Author Mel Ayton talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his new book on plots to assassinate U.S. presidents throughout the last 70 years, some of the bizarre and previously unknown stories he uncovered in his research and the truth about the level of threats to the current administration.
In the history of the United States, four sitting presidents have been murdered at the hands of an assassin. What most people do not know, however, is that every single administration has been the target of would-be assassins. Historian Mel Ayton, in his new book Hunting The President: Threats, Plots and Assassination Attempts – From FDR to Obama, tells the story of the downplayed, overlooked and never-before-revealed malicious plots to slay the commander in chief. Ayton, a former Fulbright Teacher, deputy headmaster, and college lecturer based in County Durham, England, researched the subject extensively over the course of two years using court records, newspaper archives, government reports, FBI files, and transcripts of interviews from presidential libraries. “I discovered that the Secret Service has always had an enormous task because there are many more threats than what the public believed or knew about,” he says. “During the Eisenhower administration, for example, one Secret Service director went on record before a congressional committee to say that the president was threatened once every six hours. There are an incredible amount of threats and presidential stalkers and would-be assassins whose schemes are being thwarted.”
Mel Ayton: My fascination with American History began with watching Western movies and TV shows as a child in the 1950s. I grew up in a time when America, the most important ‘superpower’ on the planet, was experiencing great political and social upheaval with riots in the cities, growing crime, assassinations and the War in Vietnam as well as drastic change with the Civil Rights Movement and President Johnson’s plans for a ‘Great Society.’ As an historian, I had to specialize in a particular subject and, as I lived through most of the events I write about, I chose to specialize in modern American history with particular reference to the modern presidency and the political assassinations of the 1960s. That was an incredible decade. The John F. Kennedy assassination was a fascinating subject around the world. It was like 9/11 for today’s generation.
I love to do research and am obviously well read in U.S. history and politics. Whenever I find something that has never been revealed before it is exciting. As I researched the assassinations of JFK, his brother Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King some years ago, I was intrigued that there was a possibility many more serious threats to assassinate American leaders may have existed. How would we know? ‘The Secret Service does not comment or release information regarding our protective intelligence and protective methods,’ the agency stated in 2004, ‘… [the] Secret Service does not discuss any alleged threats to our protectees.’ The agency also recommended the use of sealed affidavits to keep news of threats from leaking to the press. However, [former Secret Service Director] Mark Sullivan and over 100 agents broke with his agency’s long-standing policy of absolute silence and allowed [American journalist] Ronald Kessler to ‘get an earful’ according to the Washington Post.
The only way was to do research to find out. I wanted to write something new and original; therefore, I had to find out if my suspicion was true. I was also quite aware that the U.S. Secret Service tries to limit publicity about presidential threats and is not disposed to share its secrets. Their records are closed to public scrutiny.
Opportunist: Why do you believe history has either forgotten or tried to keep most of these assassination attempts under wraps?
Mel Ayton: The Secret Service is really not very forthcoming, and I think the general body politic is a bit wary because of the idea of copycat crimes. When John W. Hinckley Jr. shot President Reagan in 1981, for example, threats went up by 150 percent. There have always been the deranged, mentally ill and misfits of society and situations like that will often incite them.
Opportunist: How did you work around the veil of secrecy?
Mel Ayton: All historians work under one spirit and that is curiosity. That led me to the path of researching more plots and assassination attempts, to asking whether we truly know everything about the protection of the president and if things were being covered up. America is not a closed society like the old Soviet Union. However, America is an ‘open’ democracy and there will also be a paper trail like court records and police files.
My research had to center around the memoirs of former agents, newspaper archives, public-record U.S. government agency reports, CIA and FBI files, court records and oral histories in presidential libraries. They turned out to be a goldmine of information about the work of the Secret Service and the numerous threats presidents have faced. The release of information had already opened up somewhat during former Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan’s tenure. And as far back as the 1980s, [American investigative journalist] Seymour Hersh got a lot of Secret Service agents to talk about the presidents whose lives they have protected.
Opportunist: What makes your book different from others with a similar theme?
Mel Ayton: Many stories within the book have remained largely hidden from the public—some buried in newspaper archives and others in government reports, FBI and CIA records and presidential libraries.
Opportunist: Did any of your beliefs or opinions change as a result of what you learned while writing this book?
