James Hodgkinson, man who opened fire on GOP congressmen, turned online rage into real-world violence

He vented his political frustration for years before crossing the line.

ByABC News
June 15, 2017, 7:57 AM

— -- James Thomas Hodgkinson, the 66-year-old home inspector from Bellville, Illinois, who was killed Wednesday after firing on Republican congressmen practicing for a charity baseball event, appears to have channeled a lifetime of family trauma and personal failure into political rage.

He vented for years — in the form of letters to the local newspaper, calls to his congressman, and vitriolic Facebook posts -- before crossing the line and turning to real-world violence.

"We have to come together as a country to stop the political and rhetorical hate that we see in the 24-news cycle on social media,” said an emotional Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., after the shooting. “Hate has real consequences and we saw it and witnessed it today.”

How Hodgkinson went from posting a political cartoon online in 2015 that derided Rep. Steve Scalise as someone who should lose his job, to shooting Scalise with a high-powered rifle, is only just starting to become clear.

Hodgkinson built a life in Bellville, a suburb of St. Louis, with a modest business, a wife and a succession of foster children. But it was one marked by tragedy. His lawyer, Lyndon Evanko, told ABC News that Hodgkinson and his wife were caretakers to at least two girls who died in tragic circumstances. One foster daughter committed suicide while another died of a drug overdose.

His repeated brushes with authorities suggest that Hodgkinson grew increasingly short-tempered as he aged.

Court records show that between 1989 and 2011, Hodgkinson was cited for several traffic violations and minor offenses aside from a violent domestic dispute in 2006 when he allegedly struck two people and fired a semi-automatic rifle into the air. He was charged with domestic battery and unlawful discharge of a shotgun, but the case was ultimately dismissed.

There were also signs a business he started in 1994 under the name “Accurate Appraisals and Home Inspection Service, Inc.,” and later JTH Services, Inc., was faltering. Mark Kern, a former mayor of Belleville and current St. Clair County Board Chairman, described to ABC News how the county had hired Hodgkinson for several years as a contractor to remove lead-tainted paint from middle- and low-income community buildings. But in 2003, that contract was abruptly cancelled, Kern said, because of concerns about Hodgkinson’s conduct.

“He was barred from the grants department offices for unacceptable behavior,” Kern said.  “He came into the office looking for a check and instead of going about it professionally, he was found looking through an employee’s desk.”

At the end of 2016, according to Illinois Secretary of State corporate records Hodgkinson voluntarily dissolved his home inspection business.

Hodgkinson, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly active in politics.

According to the Belleville News-Democrat, he wrote frequent letters to the editor between 2008 and 2012, criticizing Republicans’ tax policies.

“I have never said ‘life sucks,’” Hodgkinson wrote in 2012, “only the policies of the Republicans.”

He volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, even traveling to Iowa to help the liberal politician stump for votes. Charles Orear, 50, a restaurant manager from St. Louis, told The Washington Post that he became friendly with Hodgkinson, who showed no signs of violence or malice toward others. He described Hodgkinson as a “quiet guy” who was “very mellow, very reserved” when they stayed overnight at a Sanders’s supporter home in Rock Island, Ill., after canvassing for the senator.

Rep. Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement that his congressional office began hearing from Hodgkinson in June 2016. He estimated Hodgkinson contacted his office 10 times, through May of this year.

“While he continually expressed his opposition to the Republican agenda in Congress, the correspondence never appeared threatening or raised concerns that anger would turn to physical action,” Bost said. “Had we any indication that Mr. Hodgkinson posed a threat to anyone’s safety, we would have taken the appropriate steps to alert U.S. Capitol Police immediately.”

After the election, Hodgkinson often posted angry rhetoric online directed at Donald Trump. He joined a series of Facebook groups that spread biting political cartoons and nasty memes and frequently attacked the president from behind the keyboard.

“Trump is a traitor,” Hodgkinson wrote on Facebook on March 22. “Trump Has Destroyed Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”

Two days later neighbors called police to say Hodgkinson had fired off 50 shots into the air.

“I yelled to him and I said, ‘Hey, what the hell are you doing, stop the shooting,” one neighbor said. “There’s houses over there.”

The sheriff’s report says no charges were brought, because Hodgkinson had a valid Illinois Firearm Owners ID card.

A few days later Hodgkinson left for Washington, living out of a van, showering in the morning at the YMCA in Alexandria, just across the street from the baseball field.

After the shooting, members of Congress told reporters they viewed the incident as a dangerous and unsettling development. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who manages the Democrats' baseball team, told ABC News he hopes the tragedy will prompt some needed introspection.

“Let's let this tragedy bring us together as Americans and realize that the political rhetoric and the rhetorical hate speech we see in the news media and we see it on social media… has to stop,” Doyle said. “I was asked if this is America's breaking point on hateful rhetoric. It's my breaking point. I’m going to do everything I can to make it stop.”

ABC News’ Rhonda Schwartz, Cindy Galli, Randy Kreider, Pete Madden, Cho Park, Alex Hosenball, Erin Galloway, Margaret Kathcher and Alex Gurvets contributed to this report.