For Hinckley, small steps toward an uncertain freedom

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; A01

John W. Hinckley Jr. is a man of routine. On warm days, he likes to sit on a bench outside the John Howard Pavilion on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital and work his way through a stack of newspapers and magazines. He's often seen walking alone on the hospital grounds or ducking into Martin's, a nearby carryout, to pick up four-packs of 9 Lives to feed to stray cats.

At 54, the onetime presidential assailant lives like a kid on perpetual spring break. The closest thing he has to a 9-to-5 job is a volunteer gig at the hospital library. He fills his free time strumming on his guitar, crafting pop songs about ideal love, or going on supervised jaunts to the beach or a bowling alley.

After 28 years at the hospital in Southeast Washington, however, the realities of middle age have begun to set in.

His father, Jack Hinckley, died in 2008, inspiring the son to pen a tribute song titled "Hero." His mother, Jo Ann, is 84. His siblings, Scott and Diane, live in Dallas. Over the government's steadfast objections, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who oversees his case, and Hinckley's doctors are slowly preparing him for what they see as inevitable: his release from St. Elizabeths -- life on his own.

Toward that end, Friedman four years ago let Hinckley make overnight trips to his parents' home in Williamsburg. As the visits passed without incident, the judge gradually increased their duration. Last June, Friedman upped the stays from seven to 10 days each for 12 visits. He also let Hinckley obtain a driver's license.

Hinckley now enjoys the most freedom he has had since he was arrested in 1981 for shooting President Ronald Reagan, two law enforcement officers and White House press secretary Jim Brady. Brady suffered brain damage and remains partially paralyzed.

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Friedman concluded that the depression that drove Hinckley, then a 25-year-old college dropout, to stalk actress Jodie Foster and try to impress her by killing a president has been in remission for at least 15 years. The judge said Hinckley still suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, but to a much lesser extent, partly because of a court order that forbids him to talk to the press.

That order, in place for two decades, ended a stream of letters to news outlets, including one in which Hinckley claimed to be a political prisoner and offered to trade places with Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Hinckley splits his time between two very different gated communities: the crumbling campus of St. Elizabeths and Kingsmill, the 2,900-acre luxury resort community in Williamsburg to which his parents relocated from Denver in the late 1980s to be closer to him. One has a shelter for the homeless, knee-high weeds and boarded-up buildings; the other has three championship golf courses, a yacht club and a spa. Around St. Elizabeths, the fatal shooting of a resident might earn a brief in the newspaper. Around Kingsmill, the fatal shooting of a pet cat is front-page news.

Hinckley has voiced his preference. If released, he hopes to settle in Williamsburg. And who can blame him? Instead of Martin's, he has the Wine and Cheese Shop, where Hinckley and his mother are a frequent sight. Instead of carryouts, he has the Mill, a gourmet coffee shop overlooking tennis courts, where the manager says Hinckley sat recently with a small group of people drinking coffee. Even the state mental hospital in Williamsburg, Eastern State, where he volunteers in a library, is more pleasant.

But Williamsburg compares unfavorably to the District's Ward 8 in one crucial way: The residents there are not quite as accommodating.

Although Hinckley was accosted at least once during an outing in the District by an angry resident who recognized him, he has ventured out undisturbed on hundreds of other occasions, with hospital employees or on his own.

In Williamsburg, by contrast, his social worker Carl Beffa found it nearly impossible to find Hinckley a volunteer job. The Humane Society, a local foundation, a homeless services group, a retirement home, a prison and the Salvation Army, among others, turned him down.

"I could not believe the response," Beffa testified at the 2008 hearings on Hinckley's request for more privileges. "Raising my children in that community . . . it totally shocked me."

Dennis Grannan, who runs Vibrant Life Ministries, a homeless-services organization, was open to hiring Hinckley. "It was in my heart to help him," he says. But his board didn't want to invite controversy.

Hinckley got an even colder reception from a singles group. His sister, Diane Sims, testified in 2008 that as soon as they arrived at the potluck event, the group leader told them Hinckley's presence made her uncomfortable.

Hinckley has had better luck with Williamsburg's clergy. Over the past year, he had several hour-long meetings with the Rev. Harry Warren, a 74-year-old Baptist minister who has counseled murderers and mental patients. "We talked easily," says Warren, describing Hinckley as reserved and pleasant. "We didn't go into great depth about anything. I was there just to listen."

The Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists have also welcomed Hinckley, offering him a volunteer job in their library. The Rev. Jennifer Ryu says her board agreed after being assured by Hinckley's minders and his brother that Hinckley posed no danger to himself or others. "He needs a community," Ryu says. "He needs to socialize. We believe in leaving no one out of our circle."

Hinckley has not taken the Unitarians up on their offer. And prosecutors are likely to use that to ding him for laziness. In 2008, they said that he would "go to great lengths to contact women, play and record his music, and arrange for art lessons" but lacked initiative when it came to finding a job.

"Well, what's new about that?" countered Hinckley's attorney, Barry Levine. "Many people prefer art and music and social relationships to hard work. Can it be said . . . that makes them dangerous?"

In Kingsmill, Hinckley's regular visits have put some residents at ease. "As far as I am concerned, he was always welcome," says a woman who lives at the end of Jo Ann Hinckley's block and declined to give her name. Before Jack Hinckley died, she frequently saw father and son walking. These days, she is more likely to see the younger Hinckley behind the wheel, his mother at his side.

A few blocks away, some homeowners express concern about what will come next. "The question is, what is it going to be like when he is unsupervised 24-7?" says longtime resident John Shulson. "In the back of my head, I have doubts."

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Friedman has addressed such concerns by imposing a slew of restrictions. At least four days before going to Williamsburg, Hinckley must give the court the names and addresses of places he plans to go. Whenever he leaves his mother's subdivision, he must take her or a sibling. After each excursion, his family has to fill out a report on his behavior. Hinckley can surf the Internet only with family supervision or with controls that limit his access to certain sites.

Hinckley must also meet with Beffa and a psychiatrist on every trip to Williamsburg. He has to carry a GPS-enabled cellphone so hospital officials and the Secret Service can verify his whereabouts. The Secret Service also dispatches agents to keep an eye on him.

All that surveillance makes it hard for Hinckley to achieve a main therapeutic objective of the trips: to make friends and meet women, or, as the court order put it, "integrating himself into his mother's community."

Hinckley hasn't had a steady girlfriend since Leslie deVeau, a former patient at St. Elizabeths. After more than a decade, the relationship ended in 2007. His doctors testified that deVeau could no longer take the scrutiny from the Secret Service, reporters, the hospital and the court.

Because Hinckley's obsession with Foster inspired his attack, psychiatrists and lawyers devote much energy to dissecting his interactions with women. In 1997, a judge denied his request for more time with his parents because of the intense attention he began paying to St. Elizabeths chief pharmacist Jeannette Wick. More recently, the government and his attorneys have debated whether his behavior toward women is concerning or merely hapless.

For a guy who spends most of his time confined to an institution or chaperoned by his elderly mother, Hinckley has a busy love life. He has been romantically involved with at least two women and befriended several others. Nicole Rafanello, one of his doctors, testified that he tended to "stockpile" women because he was starved for female attention and needed "backups."

He had a rocky relationship with a woman identified in court papers as "Ms. M," who started as a friend but at some point granted him what Hinckley called "fondling privileges." Ms. M suffered from bipolar disorder, and Hinckley's doctors said she could be unpredictable and say hurtful things about his family.

Hinckley was also involved with a woman identified as "Ms. G," whom his sister described as "energetic," "vivacious" and taken. She had a live-in boyfriend. Prosecutors cited both liaisons as evidence of Hinckley's poor judgment and troubling tendency to pursue unrealistic romances.

The judge didn't buy it.

At one point during the 2008 hearings, Levine asked rhetorically whether people should be locked up for bad judgment in romantic relationships. Friedman interjected: "We don't have enough room."

Back at St. Elizabeths, Hinckley is spending his last days at the John Howard Pavilion doing what he always does: sitting outside, reading. In the coming weeks, he will move next door into the hospital's new glass-sheathed, grass-topped facility. Its "therapeutic design" offers airy living spaces and enclosed courtyards.

On a recent afternoon, he parked himself on a bench with a plastic bag filled with magazines and newspapers. (He gave up books about 10 years ago after prosecutors said his reading list proved he was still into violence-themed books and music. The list was never made public.)

His outfit -- T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap -- befit a man with no pressing appointments. After a while, he got up and moved to a bench beneath some trees. From his new spot, he sat quietly looking out at the parking lot. A few minutes later, a hospital worker appeared by the entrance. Although she said nothing, he seemed to take it as his cue to go. Toting his plastic bag, he ambled past her without a word and disappeared through the glass doors.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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