Would-be hero was `kind of sad'

August 24, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun reporter

Arthur Bremer made clear in his diaries that he wanted the fame that came to the assassins who preceded him, the ones who killed President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But he had much more in common with those who came later - John Hinckley, who wounded President Ronald Reagan, absurdly seeking the love of Jodie Foster; Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon saying The Catcher in the Rye would explain it; and the two women who tried to kill Gerald R. Ford.

Bremer might have wanted to be a historic hero, but in his diaries and in the courtroom, he appeared pathetic, to be pitied instead of feared.

A native of Milwaukee, Bremer was 21, a high school graduate working as a janitor when he decided that killing someone famous was his path out of anonymity.

In his diaries, he details buying guns - and losing one to the police when they spotted bullets on the seat of his car - and heading to Canada in 1972 to try to kill President Richard M. Nixon during a state visit. Bremer shows up in the background of photographs, proving that he was there. He did not come close to getting off a shot.

He switched to a less-guarded target, George C. Wallace, the Alabama governor and one-time segregationist who was running one of his maverick campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.

`He liked Wallace'

"The curious, or ironic, part is that he liked Wallace," says Benjamin Lipsitz, the Baltimore lawyer who was appointed to represent Bremer. "Wallace to him was a role model, a small man who made it big, a little guy who did good."

In his diaries, Bremer laments that killing Wallace would not make a big enough splash, probably not enough to warrant interrupting regular television in Europe for a bulletin.

But Wallace had to do. Some speculated that Bremer was out of money and resources when he fired the shots in Laurel, that he needed a place to sleep and jail would provide that.

At the time, some psychologists thought it was a suicide attempt, a hope that he would go down in a blaze of glory. Instead, he was hustled into the back of a police car and taken to the Prince George's County jail after wounding Wallace and putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Lipsitz, 88, says he heard the news on the radio as he drove back from a deposition in Towson that afternoon in May 1972. A well-known defense lawyer in the federal courts, Lipsitz knew that he could be called to take the case, but he figured that Laurel was far enough away that he was off the hook. The phone rang late that night at his Pikesville home, and he learned that he had the case.

By then, Bremer had been taken to Baltimore, and Lipsitz drove to the FBI facilities in what was then the post office building to meet his new client, finding him curled up in the fetal position at the end of a hallway full of law enforcement officers.

They met in a vacant office. "He was an interesting guy," Lipsitz says. "Kind of sad really. ... His family was bad news."

`Dysfunctional' family

Accounts from social workers in Wisconsin described Bremer's family as "dysfunctional," with a tough mother an absent father and Bremer's four siblings scattered.

Bremer had moved out and was living on his own in 1971 when he met his first and only girlfriend, Joan Pemrich. They had a few dates, but she dumped him not long after some inappropriate behavior at a Blood, Sweat and Tears concert. Bremer reportedly danced and clapped wildly in a way that had nothing to do with the music, and kissed a girl who was standing nearby.

The longest portion of his diary describes a visit to a massage parlor in New York. Despite a $30 tip on top of the $18 fee, Bremer laments that he left the establishment still a virgin. The masseuse told him that regulations prohibited her from providing anything beyond massage services.

Federal authorities had taken Bremer from the Laurel police because he had shot a presidential candidate. But he was eventually returned to state custody to face charges. At that point, the Laurel public defender could have taken his case. Lipsitz says he stayed with it because Bremer asked him to.

"By that time, he had sort of adopted me," Lipsitz says. "I don't know, I was sort of his father figure or his window on the world or something."

There was no fee. Lipsitz says a client advanced him money so that he could conduct the case. Most of his expenses were later recovered through the publication of Bremer's diaries, which Lipsitz arranged.

Bremer pleaded insanity. Lipsitz says he knew that would lead to losing in the trial but that he hoped it might give him something to work with on appeal. Lipsitz took the case to the Supreme Court, to no avail.

"You've got to run the string out on a case like this," Lipsitz says. He ultimately got 10 years taken off Bremer's initial 63-year sentence, which is why Bremer is coming up for release as a result of good-conduct credits. Federal authorities dropped their case after the state convictions held up.

Attention paid to Bremer, now 57, waned over the years as his moment in the spotlight faded. He did not give interviews and, by all accounts, kept to himself in prison, first in Baltimore, then in Hagerstown.

According to one account, during a riot that left the penitentiary filled with smoke, only one machine was still working, banging out license plates, the one run by Bremer.

That doesn't surprise Lipsitz, who has kept up with his client over the years.

"He was a loner type," Lipsitz says. "He would not want to be bothered with something like having a riot."

michael.hill@baltsun.com

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