For three months, James T. Hodgkinson lived out of a white cargo van in a gentrified neighborhood just miles from where U.S. laws are made. Fellow YMCA patrons saw him there most mornings working on his laptop. One bartender said he spent many evenings quietly sipping cans of Budweiser by himself. The Bernie Sanders supporter told his wife he had an interest in tax policy, and he sold his Harley motorcycle and home inspection business before making the trip in March. By Tuesday, he seemed ready to come home, asking a mechanic to make sure his tires would survive the trip back to Illinois.
That was a day before he sprayed rifle fire at Republican members of Congress as they practiced for a charity baseball game, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others before he was mortally wounded by police. And it was at that auto shop that his anger flared during small talk with the mechanic.
“This man was just so passionate and hateful toward (President Donald) Trump,” said Crist Dauberman, recounting Hodgkinson’s profanity-laden tirade. Among other things, Hodgkinson said Trump had screwed up the country “more than anyone in the history of this country.” The Del Ray Service Center is known as a “neutral zone” of sorts when it comes to politics; lawmakers of both parties take their cars there.
“It was more than the average person who had maybe voted for Hillary. This was different. It was deeply rooted to where his whole tone and composure changed. His voice got loud and deep. There was so much anger in it.”
Scalise and lobbyist Matt Mika remained in critical condition Friday; three others wounded have been released from hospitals. Authorities were investigating Hodgkinson’s social media posts, a cellphone, computer and camera taken from his van.
It was not clear if Hodgkinson had planned the attack, or for how long. South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan has said 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.
So far, investigators have not linked Hodgkinson to any radical groups, said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
Back home in Belleville, Illinois, Hodgkinson wrote letters to the editor and called his congressman. His wife said he talked a lot about politics, and he posted often on Facebook, railing against Trump. He was a fiery guy, known for the occasional bar fight.
“He was the type of person that if you challenged him, he wouldn’t back off,” said lifelong friend Dale Walsh, 65.
Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old former home builder and lead removal contractor, had run-ins with police but no felony convictions. The most serious was in 2006, when he was charged with misdemeanor battery for storming into a neighbor’s house in an attempt to force home a teenage girl who was under guardianship of Hodgkinson and his wife.
The charges were eventually dismissed, but witnesses told deputies Hodgkinson grabbed the girl by the hair and threw her on the floor. He allegedly punched a woman who was a friend of the girl. When that woman’s boyfriend confronted Hodgkinson, he struck him in the face with a shotgun before firing off a round as the man fled, a police report said.
Ten years earlier, a foster daughter committed suicide by dousing herself with gasoline and setting herself on fire inside her car, the Belleville News-Democrat reported.
When Hodgkinson left for the Washington area, his wife figured he just needed a break since their daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter had just moved into their home and usually spent all day with him.
“I had no idea this was going to happen and I don’t know what to say about it. I can’t wrap my head around it,” Sue Hodgkinson said.
At the YMCA, Hodgkinson was nondescript: he always wore black pants and golf shirts, sometimes beige, sometimes gray, sometimes black. Even his email address was basic: email@example.com. He worked on his laptop and sipped coffee, rarely joining in the political discussions often set off by the TV.
“He would say ‘yeah I agree’ or something like that,” said former Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, who got to know Hodgkinson over the course of about six to eight weeks. “But he never really implied one way or the other that he was pro-Democrat, anti-GOP Republican or anything like that.”
Stephen Brennwald, an attorney and YMCA regular, said he thought it was odd that Hodgkinson never exercised or wore workout clothes. He thought about asking a staffer about him but never did.
“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.
In the evenings, Hodgkinson became a bit of a regular at the Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant just a few blocks from the ballfield where he opened fire. He always drank alone, and always drank cans of Budweiser — sometimes just one, sometimes as many as six, said Kristina Scrimshaw, a bartender at the restaurant. He rarely spoke.
“He would just sit and stare at the Golf Channel,” she said.
On Tuesday, Hodgkinson broke his apparent silence at the garage.
“I wish I had some kind of clue that his hate was going to turn into a shooting,” said Dauberman, the mechanic. “But you just never know. People say weird things all the time.”