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Belleville man who shot, injured Republicans ranted against their policies

FBI and ATF agents enter the the home of James T. Hodgkinson, the man identified as shooting a Republican member of congress, in Belleville, Illinois on June 14, 2017.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
FBI and ATF agents enter the the home of James T. Hodgkinson, the man identified as shooting a Republican member of Congress, in Belleville≠ on Wednesday.";

The Belleville man who authorities say opened fire Wednesday as Republicans practiced for the annual Congressional Baseball Game was distressed about the changing political climate of the country under GOP leadership.

James T. Hodgkinson, whom the FBI identified as the gunman, had been living in Alexandria, Virginia, for the past two months, his wife, Suzanne Hodgkinson told ABC News. He left behind his life in Illinois, where he had occasional run-ins with law enforcement and frequently criticized Republican fiscal policies in letters to the editor. 

He also belonged to anti-Republican groups, including one called “Terminate the Republican Party,” the Belleville News Democrat reported.

Hodgkinson, who volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, once wrote in a letter to the newspaper, “‘I have never said life sucks, only the policies of the Republicans."

A friend, however, said Hodgkinson did not seem a bad person. Belleville resident Dale Walsh, 65, said he had known Hodgkinson all his life, and people called him Thomas or Tommy. Walsh said Hodgkinson never had a streak of violence, but was known to not back down from a fight. But court records show Hodgkinson had brushes with the law.

"At all the parties, he was the jokester of the party,” Walsh said. “He was always happy go lucky. It just took me by surprise when I saw on the news today that he did what he did. I just want to let people know that he wasn’t evil. He was, I guess, tired of some of the politics going on."

Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, who was practicing on the baseball field, told the Associated Press that before the shootings, Hodgkinson asked him whether “Democrats or Republicans” were practicing. Duncan said he replied that the Republican team was practicing. 

Shortly thereafter, shots rang out. Authorities say Hodgkinson was fatally wounded when members of the Capitol Police Department returned fire.

Among those injured in the shooting were House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, two police officers and an aide to Texas Rep. Roger Williams. Scalise was in critical condition Wednesday afternoon, after surgery for a gunshot wound to the hip.

The violence came one day before Republican and Democratic teams were scheduled to play in their annual interparty contest at Nationals Park, a 108-year-old tradition that supports D.C.-area charities and suspends political rancor.

FBI agents and other federal investigators searched Hodgkinson’s two-story home near Belleville on Wednesday. The FBI also is investigating Hodgkinson, his associates, whereabouts, use of social media and potential motivations. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is running a trace on a rifle and a handgun.

Members of both parties were quick to condemn the shootings.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who represents the 13th District, was at the Alexandria ballfield. He told reporters he never imagined that he would “have to dodge bullets” at a baseball practice. Davis credited Capitol Police officers on the scene with saving lives. Had they not been there, Davis said, “it would have been a massacre.” 

During an early afternoon conference call with reporters, Davis described the shooter as "a madman" and "crazed lunatic." When he recalled a wounded Scalise lying motionless in the outfield, Davis said “I thought he was dead.” Such violence, he said, has no place in U.S. society.

"If you don’t like the policies of someone who’s elected, change them at the ballot box,” Davis said. “But be respectful and kind, and stop the hateful, hateful rhetoric that I see coming out of politics, of Congress. I see it coming out of news media. I see it on social media."

James T. Hodgkinson appears in a St. Clair County Sheriff's Department booking photo on Dec. 31, 1992.
Credit St. Clair County Sheriff's Department
James T. Hodgkinson appears in a St. Clair County Sheriff's Department booking photo on Dec. 31, 1992.

Hodgkinson lived in Belleville, which is in Illinois' 12th district and is represented by U.S. Rep. Mike Bost.

Bost, a Republican, said in a statement that Hodgkinson had contacted his office 10 times from last June until May and continually expressed opposition to the Republican agenda in Congress. But Bost said that in his correspondence, Hodgkinson “never appeared threatening or raised concerns that [he would ] would turn to physical action.”

However, Bost also said that the shooting “certainly hits close to home.”

“We live in challenging times and the political rhetoric has been turned up to an alarming level,” he said. “This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to step back from the battle lines and come together to strengthen our nation.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, said Wednesday that Hodgkinson had apparently served as a volunteer on Sanders' unsuccessful campaign for the presidential nomination.

“I am sickened by this despicable act,” said Sanders, who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 2016 general election.“Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”

Documents filed with the State of Illinois show Hodgkinson used to own an appraisal and home inspection business. It was incorporated in 1994 and dissolved voluntarily in January of this year. His home inspector license was not renewed in late 2016 and Hodgkinson’s' real estate appraisal license expired in 1997. The records also show he was never disciplined by the state while the business was operating.

Court records show Hodgkinson had two traffic tickets dismissed in 2011. He was convicted of failure to obtain an electrical contracting license in 2009, pleaded guilty to a speeding ticket in 2007, and faced misdemeanor charges of battery and aiding and abetting damage to a motor vehicle, which were dismissed in 2006.

Hodgkinson's neighbors, William and Karmen Scharmleffle, in an interview Wednesday with St. Louis Public Radio, said they called the police when Hodgkinson fired a rifle near their home this past March.

In recent months, Hodgkinson has been living in suburban Washington, D.C., where former Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille often saw him at the YMCA “at least four times a week” for the last six weeks.

Euille told WAMU that he spoke with the Illinois resident for 20 to 30 minutes each time they met at the gym, but Hodgkinson did not work out; he only used the sauna, dressed in the locker room and spent time using his laptop. They also discussed Alexandria and possible jobs.

The former mayor said they did not discuss politics, and Hodgkinson did not ask about the Republican members of Congress who practiced baseball early mornings at a nearby field.

But a YMCA employee told Euille the man had inquired at the front desk about the game, and whether participants were Democrats or Republicans, WAMU reported.

Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.