He flung dishes at his wife, roared at the television, erupted during an outing at a local brewery. Suzanne Hodgkinson became so concerned with her husband’s growing anger that she wrote to his doctor asking for help.
Now, the wife of the man who opened fire on a congressional baseball team in June wonders what more she could have done.
“I get up every morning feeling guilty because I didn’t stop it,” Hodgkinson said Wednesday in an interview at her home in Belleville, where the blinds are drawn tight and photographs of her husband adorn a living room wall. It was her first sit-down interview with a reporter since her husband, James Thomas Hodgkinson, attacked a Republican congressional baseball team practice in Alexandria, Virginia, grievously wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., a staff member and two Capitol Police officers before authorities killed him.
She continued, “I wake up with hot sweats, thinking: ‘You should have known. You should have known.’”
To be the spouse, or the parent, or the child of someone who commits a mass shooting is to enter a strange club whose members are envied by no one and reviled by many. Rites of passage include hate mail, death threats and the vicious thoughts that haunt them at night. That they should have seen it coming. That they could have done something. That they are alone.
And then there is the question of how to mourn. How to dispose of a body that everyone else wants to forget.
On Tuesday, Suzanne Hodgkinson, 65, received an email while at her job at an accountant’s office on Main Street, asking her to identify the body. A formality. When she clicked to open the attachment, her husband’s swollen face stared back at her. “That’s Tom,” she said she had written back, before hitting delete.
She would like to deal with James Hodgkinson’s remains as quickly and quietly as possible, she said. He was not a bad man at his core, she believes. They married in 1984. When they met, he was happy, singing in her ear at a grocery store. Later, they took in some 35 foster children and adopted two.
But in the late 1990s, after a long illness, he took a turn, she said. His rage came more suddenly.
Now she wants it all to go away.
She has asked a funeral home run by a friend to cremate Hodgkinson’s body. After that, she may scatter the ashes at home, or bury them in nearby St. Louis. She won’t be informing the public. There will be no ceremony.
“Coldhearted as it may be, I’m done,” Suzanne Hodgkinson said. “He was not a religious man, and I’m done with this. I want this to get over. I want my granddaughters to be able to go to school in September without this being dredged up.”
She paused, then spoke as if James Hodgkinson were sitting on the couch next to her. “You just walked out on me.”
More mass shootings, more concerns about burials
The number of mass shootings in the United States has risen sharply in recent years – to an average of 16.4 per year between 2007 and 2013, from 6.4 per year between 2000 and 2006. (These numbers come from the FBI and exclude episodes tied to domestic violence and gangs.)
Each of these attacks has left the families of innocent victims awash in pain, with a growing number of Americans roped into the indelible trauma of a sudden, senseless, violent attack.
And more and more, communities and individuals are having to wrestle with how to treat the bodies of these perpetrators.
Relatives of people who commit mass shootings often choose secret burials in unmarked graves with small or nonexistent ceremonies, designed to keep away critics and vandals. This has not stopped the onslaught of attention and condemnation.
Bodies hold symbolic power, said Ann Neumann, a visiting scholar at New York University who studies death, with places of interment often seen as reflections of how society valued a person.
Which is why people get so worked up when a major criminal is buried in their backyard.
After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, protesters lined up outside a funeral home that had agreed to accept the body of one of the attackers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, holding signs that urged his family to “Bury the Garbage in the Landfill.” After the attack in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, relatives of the killers, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, interred their bodies in a cemetery far from their California home after a closer graveyard rejected them.
Soon, a city near the cemetery passed an ordinance prohibiting the burial of known terrorists in the area. Someone took a saw to the sign marking the American Islamic Institute of Antelope Valley, which maintains the plots, hacking it to pieces.
“I had rocks thrown at me. I was spit on. People shot at me with BB guns,” said Peter Stefan, the funeral director who handled the Tsarnaev burial. It took a week to find a cemetery that would take the remains. Eventually, the bomber’s family washed his body according to Muslim tradition and buried him in a Virginia plot under the cover of night.
Stefan said he had helped bury the bomber “to show society that we are really a few steps ahead of people like this guy.”
He added, “We did for him what he probably would never have done for anybody else.”
In 1999, after Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 people at Columbine High School in a Denver suburb, a handful of people went to a ceremony for Klebold. He lay in a cardboard coffin surrounded by stuffed animals.
At the time, the Rev. Don Marxhausen, who spoke at the ceremony, called the Klebolds “the loneliest people on the planet.” A year after the funeral, he was ousted from his church, amid tension over his involvement with the case.
He later said he had done it out of a sense of duty and would do it again. “When your phone rings, you go,” he told The Denver Post.
Klebold’s mother, Sue Klebold, said in a recent interview that a colleague had urged her to have the funeral, arguing that it would help with the grieving process. It did.
“When you lose a loved one who has hurt other people, one of the struggles you have is the ability to focus on your sorrow, because your grief is so complicated by all these other things,” she said.
She gradually came out of hiding and wrote a memoir. Today, when she is out in public and someone mentions that her name is familiar, she can be open. “I think you’re probably thinking of my son Dylan,” she says, “who was one of the shooters in the Columbine tragedy.’”
Dealing with the legacy
Here, Suzanne Hodgkinson is wrestling with legacy of the man she loved. She denies that he ever assaulted any of their children, which was alleged in decade-old court documents.
Neighbors have urged her not to mow the lawn, for fear she'll be attacked in her yard. A friend takes out her trash, dispersing it around town to evade snoops. When she ventured to the Shop ‘N Save alone recently, a white-haired woman – a stranger – approached her in the parking lot and slapped her across the face.
“That was OK,” Hodgkinson said. “Get it out, lady. Just don’t pick up a gun and shoot somebody.”
She cried all the way home.
It was during the 2016 presidential campaign that James Hodgkinson’s Democratic politics boiled into a rage, she said. He sided with Sen. Bernie Sanders. When Donald Trump won, Hodgkinson said, her husband went “bananas.”
She urged him to take action locally. He said he wanted to go to the top.
In March, he left for Washington, saying that he was going to work on tax reform. She figured he would return, she would retire and they would buy a motorcycle “and just go for days on end.” He emailed the family and expressed frustration with Washington’s intransigence.
On June 14, she woke to the sounds of her 2-year-old grandson. As she does every morning, she turned on the television and fed her grandson cookies and milk. The anchors were already talking about the shooting, and it briefly occurred to her that her husband might have done it. He had been so angry.
Then the reporters mentioned that the attacker had a rifle. She figured it couldn’t be Tom. He had left for Washington with only his pistol.
Doris Burke contributed research.