Note: This is part one of a two-part series about local cameraman George Nyberg, who filmed the assassination attempt on President Gerald R. Ford in 1975.
Forty years have passed since an attempt was made to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford in Sacramento. And one person who knows plenty about that infamous day is north area native George Nyberg.
Nyberg, whose former career in film and video production spanned 41 years, was working as a KOVR-TV Channel 13 cameraman when he was assigned to cover a portion of Ford’s local visit on Friday, Sept. 5, 1975. The president’s 16-hour stay was especially celebrated, since it marked the first presidential visit to Sacramento since President Lyndon B. Johnson visited the capital city in 1964.
The Air Force One presidential jet landed at McClellan Air Force Base on Sept. 4, 1975 at 10:42 p.m., and Ford was greeted by about 1,000 people, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who was then serving in the first of his four terms as California’s chief executive.
Ford and Brown were soon escorted to the Senator Hotel at 1131 L St., across the street from the state Capitol.
Gathered outside the hotel were about 300 people who were waiting to welcome the president to the capital city.
After their arrival at the Senator, Ford and Brown parted ways and Ford entered the hotel, where he was welcomed by another crowd of people and a mariachi band, which filled the air with its music.
After spending the night inside a then-recently painted room at the Senator, Ford left the hotel en route for the Sacramento Host Committee-sponsored breakfast at the Sacramento-Earl Warren Community Center, as the Sacramento Community Center was then known.
Ford later returned to the Senator Hotel before departing for a walk to the Capitol, where he was scheduled to participate in three meetings, including a joint legislative session in the Assembly chamber.
In recalling his assignment to cover Ford’s walk from the hotel to the Capitol, Nyberg said, “(Ford) was going to walk from the Senator Hotel to the east steps of the Capitol and he was going to address a joint session of the Legislature. So, that morning, the news department had caught wind that there could possibly be some sort of a demonstration. And so, they brought everybody together, you know, the news staff. By that time, we had like eight or 10 cameramen. But on any given day, there (were) probably eight (cameramen) there. Anyway, this had never happened before, but they decided to assign four teams to cover President Ford.
Sacramento resident George Nyberg, who grew up near Town & Country Village, spent 41 years working in film and video production. Photo courtesy of George Nyberg
“My job was to cover him from the time he left the Senator Hotel to go to the east steps. Arsen Matlejan, who was (KOVR’s) photo supervisor, he was inside to record (Ford’s) address on film. We had a third cameraman by the name of Jeff Shaff, who was up in Sen. (James R.) Mills’ office, which actually looked down onto the east side of the Capitol. He was up there and he was going to get like just an overhead shot. And then we had a fourth cameraman named Richard Viegas, and Richard was like a floater. He was just supposed to capture anything. You know, if something broke or something happened, he was there. He was supposed to kind of, in essence, back me up.”
Although many people are well aware today what transpired after Ford crossed L Street and walked about 150 feet up a sidewalk in Capitol Park on Sept. 5, 1975, Nyberg had no idea that he was just moments away from standing about 10 feet away from the scene of the 13th presidential assassination attempt in U.S. history.
During his interview for this article, Nyberg, who grew up just a short distance from Town & Country Village, provided a detailed description of that walk, including the incident that led Ford to being rushed away by the Secret Service.
“I remember covering (Ford) crossing the street, and he gets into the park and stops and he starts shaking hands,” Nyberg said. “So, I ran ahead of him, because you always want somebody coming to you. You don’t want somebody’s back of their head. So, it was when I had just ran around and got into position that (the then-26-year-old, red-haired, attempted assassin) Lynette (Alice ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) pulled out the gun and pulled the trigger. But there was no round in the chamber. If you can imagine, she was about (2 feet) from him. (It was) a big (.45-caliber Colt automatic pistol), and you hear click. He would have been dead (had a bullet been fired). Oh no, there’s no question about it. He would have been dead. They could tell from the bullets in the gun, she had practiced chambering around, because then you reload your magazine again, if you haven’t fired them.
“So, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and then did the right thing by filming, you know, rolling my camera. And as soon as that (incident with Fromme) happened, the Secret Service was going to whisk him into the Capitol. And what happened was they started to form a wedge and I slipped inside the wedge. But there were people all around him. We were all moving as a group, but I was moving backwards (sic). You know, I’ve got him here and I knew Arsen was inside, so when I got up to the steps, I stopped and let the president go by.
