Witness To History | Assassin in the Crowd: Protecting President Reagan at the Hilton
National Law Enforcement Museum holds discussion about the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley, Jr.
Washington, DC—On Tuesday, April 11, 2017, the National Law Enforcement Museum presented the 16th installment of its popular Witness to History panel discussion series, entitled “Assassin in the Crowd: Protecting President Reagan at the Hilton,” generously sponsored by Target®. Held at the Washington Hilton Hotel, guests enjoyed a fascinating discussion with former U.S. Secret Service Special Agents Tim McCarthy and Danny Spriggs and retired FBI Special Agent Tom Baker about the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr.
On March 30, 1981, President Reagan was only a few months into his presidency when he spoke to representatives from the AFL-CIO at the Hilton Hotel. As he was leaving the building, he waved to the crowds of people, and several shots rang out. President Reagan’s Secret Service detail rushed the president into his limo and then to George Washington University Hospital where surgeons repaired the damage from Hinckley’s bullet. Law enforcement officers tackled Hinckley at the hotel and held him at the Metropolitan Police Department jail until he was formally arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1982, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital. Last year, he was released and is living with his elderly mother in suburban Virginia.
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig W. Floyd kicked off the event by welcoming more than 135 guests in attendance. He remarked on the significance of the location of the discussion. “This is a very special place is it relates to tonight’s event,” Mr. Floyd said. “It’s truly unique to get to talk about such a historic moment at the place where the assassination attempt actually occurred.”
From left: Special Agent Tom Baker (ret.), Special Agent Danny Spriggs (ret.), Special Agent Tim McCarthy (ret.), Tom Sherwood and Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig Floyd
After a brief introduction that included information on the first Secret Service agent to die in the line of duty in 1902, Mr. Floyd introduced moderator Tom Sherwood, a reporter for NBC News4, specializing in politics and Washington, DC government.
Retired Secret Service special agents Tim McCarthy and Danny Spriggs were part of the detail assigned to President Reagan’s trip to the Hilton. As the consecutive shots were fired, McCarthy and Spriggs, as well as the rest of the agents on duty, sprang into action.
“It was a reaction based on my training,” Special Agent McCarthy said. “I’d like to say I thought about it, but I didn’t. I reacted the way we were trained to react. As I’ve always said, I was very happy I was able to do it that day, based upon my training. I don’t know if I could do it again. I don’t want to find out, by the way.”
“When I heard the shots fired, I immediately went for my weapon,” Special Agent Spriggs said. “I only had seconds to determine where the shots were coming from. So even though you don’t have time to think, you’re already anticipating ‘what if.’ Are you going to be able to respond based on your training?”
President Reagan was shot and immediately rushed to the hospital. Not far behind him was Special Agent McCarthy, who had also been shot protecting the president. He said he wasn’t aware he’d been shot until he found himself on the ground. “I couldn’t figure out why I was there,” he said. “I saw a little blood on my shirt. I had heard the gunshots right away, and it didn’t take much to put two and two together that I had been shot.”
As news of the shooting became public, FBI Special Agent Tom Baker was on his toward the hotel. His thoughts rushed to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, and how the investigation was deterred by several agencies not being able to work together immediately following the shooting. “I am certain that these Secret Service agents, when they went to training were told about the assassination of President Kennedy,” Special Agent Baker said. “Back in Dallas, the situation was badly mishandled.”
Following the shooting of President Reagan, questions arose about the close proximity of the public and media to the president. “It really wasn’t a controversy,” Special Agent McCarthy said. “It was just a different time back then. The staff at the White House dictates what the Secret Service can do. It wasn’t our choice. If it was our choice, the president would travel in a bullet-proof bubble. To this day, the White House staff still dictates the parameters that we can use.”
The Museum’s Witness to History program began in June 2011. Since the inaugural event, 15 more have been presented. Video recordings and photos from the events are available to view on the Museum's website.
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About the National Law Enforcement Museum
A project of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the 57,000-square-foot National Law Enforcement Museum will be located adjacent to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC’s Judiciary Square. The Museum will tell the story of American law enforcement through high-tech interactive exhibits, comprehensive collection of artifacts, extensive resources for research, and diverse educational programming. The Memorial Fund’s mission is to tell the story of American law enforcement and make it safer for those who serve. For more information about the National Law Enforcement Museum, visit www.LawEnforcementMuseum.org.