been misfits and kooks in every society since the beginning of time. I didn't think California harbored a larger number of these people than any other part of the country, so I wasn't overly concerned about my personal safety when I returned to the state on Sept. 19."
On Sept. 22 -- 17 days after Fromme confronted Ford -- 45-year-old Sara Jane Moore fired a revolver at the president in San Francisco. A bystander deflected her aim. Ford was unhurt.
Fromme's inquest began two months after her arrest.
"I've never been in a trial like it," recalled John Virga, Fromme's court-appointed attorney.
His client claimed she could not be tried fairly unless allowed to call Manson as a witness. "Your Honor," Fromme said,
". . . it's going to get bloody if they are not allowed to speak."
Judge Tom MacBride refused to give Manson a public platform from which to rant about the injustice of his murder conviction or to preach his apocalyptic vision.
Fromme boycotted most of the court proceedings.
Virga argued during the three-week trial that Fromme had no intention of shooting the president and only wanted publicity for her concerns about the environment and efforts to free Manson. Her weapon had four bullets in the clip, but the chamber was empty. To fire the pistol, the defendant would first have had to pull back the slide on the gun, forcing a bullet into the chamber.
"If she had wanted to kill Ford, she would have killed him. Absolutely," Virga said, 30 years later.
The jury deliberated for three days. Fromme became the first person convicted under a special federal law covering assaults on U.S. presidents that was enacted after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.
At sentencing, as U.S. Attorney Duane Keyes recommended severe punishment because Fromme was "full of hate and violence," the defendant hit him with an apple.
"I didn't know what it was at first," Virga recalled. "I was standing between them. Fromme took a step to the right and let it fly. Nolan Ryan couldn't have thrown a more perfect strike. Hit Duane right between the eyes. His glasses flew off. After that, guys in [Keyes'] office started giving him a box of apples for Christmas.
"She's very bright, an intelligent, pleasant woman," Virga said of the defendant, whom he hasn't spoken with since the trial. "She's anything but crazy. When you talk with her, everything is fine until you mention Manson. Then it's like the guy who is perfectly normal until he hears 'Kokomo, Indiana.' Then he is off and running . . ."
From the bench, the judge, who died in 2000 at age 85, addressed the defendant. "I believe the only way to deter you . . . is to separate you from the society with which you cannot agree and the society from which you've already crossed yourself out, by your own admission, by the X on your forehead . . .
"It is the sentence of this court that you be imprisoned for the term of your natural life."
A cell in Fort Worth
The federal prison sits alone, off Desert Storm Road, adjacent to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth.
It is a sober structure, a fortress, painted institutional gray. Coils of concertina wire gleam like silver bracelets in the sun.
FMC Carswell, which opened in 1994, has an inmate population of 1,411.
Thirty-one prisoners are serving life sentences.
The facility also serves as the Bureau of Prisons' major medical psychiatric referral center for female inmates. Fromme is segregated from the general prison population, housed in the institution's Administrative Unit, the nation's maximum-security unit for female prisoners.
Deborah Denham, FMC Carswell executive assistant, said the 43-bed unit provides a "controlled setting" for inmates with a history of escapes or attempted escapes and those involved in repeated incidents of assaultive or predatory behavior.
Fromme has crossed the country, moving from prison to prison. Four years into her sentence she struck another inmate with a claw hammer inside a federal lockup in Pleasanton, Calif. She went to Alderson, where Martha Stewart served five months. The system moved her to Lexington, Ky., and later to Marianna, Fla.
She came to Carswell on May 21, 1998.
Her world is a two-person cell, measuring about 8 feet by 12 feet. Her wardrobe is a drab khaki uniform.
Like other inmates in her unit who are physically able to work, she earns from 12 to 40 cents an hour and is assigned to one of the prison work details -- orderly, library clerk, laundry room, food service.
She is allowed to watch a community television and has access to the unit's recreation yard.
All incoming mail is opened by staff and checked for contraband.
Manson, who is 70 and being held inside a California state prison, has reportedly received more mail than any other criminal in U.S. history. Web sites that sell crime collectibles and memorabilia offer an assortment of Manson family items, including Manson's parole hearing videos (his application for release has been denied 10 times) and strands of the criminal's hair.
"Manson hand-written letter initialed CM in Manson's own blood! One of a kind, $2,500."
One Web site offers a collection of knives reportedly owned by Fromme and Sandra Good.
Last year Fromme made it to the Broadway stage. In the musical Assassins, actress Mary Catherine Garrison, as Fromme, sang a love song with an actor portraying John Hinkley, who stalked actress Jodie Foster and shot President Reagan.
Today, Bugliosi is writing a book about the JFK assassination. He said he doubts Fromme will ever leave prison, "especially since she has refused to renounce Manson. She's a hard-core member of the group."
Fromme's biographer has his own view.
"To get paroled you have to say you're sorry, you did wrong," Bravin said. "For her, [an apology] may be too high a price. She has said all along she did not intend to kill Ford. Staying in prison is a way of remaining true to her position."
In her 35-line letter to the Star-Telegram, Fromme wrote: "California redwoods are living monuments to centuries past. Standing beneath those trees you know you are a part of something bigger and older than yourself.
"Manson told me he could give me a natural world. Almost forty years ago he told me that money should work as hard for people as people work for money. He was talking about air and water, land and life.
"I don't know how it can be done so I'm just waiting. I would work hard for and invest in a world like that because it would support not just me but the continuum of generations to come.
"I can't say what I will decide to do in the future, but for now I'm here."
"No parole hearing has been held for me because I haven't requested one. I stood up and waved a gun [at Ford] for a reason ..."