Karen Yengich was a 25-year-old reporter on her first day on the job at the Laurel News-Leader when she found herself pushing through a panicked crowd toward the sound of the gunshots fired at presidential candidate George Wallace.
Wallace, then a segregationist governor running as a conservative Democrat, was leading in the state polls the day before the primary. Yengich’s editor sent her out to cover his speech at the Laurel Shopping Center. Afterward, as Wallace started looking for hands to shake, she began looking for people to interview.
“When he stepped down off the stage and he moved to my right, that’s when we heard some shots and we heard bang bang bang. And he’d been shot,” said Yengich, now 65 and living outside Salt Lake City, where she works as a writer and editor for an employee recognition company.
“The crowd kind of panicked. I tried to move forward and everyone else was trying to run away,” she said.
Arthur Bremer, then 21, shot Wallace four times at close range on May 15, 1972. Wallace was rushed to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring and survived his injuries, although he was paralyzed for life.
Wallace died in 1998 at age 79, having forgiven Bremer and renounced his segregationist past.
Bremer served 35 years at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown before being released in 2007 and moving to Cumberland.
Forty years later, Maryland is a much different state from what it was when voters gave Wallace his fifth primary win in the 1972 presidential campaign, but in some ways it’s also very much the same, said Todd Eberly, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor who teaches a course on state politics.
“The Wallace campaign is crucial to talking to people about Maryland politics,” Eberly said.
Wallace, who had run well in 1964 in Maryland, was greeted by a mix of supporters and hecklers at his campaign stops in Maryland.
“In 1972, his campaign was less about desegregation,” Eberly said. “Race was de-emphasized. In ’72 he ran as a populist and anti-Washington campaign. That you see played out today, especially on the Republican side.”
Wallace’s campaign targeted white, working-class voters who graduated high school but didn’t have a college degree, “folks who don’t see themselves benefiting from government programs though they pay taxes,” Eberly said.
When Wallace arrived in Maryland in 1964, his campaign was largely built around race, Eberly said.
“By 1972, the world had very much changed,” he said. “[Wallace] needed to find a way to tap into that electorate but without making it blatantly race related.”
Nowadays, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland remain very much tied to the politics of the Deep South, Eberly said. “But you get outside of Montgomery County, Prince George’s and Baltimore city, it’s more aligned with the national Democratic Party.”
While Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 57 to 43 margin, the GOP tends to outperform its numbers because many conservative Democrats will cross party lines, Eberly said. “These are the people who are crucial to understand to know why George Wallace did so well in Maryland,” he said.
Marvin Cheatham, president of the Baltimore city chapter of the NAACP, said, “Maryland was more racist than conservative back then.”
Cheatham said he was 21 when Wallace campaigned in the state in 1972.
“I don’t remember who I voted for then, but I remember who I voted against and that was Wallace,” Cheatham said.
But Cheatham said he remembers feeling sadness over the Wallace shooting.
“Folks have a right to different opinions. Folks have the right to express different opinions,” Cheatham said. “I didn’t care for his politics or the things he stood for. But I’d never have ill thoughts or ill will towards him.”
Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship remembered hearing of Wallace’s shooting from his father when he was a 13-year-old boy playing in a friend’s backyard.
“The conservative Democrats had a much stronger hold on their party than they do today,” Kittleman said of the political climate then that saw Wallace win the state. “Today the Democrat Party [sic] has become much more liberal in Maryland. The Republican Party has become the party of the center or center right.”
Wallace’s campaign in 1972 in Maryland was foreshadowed in many ways by the gubernatorial bid of George P. Mahoney, who won the Democratic primary in 1966 with the slogan: “A man’s home is his castle,” an anti-open housing agenda, said Matthew A. Crenson, professor emeritus in the political science department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Mahoney ended up losing in the general election to Republican Spiro T. Agnew, who later went on to serve as Richard M. Nixon’s vice president.
Mahoney lost because “black Democrats and liberal white Democrats deserted him in droves,” Crenson said. “That set the stage for Wallace.”
Crenson agreed that there are essentially two Marylands these days.
“Wallace would have a hard time winning Maryland today,” Crenson said. “He’d still be winning some of these counties. I know he’d be picking up western Maryland and the Eastern Shore. He’d run strong in the same places where the tea party is today.”
Bremer was looking for a way to become famous and decided to shoot either President Richard M. Nixon or Wallace, according to his diary, found after his arrest. Wallace was the easier target, Bremer found after stalking the two.
