updated 11/21/2011 4:36:05 PM ET 2011-11-21T21:36:05

A man who shot an assault rifle at the White House is one of only a handful of people ever accused of trying to assassinate the president, and if the past is any guide he could spend many years in prison or a mental hospital if convicted.

Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, 21, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, is accused of firing from a car at the White House on Nov. 11. Ortega was arrested last week in Pennsylvania after a four-day search and appeared in court in Washington for the first time Monday.

Since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, however, only a small group of people has been accused of attempting to kill the president. There's Charles Manson follower Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who pointed a gun at President Gerald Ford in 1975 as he shook hands in a crowd. Then John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981 in an attempt to impress actress Jodie Foster. More recent is the case of Vladimir Arutyunian, who in 2005 threw a hand grenade at President George W. Bush while he was speaking at a rally in the country of Georgia. The grenade malfunctioned and didn't go off.

Fromme served 34 years in prison. Hinckley has spent the past three decades confined to a psychiatric hospital in Washington. Arutynian is currently serving a life sentence overseas.

Story: Shooting suspect thought Obama was the 'devil'

But Ortega's case may have more in common with that of Francisco Martin Duran, who is serving a 40-year prison sentence after being convicted of trying to assassinate President Bill Clinton and nine other charges.

Nearly two decades ago, the 26-year-old Colorado man stood on a sidewalk outside the White House and unloaded at least 29 rounds from an assault rifle, firing at a man who was standing in front of the White House and resembled Clinton. Like Ortega, Duran had told acquaintances that the president should die, and there were questions about Duran's mental health.

Now 43, he is serving his sentence at a Colorado prison with a projected release date of 2029.

Ortega's future is less clear. During a hearing Monday, he shook his head when the judge read the charge against him, which carries a possible sentence of up to life in prison. He was appointed a public defender and ordered held without bond. A judge set the next court hearing for Nov. 28, following a psychological evaluation.

Some similarities between the two cases are striking. Both men were reported missing by family before allegedly turning up in Washington. Ortega's acquaintances and family have said he told them he was headed to Utah for business but never returned. In Duran's case, his wife reported him missing.

Acquaintances in both cases also said both men were upset with the government. Duran's coworkers later testified at trial they had heard him say he would "kill Clinton if he had the chance." In Ortega's case, court documents filed last week allege he told acquaintances that President Barack Obama was the Antichrist and said he "needed to kill him."

A mental health defense played a role in Duran's case and could again in Ortega's. Duran's attorneys put on an insanity defense, arguing he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and believed an "evil mist" was hovering over the White House, a claim the jury rejected. Ortega's acquaintances say he began acting strangely in recent months, suggesting he believed he was Jesus, according to a court document. His mother, however, told an Idaho newspaper last week that her son has no history of mental illness.

Some observers cite a key difference between the cases, however. Authorities say Ortega was driving when he stopped on a street south of the White House and fired from more than 700 feet away — the length of more than two football fields. Duran fired at relatively close range at a man who resembled Clinton.

"It was a much different situation. There was a guy who walked outside who looked very much physically like Clinton: same height, same hair color," said A.J. Kramer, the head of the Washington federal public defender's office who represented Duran.

The fact Ortega may not have fired at anyone in particular could make a significant difference, said Eric A. Dubelier, a Washington lawyer who helped prosecute Duran.

"It's basically a drive-by shooting at the White House," he said of Ortega's case, adding that it could be hard to convince a jury that Ortega intended to kill the president.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Man charged with trying to assassinate Obama

  1. Transcript of: Man charged with trying to assassinate Obama

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And tonight for the first time in close to two decades a man has been charged with attempting to assassinate the president of the United States in a case that underscores the risk we face every day in a democratic society. He's a homeless man from Idaho , now formally charged with the attempted assassination for firing rifle shots from a car at the White House . At least two rounds actually struck the building. And while the president was not in residence at the time, the full force of the law has now come down on this suspect. NBC 's justice correspondent Pete Williams has more on the charges and the suspect.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Appearing today in a federal courthouse in Pennsylvania not far from the motel where he was arrested, Oscar Ortega-Hernandez was formally charged with attempting to assassinate President Obama . In newly filed court documents, the FBI says friends of his from Idaho described Ortega as "increasingly agitated," "convinced the federal government is conspiring against him." Ortega considered President Obama , quote, "the anti-Christ." Ortega said he "needed to kill him," the FBI says. In Idaho , his father told Telemundo , NBC 's Spanish language network, that Ortega was obsessed with November 11 , the date 11/11/11. That's the day the shooting happened. Ortega was saying that "the world will end that day," his father said. Investigators say he fired nine rounds from a Romanian made semiautomatic rifle like this one, a knock-off of the AK-47 purchased in Idaho more than a year ago. The FBI says agents have confirmed several bullet impact points on the White House , declining to give a specific number. And investigators now say Ortega pulled over and stopped his car on Constitution Avenue last Friday night, firing from the passenger window. A former Secret Service agent says even though President Obama was in California the night of the shooting, a charge of attempted assassination is still justified.

    Mr. DAN BONGINO (Former Secret Service Agent): All that matters is what's in the mind of the criminal, not if the president was there or not. He very well may have thought that the president was home. And in that case, he, in fact, committed a crime. Whether he was home or not is irrelevant.

    P. WILLIAMS: Attempted assassination of a president carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The last man convicted for it, of shooting at the White House during the Clinton administration , got 40 years. Pete Williams , NBC News , at the Justice Department .


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