Metro-East News

Belleville man killed in Virginia shootout ‘seemed like a normal guy, a regular guy’

The accused shooter who was killed during gunfire at practice for a congressional baseball game Wednesday morning was from Belleville.

The shooter, according to law enforcement, was James T. Hodgkinson, 66, who belonged to a number of anti-Republican groups, including one called “Terminate the Republican Party.”

President Donald Trump said Hodgkinson died during gunfire exchanged with congressional security workers during the practice session in Alexandria, Va. Those injured by the shooter included House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was in critical condition Wednesday afternoon after undergoing surgery.

MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the district released a statement on Scalise’s condition Wednesday evening.

“Congressman Steve Scalise sustained a single rifle shot to the left hip. The bullet traveled across his pelvis, fracturing bones, injuring internal organs, and causing severe bleeding. ... He underwent immediate surgery, and an additional procedure to stop bleeding. He has received multiple units of blood transfusion. His condition is critical, and he will require additional operations.”

Hodgkinson belonged to multiple anti-GOP groups on Facebook, including:

▪  “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans”

▪  “Donald Trump is not my President”

▪  “President Bernie Sanders”

▪  “Illinois Berners United to Resist Trump”

▪  “Boycott the Republican Party”

▪  “Expose Republican Fraud”

▪  “Terminate the Republican Party”

Hodgkinson took a Democratic ballot in the 2016 primary election.

The FBI was investigating Hodgkinson’s postings on social media, and federal agents on Wednesday morning swarmed Hodgkinson’s two-story home on the outskirts of Belleville. Spokesman Dillon McConnell, of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said the agency was “conducting emergency traces for a handgun and a rifle,” but declined to identify the types of weapons.

In 2012, Hodgkinson took part in a protest outside the downtown Belleville post office. He said he was part of a “99%” team drawing attention to the amount of money and political power the top 1 percent of Americans acquired.

Hodgkinson owned a home-inspection business. He was a licensed home inspector from 1994 to 1997, when his license expired, according to records from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. He also held a license from 2003 to 2016, but it was not renewed.

Aaron Meurer is a neighbor of the Hodgkinsons and said he noticed in the last two months James had been gone. Hodgkinson’s wife, Suzanne, told him her husband was traveling.

“She said that he went on a trip. She wasn’t real specific,” said Meurer, unclear whether the couple had split up recently. “He’s been gone for the last two months, so I haven’t seen him around too often.”

There were media reports that James Hodgkinson had been living out of a gym bag in the Alexandria area.

Meurer said he occasionally cut his neighbor’s grass to help out. He didn’t know the neighbors well — just socialized from the lawn — and said his neighbor would fire guns on his rural property, commonplace in the open area outside of Belleville.

“I knew he was a Democrat, a pretty hardcore one. I know he wasn’t happy when Trump got elected, but he seemed like a nice enough guy,” recalled Meurer, who said the couple lived across the street for about six years.

“He seemed like he was semi-retired; he was home a lot. He used to garden a couple of years ago,” said Meurer, who runs his own trimming and removal service. “I didn’t really talk to him too much. He was a Democrat, and I was a Republican, so we didn’t have too much to talk about.”

Another of Hodgkinson’s neighbors, Fred Widel, said Hodgkinson told him he was planning to retire soon. He asked Widel if he wanted to buy his tools, and Widel said he also was trying to sell his motorcycle and boat.

Meurer said during the 2016 election season, Hodgkinson had a lone Bernie Sanders sign near the road in his front yard. He thought that Hodgkinson had raised foster kids who had grown up. He also thought there were grandchildren who visited occasionally.

“We were neighbors, but we didn’t talk every day. When we saw them in the yard we’d say ‘Hi’ and go on our way,” said Meurer. “He seemed like a normal guy, a regular guy.”

Meurer suggested that perhaps “this Democratic rhetoric made him snap. I know he was a pretty hardcore Democrat.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican from Murphysboro, said Hodgkinson had contacted contacted Bost’s office by phone or email 10 separate times regarding various political issues including health care and Social Security — whatever was being discussed in Congress at the time.

“There were no red flags,” Bost said. “We have, on occasion, over the years, had people cross the line, and we contact the Capitol Police like we are advised to do. But he never reached that point. The more this investigation goes on — he came here with intent.”

Bost said his staff responded to some of Hodgkinson’s messages with “generic” responses that thanked him for his letter and stated the representative would take his concerns and ideas under advisement.

Bost said Wednesday afternoon that he was starting to learn some of Hodgkinson’s history.

“It’s an interesting past, I think; it’s really sad,” Bost said. “It really is. Right now, we’ve got some heroes here who have done a great job today.”