The investigation revealed that Bremer, a Milwaukee resident, wore Wallace campaign buttons and shouted to get the governor’s attention at a rally earlier that day at Wheaton Plaza. But a hostile crowd heckled Wallace and threw tomatoes at him. Because of the reaction, he refused to leave the podium to shake hands, denying Bremer his chance.
A few hours later at the Laurel Shopping Center, which had a Giant supermarket then and still does today, Wallace did shake hands, against the advice of his Secret Service detail.
About 4 p.m. that day, Bremer emptied his gun into Wallace’s abdomen and chest. One bullet lodged in his spinal cord. Three other people — a Secret Service agent, an Alabama state trooper and a campaign volunteer — were unintentionally wounded. Bremer was tackled and put in a headlock by Prince George’s County Police Cpl. Mike Landrum, who pushed him through an angry crowd for about 60 yards to a police cruiser.
After inching her way forward to where the shooting occurred, Yengich said she saw Wallace being held by his wife.
“His wife was leaning over him looking upset and concerned,” she said. “It was pretty obvious he wasn’t killed. You could tell he was conscious.”
It was the fifth shooting of a prominent American political or civil rights figure in a decade — the previous four claimed the lives of President John F. Kennedy, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leaders Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“You’ve got to remember, it was such a turbulent time,” Yengich said.
Bremer, who had been roughed up by the crowd subduing him, was taken to a Prince George’s County hospital.
Retired Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia was deputy state’s attorney in Prince George’s County on the day of the shooting.
Femia said in an interview that he was preparing charging papers on Bremer when “the room started to fill up with guys with short haircuts."
FBI agents “pushed us out of the way,” Femia said, and took Bremer from where he had been sent to be thoroughly examined.
County investigators said they had all the evidence they needed, including film of his attempt on Wallace’s life.
A few days later, Stan Orenstein, now a retired FBI agent, and colleague Bill Campbell interviewed Wallace. Orenstein, who was assigned to the FBI’s Mobile, Ala., division in 1962 upon becoming an agent, had experience with Wallace. From 1963 to 1965, he visited Wallace whenever the U.S. Department of Justice opened a case against the state government. In 1963, Wallace gained notoriety for attempting to halt the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama by blocking an entrance to a school auditorium, Orenstein said.
Federal marshals and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach confronted him, and he stepped aside.
“I think it was strictly politics with him. He didn’t get any particular joy out of being brutal to black people and he wasn’t involved in that,” Orenstein said. “But the shooting changed his attitude toward black people.”
Orenstein entered the hospital room with an eight-photo spread, including Bremer’s arrest photo and similar-looking men from Orenstein’s previous bank robbery investigations. Wallace recognized Orenstein from Alabama and, after a few minutes of casual conversation to make sure the governor was lucid, the agents presented him with the photo array.
Wallace immediately picked out Bremer, and after dozens of interviews with witnesses from the Wheaton and Laurel rallies and the recovery of Bremer’s diary, the FBI was confident that Bremer acted alone.
Femia said Prince George's State’s Attorney Arthur “Bud” Marshall, who died in 2011, persuaded the Justice Department to send Bremer back to Prince George’s, where Marshall and his lawyers had the depth of experience in criminal cases to lead the prosecution.
Presiding Judge Ralph W. Powers Sr. got a threatening call around the time of the trial but didn’t take it seriously enough to call in police, said his son, Ralph W. Powers Jr., a lawyer who practices in Upper Marlboro.
Judge Powers, who died in 1996, was known as a no-nonsense jurist who didn’t let lawyers waste the court’s time. His son said the judge was proud that the Bremer case concluded quickly and that the jury’s verdict was not reversed. The only change was that Bremer’s sentence later was reduced by 10 years.
Bremer was sentenced to 63 years in prison, although that was later reduced on appeal to 53 years. In November 2007, Bremer was released from prison and moved to Cumberland.
Bremer, who over the years declined numerous interview requests while in prison, could not be reached for comment.
Bremer has been compliant in his community supervision since leaving prison, said Mark A. Vernarelli, director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“As you know, the Maryland Parole Commission placed a number of special conditions with which Mr. Bremer must comply, such as not traveling out of state without permission and having no contact with elected officials or those running for office,” Vernarelli said.
Bremer must report to his community supervision agent until 2025 — when his original sentence of 53 years ends.
Staff Writer Aaron Kraut contributed to this report.