WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — At the modest white-brick church on the edge of Colonial Williamsburg — where a Black Lives Matter sign and a gay pride flag welcome parishioners and visitors — the congregation of 250 has opened its arms to a pariah whose shocking crime nearly changed the course of American history.
Church leaders at Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists voted to stand alone in the community and give the middle-aged man a part-time job doing yard work on the church grounds.
But there was a problem almost immediately.
John Hinckley Jr. — who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity — had spent most of the past three decades locked away inside St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. — except for supervised visits to his mother’s house in Williamsburg.
“Even to work odd jobs is very difficult for a person who has not picked up a hammer in 35 years,” said church president Les Solomon, who has been mentoring Hinckley, 61, for more than a year and a half.
Hinckley was 25 years old when he stood outside a Washington hotel on a rainy day, armed with a gun and a delusional plan to impress the object of his obsession, actress Jodie Foster.
The college dropout emptied his .22-caliber revolver at Reagan. A bullet penetrated within an inch of the president’s heart. Other rounds wounded a Secret Service agent and a police officer. But the gravest injuries belonged to White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head and partially paralyzed. Brady died two years ago. His death was ruled a homicide.
Over the past 10 years — in the face of ardent opposition from government prosecutors who worry whether Hinckley remains a threat to society — a federal judge allowed the would-be assassin to take increasingly longer breaks away from the hospital to visit his mother, Jo Ann, in Williamsburg.
In late July, the judge granted Hinckley’s full release from the hospital, allowing him to live with his mother full time — albeit with many conditions. Hinckley has been to Williamsburg on a visit since, but that formal transition has not yet occurred.
It has been a struggle for Hinckley to build a life outside the protective walls of his mother’s house and find acceptance in a community that in large part still views him as a leper.
At the James City County Recreation Center — where Hinckley has been spotted using the treadmill and watching TV — one resident who did not want to be named said, “I don’t know how you shoot a president and get out at all — ever. But, I’m sure the police and Secret Service know where he is, so he’s not going very far if he tries something.”
Jack Garrow, who lives five doors down from the Hinckleys in a gated community, was on active duty as a captain in the U.S. Navy when Hinckley tried to kill his commander in chief.
“I will never be able to personally forgive him for what he did,” said Garrow. “What he did was horrendous. I remember it vividly. It was shocking.”
But Garrow’s feelings are complicated by his affection for Hinckley’s mother, and his brother and sister, who both live out of state. “You have some sympathy for the family, for sure. They’re very nice people. His mother is a fine lady and if him being here full time is a help to her, so be it.”
Community rejection and disdain
Another challenge for Hinckley as he endeavors to insert himself into the Williamsburg community is finding anyone willing to give him a job, even as an unpaid volunteer — which is a condition of his release. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he wanted to ensure Hinckley does not become isolated, lonely and depressed, as he was in 1981 when he shot the president.
While Hinckley has been doing some work for the Unitarian Universalists, and volunteering in the cafeteria at Eastern State Hospital, a mental health facility in Williamsburg, he has been turned away by numerous businesses and charity organizations.
Attempts to get a job in the law library at the College of William and Mary, a grocery store and with Colonial Williamsburg failed; none wanted him, according to court records. The pastor of a Methodist church turned down Hinckley’s request to volunteer; so, too, did the managers of a local food pantry for the hungry, a program for poor elderly people and a local animal shelter.
Hinckley was supposed to volunteer at a bowling event hosted by the Arc of Greater Williamsburg, an organization that provides support for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. But the organization rescinded its offer when staff members refused to participate if Hinckley showed up, court records show.
Hinckley’s case manager, Jonathan Weiss, said the boards of several nonprofit organizations in town have turned down Hinckley’s requests to volunteer for fear they would lose benefactors, according to court records.
Hinckley seems acutely aware that most in the community treat him like an outcast.
A review of Hinckley’s case file revealed he complained to one of his therapists, “Working at the William and Mary Law Library would have been a great gig for me. But, when it gets to a certain level and my name gets brought up, my reputation gets in the way, and I hit another roadblock.”
The one job Hinckley was not disappointed to be rejected from was working at a fast-food restaurant. He told his therapist, “I’m too old and decrepit to stand on my feet for eight hours with 20-year-old kids.”
