After shooting at GOP baseball practice, investigators probe trail of political anger left by attacker – Washington Post

Law enforcement officials worked Thursday to piece together the final nomadic months of the shooter whose anger toward President Trump apparently erupted in a rage of gunfire that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others wounded on a baseball field.

Among the many questions for investigators is whether the gunman — James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old unemployed home inspector from southern Illinois — had long planned Wednesday’s assault and possibly studied the movements of lawmakers in the months he spent living in his van in northern Virginia.

Hodgkinson died after a shootout at the Alexandria baseball field where Scalise and Republican colleagues were holding a practice for an annual congressional baseball game against Democrats.

Authorities said Hodgkinson used a rifle and a handgun in the attack. They were investigating whether they were obtained legally.

Scalise remained in critical condition, according to officials at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Four other people were wounded by gunfire and two of them were still hospitalized, including a lobbyist who remains in critical condition.

On Thursday morning, FBI agents swarmed through the Alexandria neighborhood. The baseball field, a parking lot and nearby YMCA facility remained closed, as did some streets in the area.

The shooting brought temporary displays of unity among lawmakers across America’s sharp political divide. But the attack also resonated far beyond the crime itself into possible reckonings over the country’s drift toward increasingly angry and uncompromising politics.

A major show of political solidarity was expected later Thursday at the Congressional Baseball Game, which organizers vowed to hold even in the chaotic hours after the shootings. Officials said there will be additional security at Nationals Park for the 108-year-old event.

Last year, an estimated 10,000 people were said to have attended game which has a long tradition. Trump does not plan to attend the game because of security and logistical concerns, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

On Wednesday evening, President Trump and his wife Melania visited Scalise and spoke with his wife.

Hodgkinson, who had been living in his van in Alexandria for the past few months, had posted anti-Trump rhetoric on his Facebook page and had written letters to his hometown newspaper blaming Republicans for what he considered an agenda favoring the wealthy.

Several congressmen at the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria praised the officers who engaged Hodgkinson, including two Capitol Police officers who were injured. One lawmaker said the baseball team members would have been sitting ducks had the gunman been able to make it onto the field.

“It would have been a bloodbath,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.).

Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), a retired Army general, said, the shooter was kept off the field by a chain-link fence, which was locked. “If he had been able to gain entrance to the field, it would have been a whole different story.”

A lobbyist, a congressional aide and a Capitol Police officer also were shot, while a second officer was struck by shrapnel. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.) injured his ankle while helping others take cover.

Williams along with one of his staffers — Zach Barth, who was shot in the leg — described the incident and fear in an interview Thursday morning on NBC’s “Today” show.

“I was running for my life,” Barth said of how he ran to seek cover from the field to the dugout. Once in the dugout with several other people, he said: “I was trying to keep my head down and prevent anything else from happening.”

“We were just trying to stay alive,” he said.

Barth was treated and released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon.

Williams described how he had just started to hit balls to Scalise when he heard the popping sound of shots being fired. He said he thought it was a car backfiring, but then realized it wasn’t and dove for cover to the dugout.

He said there were generations of people inside the dugout, including another congressman’s 10-year-old son.

“We bonded that day,” Williams said. “It was a scary day.”

He credited the two special agents with the Capitol Police who were members of Scalise’s security detail with being there. He described them as fabulous and said without them it would “have been a different” outcome “if they had not been there.”

Williams said that it also helped that a gate to the field was locked, preventing the shooter from getting onto the field.

“If he had gotten onto the field we would have had nowhere to go,” Williams said. “We had nothing but bats. … The Lord worked yesterday. He saved us.”

In a televised statement from the White House, Trump on Wednesday called for people to come together and commended the injured officers.

“Many lives would have been lost if not for the heroic actions of the two Capitol Police officers who took down the gunman despite sustaining gunshot wounds during a very, very brutal assault,” he said.

Lawmakers and bystanders described a horrific attack that began shortly after 7 a.m., when the shooter began firing more than 50 rounds from a military-style rifle and a handgun, taking aim through the chain-link fence.

Scalise was felled by a bullet to the hip as he fielded grounders at second base, witnesses said. Then the aide and the lobbyist were struck as the gunman moved methodically around the fence and toward the home-plate backstop. As Scalise crawled across the field, leaving a trail of blood, the gunman advanced toward a dugout, where several people were hiding.

Congressmen said the Capitol Police officers emerged from the dugout, moving toward the gunfire. A woman walking her dog said she heard a female officer scream, “Drop your weapon,” before the gunman “shot her and she fell to the ground.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the officers “went out into the fire to draw the fire. The shooter was moving toward the dugout where the members were, and they were able to take him down.”

