BELLEVILLE, Ill. >> The gunman who shot a top GOP congressman and several other people today at a baseball practice outside the nation’s capital had a long history of lashing out at Republicans and recently frightened a neighbor by firing a rifle into a field behind his Illinois home.
James T. Hodgkinson, 66, wounded House Rep. Steve Scalise before he was fatally shot by police who had been guarding the House majority whip.
In the hours after the attack in Alexandria, Virginia, a picture began to emerge of a shooter with a mostly minor arrest record who worked as a home inspector and despised the Republican Party.
On Facebook, Hodgkinson was a member of a group called “Terminate the Republican Party,” a fact that seemed to take on chilling new meaning in light of an account from South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan. He said he was preparing to leave the baseball field when a man politely asked him whether it was a Democratic or Republican team before quietly walking off.
Until recently, Hodgkinson ran a home-inspection business out of his house in southern Illinois. His Facebook page shows that he was a fan of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who last year made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders acknowledged Wednesday that Hodgkinson had apparently been among many volunteers on his 2016 campaign.
Authorities believe Hodgkinson had been in the Alexandria area since March, living out of a cargo van and not working, FBI agent Tim Slater said.
An online search of newspapers shows that he frequently wrote letters to his local newspaper, the Belleville News-Democrat, which published nearly two dozen of them between 2010 and 2012. Many included complaints about the same theme: income inequality.
Hodgkinson, who spent most of his life in the community of 42,000 just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, compared the economic conditions of the time to those that preceded the Great Depression and excoriated Congress for not increasing the number of tax brackets and adopting other tax-reform measures.
On May 14, 2010, he wrote: “I don’t envy the rich; I despise the way they have bought our politicians and twisted our laws to their benefit.”
Less than a year later, on March 4, 2011, he wrote that Congress should rewrite tax codes to ease the tax burdens of the middle class.
“Let’s get back to the good ol’ days, when our representatives had a backbone and a conscience,” he wrote.
Later that year, in October 2011, he applauded the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York and Boston, writing that the demonstrators “are tired of our do-nothing Congress doing nothing while our country is going down the tubes.”
Hodgkinson had arrests in his background for a series of minor offenses and at least one more serious matter. Court records show that his legal trouble started in the 1990s with arrests for resisting police and drunken driving.
In April 2006, Hodgkinson was charged with misdemeanor battery after he stormed into a neighbor’s house in an attempt to force home a teenage girl who, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was under guardianship of Hodgkinson and his wife.
Witnesses told deputies that Hodgkinson burst into the home and told his daughter “to get your stuff. It’s time to come home,” the report said. The daughter refused and locked herself in a bedroom before Hodgkinson again forced his way in and “became violent,” grabbing her by her hair and throwing her on the floor, according to the report.
The confrontation spilled outside as the daughter and a friend tried to flee in a car. Hodgkinson used a pocket knife to cut the friend’s seat belt and punched that woman in the face.
The teenager’s mother entered the fray, hitting her daughter, pulling her hair to get her out of the car and threatening to put her back into foster care, the report said.
After Hodgkinson retreated to his home, he was confronted by the boyfriend of the woman he punched. According to the report, Hodgkinson struck that man in the head with the wooden stock of a 12-gauge shotgun before firing off a round as that man fled.
A judge later returned the teen to the custody of Illinois welfare officials and awarded guardianship to the Hodgkinsons’ neighbor, the Post-Dispatch reported. Battery charges against Hodgkinson and his wife were later dismissed.
Three years earlier, Hodgkinson served as an independent contractor on a county weatherization program. He was banned from the program after he was apparently caught rummaging through someone’s desk in search of a check, according to Mark Kern, the St. Clair County board chairman.
Though no other legal problems are listed in St. Clair County, which includes Belleville, since 2011, Hodgkinson did come to the attention of local law enforcement as recently as late March.
That’s when Bill Schaumleffel recalled hearing shots being fired outside his house, which stands about 500 feet behind Hodgkinson’s home. When he went outside, he saw Hodgkinson shooting a rifle into a cornfield. He was squeezing off five or six rounds at a time and, according to the report, fired about 50 shots in all.
“I yelled, ‘Quit shooting toward the houses,’” Schaumleffel said.
When Hodgkinson refused to stop, Schaumleffel called the sheriff’s department.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said Wednesday that Hodgkinson showed the deputy all required firearms licenses and documentation for the high-powered hunting rifle, which he said he was simply using for target practice.
The deputy cautioned Hodgkinson about shooting around homes, given that the rounds can travel up to a mile. No charges were filed.
“He said, ‘I understand,’ and said he needed to take the gun to a range to shoot it, Watson said. “There was nothing we could arrest him for, and there was no indication he was mentally ill or going to harm anyone.
“The only thing I was concerned about was that it was such a high-powered gun, and that somebody could possibly get hurt.”
Watson said the deputy on Wednesday recalled Hodgkinson being “very cordial.”
The incident happened March 24, according to sheriff’s officials. If the FBI is correct that Hodgkinson had been in Virginia since March, he must have left Illinois shortly after he was seen with the rifle at his home.
Over the last several weeks, Hodgkinson spent time at a YMCA near the site of the shooting, sitting with a computer in the lobby or at a table in an exercise area that overlooked the baseball field.
Stephen Brennwald, an attorney who said he saw the man every time he visited the facility recently, said he never recalled him talking to anyone.
“I would try to chat him up and say stuff, but he never looked back at me,” Brennwald said.
Brennwald thought it was odd that Hodgkinson was never exercising or wearing workout clothes. He thought about asking a staffer about the man but never did, he said.
“Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I can see how the guy was troubled, but at the time I thought he was working,” Brennwald said.
The office of Republican Rep. Mike Bost, whose district includes Belleville, said it had a record of 10 contacts with Hodgkinson between June 2016 and last month. The contacts were made via phone calls and emails. Spokesman George O’Connor described them as “negative in nature on a variety of legislative issues, but not threatening.”
Bost in 2014 became the first Republican since World War II to hold southern Illinois’ 12th District seat.
Dale Walsh, 65, of Belleville, said he was a lifelong friend of Hodgkinson’s. He said Hodgkinson never talked politics with him, but he was a passionate person who occasionally got into fights.
“He was the type of person that if you challenged him, he wouldn’t back off.”