He’s grateful for those who accept him
For now, Hinckley will continue to work at the Unitarian Universalists church, where members are helping find tasks that suit him.
Solomon, in the soft, supportive voice of a grandfather, explained he realized even routine yard work was beyond Hinckley’s abilities and interest, so he instead asked him to help build simple birdhouses.
“That was a real challenge for him, too — even though we were using pre-cut, pre-drilled birdhouses,” said Solomon, who is now helping Hinckley sell donated books online to benefit the church. “He loves books, especially history books, so we thought that might be something he could do for us.”
But Hinckley’s decades in a psychiatric institution under extremely strict rules meant he had no idea how to navigate the internet.
“We quickly found out he did not know about sites like Amazon, eBay and Craigslist,” said Solomon. “So we began working to train him how to use those sites.”
Solomon said Hinckley recently told him, “I’m so thankful for what this congregation is doing, for helping me out.”
Hinckley has been to Solomon’s house many times to visit and learn about the internet. In recent years, he has been allowed to obtain a Virginia driver’s license and usually drives himself to Solomon’s. And, he always shows up with a cold bottle of Pepsi.
“He’s been in my home, been with my family and I’m very comfortable,” said Solomon.
Garrow notes that there have been no issues during Hinckley’s stays in Kingsmill Resort. “I’ve never felt ill at ease or threatened.”
He likes Elvis, Bowie and cats
Since 2014, Hinckley has spent two weeks every month of the year living at his aging mother’s house, under close monitoring by the Secret Service and a team of mental health professionals in Williamsburg.
Mother and son share a 2,500-square-foot home inside the upscale golf community Kingsmill, where the world’s best women golfers play in an annual LPGA tournament.
“I just miss him so much when he leaves and can hardly wait for him to come back,” Jo Ann Hinckley told John’s therapists after one of his 17-day visits. “No one has tried harder than him. I’m in awe of him and he is just the nicest person to have in the house.”
Hinckley often is seen standing on the back deck, staring out over the 13th hole or feeding the swans in the pond behind their house, neighbors say. He also enjoys morning walks along the neighborhood’s private tree-lined streets after breakfast. His brother, Scott, and sister, Diane Hinckley Sims, often come from out of town to visit.
Very few pictures of the stocky Hinckley have been published in recent years, so he’s able to largely move about without being recognized.
A study of hundreds of court documents pertaining to Hinckley’s treatment shows he spends time driving about town in his mother’s Toyota, shopping for cat food at PetSmart, dropping by Sweet Frog for frozen yogurt or attending a lecture or art exhibit at the prestigious College of William and Mary.
He loves to play the guitar and listen to music — some of his purchases include “Duets” by Barry Manilow, “50’s Hits” by Elvis Presley and records by John Denver, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. He also likes photography and bowling.
He spends hours walking around Colonial Williamsburg, where visitors step back in time to the beginnings of the American Revolution.
But, Hinckley’s past also can be a dark shadow he can’t shake.
He is forbidden from contacting Jodie Foster or seeing her movies. That became a problem during one visit home in 2013. Hinckley went to the theater with his brother to see the film “Elysium,” according to notes from one of his therapists. Just a few minutes into the movie, Foster appeared on screen. Hinckley leaned in to his brother and whispered, “We have to leave.”
For all the difficulties Hinckley has faced adjusting to life outside the psychiatric hospital, he has found a few pockets of acceptance.
Hinckley has known love — and rejection
Hinckley has enjoyed getting to know people at his court-ordered group therapy sessions in Williamsburg, telling one of his therapists as noted in court documents, “It’s really refreshing to be in a group of people who aren’t completely out of their minds.” He went on to say, “The people in this group have normal lives and normal problems. They have to worry about getting their kids to soccer and what to make for dinner.”
And, despite living in a government psychiatric facility for 35 years, Hinckley has had quite the love life, even dating two women at the same time for several months last year, his case file shows.
A fellow patient at St. Elizabeths, a bipolar drug addict who was in a relationship with Hinckley, offered to move to Williamsburg after release, but was rebuffed. “I cannot factor in all your dramatics,” Hinckley told her.
