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Police investigation reveals details of Wallace assassination attempt

For the Laurel Leader
Police file photo shows a happy face sticker on butt of Wallace-shooter Arthur Bremer's gun

The events of May 15, 1972, when Arthur Bremer shot Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace in the parking lot of the Laurel Shopping Center have been recounted numerous times, especially in the Laurel Leader. But little has been reported about the investigation conducted after the shooting that led to Bremer's conviction.

The Prince George's County Police Department was out in force that day working the event, and Wallace also had 18 Secret Service agents and a few Alabama state troopers at his side. The FBI was not present, but later managed the investigation in conjunction with the Prince George's County Police Department.

The FBI files are housed at the National Archives in College Park, where I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to access them. The files will be available some time in 2016. In contrast, my request to the Prince George's County Police Department Records Division for their investigation files was handled promptly and professionally by Lt. Shawné Waddy and technician Justin Blalock. The extensive files reveal some details of the incident that could be new even to eyewitnesses.

The files reveal a police force exhibiting extraordinary thoroughness and professionalism under extreme circumstances in an era much different than today, without the benefit of modern technology. An example of that was recalled by both Frances Fliss, who was working that day in the Mel-Ron fabric shop at Laurel Shopping Center, and Peggy Mitchell Mertz, who was working in the Fotomat booth in the center's parking lot. Both had reporters demand to use their telephones "to call the story in," according to Fliss. For many days afterward, Mertz also remembers many out-of-town visitors stopping at the Fotomat booth, which was located in the middle of the shopping center parking lot not far from the shooting site, and asking where it happened. After pointing it out, she said one couple even took turns taking pictures of each other lying on the pavement where Wallace fell.

Eyewitness interviews

On that day in Laurel, Wallace, then a Democratic governor from Alabama whose views on race and segregation were becoming more out of place in 1972 America, had just finished his campaign speech when he stepped toward the crowd and was shot by Bremer. Wallace was paralyzed in the shooting and three others were also injured.

Immediately following the shooting, Prince George's police established a temporary command post in the basement of the Equitable Trust Bank (now the Bank of America), the site of the shooting. It's unclear how they determined who to interview, but the police files contain dozens of interview reports with civilian eyewitnesses and others.

There are discrepancies in many of the interviews as to details of the incident, such as how many shots were fired, the route Wallace took from the stage to shake hands with the people and even the description of Bremer. William Taaffe, a reporter for the Washington Star, told police he noticed Bremer because he had "a real funny laugh. …He laughed at inappropriate times."

One detail that was not in dispute and was described in many of the interviews is the crowd's reaction to Bremer after it became apparent that he had shot Wallace. According to the investigation files, eyewitness Leon Scovitch told police that "the crowd quickly pounced on the assailant and ... were going to kill the assailant." In his police interview, Francis Krug recalled hearing "the governor's been shot, kill the SOB," and according to Ernest Leith's interview, "the crowd was screaming 'kill him, kill him.' " Thomas Foley also told police that he remembered hearing people in the crowd "hollering to get the man who had shot the governor."

David Mitchell, currently the chief of the University of Maryland Police Department, was a rookie cop with the Prince George's police at the time and was off-duty. He was in the crowd with a friend, Steven Watkins, who was a member of the Metropolitan Police Department, and also off-duty. Mitchell and Watkins were both Laurel residents. In a recent interview, Mitchell added a chilling note to this detail. He said some enraged supporters were "attempting to disarm the policemen" so they could shoot Bremer.

The police files include quite a few interviews with students: Larry Walters, Andrew Hansbrough, Emery Gibson, Keith Larson, and Stephen Moe from Laurel Senior High; Donna Evans from Hammond Middle; and John Stevens, Matthew Holt, Stephen White and Gary Thorpe from Laurel Junior High.

