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Heading them off at the White House gate

By Wil Haygood
Monday, November 30, 2009

Without invitation or appointment, they gallivant up Pennsylvania Avenue -- although they've been known, in modern times, even to fly some form of aircraft -- with unimaginable boldness and fearlessness.

They have been coming since the beginning of the 20th century, their first recorded intrusion believed to have come in 1912.

They come through rain, sleet, snow, the cover of darkness, and the prettiest of days with sunshine touching them.

They make headlines. They go down in history. And most certainly they have their mental capacity questioned.

There are times when they get off with small fines and suspended sentences. Other times, however, they come armed and wind up in the obit pages, dead at the hands of White House security officers who believe them to be mortal threats.

White House gate-crashers. A fraternity of lawbreakers who seek to penetrate one of the most heavily guarded presidential compounds in the world.

A Virginia couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, became linked to this odd and infamous group last week when they strolled -- sans invitation, according to White House officials -- into President Obama's state dinner on behalf of the Indian prime minister. The spiffily dressed couple posed for photographers, even getting a picture with the president.

According to historical records, two-legged interlopers were at their boldest during the 1970s, during the administrations of Presidents Nixon and Ford. Maybe it was the still-burning agonies of the Vietnam War, or the disenchantment in urban America. There were those who thought of the government as boogeyman. An estimated eight intrusions occurred during that decade.

The 1970s gate-crashing was kicked off by one Robert K. Preston. In February 1974, he hopped into a helicopter at Fort Meade and flew the thing to the White House, hovering there in the cold for several minutes like some mechanical insect. (White House officials were stunned when they found out Preston was a private in the military.)

Preston lowered the copter that day onto the White House grounds, but he quickly zoomed off, only to circle back a short while later. He finally surrendered. He later confided his actions were a result of his anger at being passed over by Army officials for a position as a helicopter pilot; his White House incursion was to showcase his flying ability. Preston was court-martialed, sentenced to one year and given a $2,400 fine. And discharged.

Two years later Chester Plummer had a notion to come to the White House, right up and over the fence. He was wielding a 3-foot-long metal pipe. He wouldn't stop striding, and authorities shot him dead when they felt Plummer's threats could not be taken lightly.

In October 1978, White House security officers saw a man wearing a bone-white karate outfit. He also was carrying a Bible -- which concealed his knife. He was disarmed and arrested, but not before slashing two security officers, who survived.

It is Michael Winter, according to most accounts, who has the distinction of being the first known intruder into the White House itself, his unlawful entry taking place on April 13, 1912. He said he needed to have a sit-down with President Taft. In Winter's day, intruders could simply walk up to the White House. (There is no known record of Winter's fate.)

There was only one unlawful interloper upon the White House during the Great Depression. It was as if would-be intruders had too many other things on their minds -- surviving, getting a decent meal.

There were several intrusions in the mid-1990s, though.

On Oct. 29, 1994, Francisco Martin Duran strolled up to the North Lawn and opened fire with a rifle. No one was hurt. During his trial -- an insanity defense was mounted -- Duran talked about "aliens" and a strange "mist" circling the Earth. He is in federal prison.

On May 24, 1995, Leland W. Modjeski jumped a fence at the White House and started galloping toward a security officer. Modjeski's father later said his son had been on antidepressant drugs and had inexplicably stopped taking them after being fired from a pizza-delivery job. Modjeski survived a gunshot wound to the arm.

Security tightened after 9/11

There was increased security around the White House in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But even before, improvements had been made. Every now and then the size of the security detail is increased. In 1976 the gates were refitted. That came about because of an incident on Christmas Day in 1974: Marshall Fields drove his Chevy through them. Fields was quick to announce his identity: the Messiah himself, he proclaimed. There was a standoff until he surrendered.

In 2005 Shawn Cox, an Arkansas native, breached White House security and found himself sentenced to 150 days in the clinker. The sentence was suspended, but he had to cough up a $50 fine. There was yet one more form of punishment: The judge ordered Cox to stay at least "a block away" from the White House under any and all circumstances.

Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who held positions in both the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses, decries the crisscrossing of celebrity and misbehavior. "I think this category is going to grow and grow," Hess says. "These are people with unfulfilled ambition and a need to become instant celebrities. We have created an audience for these type of people."

It is no mystery why the Salahis chose the White House. "The White House is the center of the world," Hess says. "Heck, if you can make it into the White House, perhaps you can make it anywhere! That's the attitude. I mean, what are you going to do? Break into the Smithsonian? Who's going to notice that?"

Crasher in the movies

One famous incident of a would-be White House interloper has made it to the Hollywood screen.

On Feb. 22, 1974, Samuel Byck hijacked a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Byck had made recordings of his anger against President Nixon: He blamed Nixon for having been turned down for a small business loan. Byck -- whose recordings also explained that he intended to fly the aircraft directly into the White House -- never got off the ground. Police shot him while he was aboard. Byck slumped to the ground, then placed a pistol to his head and fired, killing himself.

Sean Penn played a character modeled after Byck in the 2004 movie "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."

"With these people," says Hess of those who would plot ways to enter the White House grounds uninvited, "you are usually not talking about rational folks."

Modjeski, shot in the 1995 incident inside the White House grounds, had been studying at one time for a doctorate in psychology.

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