BELLEVILLE, ILL. — On the western edge of town, where midcentury suburban streets give way to cornfields and farms, a weathered barn sits among neat rows of soybeans. This bucolic stretch was long accessible only via a gravel lane, and the barn was one of the only buildings.
A few miles to the east, a renaissance has been transforming Main Street after decades of decline. A stately fountain marks the official seat of St. Clair County. The old brick storefronts host trendy restaurants and boutiques. The community received an “All-America City Award” from the National Civic League in 2011, highlighting cities that find innovative solutions to municipal problems.
But this week the town’s genteel rhythm was disrupted by news that one of its residents had opened fire on Republican congressmen and their aides hundreds of miles away in the Washington suburbs. Suddenly the old barn became the backdrop for a two-day scrum of television news crews down the road from the shooter’s house. The cafes downtown buzzed about James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old man many recognized as “Tom” but whom few knew well.
“He was just another working stiff, a guy I would sit next to at a bar and have a beer with,” said Greg Oliver, who once sold new carpeting to Hodgkinson, a onetime home builder and home inspector. “He seemed average in every way.”
While federal investigators try to piece together Hodgkinson’s history of run-ins with police, his sudden departure, his journey to Washington and his motive for shooting at a Republican baseball team in Alexandria, Va., the town he left behind is struggling to understand what role, if any, this quiet rural enclave played.
The national landscape is dotted with communities relabeled by an act of gun violence in their midst: Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando. But Hodgkinson, the shooter from Belleville, might represent something different: a moment when a small-town American, fueled by radical partisanship and economic frustration, turned his weaponry on Washington.
“If you walk down Main Street, this town looks like it’s doing well,” lifelong Belleville resident Sharon Egler said. “But if you walk a few blocks in either direction, it’s the same story you see all over the country. The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. People are getting desperate.”
If Hodgkinson’s letters to the editor and social-media pages are any indication, his radical political views and long-term concerns about taxation, fairness and the elite in Washington were born of this place. The increasingly strained economy. The closing of his business. The stress of his family life.
Nestled on the outer edges of the Mississippi flood plain east of St. Louis, Belleville is the seat of the state’s most entrenched Democratic Party stronghold outside Chicago. While Illinois’s 12th Congressional District, which is anchored by St. Clair County, sent a Republican to Washington, voters in towns like Belleville tend to remain true to their blue-collar Democratic roots and voted for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by close margins in the past three presidential elections.
For more than a century, coal supported a stable working-class community. The modest brick and clapboard ranch houses on the west side of town were filled with miners’ families. When the mining companies tried to go nonunion in the 1990s, the workers refused, and most of the big holes closed.
“When I was growing up, there were 15 kids playing ball in front of our house every day,” said Heather Cooper. “You don’t see that anymore. A lot of people are on government assistance. Coal mining was big. My dad was a coal miner. There used to be a lot more union jobs here.”
Mike Buettner, a local alderman, counts 27 empty storefronts on Main Street in a 14-block stretch. Residents say crime is rising, and Buettner said the highest municipal tax rates in the county are driving more affluent residents to surrounding communities. The opioid epidemic has been creeping in, and some residents fear going outside after dark in parts of town.
For some, like Bob Romanik, a former East St. Louis cop who hosts a popular AM radio show that attacks local politicians and highlights local crime and economic issues, Hodgkinson’s actions didn’t exactly surprise.
“This town is on the verge,” said Romanik, a vocal supporter of President Trump. “This used to be a great town, and now it’s the bums that come to Belleville. It’s a place that’s dwindling away, and that’s why people listen to me — because they’re frustrated and have been for years.”
St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson disagrees.
“We’ve had issues with smaller crimes,” he said. “We do have robberies and occasional murders, but it’s not somewhere you would call it crime-ridden. I’ll put it like this: Ferguson is 15 miles away. We’ve had nothing like what they had.”
