25th Anniversary: Reagan's Brush With Death

A Drifter With a Purpose

By Mike Sager and Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 1, 1981

John W. Hinckley Jr., the man accused of shooting President Reagan, arrived in Washington shortly after noon last Sunday, stepping down from the 5:30 a.m. Greyhound express bus from Pittsburgh into a seedy terminal on New York Avenue NW.

That trip had taken seven hours, the last leg of a cross-country journey that began four days earlier in Los Angeles and ended at this side-door entrance to the nation's capital, where Hinckley disembarked -- a chubby, glassy-eyed drifter in need of a shave, according to those who say they saw him.

Over the next 27 hours, as best as can be reconstructed, Hinckley, 25, lunched on a cheeseburger at the terminal's restaurant, found a room in an unobtrusive downtown hotel a few blocks away and ate breakfast quietly near the window of the ground-floor coffee shop as the Monday morning rush-hour traffic moved by outside.

He watched silently but with some curiosity as the hotel maid placed fresh towels and pillow slips in his room at about 1:15 that afternoon. And just over an hour later, using a schedule published in the newspaper as a guide, Hinckley tried to gun down the president outside a hotel about a mile from his own, according to law-enforcement sources.

"He seemed like he had a chip on his shoulder against the whole world," recalled Linda Ross, a waitress at the bus terminal's Burger King restaurant, who said she served Hinckley a cheese Whopper, without onions, and an order of fried onion rings shortly after his arrival Sunday noon.

"He was real nasty about the way he ordered," she said yesterday. When she asked the man in the short beige jacket and blue jeans if he wanted to eat his food in the restaurant, she said, he replied bursquely, "I told you it's to eat here," pulled a $5 bill from his pocket and threw it on the counter.

The woman who cleaned the small room Hinckley stayed in at the Park Central Hotel -- Room 312 -- said that the man who answered simply, "What?" when she knocked on his door, in no way seemed extraordinary. "There was nothing special about him," she said yesterday.

Hinckley's journey east actually began with a flight west. On Wednesday, March 25, he abandoned his 1973 white Plymouth Volare near his parents' home in a Denver suburb and flew to Los Angeles. Law enforcement authorities there subsequently recovered the car.

He took Western Airlines Flight 45 from Denver to Salt Lake City, then changed to Western Flight 257 for the final leg of the trip to Los Angeles. He was traveling under his own name, with the flight coupon made out for "J. Hinckley," according to airline officials.

The following day, March 26, Hinckley boarded a Greyhound bus in Hollywood and then changed buses in downtown Los Angeles, pulling out of the station at 1:15 p.m. for the ride across the country.

There are two Greyhound routes eastward -- one going south through El Paso and requirinbg no change of buses, the other, northerly with a transfer in Pittsburgh. Hinckley chose the northern route, the first leg of which retraced his journey of the day before and took him across the Sierra Nevada back to Salt Lake City.

In the Utah capital, a young man boarded the bus, sat next to Hinckley and rode with him the rest of the way to Washington. The man gave a statement to federal authorities after watching the shootings on television. He is now being held in protective custody by the FBI, which has declined to release his name, law enforcement officials said.

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© 1981 The Washington Post Company