It was late afternoon on May 13, 1981 and it was time for the Pope’s weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. It took him almost half an hour to weave through the crowd, while riding an open Jeep that was affectionately called the Popemobile.
But then 4 shots rang out. Pope John Paul II famous for his anti-communist stance and as the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, had been gunned down.
One bullet tore through his abdomen, while another hit his left hand. The third bullet hit an American tourist and caused serious wounds, while the fourth bullet got a Jamaican pilgrim in the arm. Bystanders knocked the gunman’s weapon to the ground, and they helped him there until the police arrived.
The pope was immediately rushed to Gemelli Hospital which was less than a mile from where the shooting occurred, where doctors took 5 hours to surgically repair the wounds. Afterwards, he was deemed in “critical but stable” condition. After 4 days, he offered forgiveness to his would-be murder while he lay in his hospital bed. The pope spent 3 weeks under medical care in the hospital until he was fully recovered.
Investigating the Gunman
The resulting investigation identified the gunman as Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had been a member of a right-wing Turkish terrorist group held responsible for numerous assassinations in the country. Agca had escaped a military prison in 1979 while awaiting trial for the murder of a newspaper editor in Istanbul. He was tried in absentia and found guilty.
Police authorities found a note in his cell in which he had written that his reason for escaping was to shoot the pope. The pope had been scheduled to visit Turkey at the time, but there were no attempts on his life during the visit as the security was ramped up.
On May 9, 4 days before the shooting, Agca journeyed from Majorca and entered Milan under an assumed name. He took a room in a nearby hotel, and then walked into St. Peter’s Square with a 9mm Browning automatic.
After the shooting, a note was found in his pocket that read: “I am killing the pope as a protest against the imperialism of the Soviet Union and the United States and against the genocide that is being carried out in Salvador and Afghanistan.” He entered a guilty plea during his trial, and said he acted alone. In July of 1981, he was sentenced to life in prison.
A year later Agca had announced that his assassination attempt was really part of a plot that involved other Turks and members of Bulgarian intelligence organizations, which were regarded as puppets for the KGB. Agca’s allegations led to the arrest of several Bulgarians and Turks, who were tried for murder in 1985.
But that case fell apart, as Agca announced during the trial that he was actually Jesus Christ. In 1986, all the other defendants were acquitted. In 2000, Agca himself was pardoned by the Italian Prime Minister for the crime at the behest of the Pope. He was then extradited to Turkey, where he served the remainder of his sentence for the murder of the newspaper editor.
As for the Pope, his Popemobile would eventually be outfitted with bulletproof glass, and he would remain a target for other assassination attempts until his passing in 2005.