A Look At The Assassination Attempt Plotted Against Jimmy Carter

Presidential assassination plots have claimed the lives of four out of 45 presidents in American history: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963. Dozens of other presidential assassination attempts have been unsuccessful, thanks to heroic individuals, a diligent Secret Service agent, and unskilled gun-handlers. President Jimmy Carter was the target of just one known assassination plot in the course of his single term (1977-81) in the White House, but it was a bizarre scheme that put conspiracy theorists on high alert.

In 1979, Carter was delivering a speech at a Cinco de Mayo festival in Los Angeles on the Civic Center Mall. But just 10 minutes before the president took the stage, Secret Service agents noticed 35 year-old Raymond Lee Harvey, an unemployed drifter from Ohio, looking suspicious as he stood 50 feet away from the president. They detained and searched him, finding a .22 caliber eight-shot starter pistol, according to historian Kevin Mattson, in his book, What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?

The plan, according to Harvey, was to shoot the starter pistol in the air to create a diversion so that the real assassins would have a clear opening to kill Carter. Two Mexican hit men on top of a nearby building were to assassinate the president with high-powered rifles. The Secret Service and the FBI were skeptical of the story, since Harvey had been drinking and he seemed disturbed, The Washington Post reported at the time.

The plot to assassinate Jimmy Carter baffled the FBI

Harvey's account quickly gained some traction as an investigation turned up a shotgun case and three rounds of ammunition in the hotel room where Harvey said the conspiracy was hatched, according to a UPI report (via The New York Times). Agents were also able to track down one of the three plotters — Osvaldo Espinosa Ortiz, a 21 year-old from Mexico, who corroborated many of Harvey's claims after initially claiming he had never met Harvey.

As news reports revealed the names of the two — Raymond Lee Harvey and Osvaldo Espinosa Ortiz — conspiracy theorists started spinning their own versions of the story because, when combined, their names resembled that of John F. Kennedy's killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

That similarity was not lost on law enforcement, who said they could not confirm that "Osvaldo" was, in fact, Ortiz's true first name. Ortiz and Harvey were eventually released due to lack of evidence. Secret Service spokesman Jack Warner said, "At this point we don't believe his story. Our investigation shows no evidence of a conspiracy. It sounds like the type of thing we get all the time," according to Mel Ayton in his book, Hunting the President.

A year later, while on his failed re-election campaign, Carter had another brush with a man who would try to end another president's life. Carter came within feet of John Hinckley Jr., who would later attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley also considered shooting Carter, but backed out, according to the Dayton Daily News.