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Don't Blame It on Danville

The suburban days of the doctor’s wife who tried to kill a U.S. president


From outward appearances, Sara Jane Moore was a Danville housewife like any other. She dressed well and was attractive. In 1968 she had chosen, with her doctor husband, to live in the new Sycamore development, where an upscale country club was being built. She was socially ambitious, and had a young son named Frederic, whom she stayed home to raise.

But on September 22, 1975, the 45-year-old Moore stood in a powder-blue trench coat outside San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel and aimed a .38 at President Gerald Ford as he walked out. When she opened fire and sent a bullet whizzing past Ford’s forehead, Moore became the ninth person in history to attempt to kill a U.S. president, and proved unquestionably that she was not your typical housewife after all.

Since that day 30 years ago, history buffs have tried to reconcile Moore’s Danville persona with her identity as a radical terrorist. Over the years, they’ve spun various theories. Some centered on the idea that something in Moore’s experience with suburban East Bay life pushed her over the edge into criminality.

But information that until recently had never been released—from reams of investigative reports generated in her case, as well as interviews with her former Danville neighbors—tells a somewhat different story. It becomes clear that Moore’s attempt to kill the president was just the latest outburst in a stormy life, one driven by a constant need to be the center of attention.

Born in West Virginia, Moore careened through multiple careers and three marriages to professional men before arriving in Danville. Along the way, she bore five children, four of whom she left to her parents to rear. She came to the East Bay after living in Arizona and Southern California.

It was in 1967 that Moore, who called herself Sally, met her fourth husband, Willard Carmel, at a social function in Walnut Creek. She was craving luxury and comfort, and Carmel was a good catch. A doctor at Walnut Creek’s Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, he had recently divorced his first wife. After Moore and Carmel married, they and Frederic, Moore’s son from husband No. 3, moved into a house on Old Orchard Drive. Moore immediately got busy decorating her home, landscaping, and rubbing her neighbors the wrong way.

It didn’t take long for mothers of other children Frederic’s age to decide they didn’t want anything to do with her. The Danville Circle, as one moms’ group was nicknamed, cut Moore out of their children’s playgroups and their baby-sitting pool; they also left the Carmels out of their adult social circle.

“She was well kept and attractive; it wasn’t that,” one neighbor explained. “It’s that she barged in on your life as though you had nothing to do but listen to her.” The final straw for this mother came the morning that Moore “invited herself in without a thought to my schedule . . . and just talked nonstop until I was late and had to practically throw her out. She had no regard for anyone but herself.”

Neighbors liked Frederic, who would be reared by a foster family in San Francisco after his mother’s arrest. “It was too bad about her little boy,” explained another mom. “She dressed him up like an East Coast preppy doll, in short pants and knee-length socks. All the other kids made fun of him. We welcomed that very polite young man, making room for him when we could.”

When Moore involved herself in an activity, she pushed it on everyone else, and wasn’t shy about name dropping. “Sally would elaborate her importance to the point that nothing would have happened without her,” one former neighbor explained. Her support for Republican Senator George Murphy’s reelection campaign in 1970 was one such instance. Of course, it’s hard to imagine how a future counterculture would-be assassin could ever have supported Murphy, an ultraconservative former song-and-dance man. But “to hear Sally tell it,” her neighbor says, “Murphy had been elected in 1964 because of her.”

In what was probably another bid for attention, Moore affronted community decorum one spring morning by painting her front door purple. She ignored the fact that it violated the covenants of the Sycamore Homes Association, until strong association pressure forced her to repaint the door.

Jim Graham, the subdivision’s developer and a founder of the association, said he received an angry call from Moore. As Graham tells it, “I had to hold the phone away from my ear because she was screaming at me at the top of her voice in extremely foul language.”

Yet Graham also noted that Moore could be a positive force, as when she spearheaded a collection for the family of a construction worker who fell into a ditch and died while the subdivision was being built.

And Moore did have a good friend in Danville, schoolteacher Barbara Abbot. Abbot remained a friend after Moore’s arrest, and Moore hoped to move into a bedroom in her home if parole was ever granted. Abbot’s death in 2002 was a painful loss for Moore.

Somewhat predictably, Moore ended on bad terms with her fourth husband. Just four years into the marriage, Moore filed for divorce, but Carmel counter-filed, and the court granted him an annulment in 1972, on the grounds of a preexisting marriage. It turns out Moore had never gotten a divorce from Frederic’s father before she married Carmel, who died in 1986.

It took two more years of nasty legal battling before Moore moved out of the house on Old Orchard Drive and into San Francisco’s Mission District, in June 1974. There she became a member of the radical underground, soaking up ideas that fed her desire for self-importance and led her to make the decision to kill the president of the United States.

Six psychiatrists who examined Moore after the shooting offered different views of her mental state. One pointed to manic-depression; another said she had borderline personality disorder; a third said it was a case of simple self-centeredness. All agreed that she was sane and knew right from wrong when she fired a bullet at Ford’s head, and that she was competent to stand trial.

Now 75, Moore is serving a life sentence in Dublin’s Federal Correctional Institution, just 10 miles—but a world away—from Danville.

Peninsula-based journalist Geri Spieler is writing a biography of Sara Jane Moore.


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