Wallace shooter to be freed

The Baltimore Sun

Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralyzed Democratic presidential candidate George C. Wallace during a Laurel campaign event in 1972, will be released from a Maryland prison before year's end, state officials said.

Bremer, a loner from Milwaukee who attempted to find fame by targeting the then-Alabama governor and one-time segregationist, has served 35 years of a 53-year sentence. He is expected to win early freedom from the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown as a result of "good conduct credits" earned by being a prison education aide, among other responsibilities.

Bremer is scheduled to be released with court supervision Dec. 16, but he could be free as early as November, according to state corrections officials. Bremer, who wounded three others during the Laurel shootings, was denied parole in 1996 by a hearing officer who determined that releasing Bremer "would unduly depreciate the circumstances of this offense."

But Ruth Ogle, program manager for the Maryland Parole Commission, said yesterday that Bremer has earned his freedom; the Maryland prison system rewards good behavior and in-prison work with reduced sentencing.

Officials do not believe Bremer's mental health is an issue, she said, despite a history of instability made clear by Bremer's 113-page journal, which was read aloud during his 1972 trial. He wept in an Upper Marlboro courtroom as his innermost thoughts became public. A Prince George's County jury rejected his insanity defense and convicted him.

"There's no indication that I see that this individual is emotionally unstable," Ogle said yesterday.

Bremer, 57, will be supervised by court officials when he leaves the medium-security facility in Hagerstown. Though he could request a transfer to another state, he will be required, wherever he settles, to report to a parole agent regularly, to hold a steady job and to steer clear of controlled dangerous substances or weapons.

Ogle noted that David Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, has already said he will require Bremer to stay away from political candidates, rallies, dinners or public appearances. All elected officials and candidates, domestic and foreign, will be off-limits to Bremer. If he violates the conditions, he can be returned to prison.

The Press-Register of Mobile, Ala., first reported Bremer's planned release yesterday.

Finding peace

Reached in Birmingham, Ala., yesterday, Peggy Wallace Kennedy - one of Wallace's four children - said in a soft voice that before his death in 1998, her father had reached out to Bremer repeatedly in hand-written letters and forgiven Bremer. If her father could find peace with what had happened, Wallace Kennedy said, she would, too. But the early release, she said, was unjust.

"He hurt a lot of people and a lot of families, and I guess, maybe, I would like to see him serve it out," she said.

Bremer's younger brother, Roger, who lives in Milwaukee, said U.S. Secret Service agents contacted him this past spring about the possibility of Arthur Bremer moving in with him in Wisconsin after he's released.

"The Secret Service told me they don't want him around the Washington, D.C., area," Roger Bremer told The Sun. "They wanted to see if I could set up with Arthur, see if he could stay here."

But Roger Bremer, 53, said he is wary of what his bother might be like after 35 years in prison.

"I'd be afraid to see him," Roger Bremer said. "Nobody knows what he'll be like after all these years. He's 57 years old. How's he going to find a job?"

Roger Bremer said he spoke with his brother by telephone for about 40 minutes after his conversation with the agent, and his brother asked for help in getting him released.

Although he has had little contact with his brother over the years, Roger Bremer said his parents would visit Arthur at the prison twice a year when they could travel. Bremer's mother died in February at age 92; his father died in 2002. Other brothers live in Wisconsin and Florida, a sister in California.

Roger Bremer said he was told by authorities that his brother was "kind of like a hermit" in prison and "doesn't talk and won't say what's on his mind."

He said his brother didn't specifically ask to move in. "I don't think he wants to," Roger Bremer said. "He was always a loner and he wants to be independent."

Elizabeth Bartholomew, spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation, said that agency has been working with the parole commission, prison system officials and the FBI on a plan for Bremer's release. Assuming he stays in Maryland, housing will be arranged for Bremer, and he will be closely supervised for the remainder of his sentence. He would likely stay in a supervised housing facility, such as a shelter or halfway house, she said.

Compacts between states allow for transfer if an inmate has a family member willing to take him in, has a job or was a resident of the other state at the time crime was committed.

Maryland law, Bartholomew said, requires Bremer's release because he has earned credits for education, work and good behavior during his time in prison.

"He kind of blends into the woodwork," one corrections official, who asked to remain anonymous, said of Bremer. "He's completely invisible out there."

In 1996, a state parole commission hearing officer wrote that paroling Bremer would "effectively proclaim an 'open hunting season' on" other politicians.

But experts say authorities must release someone who has served the required time in prison when there is no compelling legal basis for holding him.