Belleville resident Dale Walsh said he knew Hodgkinson nearly all his life. Walsh said he was two years ahead of Hodgkinson at Belleville West High School. Walsh described Hodgkinson as a “fun-loving guy” who was passionate about his views.

“It took me by surprise to hear what happened,” Walsh said.

Walsh said Hodgkinson “never backed down” and “stood his ground” on his convictions, though Walsh said he never knew Hodgkinson to be extremist in his views. Hodgkinson got into fights like “most guys do,” Walsh said.

“I want people to know he wasn’t evil,” Walsh added.

Terry Beach, the executive director of the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department, said Hodgkinson’s company worked as an independent contractor for the program until 2003. His company did work in the department’s housing rehabilitation and weatherization program.

However, Hodgkinson had been banned from the department, Beach said. Beach said he didn’t remember him well. It wasn’t immediately clear why Hodgkinson was banned from the department, or when it happened.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern issued a statement saying Hodgkinson was banned from the office for “unacceptable behavior.”

“He was barred from the St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department offices in 2003 due to unacceptable behavior in the office,” Kern said in a statement. “Later, in 2012 he requested paperwork to be reinstated, but never returned that paperwork or made contact with our office to the best of our knowledge.”

Hodgkinson has a varied arrest record in St. Clair County, for offenses such as failing to obtain electrical permits, damaging a motor vehicle, resisting a peace officer, eluding police, criminal damage to property, driving under the influence and assorted traffic offenses.

Realtor Charlene Brennan with Strano & Associates in Belleville used Hodgkinson from time to time for home inspections.

“He used to be in construction or the building trades, and then he went into home inspections. He had been doing home inspections for several years,” she said.

She said there was nothing about Hodgkinson that would have pointed to Wednesday’s events.

“From a business standpoint, he did not seem like he is a radical — opinionated but not a radical,” Brennan said. “He wasn’t obnoxious, he wasn’t problematic. When he did home inspections for me, he didn’t rile up the buyers or make ridiculous statements.”

The accounting firm in Belleville where Hodgkinson’s wife works declined comment.

Kristina Scrimshaw, a longtime bartender at the Pork Barrel BBQ in Alexandria, Va., near the scene of Wednesday’s shooting, recognized Hodgkinson instantly as word spread of the tragedy.

“It was very disturbing. The pit of my stomach kind of hurt, and I got chills,” she said of the moment she received a group text from a co-worker. “This is a guy I served a number of times. I knew him.”

Her gut feeling told her to keep her distance from the man who often came in during the late afternoon and sat alone in silence.

“He didn’t strike me as a very talkative or nice person,” Scrimshaw said, before ending the interview to talk with police. “He’d kind of be sitting there with a strange smile on his face — not a happy smile, kind of creepy. It’s not something you can put your finger on.”

The few times that Hodgkinson spoke with her, the talk was never about Trump or politics. In fact, one of the only conversations she remembers is that he complained that “traditional” beers like Miller or Budweiser were not available on tap.

“He was very quiet, very reserved,” she recalled, saying he ordered Budweiser in a can and had been coming in regularly since late March or early April.

“He typically wore a polo (shirt) and khakis. He didn’t seem like he was struggling in any way. He’d come in for a few beers,” Scrimshaw said, noting she could tell when he might have had one too many because his face turned reddish.

“Every time he came in he would sit by himself ... he didn’t talk about much but when he did it was all mundane things — nothing political, never anything local,” she said.

Former Congressman William Enyart, a Democrat from Belleville who was defeated by Bost, said he’s never heard of Hodgkinson.

“I don’t have a clue who this guy is,” Enyart said.

Enyart was defeated by Bost in 2014.

Enyart is friends with Hodgkinson on Facebook, but Enyart said when he was is public life, he had a general policy of “friending everybody.”

Belleville lawyer Charles “C.J.” Baricevic, a Democrat, lost to Bost in the 2016 fall election for the Illinois 12th Congressional District. Baricevic said neither he nor his campaign had heard from Hodgkinson during that time.

Sen. Bernie Sanders said Wednesday he was “sickened” by reports that Hodgkinson had volunteered on his presidential campaign.

“I have just been informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign,” Sanders said in a statement. “I am sickened by this despicable act.”

Social media profiles that appeared to belong to Hodgkinson contained pro-Sanders and anti-Trump messages.

“Let me be as clear as I can be,” Sanders said. “Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values.”

President Trump decried the shooting as a “very, very brutal assault” and called for all Americans to set aside differences and pray for the recovery of the victims.

Trump said that “many lives would have been lost without the heroic action” of the Capitol Police officers who took down the gunman.

