Wounded Capitol officers hailed as heroes after shooting
Officers Crystal Griner, who was shot in the ankle, and David Bailey, who was not shot but sustained a minor injury, are in "good condition"
By David Lauter, Lisa Mascaro and Brian Bennett
Tribune Washington Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A rare act of apparent political violence disrupted one of Washington’s few remaining bipartisan traditions Wednesday when a gunman — believed to be targeting Republicans — wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and three other people as members of Congress took part in an early morning baseball practice for a charity event.
Scalise, 51, the third-ranking Republican in the House, and one other victim were listed in critical condition after surgeries.
The gunman, identified by law enforcement officials as James T. Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis, died in custody of wounds he suffered in a shootout with members of Scalise’s security detail and local police.
Hodgkinson, described by his lawyer as a “very irascible, angry little man,” had a history of minor run-ins with the law and a long trail of social media posts denouncing President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
He staged the attack at a suburban baseball diamond in a quiet neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., where Republican lawmakers have practiced for years for an annual congressional charity ballgame against Democrats.
Shortly before the shooting began, the gunman asked Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., if the team on the field was made up of Democrats or Republicans, DeSantis later told reporters.
The attack was the first on a member of Congress since the shooting of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a meeting with constituents in Arizona in 2011 and the first in the Capitol area since 1998, when a gunman shot and killed two Capitol Police officers while trying to enter the Capitol building.
Trump and leaders of both parties called for national unity and denounced violence.
“We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” said Trump, whose 71st birthday was Wednesday.
He praised the heroism of Capitol Police officers — the members of Scalise’s security detail — who were wounded responding to what he called “a very, very brutal assault.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., also called for unity in a brief address to his chamber hours after the attack.
“We are united. We are united in our shock. We are united in our anguish. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Ryan said.
But, as if to underscore the political divide that contrasts with such appeals, some conservative media pundits said Democratic political leaders were to blame for the violence because of the intensity of their anti-Trump rhetoric.
Capitol Police officers Crystal Griner, who was shot in the ankle, and David Bailey, who was not shot but sustained a minor injury, were in “good condition,” Capitol Police Chief Matthew Verderosa said.
In addition to Scalise and Griner, the other two wounded by gunfire were identified as Matt Mika, a former congressional staff member who now works for Tyson Foods, and Zachary Barth, a staff aide to Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas.
Barth was in good condition, according to Williams’ office. Mika, who was shot several times, according to witnesses, including at least once in the chest, was in critical condition, according to a statement from his family.
During the 2016 presidential race, Hodgkinson was an outspoken campaign volunteer for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who ran for the Democratic nomination.
Sanders, reading a statement on the Senate floor, said he was “sickened” by the shooting, which was carried out by “someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign.”
“Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society,” he said.
Facebook messages that appear to have been posted by Hodgkinson regularly supported Sanders and criticized his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and, with increasing vehemence and profanity, Trump.
One post, written March 22, read: “Trump is Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
Hodgkinson also was a member of Facebook groups with names including “The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans” and “Terminate the Republican Party.”
He was arrested in Illinois on an assault charge in 2006, but the case was dismissed after witnesses failed to show up at hearings, said his lawyer, Lyndon Evanko. His social media posts do not appear to have advocated violence.
Since March, officials said, he has been living out of his white cargo van in Alexandria, a suburb of Washington, spending much of his time at a YMCA near the ball field, according to witnesses who saw him there.
Tim Slater, the FBI special agent in charge of the Washington field office, who is leading the investigation, cautioned reporters that it was “too early” to know Hodgkinson’s motivation for the shooting.
Authorities “continue to actively investigate the shooter’s motives,” Slater said at a brief news conference Wednesday afternoon.
But DeSantis, the Florida congressman, said photos of Hodgkinson matched the appearance of the man who approached him and Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., as they were leaving the baseball practice and asked “whether it was Republicans or Democrats that were out there.”
The encounter seemed odd, DeSantis said in an interview on CNN, but he did not consider it threatening until he arrived back at Capitol Hill and heard about the shooting.
Several dozen people — members of Congress, staffers and others — were at the practice. The location and the fact that members of Congress used the field were well known in the area, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said.
The gunman “was going after elected officials,” Brooks said on CNN shortly after the shooting.
As news of the attack spread, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the House and Senate canceled their official business for the day.
In a briefing with security officials before the House convened at noon, members of Congress from both parties talked of receiving death threats, including some since the shooting, and pleaded for additional security.
“Everyone’s getting a bunch of death threats right now,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said as lawmakers exited the closed-door briefing. “A lot of members were asking for changes.”
Members of the House and Senate leadership have armed officers assigned to protect them, but rank-and-file members do not routinely have security details.
Ryan, in his speech to the House, said that despite differences on issues, and “for all the noise and all the fury, we are one family.”
There were many images they will want to forget from the day, Ryan said, “but there is one image in particular that this House should keep” in its memory: “Our Democratic colleagues gathered in prayer” when they heard the news.
Many lawmakers were near the dugout when the first shots cracked through the muggy morning air shortly after 7 a.m.
The shooter could be seen standing with a rifle outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the field as shots were fired, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told reporters.
“Fifty would be an understatement,” he added, referring to the number of shots.
Scalise was standing on second base, fielding balls, when he was shot in the hip, Flake said.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said he was walking down the third-base line toward home plate as practice was winding down.
Suddenly, he heard a loud pop, “and then there was a pause, and then there was just a barrage of gunshots,” Fleischmann told reporters.
“We hit the ground behind home plate,” then “ran, and we jumped into the dugout,” he said.
“There was a real fear” that the gunman would come into the dugout, where members of Congress and others would have been “sitting ducks,” he said.
The two Capitol Police officers in Scalise’s security detail returned fire with pistols, Fleishmann said, engaging in what witnesses described as a brief but intense gunfight.
While they were shooting, Alexandria police arrived and killed the gunman. Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said that the first report of gunfire was received at 7:09 a.m. and that his officers arrived on the scene two or three minutes later.
“It seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was probably just a few minutes,” Fleischmann said. “The fear factor was horrific. We did not know when it would end. He kept firing and firing and firing.” It was, he said, “sheer and utter chaos.”
If police had not been at the scene “it would have been a massacre,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was jogging around the field when he heard the first shot. “As terrible as it is, it could have been a lot worse.”
The charity ballgame, played off and on since 1909, is sponsored by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and raises money for three Washington-area charities. It is scheduled to take place Thursday evening at the Washington Nationals ballpark.
©2017 Tribune Co.