Another Laurel High School student, sophomore Bill Beckelman, recently recalled his terrifying experience that day. Beckelman, currently the senior pastor at Calvary Chapel Coastlands in Eatontown, N.J., was standing in the back of the crowd near Peoples Drug Store when the shooting started. Like many in the crowd, Beckelman turned and ran after the shooting. He said that as he ran, a man  grabbed the 16-year-old, twisted his arm behind his back and shoved a gun into his ribs. While the man led him away, Beckelman said his mind was racing — he thought he was being taken hostage. In the chaos, no one really knew what was happening.

Beckelman was put in a police wagon with a few other people, including student Gary Thorpe, and the wagon raced down Route 1 to Hyattsville. He was relieved to learn from the others that they had been picked up by the Prince George's police. His relief was short-lived, however. When the wagon stopped and the doors opened, "there must have been 15 officers pointing shotguns and guns at us," he recalled.

Everyone in the wagon was interviewed and released. Beckelman's parents asked a police officer if he could keep their son's interview out of the record. Apparently, the officer complied since it is not in the files.

Someone who was not interviewed was Laurel resident Joe Kundrat, who was attending the rally with his mother and was right up front when the shooting took place. Kundrat took some of the most well-known photos of the day, which were bought by the Associated Press and other media organizations, and appeared in newspapers around the world. Recently, Kundrat recalled aiming his camera under the policemen's arms to get a photo of Bremer being wrestled to the ground. Kundrat's mother went to the aid of the Secret Service agent Nick Zarvos, who was shot in the neck and fell near her.

The thoroughness of the Prince George's police investigation was evident in the follow-up interviews. Eyewitness William Turner, who was the manager of Boulevard Cleaners, told police about a conversation he had with John Kuck, the manager of Suburban Airport on Brock Bridge Road, about a suspicious person at the airport. Police tracked down Kuck in Michigan, who remembered a conversation with someone who fit Bremer's description. The person "asked if Governor Wallace would be landing there."

Brigitte and Walter Hawkins were standing directly behind Bremer and their photo appeared in the Washington Daily News. When Brigitte Hawkins was interviewed by police the day after the shooting, she told them they had been contacted by someone in Delaware to attend a Wallace rally and tell the story of the shooting. Follow-up interviews in Delaware revealed that no rally was planned.

Thrown tomatoes

There are dozens of interviews in the files with Secret Service agents and police officers. Wallace's path for the day can be traced through the interviews and interesting details about his security are revealed.

A few hours earlier, Wallace had spoken to a hostile crowd at Wheaton Plaza. His segregationist views ignited the crowd into throwing tomatoes and cursing the candidate. Secret Service agent Lawrence Dominguez was assigned to the Wallace protective detail. In his interview, he recalled the Wheaton rally: "During the governor's speech, he was constantly interrupted by demonstrators who vocally attempted to drown him out. Officer E.C. Dothard [who would be shot later in the day by Bremer] blocked a tomato which was thrown directly at the Governor … an orange was thrown which missed the Governor by one foot … there had been eggs thrown at the platform prior to our arrival."

The Wheaton rally put the security detail on edge. No one knew Bremer had been there stalking Wallace and left afterward for Laurel. It's interesting that even trained police had a difficult time describing the nondescript Bremer. One of the Alabama state troopers told his interviewer that Bremer "looked like an albino."

Wallace arrived in Laurel ahead of schedule, so he rested and lunched in Room 502 at the Howard Johnson hotel on Route 1. After lunch, according to the News Leader, his wife, Cornelia Wallace "had her hair coiffed by Edward at Montgomery Ward beauty salon" in the Laurel Shopping Center.

After the Wheaton rally, police records show that the security detail was on the lookout in Laurel for potential troublemakers, particularly "hippies." Secret Service agent Thomas Stevens, in his police interview, recalled that the detail met "at the Hot Shoppes Restaurant in the Laurel Shopping Plaza [sic]" to arrange "for the manpower we would need" for the Laurel appearance. Hippies were mentioned more than a few times in police interviews as a matter of concern. Agent Roger Warner said he noticed that "two hippie-types were of an usually rough appearance that attracted my interest." Agent James Mitchell "had a conversation … regarding hippies" and "walked around to the other side of the stage and observed some hippies."

