Witness to History
National Law Enforcement Museum holds panel discussion about the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley, Jr.
Assassin in the Crowd: Protecting President Reagan at the Hilton was the 16th installment in the National Law Enforcement Museum’s Witness to History panel discussion series generously funded by Target®.
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund President and CEO Craig W. Floyd kicked off the event by welcoming 135 guests to the Washington Hilton Hotel. He remarked on the significance of the location. 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.”
Mr. Floyd introduced moderator Tom Sherwood, a reporter for NBC News4, specializing in politics and Washington, DC government.
Former US Secret Service (USSS) Special Agents McCarthy and Spriggs were both at the Washington Hilton for President Reagan’s speech. McCarthy was part of the Presidential Protective Division, a group of Secret Service agents assigned to protect the First Family and other key government figures. Spriggs was with the Washington Field Office’s Intelligence team responsible for investigating potential threats. Spriggs was already stationed on T Street when President Reagan, surrounded by his personal protection including McCarthy, exited hotel. Just as the President turned to wave to the crowds of onlookers, John Hinckley, Jr., fired six consecutive shots. The first bullet hit Press Secretary James Brady in the head, the second hit Metropolitan (DC) Police Officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck, the third hit a building across the street, the fourth hit McCarthy who was shielding the President as other agents rushed him into the limousine, the fifth hit the bullet-resistant glass window of the limousine, and the sixth ricocheted off the armored side of the limousine hitting the President under his left arm.
“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?”
Special Agent Jerry Parr was the head of President Reagan’s Protective detail. At first, Parr ordered the limousine to return to the White House. Parr redirected them to George Washington Hospital after the President coughed up blood. The agent suspected, not a bullet wound, but that the president had a broken rib from being pushed into the car. When the limousine arrived at the hospital, the President insisted on walking into the emergency room only to collapse once he was past the doors.
36 years later, McCarthy remembers not being 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 rushed to the hotel. His thoughts were on the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, and how the investigation was hindered 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.”
Special Agent Danny Spriggs also remembered the President Kennedy’s assassination too, and the murder of suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, before he could be tried. Spriggs was determined to get Hinckley to a safe place. Spriggs made the decision to take Hinckley to the Metropolitan (DC) Police Department’s central cell block which he felt would be more secure than the USSS’s Washington Field Office. Spriggs remembered, “[Hinckley] was very stoic. He didn’t say a word. My main concern was getting him to a safe area.”
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."