“And (a notable Associate Press photograph) was taken by somebody who was up on the steps looking at the president face on, and of course, I’m over his shoulder. Immediately, once I was done filming him being whisked inside, then I ran back to where they had Lynette and they had her pinned up by a tree. And the weirdest thing is she kept yelling, ‘He’s not your president, he’s not your president.’ I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. But anyway, so, I got the film of that (moment), as well.”
Although Nyberg had about as good of a view as one could have of this incident at Capitol Park, he left that scene in wonderment of what had actually occurred.
Nyberg said that with the fast pace of the event and the fact that he was filming, he never saw the gun, nor was he aware of the identity of Fromme.
“I had just got ahead of (Ford), and (Fromme) had pulled out the gun,” Nyberg said. “I didn’t see the gun. You know, I’m looking through a camera, but I’m keeping this eye open too, because I’m looking for whatever is going on. Well, that took place, but it didn’t really register. But when they started pulling him to get him inside and I slipped into that little wedge that the Secret Service had formed, I got (very) close to him. And I knew that something traumatic had happened to him, because he was pale and he looked like he was in shock. And I (recognized it was a serious situation), but at that particular moment, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was.”
Little time passed after the incident in Capitol Park before the identity of the woman with the loaded gun was discovered.
The Sacramento Bee, in its same day coverage of the event, reported the following: “The young woman, identified as Lynette Fromme, a longtime follower of cult leader (Charles) Manson, was charged with the ‘crime of attempting to murder the president of the United States,’ according to Donald H. Heller, the assistant U.S. attorney general in Sacramento.”
In speaking about Fromme and other “Manson girls,” Nyberg said, “Of course, (Fromme) was a Manson follower. They were all here (in Sacramento), you know, Sandra (“Blue”) Good and Susan Murphy and (Fromme). They were Manson girls and they were here (living at 1725 P St.) to be close to Charlie, because they would go visit him up at the prison. And at that time, our maximum security prison was Folsom (Prison).”
Nyberg said that it was only by chance that when he filmed the Ford assassination attempt, he was testing out new, Kodak high-speed film stock that “had less wet time than the previous film stock by (about) six or eight minutes.”
“Anyway, it was the first time we ever beat (KCRA-TV) Channel 3 on the air with a story, only because we could get our film out a little sooner,” Nyberg said. “And then, of course, we broke into the news with a breaking news story. We would have broken in the early afternoon, I’m sure. It would have been before 5 o’clock (that evening), because we did a breaking news story. We interrupted local programming, and, of course, we did probably a longer version at 5 (p.m.). And in those days, network news came on at 5:30 (p.m.) and we would do another show at 6 (p.m.). And then everybody had a show at 11 (p.m.).”
Nyberg said that both the color film from the KOVR news camera and the color film from his personal, still-shot camera that he had lent to a KOVR reporter at Capitol Park were quickly made unavailable to him.
“I think it was the Secret Service (or) the FBI, but somebody came and rounded up all of our footage,” Nyberg said. “I was probably out on another story out in the field the day they came in with a subpoena and said, ‘We’re taking the film.’ I think (that happened) within a week.”
Nyberg added that the aforementioned KOVR reporter, who was using his Minolta 101 camera, captured a close-up shot of Fromme, and without his knowledge, quickly sold the photograph for $2,000 to Newsweek magazine.
“I heard that she had sold the photo, or she had sent them actually the film,” Nyberg said. “And she never discussed it with me. She just did it. And then, she wanted to reimburse me only for the film, and I said no, the film is not for sale.”
Eventually, the matter was settled, with Nyberg acquiring about 60 percent of the profit from Newsweek.
The photograph was featured on the cover of the Sept. 15, 1975 issue of that magazine. And also included on the cover were Fromme’s reactionary words to the botched shooting: “It didn’t go off!”
Fromme, whose bail was set at $1 million, became the first woman to be indicted under a 1965 statute that made it a federal crime to “assassinate, kidnap or assault a president of the United States.”
Despite facing the possibility of a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, Fromme opted to act as her own lawyer.
Fromme was eventually sentenced to life in prison, and escaped from a West Virginia prison on Dec. 23, 1987, only to be found two days later. She was released from a Texas prison on parole on Aug. 14, 2009.
After being asked to express his afterthoughts about the incident at Capitol Park that nearly became one of the darkest days in Sacramento history, Nyberg said, “Well, just the image of (Ford) being in shock before I knew what had really happened. I mean, that just like burned something right into my mind, because I still see that today.”