TOPICS > Politics

Idaho Man Charged With Obama Assassination Attempt Led ‘Sort of a Troubled Life’

November 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Gunshots that hit the White House on Friday evening eventually led to the arrest of Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, a 21-year-old man from Idaho, on a charge of an attempted assassination of President Obama. Margret Warner discusses the developing story with Charlie Savage of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Gunshots near the White House led to a charge today of an attempted assassination of President Obama.

Margaret Warner has the story

MARGARET WARNER: President and Mrs. Obama were thousands of miles away in San Diego last Friday night when shots rang out on historic Constitution Avenue just south of the White House.

But it wasn’t until Tuesday that the Secret Service discovered two bullets had actually hit the White House. The exact location wasn’t confirmed, but yesterday workers were on the second-story Truman Balcony examining a window of the president’s living quarters. The bullet was stopped by ballistic glass.

Investigators now say they believe the shots were fired from about 750 yards away by a gunman in a car on Constitution Avenue between the White House and the Washington Monument. Shortly after the shooting, police found a car abandoned a few blocks away. An AK-47-style assault rifle and empty shell casings were inside.

By Sunday, they had linked the car to Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, a 21-year-old man from Idaho. U.S. Park Police issued a warrant for his arrest on a charge of carrying a deadly weapon.

SGT. DAVID SCHLOSSER, U.S. Park police: This is a man who discharged a rifle in downtown D.C. I think that speaks volumes.

MARGARET WARNER: Just hours before the shooting, acting on a report of suspicious behavior, police in nearby Arlington, Va., had detained Ortega-Hernandez near this abandoned house. They held him briefly, photographed him, then let him go.

After a nationwide manhunt, employees at this hotel near Indiana, Pa., yesterday thought they recognized the man in the photos.

Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Brad Shields:

LT. BRAD SHIELDS, Pennsylvania state police: Personnel at the Hampton Inn in White Township contacted state police, and reported that Mr. Hernandez — Ortega — Ortega-Hernandez was in their lobby. State Police personnel responded to the Hampton Inn, and took Mr. Hernandez into custody without incident.

MARGARET WARNER: In his appearance in federal court in Pittsburgh today, Ortega-Hernandez wasn’t asked to enter a plea to the assassination charge.

For more, we go to Charlie Savage, who is covering this story for The New York Times.

And, Charlie Savage, welcome.

Explain to us how — what has been treated for the last five or six days as a shooting incident near the White House turned today into this really deadly charge of attempting to assassinate the president.

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, I think there sometimes are shooting incidents heard near the White House that turn out to be nothing or just random. You know, this is Washington, D.C.

What turned this from a report of shooting in the vicinity to an assassination charge was that evidence accumulated that bullets had been deliberately fired at the White House, at the residential section of the White House, and that they had been fired by someone who his — once he was identified, his friends in Idaho told investigators he had been fixated on President Obama, he had considered Obama to be the Antichrist, and he had even told some of them that he thought he ought to kill him or hurt him or stop him in some way.

And the accumulation of this detail eventually convinced authorities, evidently, that this was a deliberate attempt to kill the president, not something random.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what emerged in this — what other details emerged in this criminal complaint today about what actually happened Friday night, who first saw or heard the shots and how it developed?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, so we know that gunfire was heard a little after 9:00 p.m. on Friday. That was, of course, a federal holiday. The Obamas were out of town, although we don’t know if their daughters were in the White House at the time, and the Secret Service won’t say.

What the complaint made clear was that there were several witnesses who saw this dark Honda Accord pull up on Constitution Avenue in front of the White House, and gunshots were fired out of a passenger-side window. We have — the person who was in the car behind it said this and someone who was on the street also said they saw this happen. And the car sped off.

And then six — a few minutes later, about six blocks away, the driver of the car abandoned it on the lawn of the National Institute of Peace, right by the bridge to the Potomac River. And inside this car, authorities found a semiautomatic rifle, nine spent shell casings, lots of other ammunition, brass knuckles, a baseball bat, a Wal-Mart receipt, and a jacket that had “L.A.” written on it in the form of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team logo.

