When the president was shot, I was driving away from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was 2:30 p.m. on Monday, March 30, 1981. A radio announcer interrupted my music with the dire news.
I sped to the Washington Hilton, where I turned out to be the first FBI agent on the chaotic scene. Ambulances with sirens blaring were arriving from all directions. Two Marine helicopters, self-dispatched, hovered above the roofline between the hotel towers. I expected a law-enforcement turf war, as had happened in 1963 after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But it didn’t materialize.
Capt. Jimmy Wilson, commander of the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide unit, strode toward me holding a clear envelope containing the revolver they had taken from the shooter. To simplify the chain of custody, I asked him to hang onto it until the FBI crime-scene truck arrived. Robert Powis, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Washington Field Office, approached next. “You’re the FBI,” he said. “You’re taking charge of the investigation now.” A 1965 statute made assault on the president a federal crime and charged the bureau with conducting any probes. That meant me, head of the criminal division in the Washington Field Office.
The crowd thickened as White House aides and media arrived. Al Fury, the Hilton’s security director, gave us a suite near the shooting site to use as a forward command post. Earlier, worried by the crowd gathering outside while the president spoke, Fury had offered to let Secret Service agents escort Reagan out though the garage; Fury was vocal in his disappointment when they declined. He tried to control the crowd with a velvet rope, and he snapped a photo that showed John Hinckley standing among the press moments before he shot the president.
The shooting came amid high international tension. At the FBI’s Washington Field Office, we’d been monitoring the situation with the Soviet Union. In office barely two months, Reagan took a far more confrontational approach than his predecessor. At the same time, Moscow was in a standoff in Poland against the Solidarity labor movement. The public didn’t yet know—but we did—that the Soviets were preparing for a military invasion of Poland.