By Alexa Epitropoulos and Evan Berkowitz
As city residents continue processing the June 14 shooting at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, Alexandria Times reporters walked through the surrounding Del Ray neighborhood in an attempt to retrace the footsteps of gunman James T. Hodgkinson.
Those footsteps led to a number of Del Ray businesses on the neighborhood’s main drag, Mt. Vernon Avenue. Owners and employees at Junction Bakery & Bistro, South China restaurant, Pork Barrel BBQ and the Del Ray Service Center all had encounters with or sightings of Hodgkinson in the weeks – and days – before his early morning attack at the ball field that left Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), two Capitol police officers, a lobbyist and a congressional aide injured.
Hodgkinson also visited public libraries to use free wifi, according to the FBI investigation’s findings. Some attendees of a little league baseball game at Simpson Field on June 13, the night before the shooting, also sighted him at the game sitting in the stands.
Hodgkinson had been living in Del Ray’s midst for about two and a half months before his attack – he even had a number of conversations with former Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille. The Belleville, Illinois native had been living in his van, parked near the YMCA on East Monroe Avenue, since late March. He died from injuries sustained during the June 14 shootout with two Capitol police and three Alexandria police officers. President Donald Trump announced Hodgkinson’s death in an address at 11:30 a.m. that morning.
Euille, a member of the YMCA, had daily conversations with Hodgkinson for about a month before the attack. Euille noticed that Hodgkinson was always in the YMCA’s lobby on his laptop when Euille arrived between 7 and 7:30 every morning and was still there as he finished his exercise routine at 8:45 a.m.
After Hodgkinson overheard others at the YMCA calling Euille “mayor,” he began to strike up conversations on everything ranging from restaurant suggestions to employment opportunities.
“He seemed to be a loner and new to the area,” Euille said. “He was maybe exclusively having conversations with me. He felt comfortable with me, he saw me as someone held in high regard.”
Euille said that he never witnessed Hodgkinson going on political rants. There were a number of things, however, that made Hodgkinson stand out, including Euille’s observation shortly before the shooting that he was carrying almost all of his belongings in a duffel bag.
“When I first met him, I assumed, since we have a lot of transient folks that come into the Y from time to time, that he was one of them. I’ve seen folks wash their clothes in the shower and hang them in the sauna to dry,” Euille said. “Somebody like him doesn’t throw me for a loop in terms of being an ‘odd person.’”
Euille was five to ten minutes away from the YMCA when Hodgkinson began shooting at Simpson Field shortly after 7 a.m. that Wednesday morning. He found out that the shooter was the man he’d been having conversations with from a YMCA front desk employee at the same time news broke about Hodgkinson’s identity.
Euille said, though he doesn’t believe there are red flags he missed, he wishes he could’ve helped.
“The reality is I wish I could have learned more about this gentleman and could have known what was inside of him,” Euille said.
Euille wasn’t the only Alexandria resident to encounter Hodgkinson.
Employees at South China, a small Chinese restaurant located on the 1300 block of Mt. Vernon Avenue, frequently saw Hodgkinson. Receptionist Levis Jimenez recalled that Hodgkinson ate lunch there every day for about two to three weeks.
He ordered the same meal, General Tso’s chicken and fried rice to-go, each day, Jimenez said. On Tuesday, June 13, the day before the shooting, Jimenez said Hodgkinson ate his lunch later than usual, between 1:30 and 2 p.m., and dined in at the restaurant for a change.
She asked him if he enjoyed the food, and Hodgkinson said he did.
“I saw him like a normal guy,” Jimenez said. “I [was] surprised when they showed me the picture. You know people, but you don’t know who’s who.”
At the Del Ray Service Station, manager Crist Dauberman serviced Hodgkinson’s van earlier that morning of June 13 at around 10 a.m. Hodgkinson had come to the service station to get air put in his tires.
Dauberman was having a conversation with Hodgkinson about home pest control when the
customer began ranting loudly about Trump.
“I thought ‘wow, I’m going to stay away,'” Dauberman said.
Dauberman tried to backpedal from the conversation at that point, turning back to fill Hodgkinson’s tires. The conversation stuck out in his mind as unusual due to the emotional and angry nature of Hodgkinson’s rant. He remembered Hodgkinson asking if the tires would make it back to Illinois.
It wasn’t until hours after the shooting that a cashier informed him that the man who owned the van with the Illinois tags was the shooter.
“It went from being weird to scary,” Dauberman said. “It was strange to talk to someone and then the next day, something like that happens.”
Other local businesses had more innocuous encounters with Dauberman.
Bill Blackburn, co-owner of Holy Cow, Pork Barrel BBQ and The Sushi Bar, said Hodgkinson had been a frequent visitor at Pork Barrel BBQ. Blackburn never met Hodgkinson personally, but bartenders who served him said he frequently came in to drink beer and watch golf.
“It’s spooky that he was in our midst,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn, who helped feed 150 police officers and investigators the day after the shooting, said his staff is burnt out from the constant barrage of media attention over the week. He said his staff – like the larger community – are ready to move on.
“People are shaken up. It’s hard when this happens in your backyard,” Blackburn said. “People will heal. We’ll be stronger as a community.”
Tami Hatridge, manager at Junction, a bakery and bistro, said she’d seen Hodgkinson frequently on a sidewalk bench across from her restaurant, at the corner of Mt. Vernon and East Monroe avenues. She said he hadn’t come into Junction though.
“It all started coming together when you saw the photos [in post-attack news reports],” Hatridge said. “He sticks out. He’s different than our other homeless guys. We know our population.”
Following the shooting, Hatridge said the Del Ray community was “in shock and awe.”
“He was living amongst us and we didn’t notice … because we don’t see with those kinds of eyes,” Hatridge said.
Amid the chaos of the police and FBI presence, as well as an “intense, but unobtrusive” media presence, Hatridge said she admired that community members remained calm.
“No one knew what to say,” she said. “That doesn’t happen in Del Ray.”
It’s been a month of adversity for Del Ray, with the shooting coming just weeks after a flurry of racist flyers appeared on trees and telephone poles in the community. That came shortly after Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair confronted Alexandria-based alt-right leader Richard Spencer at a gym, leading to Spencer’s membership being suspended.
Del Ray residents quickly tore down the flyers and replaced them with counter-messages.
After all that’s happened, though, Hatridge is sure the neighborhood will remain a welcoming place.
“All the years I’ve lived here, Del Ray … has had one of everybody,” she said. “This neighborhood really is all about peace and community and love and dogs and babies.”
Hatridge said June 14’s attack won’t change anything.
“This will not take this neighborhood down,” she said. “It will remain a welcoming community.”
That’s something YMCA employees agreed with after it reopened on June 17, three days after the shooting.
“We are like a family here,” Dana Rucker, associate director of communications for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, said. “We’re not going to allow this one incident to change that.”