"You can't just keep locking someone up simply because you are afraid that maybe they will commit another crime when they get out," said Andrew D. Levy, a trial lawyer and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Estranged from his family, rudderless, Arthur Herman Bremer had first set his sights on Richard M. Nixon before abandoning those assassination plans. He was 21 and a former restaurant busboy when he targeted Wallace in the parking lot of the Laurel Shopping Center.

Bremer's motivations to hurt Wallace - personal and political - were illuminated in his diary, in angry statements made at his 1996 parole hearing (the only time in three decades that he asked for a review), and in a 1997 letter to the parole commission after it denied his request.

Riddled with misspellings, the diary revealed a young man aware of his life's early failings. In it, he said he wanted to be recognized.

"It's worth death or a long trial & life in prison," wrote Bremer. "Life outside ain't so hot. I want to do something bold & dramatic, forcefull [sic] & dynamic. A statement of my manhood for the world to see."

During the 1996 parole hearing, Bremer indicated that he had been following Wallace's career, noting that Wallace went on after the shooting to serve two more terms as Alabama governor.

"But, whatever is his specific job title, his full-time job was that of segregationist, and it was not benevolent segregation, but a racial segregation of in your face, a 'you get out of here, boy' type of segregation," he said.

Observers of the May 15, 1972, incident recall the easy access to Wallace, who stood on a podium facing the shopping center. Robert J. DiPietro, who would go on to serve as Laurel mayor from 1978 to 1986, worked at a nearby bank and said he went to see Wallace that day because he was a "novelty," not because he supported him.

"Nobody really wanted Wallace to be here," he said.

Yesterday, DiPietro recalled that Wallace was walking off the stage when the pop, pop, pop sound of gunfire rang out. A scramble ensued. When DiPietro returned to the bank, the scene was already on the TV news.

Three others were also shot, including Nick Zarvos, a former Secret Service agent, now 72 and living in Katy, Texas. Zarvos speaks with a muted voice due to a right vocal cord that was paralyzed by the shot.

"I'm trying to put the incident behind me," said Zarvos, a retired security consultant. "I have no anger or anything. I think justice has been served. I'll leave it up to the justice system."

The Wallace shooting followed the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

Wallace influence

Wallace, who sought the presidency four times, was known as the governor who "stood in the schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama in 1963, a physical barrier to integration and the social change sweeping the nation.

But Jack Germond, a former political reporter and columnist for The Sun, said Wallace was influential in American politics during his heyday. He mastered the art of pitching hard-working white Americans against the activists seeking that social change, tapping a deep undercurrent of racial resentment.

Nixon, who won in 1968, took notice of Wallace's message that year, using some of the same themes to his political advantage but in "a more genteel way," Germond said.

In 1972, though, Wallace's "act had gotten a little old, and he wasn't getting the same response" as he had four years earlier, Germond said.

The shooting changed Wallace's world. His family has said he developed a deeper faith and reformed his more extremist - many believed bigoted - beliefs.

He even reached out to Bremer in prison, and in 1997, wrote to the appellate panel as well.

"By the time Bremer is released from prison in the next century, I will be gone from this Earth," he wrote. "In the meantime, I pray that the Lord will give him solace as well as the strength to become a productive member of society."

To Bremer, Wallace expressed an even deeper sentiment: "I am a born-again Christian, I love you."

Bremer never responded.

DiPietro said that during his time as mayor, some people lobbied to put a plaque at the Laurel shooting site. He said Wallace phoned him and urged strongly against it.

"I assured him I had no intentions of allowing anyone to put a marker there," he said. "I wasn't going to honor a segregationist with a marker, and I certainly wasn't going to honor a criminal act that took place in our town."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com greg.garland@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

Timeline

1972: Running on the campaign slogan "Send 'Em A Message," Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace wins the Democratic presidential primary in Florida in a splintered field of candidates.

May 15, 1972: At Laurel shopping center, Arthur Bremer, 21, shoots Wallace, striking him five times, and wounds three bystanders. Wallace is paralyzed from the waist down. He carries Maryland and Michigan the next day.

Aug. 4, 1972: A Prince George's County jury convicts Bremer in the shootings, despite testimony from experts about his mental state and his attorney's arguments that he was insane. He is sentenced in August 1972 to 63 years, but his sentence is later reduced to 53 years as a result of judicial review.

1979: Bremer is transferred from the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary to the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institute-Hagerstown.

1996: The Maryland Parole Commission denies parole for Bremer on the grounds that releasing him would diminish the seriousness of his crime.

Dec. 16, 2007: Bremer is scheduled to be released from prison as a result of good conduct credits he has received.

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