Describing himself as “Type A and athletic” to one of his therapists, Hinckley has occasionally invited women over to his mother’s house to watch TV and listen to music. And he’s generous, buying them earrings, shoes and CDs, including Taylor Swift’s “Red” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Greatest Hits.”
He also has known heartbreak. He received a “Dear John” letter from a girlfriend who abruptly broke up with him in 2014, according to court records. Asked by a therapist if he would ever like to get married, Hinckley replied, “Definitely not.”
Visits cost up to $10,000 a month and include a limousine
Jo Ann Hinckley has been footing the bill for her son’s visits to Williamsburg since they began in 2006, including the whopper of a bill she gets from his team of therapists here — $5,000 to $10,000 a month, according to court documents.
His mother, who is 90, has drawn from the family’s shrinking fortune amassed during her late husband’s years as a wealthy Denver oil man to cover Hinckley’s treatment costs. She also has paid for a limousine every month since 2014 to fetch him from the hospital in Washington and drive him two and a half hours to Williamsburg.
She has complained only mildly about how her son often brought with him the feral cats he has fed for years on the grounds of the hospital in Washington.
Hinckley told one of his therapists he would miss some of the people at the hospital when he got out. “Something else I’m going to lose is my cats,” he remarked, according to court documents. “These cats mean a lot to me. I have to cut ties with them, too.”
Restrictions, GPS tracking and surveillance
Hinckley may have finally won his freedom from the psychiatric hospital, but he is not free of the 34 court-ordered restrictions that will rule his life for the next year — or the Secret Service agents who will continue to track him.
He must stay within a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg and carry a GPS trackable cell phone any time he leaves his mother’s house. The Secret Service must have access to his phone and any online and email accounts Hinckley establishes and must always know what car Hinckley is driving.
He can never go near any current or former president, vice president or member of Congress, or the families of any of his victims. Neither Hinckley nor his family members are allowed to have contact with the media. And, he must continue with outpatient therapy.
If Hinckley violates any of these conditions — or shows signs of deteriorating mentally or emotionally — he can be sent back to St. Elizabeths.
Resident Jim Gorham complained, “I think they are being too generous to him. Since they let him out, I guess he can go wherever he wants. They just shouldn’t have let him out, shouldn’t give him that privilege.” But Jim Hall of Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists said Hinckley has paid his dues to society and would be welcome at services.
Experts told the court that Hinckley’s depression and psychotic disorder are in remission. His attorney, Barry Wm. Levine, said his client has profound regret for his actions.
Levine said, “The very carefully considered decision to release Mr. Hinckley should give great comfort to a concerned citizenry that the mental health system and the judicial system worked and worked well.”
Court records indicate Hinckley knows he was not in his right mind in 1981: “I was living a very depressed, isolated life, out of touch with reality, despairing, estranged from my family. All of these things led me to this despair and being delusional about Jodie Foster.”
Hinckley: ‘The family will get through it’
One area of great concern for prosecutors is Hinckley’s dependence on his mother, who has been a source of unwavering emotional and financial support, and a critical part of her son’s rehabilitation. They question what will happen when she passes away or is no longer able to live at home with him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Kennedy told Judge Friedman, “Nothing in the plan is clear-cut at this particular point. The hospital’s attitude is that we’ll deal with it when it happens.” She went on to argue, “It was exactly this type of scenario when Mr. Hinckley was out of touch with his parents, he had stopped therapy, he was not on medication and he had no supervision when he shot President Reagan and the others. Again, too much risk.”
Hinckley’s brother and sister, who said they’ve become very close with their brother in recent years and seen his general mood and mental health improve during his time in Williamsburg, according to court records, have promised to help their brother when their mother is no longer able to.
His sister, Diane, has testified that when their mother dies, she will immediately fly to Virginia to stay with him until a permanent living plan can be worked out. And both siblings have pledged to assist their brother in paying his bills when their mother’s money runs out.
Hinckley himself tried to allay any fears of what will happen when he is faced with the devastating loss of his mother.
“I’ll get through it. The family will get through it,” he told the judge. “It will impact my life because she is such a large part, but I have this team and friends that will certainly be supportive.”