By Peter Castro
Updated June 05, 1995 12:00 PM

CALL IT A LESSON IN TIMING. Three days after President Clinton ordered Pennsylvania Avenue closed to traffic—to protect the Executive Mansion from an Oklahoma-style car bombing—Washington Mayor Marion Barry Jr. fired off an angry letter to Clinton protesting the ensuing traffic problems. “Unless…it was determined that you and your family were in imminent danger,” Barry wrote on May 23, “the security interests should have been balanced with the interests of the District Government.”

The day the letter arrived, former pizza deliveryman Leland William Modjeski, 37, ended that debate when, at 10:45 p.m., he scaled the 10-foot wrought-iron fence behind the White House, shouted, “I’m here to see the President” and set off near the East Wing with a gun in his hand. The incident was only the latest worrisome breach of White House security. Last September unlicensed pilot Frank Eugene Corder crashed a stolen Cessna onto the South Lawn of the mansion, killing himself; the following month, Francisco Martin Duran fired 29 rounds at the White House from a rifle before being subdued.

This time, fortunately, the assailant was probably a bigger threat to himself than to anyone else. The weapon he carried was an unloaded, 50-year-old revolver, and within seconds of clearing the fence he triggered a motion alarm on the White House lawn. Less than 50 yards from the White House, where Clinton was having a meeting, Modjeski was grabbed by uniformed Secret Service officer Scott Giambattista, 35. An agent, David Levine, spotted Modjeski’s gun as he and Giambattista scuffled and fired one shot, hitting both men and severely injuring their left arms.

The wounded men were rushed eight blocks to the George Washington University hospital emergency room. Modjeski arrived bleeding profusely from a severed artery but was pronounced stable after 3 hours of surgery. “He said, ‘I don’t need handcuffs,’ ” says Rhonda Coles, 33, a paramedic who treated him in the ambulance. “That’s an obvious wacko. If he didn’t think he needed handcuffs after all that, he was a definite lunch box.”

Meanwhile, doctors worked for nearly 4 hours on agent Giambattista, a married father of two, inserting a plate and a dozen steel pins into his arm to help repair a shattered bone. A day later doctors said he would recover.

Authorities are still not sure what Modjeski hoped to accomplish by his stunt. (They indicate that he had a history of mental illness.) He had graduated with a degree in psychology from Virginia’s George Mason University in 1989 and three years later earned a master’s degree in industrial psychology. Still, he was working until last December, when he was fired as a Pizza Hut delivery-man in Falls Church, Va., 12 miles from the capital, where he lived with his wife, Rose Mary (no children), in a modest brick townhouse.

On May 24, one day after his shooting, Modjeski was charged with felony counts of forcibly assaulting a federal officer and interstate transportation of firearms and now faces up to 20 years in prison. If nothing else, he has at least put to rest for now the debate about White House security. It is a growing problem, notes Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. Once, he says, “the Secret Service sent me a three-ring binder of people who threatened President Eisenhower. The country’s gotten larger, and more crazies are out there today.”