Mel Ayton: I learned a great deal about the onerous task the Secret Service has when it comes to protecting the president and foiling assassination plots, threats or planned attacks. I also learned that the greatest threat to the president is not necessarily from terrorist groups but individual ‘would-be assassins,’ most of whom are failures in life who ‘copy’ former assassins and seek notoriety and fame. Even America’s ‘home-grown Muslim fanatics’ are not necessarily directed by a political group but use their distorted ideology to act out their frustrations after a lifetime of anonymity and failure.
Opportunist: Were their motives political?
Mel Ayton: Contrary to popular belief, most American assassins and would-be assassins are not necessarily motivated by deep political convictions. Despite the growing problem of Islamic and domestic militia-type terrorism and the threat it poses to the president, the majority of the assassins, would-be assassins or threateners examined in my book were engaged in psychodrama rather than political drama or acts of terrorism. They valued the act itself more than the victim. Their feelings towards the target were, in fact, irrelevant. In short, the would-be assassins I studied can be described are ‘failures’ living ‘meaningless lives’ and without purpose. They believed that assassinating an American president would, in some bizarre way, enhance their pathetic lives. Most of the would-be assassins I studied were social misfits and loners unconsciously trying to gate-crash into immortality. Most of them could be described as narcissistic, resentful, pathologically-obsessed and egocentric. They needed recognition and status and lusted for infamy.
Opportunist: What are you hoping readers will get from your book?
Mel Ayton: History buffs like me will no doubt enjoy reading about the previously unknown accounts of would-be assassins who very nearly changed the course of American history. They will also learn a lot about how presidential protection works and how the court system deals with those individuals who threaten the president. Many of the non-serious threateners I researched had no idea they would be committing a serious crime; therefore, wider public knowledge of this offense may help to limit the appalling numbers of threats a president receives each year. Threatening a president can result in serious jail time.
Opportunist: What is the most interesting anecdote you discovered while researching your book?
Mel Ayton: Many!
Opportunist: Can you share a few of the more bizarre and relatively unknown stories you found?
Mel Ayton: An armed would-be assassin named Walter Harold Best stalked President Roosevelt and spent 10 days waiting across the street from the White House in Lafayette Square for his chance to shoot him. Best’s name has never appeared in any book about FDR or assassination attempts in general. So this will be the first time Best’s name has been revealed since the story broke in 1943.
Also in 1943, a crack squadron of 38 elite paratroopers was given the mission to drop in and kill Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at the Tehran conference. Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s most famous military intelligence operative, organized the plot but did not admit to it until 1966.
One of the most bizarre plots against FDR involved Christopher Clarence Cull, a racist from Tulsa who hated Jews and African Americans and believed Hitler was the ‘greatest man in the world.’ Cull told friends he wanted to go to Germany, volunteer for special training in sabotage then return to the United States to blow up ships and aircraft factories. Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Cull enlisted as a sailor in the U.S. Navy but deserted from the USS Florida when it docked at Para, Brazil. He made his way back to America and visited his friend Dick Seibert, whom he told he was going to manufacture a nitroglycerine bomb and ‘…get close to … Roosevelt and blow him to hell and I’ll go along with him.’
Seibert tried to persuade Cull to abandon his plans but he said he would sacrifice his life and his death would make his cause ‘seem all the more vital to the American people and they would realize there must be something wrong with our form of government or else a man would not give his own life to assassinate a president.’ Cull left Seibert’s house for New York City and registered at a hotel carrying a case with enough nitroglycerine to blow up a battleship.
Opportunist: How was Seibert caught?
Mel Ayton: Secret Service agents located Cull at a New York hotel and waited for him in a room directly opposite the one he occupied. When Cull returned to his room armed with a 16-inch butcher knife, agents quickly arrested him. They searched his room and found material necessary for the manufacture of a bomb. At another hotel where Cull had rented a room they found a black suitcase containing two bottles of nitroglycerine and a bottle of nitric acid.
Cull was taken to police headquarters and denied ever having made threats against Roosevelt but when he was confronted with the written formula he signed a statement and confessed ‘My purpose was to kill that son-of-a-bitch Roosevelt. I want to destroy him in order that we can get a new commander in chief who will make peace with Germany and then go after the Japanese. I hate President Roosevelt. He was responsible for our entry into the war and the killing of a great many sailors in the North Atlantic.’
Opportunist: How many other plots were interrupted?