Residents say it’s hard to know how much of that local frustration Hodgkinson absorbed. In a community where almost everyone is a friend of a friend, Hodgkinson wasn’t exactly a ghost, residents say, but he faded into obscurity in recent years and failed to leave a strong imprint on many who encountered him. Even people who were in the best position to interact with Hodgkinson, such as his neighbors, said they hardly knew and rarely saw him.
Despite years working as a contractor and home inspector, his life — as the Belleville News-Democrat noted in an editorial Wednesday — is now being pieced together using an assortment of “snippets,” “scraps” and “clues.”
“I haven’t seen him, gosh, in at least a decade,” said one of Hodgkinson’s friends who owns his own heating and cooling service and asked that his name not be used to avoid harming his business. “I was shocked at the news this morning, but it didn’t surprise me after a while. He was always political. I thought he’d mellow out over time, but I guess he became more radical.”
Hodgkinson seemed particularly concerned about economic inequality. He frequently wrote letters to the local newspaper and his congressman about taxes and legislative issues. He also vented his frustration about the 1 percent on Facebook and Twitter, picketed outside the Belleville post office in support of higher taxes on the wealthy, and volunteered for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. His profile picture imposed the words “Democratic Socialism explained in 3 words: We the People.” But the presidential election might have been a tipping point.
In his final posts, he urged Senate Democrats to filibuster Neil M. Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court and railed against Trump, alleging treason. He endorsed an impeachment petition, and his criticism of Republican lawmakers became increasingly vulgar.
Hodgkinson was known for periodic outbursts of anger and had interactions with the police. One occurred in April 2006, when Hodgkinson was accused of punching a neighbor and later striking a man with a shotgun during an altercation involving his daughter, police records show. Police arrested Hodgkinson and charged him with domestic battery and aggravated discharge of a firearm, but charges were later dismissed.
Hodgkinson’s most recent brush with law enforcement occurred in late March, when neighbors told police that he had fired a rifle into a wooded area near his home about 50 times. Police asked Hodgkinson to stop shooting and he obeyed, police said, noting that he gave them no indication that he was a threat and had a license to have the weapon.
Speaking to reporters outside her home Thursday, Hodgkinson’s wife, Sue, said her husband sold his belongings before departing for Washington, where he said he wanted to work to reconfigure the nation’s tax brackets. She said part of the reason for his leaving was that he needed “a break,” as her daughter and young granddaughter had recently moved in and Hodgkinson was home all day with them. Hodgkinson’s other relatives did not respond to requests for comment.
“I don’t know what to tell you people; I had no idea this was going to happen, and I don’t know what to say about it — I can’t wrap my head around it,” Sue Hodgkinson said.
On Wednesday night, Sheriff Watson went to get a haircut at the local Great Clips.
“All the girls there were talking about it. They were all saying, ‘He did my home inspection or he did this or that,’” Watson said. After the haircut, Watson stopped by a diner on his way home, and the waitress at his table said she’d been friends with Hodgkinson when they were younger.
“People are embarrassed that he’s from this area, because that’s not the norm,” Watson said. “It’s not at all what the Belleville area is like. People are really friendly in this area.”
For a man given to passionate political tirades against conservatives and the “super rich,” Hodgkinson seems to have taken little interest in local politics, according to St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook. Holbrook said Hodgkinson wasn’t active among local Democrats and he couldn’t remember ever meeting Hodgkinson in person.
“He didn’t run with the pack — he was a lone wolf,” Holbrook said. “There’s always sparring over the issues, but you won’t find people taking it to that level of hatred. He doesn’t reflect this community.”
Along Main Street, beneath rows of sparkling lights and the sounds of a guitar-playing street performer, shoppers and diners consistently described Hodgkinson this week as a disgruntled outlier, a tightly wound man who could’ve come from almost anyplace and latched on to any cause.
A few blocks away, along a dilapidated stretch of road that used to be one of the city’s main business districts, a different answer consistently emerged.
“The people around here, from 55 to 75 years old, are looking for help, and it’s not there,” Egler said. “It’s enough to make people reach their breaking point. Unfortunately, he was one of them.”
Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.