Crime

James Hodgkinson: high school athlete, political gadfly, distraught father, accused shooter

Childhood friend remembers Belleville man who shot Congressman

Dale Walsh grew up with James Hodgkinson, of Belleville, who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. He said Hodgkinson "wasn't evil."
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Dale Walsh grew up with James Hodgkinson, of Belleville, who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. He said Hodgkinson "wasn't evil."

One of the biggest questions coming out of the shooting in Virginia: Who was James T. Hodgkinson?

Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, was named by police as the shooter at the congressional baseball practice Wednesday morning. President Donald Trump confirmed in a statement mid-morning that he died shortly after he was taken into custody.

Sometimes going by “Tom,” his middle name, Hodgkinson was born in 1951 to Deloris and James J. Hodgkinson. He was one of three children and grew up in Belleville, graduating from Belleville West High School in 1968.

Belleville native Tom Calhoun, the PA voice for the Gateway Grizzlies and the St. Louis Blues, remembers Hodgkinson as “Tommy.”

Calhoun also serves as the director of radio operations and teaches classes at Lindenwood University in Belleville.

He and Hodgkinson were in the same kindergarten class at Henry Raab Elementary School in Belleville and later attended Belleville West together. Calhoun, who lives in Millstadt today, said he didn’t stay in touch with Hodgkinson after high school.

“I had to believe at first that it was a different person with the same name,” Calhoun said of hearing the news that Hodgkinson had been named as the shooter. “... I was as shocked as anybody.”

Calhoun, 66, said Hodgkinson had been interested in sports in high school like he was. They played pick-up baseball games together as teens, he said.

Calhoun, Tom
Tom Calhoun BND

Calhoun recalled Hodgkinson being “a little bit withdrawn,” not unlike others in their class. “He was just another guy in the crowd back in those days,” Calhoun said.

Hodgkinson was known for standing up for himself, though, according to Calhoun. He said it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Hodgkinson had gotten into a fight back in those days.

“That didn’t make him all that different,” Calhoun said. “... All the guys in high school would get into the occasional scrape.”

Hodgkinson joined the high school wrestling and track teams as a freshman in 1965, according to the school yearbook. In his sophomore and junior years, yearbooks list him as a member of the varsity wrestling team at Belleville West.

No activities or clubs were listed in Hodgkinson’s senior yearbook.

While others in his family moved away, Hodgkinson settled in Belleville with his wife, Sue.

Beginning in 1969, he studied aviation at Belleville Area College, which later became Southwestern Illinois College. Then in the fall of 1971, he transferred to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, then only six years open in its current location. Hodgkinson took two classes in one term, according to SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga, but did not complete a degree.

Five years later he opened JTH Construction, which he operated for nearly 20 years, according to his Facebook page. In 1994, JTH Construction became JTH Inspections, a home inspection and air quality testing service that he listed as closed in 2016.

I had to believe at first that it was a different person with the same name.

Tom Calhoun on hearing the news that former classmate James Hodgkinson had been named as the congressional shooter

His life was struck with tragedy in 1996. The Hodgkinsons’ foster daughter, Wanda Ashley Stock, killed herself at the age of 17 in a brutal manner: Ashley doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire inside her car on a rural road south of Belleville.

The Hodgkinsons spoke to the News-Democrat at the time, saying they did not know what triggered a “very practical, level-headed girl” to kill herself. Later they discovered there had been a previous suicide attempt before Ashley came to live with them, and that hours before she completed her suicide, her boyfriend had broken up with her.

Ashley was a senior at Belleville East High School at the time. She had only been living with the Hodgkinsons a few months, but had been a ward of the state since 1984. Her biological parents terminated their parental rights in 1989. She had left a note in her room instructing her inheritance to be given to a close friend.

Then in December 2002, the Hodgkinsons assumed legal guardianship for their 12-year-old great-niece, Cathy Lynn Putnam. Cathy’s biological parents’ rights had been revoked, and she had been in foster care or with the Hodgkinsons since she was 4 years old. Her name was eventually changed to Cathy Hodgkinson.

However, in the couple’s last annual report regarding the girl, they said she was returned to state custody on July 7, 2006; court documents did not state why the judge took that action.

In a court document filed on Dec. 26, 2006, the Hodgkinsons wrote: “Since then His Honor has seen fit to award guardianship of Cathy to our next-door neighbors, which is a quite stressful and uncomfortable situation for our family.”

Also in 2006, his shotgun was confiscated after a domestic fight between Hodgkinson, his daughter and two of his daughter’s friends. The charges were later dismissed. He has had other minor charges, including a DUI and resisting arrest charge that was dismissed in 1993, for which he received court supervision.

I know he wasn’t happy when Trump got elected, but he seemed like a nice enough guy.

Aaron Meurer on neighbor James Hodgkinson

Neighbors noticed that Hodgkinson was gone for the last couple of months. Neighbor Aaron Meurer said Hodgkinson’s wife told him he was traveling, so Meurer occasionally cut the grass to help out.

“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,” Meurer said.

Meurer described Hodgkinson as “semi-retired,” seen gardening and firing his guns on his rural property. “I didn’t really talk to him too much,” Meurer said. “He was a Democrat and I was a Republican, so we didn’t have too much to talk about.”

Belleville resident Dale Walsh had grown up with Hodgkinson, attending Belleville West High with him. He said Hodgkinson was “a fun-loving guy” who was passionate about his views, but the news of Hodgkinson’s actions took him by surprise.

He said Hodgkinson “never backed down” on his convictions, but he never knew his friend to be an extremist. “I want people to know he wasn’t evil,” Walsh said.

Law enforcement officials have not said what they believe Hodgkinson’s motive may have been for the shooting. Hodgkinson’s social media was marked by politics; he took part in a protest against income inequality at the Belleville Post Office in 2012 and often wrote letters to the News-Democrat in protest against conservative policies.

He was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter and apparently volunteered for Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and had repeatedly taken a Democratic ballot in recent elections.

In March, Hodgkinson was warned to stop firing his gun at trees on his property after neighbor complaints. He had a valid Illinois Firearms Owner’s Identification card at the time and was firing a hunting rifle on his own property in unincorporated St. Clair County, so sheriff’s deputies did not file any charges and reminded him to shoot responsibly. As no illegal activity had taken place, no charges were filed, according to St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Bruce Fleshren.

According to news reports, Sue Hodgkinson has told reporters that Hodgkinson had been living in Alexandria, Va. for the past few months. There was no record of divorce filings in St. Clair County, however. Sue Hodgkinson’s employer, a local accounting firm, declined to comment.

His brother, Michael Hodgkinson, told the New York Times that James was unhappy about the election of President Trump and had gone to Washington D.C. to protest. However, he also said that while James was “engaged in politics,” he otherwise led a normal life and had told his wife he would be returning home soon because he missed her and their dogs.

Instead, he is accused of opening fire on the baseball practice, injuring five people, including the House Republican whip.

Social media accounts for both James Hodgkinson and his wife were deluged with abusive comments ever since law enforcement named him as the shooter. Facebook has apparently taken down Hodgkinson’s accounts.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Reporters Mary Cooley, Kelsey Landis and Dana Rieck contributed to this story.

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