Metro-East News

Hodgkinson went unnoticed in Virginia — except when he unplugged someone’s laptop

Neighbor talks about congressional shooter Hodgkinson

Neighbor Fred Widel talks about James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, the Alexandria congressional shooter.
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Neighbor Fred Widel talks about James T. Hodgkinson, of Belleville, the Alexandria congressional shooter.

Far from the Illinois cornfields that were the backdrop to James “Tom” Hodgkinson’s life, his final two months were reduced to activities in a radius of a few blocks, his human interaction limited to a handful of establishments within walking distance from the local YMCA.

Hodgkinson, 66, died Wednesday after being shot by police who interrupted his high-powered rifle spraying of Republican lawmakers who had gathered shortly after sunup for baseball practice.

Still being worked out by federal law enforcement authorities is how he came to the idea of firing a semi-automatic rifle at the gathered lawmakers, where he got money over the two months to maintain his life in Virginia and whether others knew of his motive.

The FBI confirmed in a statement Thursday that Hodgkinson’s cellphone, computer and camera had all been recovered from his van and are being processed for clues about his motives.

The agency also confirmed his 9mm handgun and 7.62-caliber rifle were both purchased from federally licensed sellers.

“We currently have no evidence to suggest that the purchases were not lawful,” the statement said.

His niece Michelle Travous told the News-Democrat that her uncle, who was retired, sold his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and left Belleville abruptly for a “vacation” in Washington, D.C. It is not clear whether the family knew he took his weapons with him.

The Virginia suburb of Alexandria, where he lived out of his van over his final months, is home to affluent workers who trek daily to their good-paying jobs in the District of Colombia. The midpoint income for a household in Alexandria was $89,134 in 2015, the most recent Census Bureau number, twice that of Belleville’s $43,318.

Here, he fell into a routine. His life revolved around the YMCA in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. He took out a temporary membership to the YMCA on April 4. Although it was valid until July 14, he provided a written cancellation notice Tuesday, saying he’d soon be moving.

With the YMCA membership, Hodgkinson had a base of operations. The doors opened at 5 a.m. and stayed open until 10 p.m. He could shower and clean up, had access to Wi-Fi on his relatively new laptop and passed much of the day inside, away from the heat and the bugs.

Most of all, the membership allowed him to hide in plain view.

“Our records indicate that he visited the Y frequently and at all hours of the day. Staff observed him using our health and wellness equipment and spending time in the common area,” the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. said in a statement. “We received no complaints about Mr. Hodgkinson, and none of our staff recalls observing inappropriate or unusual behavior by him.”

In fact, the only unflattering moment anyone recalls of Hodgkinson during his Virginia stay is a second-hand account of how he unplugged another member’s laptop so that he could charge his own. When confronted, he ignored the complaint and stayed plugged in.

Interviews with patrons of the YMCA and local business managers suggest that Hodgkinson’s movements were largely within walking distance of the YMCA.

“I concluded that he didn’t have a vehicle to transport himself,” said Bill Euille, a former mayor of Alexandria and the person with whom Hodgkinson seems to have talked to most in his final months.

On days that Euille went to the gym early, before 7 a.m., Hodgkinson was already there.

“I am assuming that as soon as the doors opened, he came in,” said Euille, who believes the gunman was able to park after hours in a section behind the YMCA where other vans were parked, escaping notice in a neighborhood of young families.

The YMCA, in its statement, confirmed that Hodgkinson entered the building at 5:31 a.m. Wednesday, although no one saw him exit. His car was parked there Wednesday morning, near the dugout from where the shots were fired, but the statement did not address whether he parked or slept there regularly.

The Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria is old and traditional, many of the restaurants dating back decades. The streets are narrow, and many residences do not have driveways, making street parking a premium. Parking permits are not required in the neighborhood around the YMCA, although they are required in larger thoroughfares nearby.

Based on recommendations from the former mayor, Hodgkinson told Euille he had visited nearby eateries, enjoying the Royal Café, Pork Barrel BBQ and a restaurant named after legendary Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Thiesman.

All were a walk of just a few minutes from the YMCA.

Joseph Miscavige lives near the YMCA and may have even walked past Hodgkinson minutes before the rampage. He was in the locker room, among the 45 members who were there when shots rang out around 7:10 a.m. Wednesday.

“I’ve heard that he’d been there ... never noticed him if he was there,” said Miscavige, who was in the locker room with headphones on when the shooting began. “Someone came down making commotion to get our attention.”

Once the shooting stopped, Miscavige left the shelter of the locker room, went upstairs, saw the bullet holes and took photos that went viral on Twitter hours later.

Miscavige, director of analytics for PBS Kids, doesn’t recall seeing Hodgkinson or his van over the past two months, although there was another vehicle that caught his attention. He thought another person might have been living out of their car and using the YMCA’s services.

On Wednesday, he’d noticed that there were adults playing baseball as he went to the gym, an odd hour, but didn’t know they were there days before the Thursday night’s traditional Democrats versus Republicans charity game. It’s held annually at Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.

“I had no idea there were congressmen and senators there. I don’t think they make that much of that,” said Miscavige, who continues trying to process how such a tragic event can occur in sleepy Del Ray. “The joke is when you move to Del Ray, you have to get a dog and a baby stroller.”

Miscavige, married with two small daughters, is also aware of how his own luck turned on a matter of minutes.

“When it was happening, the idea is, ‘How do I make sure that I am safe.’ But you can’t help but think ‘Am I going to die in a YMCA men’s room because I chose to go to the gym today,’” he said. “I walked into the Y five minutes before this whole thing started.”

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