And it turned out this car was — had a license plate from Idaho that they were able to link to Mr. Ortega-Hernandez, and, indeed, he had been photographed twice earlier on Friday wearing that jacket, once, as you mentioned earlier, when the Arlington County police stopped him and then let him go, because he had done nothing, committed no crime at that point, and was unarmed, but they did take his pictures.

And also they went to a Wal-Mart and found a surveillance tape of him wearing that jacket around 5:00, four hours before the shooting.

MARGARET WARNER: What else have you or in the complaint, but you through your reporting, been able to learn about Oscar Hernandez, his background?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, we know that he had sort of a troubled life. He has been in scrapes with the law in three different states. His family is from Idaho.

And it seems that he’s owned this weapon or a weapon much like this, say his friends, for quite a long time. And he sounds like a somewhat troubled individual. He was convinced the government was conspiring against him. And over the past year, he became increasingly more agitated about this. And he came to believe, his friends said, that President Obama was the source of the government’s problems and, in addition, that Obama apparently was the devil, the Antichrist, and so forth, and needed to be stopped.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about security at the White House.

Explain to people not familiar with this location on Constitution Avenue how someone actually can get close enough to the White House with an assault rifle to be able to shoot into a White House window.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, at the White House window, of course.

MARGARET WARNER: It didn’t go through it.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: It seems to have been an incredibly lucky shot that he actually managed to hit the glass from 750 yards away in what was essentially spraying the building drive-by style, although he did have a scope on the rifle.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, what kind of security is there and what kind of exposure does the White House have to the public street?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Right.

So, the White House can be seen from Constitution Avenue, which is sort of the main street along the drive which is lined by historic buildings and monuments. The Ellipse is a round grassy area that’s between the South Lawn of the White House and Constitution Avenue. And then across from that is the Washington Monument on the National Mall.

And so this is a sort of very picturesque part of Washington, D.C. Tourists love to take photographs of this. There are not trees at that point that would block your view of the White House, because that’s where the famous shots of the White House are all taken, that and the other side of the building on Pennsylvania Avenue, which has long been closed to car traffic.

MARGARET WARNER: But are there agents all around here?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: There are tons of both uniformed and undercover Secret Service agencies. The jokes among people who live in Washington is probably two out of every three homeless people you see around there is actually a Secret Service agent.

There are lots of uniformed Secret Service agents in cars, and as well District of Columbia police, who are responsible for Constitution Avenue itself.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly — and I know the Secret Service is — likes to keep mum on these things — but have they told you, have they said publicly or said privately that they think this incident exposes any sort of security lapses, anything that needs to be corrected?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, I spoke to someone who was part of President Obama’s security detail with the Secret Service until he left the government service in May.

And he said what is likely happening now is a comprehensive review. They’re probably looking at videotapes of the incident, since that whole area is blanketed with surveillance cameras. He said that probably the focus of the review will be on the response of it, how the shooter was able to get away and escape arrest for days, rather than how they could have stopped someone from pulling up in a car and shooting randomly at the building in the first place.

He said the role of the Secret Service is not to prevent every bad thing from happening. Human nature is too unpredictable. There are bad people who want to do bad things. The role of the Secret Service is to mitigate bad things when they happen so that you don’t have bad outcomes.

He points out here it was mitigated. The protections on the White House stopped the round from entering the residence. It’s true that sometimes President Obama goes out on to the Truman Balcony, and other people as well, but he said that security procedures would have been different at moments in which the president is outside vs. inside.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, what happens next legally?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: So, Mr. Ortega-Hernandez — Ortega-Hernandez will be brought back to the District of Columbia. He will be prosecuted here by the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, where the incident took place.

And, at some point here, we will have to see — expect that he will introduce a guilty or not guilty plea.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you very much, Charlie Savage of The New York Times.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you for having me.