“We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these, in times like these that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because above all they love our country,” said Trump, speaking from the White House’s Diplomatic Room. “We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace and that we are strongest when we are unified.”

The metro-east’s three congressmen asked for prayers Wednesday morning for Scalise, who was shot in the hip.

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, has been Scalise’s Washington, D.C., roommate for about eight years.

Shimkus is listed on the 2017 Republican team roster for the game. The congressman said he was not at the practice Wednesday morning.

“We are pretty close,” Shimkus said. “I blew (practice) off today because my body is old — and I had a speech.”

Shimkus said the game, scheduled for Thursday, is a great bipartisan event with a lot of “trash talk” that unites Congress rather than divides it.

“(Scalise) is a very good friend, and it’s a shame that this happened,” Shimkus said. “The world doesn’t stop, and he wouldn’t want us to stop.”

Shimkus said practice usually begins about six weeks before the game.

“And to have this assault occur — whether it was random or targeting, we will let law enforcement do their due diligence — it just puts a damper on something that is good,” Shimkus said.

“My guess is that we will still suit up and still play. It’s one of those moments where you don’t want to let fear and evil stop good things. So I think the game will go on, but I don’t know for sure.”

Shimkus took to Twitter on Wednesday morning, asking for prayers for the people involved.

Bost said Scalise puts a meal together every week in his office for anyone who wants to come by.

“There is a reason he is a whip ... he is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet,” Bost said. “He is just a member of Congress that is just as friendly, you know, we get along here — we may have our differences. Steve is one that both Democrats and Republicans think all the world of.”

Bost said that Scalise was shot in the hip area, a staffer was severely wounded by a bullet, a female officer was shot in the foot and a male officer was shot before shooting the gunman.

Reports later confirmed the officers to be part of Scalise’s United States Capitol Police security detail. They were shot during a gunfight with the shooter, who was also wounded.

Bost also took to Twitter to offer his sympathies.

“Horrible news this morning,” Bost tweeted. “Please keep @SteveScalise and his family, as well as USCP (United States Capitol Police) in your prayers.”

In 2016, Bost posted a selfie on Facebook with his staff at the June 23 game.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, is on the 2017 Republican team roster and was at the practice Wednesday morning, his spokeswoman confirmed.

He was not injured.

Davis, in an interview with reporters, said:

“The camaraderie exists. That’s a misperception. We have great camaraderie out here between Republicans and Democrats. I urge you to ask many of the Democrats I’ve served with, No. 1, if they know me, and No. 2, what we’ve worked on together. Because we’ve worked on a lot of things together in a very bipartisan way. We have to come together as Americans.

“We have to take this tragedy that we saw today that could have been much, much worse, and turn it into a positive, to let Americans know if you disagree with your political leaders, that’s OK. That’s why we have elections. But let’s not ratchet up the hateful speech.

“We see stories about policies are going to lead to the death of people. That’s political rhetoric that has run amok and has turned into hate and it may, may be the reason why we saw the senseless tragedy that we saw today. And if it is, this could be the first political rhetorical terrorist act that we’ve seen on our soil. And we can change that. Only we can change that.”

Hodgkinson had contributed postings to the Facebook group “Terminate the Republican Party.”

Howard Scott Pearlman, of Cherry Hill, N.J., who runs the group, said he had added Hodgkinson and thousands of others to the group, whose purpose was just to let people express their views.

“It’s bad everywhere you look on the internet, but I didn’t expect anyone to go ... berserk,” Pearlman said. “We’ve banned people before, but sometimes you just have to let people blow off steam. This group has been around for a while. We don’t condone violence.”

He said that “if you just look at talk radio, look at how much violence the Republicans condone.”

The baseball game between Democrats and Republicans began in 1909 and has been continuously played since 1962.

Shimkus’ website stated the representative played in his 14th congressional game on June 29, 2010. The Congressional Baseball website states the two teams are tied 39-39-1 in the overall serie.

“I really enjoy the Congressional Baseball Game, as it is great for camaraderie among our team, as a stress reliever, and as a fundraiser for these two worthwhile charities,” Shimkus said on his website in 2010.

Scalise was elected to serve in the U.S. House in 2008 and is the No. 3 House Republican leader, according to published reports.

Dean Pruitt, a Democrat seeking to run against Bost in the upcoming election, said his campaign has no association with Hodgkinson.

Pruitt also condemned any violent or aggressive behavior in politics or otherwise.

David Bequette, another Democrat seeking to run for the seat, said he didn’t know the shooter and called the attacks “horrendous.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Greg Gordon, Kevin G. Hall, Teresa Welsh and Hayley Harding contributed to this report. Please call the BND at 618-239-2642.

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