Authorities said five people were taken to hospitals, including Hodgkinson. Matt Mika, a lobbyist for Tyson Foods, was being treated at George Washington University Hospital, a spokeswoman said.

The House speaker’s office identified the injured Capitol Police officers as Special Agents David Bailey, who was treated and released from a hospital, and Crystal Griner, who was struck in the ankle and hospitalized in good condition. Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa said both are expected to recover fully. Police identified a third officer who participated as Special Agent Henry Cabrera. They did not say which officers fired their weapons.

Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said two city officers who arrived at the scene opened fire, joining Capitol Police officers who already were in a gun battle with Hodgkinson.

Scalise’s office said in a statement that the congressman was in good spirits and speaking to his wife, Jennifer, by phone before he went in for surgery. Wednesday night, the hospital said Scalise was shot in the left hip and that the bullet fractured bones and struck internal organs. They said Scalise had lost a lot of blood and would need additional surgeries.

He has been in Congress since 2008 and represents a district that includes some New Orleans suburbs and bayou parishes. He and his wife have two children.

Verderosa said it “will take a while to sort through all the details” during the investigation, which is now being led by the FBI. Tim Slater, the special agent in charge, said it is “too early to tell whether anyone was targeted … It’s really raw now.”

But focus immediately turned to political statements Hodgkinson had made on social media, interactions he had with lawmakers, and run-ins he had with law enforcement officials near his home in Belleville, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) told reporters that, just before the shooting, he spoke briefly with a man he believes was Hodgkinson and that the man “asked me if the team practicing was a Democrat or Republican team.” Duncan added, “I told him they were Republicans. He said, ‘Okay, thanks,’ and turned around.

“I’m shaken up. My colleagues were targeted today.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Hodgkinson volunteered on his 2016 Democratic presidential campaign, although an aide said that he had no formal role and that no one could remember him. Sanders denounced the shooting, saying on the Senate floor that he was “sickened by this despicable act.”

Hodgkinson had sent letters to his local newspaper in Illinois decrying income inequality, encouraging the government to tax the rich and supporting President Barack Obama, according to the Belleville News-Democrat. “A strong middle class is what a country needs to prosper,” he wrote in one of his letters to the editor. “The only thing that has trickled down in the last 30 years came from Mitt Romney’s dog.”

Police in Belleville reported responding in March to a complaint that Hodgkinson was shooting at the end of his street, firing 50 rounds “in the pine trees.” Police said that he had a valid license for the weapon, and that he agreed to stop when they told him to.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who represents the district where Hodgkinson lived, said that Hodgkinson had contacted his office 14 times via email or by telephone and that although he never made threats, “he was always angry.”

Stephen Brennwald, a lawyer who lives in Alexandria, said he realized after seeing Hodgkinson’s photo on the news that he was the same man who had been hanging out for at least the past several weeks in the lobby of a YMCA adjacent to Simpson field. Brennwald said Hodgkinson would regularly show up first thing in the morning — about the same time the shooting took place — and look at his laptop or stare out the window.

“He never worked out. He never talked to anybody. He never did anything,” Brennwald said.

The shooting started at 7:09 a.m. at the popular park on East Monroe Avenue in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, near Old Town Alexandria and the Potomac Yard shopping complex on Route 1. The Republican lawmakers were holding their final practice before Thursday night’s game, a traditional event designed to bolster goodwill between two sides of the partisan aisle.

Scalise, who plays second base, was accompanied by members of the Capitol Police’s executive protection unit because as majority whip, he is the third-highest-ranking member of the House. His security detail was positioned behind the first base dugout; witnesses said the shooter started on the other side of the diamond.

About 20 people were on the field at the time, many catching fly balls from batting practice, and when the gunfire started, players and onlookers took cover in dugouts, under a sport-utility vehicle or in the open on the ground. Barton, the team manager, said the gunman, dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt, shot at Scalise at second base and fired toward the third baseman, Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.).

Bullet holes were left in windows of the YMCA, and bullets were in the swimming pool. On Wednesday evening, about 100 people gathered at a church in Del Ray for a community prayer service. Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, visited the hospital where Scalise and Grinerwere being treated. Aides carried in flowers.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Barton — managers of the respective teams — said they will still take to the field Thursday night.

“We’re united not as Republicans and Democrats but as United States representatives,” Barton said. “It will be ‘play ball’ tomorrow night, 7:05.”

Amber Phillips, Paul Kane, Tom Jackman and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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