By DAN LAMOTHE, Capital News Service
LAUREL, Md. (November 9, 2007) - Jack Ingram of Severn was 27 when he witnessed a horrifying, defining moment in two men's lives: The assassination attempt here by a disturbed, unemployed janitor on Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace.
The May 15, 1972, shooting happened moments after Wallace spoke to about 1,000 people at a political rally at the Laurel Shopping Center. Arthur Bremer, then 21, urged Wallace to shake hands, then emptied four rounds from a pistol into the presidential candidate's stomach.
Early Friday morning, Bremer was released from the Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown to a world that's still shadowed by the event.
Wallace, a fiery segregationist in the 1960s, would never walk again and died in 1998. Three other people were injured in the attack. Bremer spent 35 years in prison.
"I remember the crowd parting like wheat right after it happened, so I had a really good view of Wallace as he lay there bleeding," said Ingram, a retired NSA employee who stood 15 feet away. "I remember there was this high school girl crying, and she just kept saying, 'Not in Laurel! This just can't be happening in Laurel!"
The city of 21,000 is still best known as the setting for a historic double-whammy of negative circumstances—Wallace's shooting and the adopted home of terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Put it this way: My daughter is spending some time working in Montgomery (Ala.), and she's wondering if she should tell them she lives in Laurel," said Joe Robison, 75, a former mayor and longtime resident. Wallace's shooting was "a major event that happened in Laurel, there's no question about that, but I don't think there's any guilt associated with Laurel."
Traces of the shooting can be hard to find. There is no marker at the shopping center, a complex near Route 1 that features about 50 stores, including a Giant Food supermarket, a CVS pharmacy and a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant. A Bank of America was built on the exact location Wallace, a fiery segregationist, was shot.
Thomas Stuckey, a retired Associated Press reporter who covered the story and heard the gun shots, said many residents were upset with the negative attention Laurel received.
"There were definitely some bitter feelings," said Stuckey, 68, who still lives in Annapolis. "A lot of people felt like they were being unfairly stigmatized just because one crazy guy chose that shopping center to shoot Wallace."
History bears that out. Bremer's appearance in Laurel was the result of a perfect storm of events in which he had debated killing President Nixon to get attention, but moved on to planning the assassination of Wallace because he thought it would be easier. He had considered shooting Wallace at previous campaign stops, including at a rally in Wheaton earlier in the day, according to a Washington Post article published a day after the shooting.
Karen A. Lubieniecki, president of the Laurel Historical Society, said Bremer's release has redirected the group's attention to the event. She compared Laurel to Shanksville, Pa., a rural community of about 250 where a jetliner hijacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, crashed in a field.
"Things happen to communities through no fault of their own," she said. "We know it's part of our history, and it's an opportunity to educate our community and those who visit our museum on what these events mean historically."
For those in Laurel that day, though, the memories remain fresh. Robison said he was working as a supervisor in a mail-handling center in Riverdale when the shooting occurred, but rushed to the site later as a member of Laurel's rescue squad.
"The crowd had thinned out some at that point, but (authorities) still weren't sure if anyone else was involved," Robison said. "They searched the top of every roof in that complex."
Stuckey said he was in a nearby telephone booth calling in details for his story when he heard shots fired. He rushed back to find pandemonium, and spent the day interviewing people and relaying information to editors.
"You could see the blood, and Bremer had been wrestled to the ground," said Stuckey, who counts the event as the biggest one-day story he ever covered. "It's the kind of thing you hope you will never see."
Ingram said the shooting touched him on a personal level because, while he lived in Calvert County at the time, he had rented an apartment not far from the shopping center a few years before.
"I didn't support his politics, but you don't get a chance to see someone like that speak in a place like that all the time," Ingram said. "I'll think of that day every time I go by that shopping center for the rest of my life."