Apparently the Secret Service was so concerned that they tried to convince Wallace to cancel his Laurel appearance. In fact, Wallace told the New York Times in 1975 that "he ignored Secret Service advice not to appear at the Maryland shopping center rally where he was shot while campaigning in 1972."

Police protection

The Prince George's police file contains riveting recollections of the officers who were near Wallace when the shooting started. The coolness under fire and ability to remain professional in such a chaotic and dangerous environment is remarkable.

Agents Mitchell and Ralph Peppers were among the first to get to Bremer. Mitchell recalled that he "turned and saw a hand with a weapon in it. …I lunged and/or hit and pulled the assailant by the back of the neck and pulled him toward me and the ground ... I fell or jumped with my knees on his back." Peppers described how he "pushed him down to the ground" and "held his head to the ground, but his face was turned partially to one side. I did this to subdue him."

Laurel Police Lt. Archie Cook and Secret Service agent William Breen both shielded Wallace with their own bodies to prevent any further shooting. In his book "Brass Buttons and Gun Leather, A History of the Laurel Police Department," author and former Laurel police Sgt. Rick McGill interviewed Cook, who died in March. Cook recalled that Laurel police officers Milan Shegan and J.D. Ervin were also on plain clothes duty at the Wallace rally. According to Cook, Shegan also shielded Wallace. McGill described what happened next: "Wallace saw Cook's pistol in his belt holster and thought he was the shooter until he identified himself as a Laurel policeman. Wallace asked Cook how bad he was hit. Cook could see the blood but told him he'd be okay."

Secret Service agent Robert Innamorati was right behind them and recalled "I saw a pistol on the ground within reaching distance of the suspect. I immediately stood on the weapon; after several seconds, I decided to secure the weapon to avoid loss of it to the crowd." When he relinquished custody of the gun for safekeeping he noted on the report, "butt of pistol had a pasted-on decal of happy face."

The chaos of the day was described in an interview with Barbara Luber of the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad, which responded to the emergency within two minutes. "We attempted to take the blood pressure; but with all the people on the ambulance and all of the noise it was impossible. There were two agents in the front with the driver and there were two more agents, a press secretary, and Mrs. Wallace in the back, as well as myself, Duckworth, and Fiedler [LVRS paramedics]. … It was very crowded. We had a very hard time using our equipment due to the crowded conditions we were working under." When asked if the crowd in the ambulance prevented "effective treatment of Mr. Wallace," Luber responded "Yes, they did not mean to, but they interfered. All they were concerned with was hurrying Mr. Wallace to the hospital."

The files contain hundreds of police photos. Mixed in with the Laurel Shopping Center investigation are a series of photos taken at the Wheaton rally earlier in the day by BeBe Bailey, publisher of the Wheaton News. The crowd scenes from Wheaton and Laurel are in stark contrast. Wheaton had many protesters holding signs, such as "Remember Selma" and "Wallace for President, Hitler for Vice-President." The Laurel crowd looked to be much more supportive and attentive.

The police were meticulous in photographing everything, from the scene before the shooting to every piece of evidence uncovered in the investigation. All of the clothes worn by the four people shot by Bremer — Wallace, Zarvos, Dothard, and Dora Thompson, a Wallace campaign worker — and removed for surgery are also in the photos. There is a series of photos showing Bremer's car at the shopping center, being dismantled for searching, and then reassembled.

Bremer was convicted in August 1972 and sentenced to 53 years in prison. He ended up serving 35 years at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown and was released early in 2007 for good behavior. Upon his release, Newsweek quoted forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz as saying "no assassin has ever been freed from custody in the United States." The magazine also described Bremer as he walked out of prison. "Gone were the blond head of hair and eerily cemented smile; now 57, Bremer is balding and paunchy, with a long, grey beard. … 'Arthur Bremer is alone,' says a Maryland corrections spokesman. 'He has no one.' "

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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