Mel Ayton: This is a difficult question, as many plots were foiled before the perpetrator or perpetrators were able to carry out their plans. As many agents have testified towards in their memoirs, the agency frequently decided there was insufficient evidence to make charges; therefore, there are no arrest records or court records. For example, an ‘Illinois man,’ who had sent threatening letters to President Nixon was arrested at an airport where the president was about to land. Police and Secret Service agents discovered he had a rifle with a telescopic sight in his car. He was arrested on other charges but agents believed he was there to shoot the president. Some would-be threateners were sent straight to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., or other psychiatric establishments without having been charged. And the Secret Service is not disposed to making their records of such foiled plots available to researchers.
Opportunist: Can you share some of the foiled attempts against our most recent U.S. presidents?
Mel Ayton: On January 13, 1992, Roger Hines stole a .357 magnum revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition in Oregon before travelling to Washington, D.C., to kill George H. W. Bush at a school where he believed the president would be making an appearance. Hines, a 6-foot-4-inch, 457-pound, 35-year-old man with four prior criminal convictions and five hospitalizations for mental problems, chose the wrong school. Fortunately, the President was 45 miles away on the outskirts of Baltimore. Acting on a tip off Hines was arrested, charged and tried in a court of law and received a lengthy sentence.
In 1998 Johnnie Wise and Jack Abbot Grebe were found guilty of plotting to kill President Clinton using a hypodermic needle coated with a biological agent such as anthrax, botulism or HIV. They were members of a little known radical separatist organization, the Republic of Texas.
The most dangerous threats to President Clinton’s life, however, came from a man who stalked him armed with a .45-caliber handgun for a week during his jogging forays on the National Mall. Secret Service Agent Dan Emmett related the story in his memoirs but did not name Clinton’s would-be assassin. In Hunting The President I name the man as Ronald Gene Barbour, a 45-year-old veteran and unemployed limousine driver who lived in Orlando and suffered from severe depression. On May 27, 1994, an Orlando jury found Barbour guilty and in August 2004 he was sentenced to five years in prison and three years’ probation on his release.
One of the most bizarre threats to George W. Bush’s life came in August 2004 from a 56-year-old Buffalo, New York, man named Darrel David Alford. He told acquaintances he wanted to equip one of his model airplanes with a bomb, take it to an arena or stadium where Bush was to appear and then detonate the bomb as his plane flew over the platform where Bush was to give his speech. Alford pleaded guilty to making threats against the president.
Opportunist: Is there any truth to the rumor that Barack Obama’s race has caused him to be the most threatened president in U.S. history?
Mel Ayton: At the beginning of Barack Obama’s term as president, threats became so disturbing the FBI established a Presidential Threat Task Force to gather, track and evaluate assassination threats that might be related to domestic or international terrorism. Following Obama’s election victory in November 2008, anti-Obama comments on Internet forums continued to rise, especially on white supremacist websites. However, by December 2009, then-Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said the level of threats had stabilized and that no more threats were made against President Obama than were made against former Presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. At a Congressional hearing in December 2009, Sullivan said ‘the threats right now … that we are seeing is the same level as it has been for the previous two presidents at this point.’ Sullivan rejected author Ronald Kessler’s allegations that the threat to Obama had increased 400 percent since the president took office.
Opportunist: Which president was the target of the most plots?
Mel Ayton: It’s impossible to say unless you have total access to Secret Service files but, generally speaking, the level of threats started to increase following the assassination of JFK. So I would hazard a guess here and say the Johnson administration because there were a lot of deranged people and copycats who wanted to finish Oswald’s job. It was a dangerous time of assassinations and riots in the cities. Half of D.C. burned to the ground and the Secret Service feared terribly for Johnson’s safety. They would have to seek out safe venues for his speeches and things of that nature and I believe it was because of the heightened threat at the time. Since the ‘60s, generally speaking, the level of threats remains stable.
Opportunist: Have threats and plots against presidents had any discernible effect on the way a president is protected?
Mel Ayton: Although foiled assassination threats and plots against modern presidents have not changed history to any great degree, they have nonetheless altered the way in which the president interacts with the public, a crucial component of American ‘democracy in action.’
Opportunist: Would you be surprised if the FBI had a file on you?
Mel Ayton: When it comes to telecommunication and email they identify buzzwords, so no. Obviously when these buzzwords come up they will trace them and find the provenance and determine I am this guy writing a book and not some jihadist. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Is there another book in your future?
Mel Ayton: Hunting The President II – Threats, Plots and Assassination Attempts – From The Founding Fathers to the Great Depression.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @lescstone.
Mel Ayton’s Website - http://www.melayton.com/
Hunting The President via Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/Hunting-President-Threats-Assassination-Attempts-From/dp/1621572072