One year later: Alexandria leaders, residents remember Simpson Stadium shooting

One year later: Alexandria leaders, residents remember Simpson Stadium shooting
Simpson Field (Photo Credit: Louise Krafft)

By Alexa Epitropoulos and Missy Schrott 

Thursday marks the oneyear anniversary of the June 14, 2017 shooting at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park, when James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on Republicans practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity.

The incident, which shocked the Del Ray community and made national headlines, left wounds both physical and emotional.

Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and lobbyist Matt Mika were critically wounded when Hodgkinson opened fire just after 7 a.m. that late spring day, while U.S. Capitol Police Agents Crystal Griner and David Bailey and legislative aide Zack Barth were also injured in the shootout.

Scalise, Mika, Griner, Bailey and Barth survived and are in various stages of recovering from their injuries. Scalise has undergone several follow-up surgeries and still has difficulty walking. The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, died the morning of the shooting.

The incident and its aftermath were painful for Del Ray, a progressive, tightly knit community deeply rooted in family. Even more difficult was the revelation that Hodgkinson, a native of Illinois, had been living in their midst for months, and on several occasions, had voiced hatred for Republicans and President Donald Trump before acting on his anger.

Alexandria YMCA

Former Mayor Bill Euille, who had almost daily conversations with Hodgkinson at the Del Ray YMCA, said he still thinks of the incident.

“I’m still numbed by it all, despite it almost being a year ago,” Euille said. “Numbed in terms of what happened on that day, the 14th of June, which will be etched in my brain and memory forever.”

Euille said he and Hodgkinson, over the course of a few weeks, discussed restaurant recommendations and employment opportunities over coffee in the lobby of the YMCA on East Monroe Avenue during his daily trips to the gym.

“I just wish I had learned more what was burning on the inside of him. You couldn’t tell, because he was just as normal as anyone else,” Euille said. “Had I known more about him, I probably could have gotten some help for him and all of this could’ve been avoided.”

Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said, like Euille, he wished he could’ve done more that day.

“I felt this sense, personally, that maybe I let my community down, maybe I could’ve done more, and sometimes that’s a little hard to work through. We always feel guilty, even when things happen that are beyond our control,” Lawhorne said.

As a native of Del Ray, Lawhorne said it was incredibly difficult to process personally.

“It was sort of hard to deal with, especially when it occurred in a place that was very well known to me, a big part of my life, going back to when I was a boy. I lived about six blocks from there,” Lawhorne said. “For me personally, when people feel it, I feel it.”

Gayle Reuter, a longtime Del Ray resident and community leader, said looking back at the event is still surreal.

“I think, a year later, when we think about it again, it still and always should be a shock that something like that can happen in our own neighborhood,” Reuter said. “I certainly am glad to see the Republican team is back for practice and has come back because we certainly were honored that they had chosen Alexandria [as a place] to practice.”

Reuter said it’s also been frustrating to see a lack of meaningful action on gun control.

The day of the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park reopening, residents hung flowers near the dugout, near where U.S. Capitol police officers and members of the Republican baseball team were shot. (Photo Credit: Louise Krafft)

“It was so shocking to those of us in Del Ray to have something so horrific happen in our backyard and I think, for a lot of us, it was like ‘If ever there was a time to discuss a reasonable review of gun control, it would be this,’” Reuter said. “I guess it’s frustrating to see how, unfortunately, none of the [team] members involved had any interest in speaking or dealing with what a lot of us think are the real issues.”

Police Chief Michael Brown, who, at the time, had only been in his position for five months, said he was gratifed with the way law enforcement collectively addressed the shooting.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the way our officers responded, but also the way the whole public safety team came together,” Brown said. “Communications did an extremely good job of keeping things together and supporting us. Fire personnel were incredible after we were able to place the subject into custody and the Sheriff’s Department was there the whole time. It was a team effort.”

Brown said, the day of the shooting, he arrived at the scene 15 minutes after he received the call about the incident. That was after Alexandria Police Department officers Kevin Jobe, Nicole Battaglia and Alexander Jensen engaged Hodgkinson and worked with U.S. Capitol Police to neutralize the shooter.

“All three officers didn’t hesitate. Every police officer, at some point, is faced with the question ‘What do you do when these situations arise?’ You hope and pray you do the right things for the right reasons,” Brown said.

Officers Kevin Jobe, Nicole Battaglia and Alexander Jensen each showed courage that day, Brown said. Brown estimated, in all, the Alexandria Police Department had 80 to 100 officers at the scene that day.

He said officers involved in the incident have received counseling and other resources, as needed. He said, one year later, officers are pounding the pavement once again.

“Talking to the officers I have who were at that scene, they just want to go about doing their job again,” Brown said. “They’re engaged in their job.”

Brown, Lawhorne, Alexandria Fire Department Chief Robert Dubé, Mayor Allison Silberberg and other members of each respective department went door-to-door in the aftermath of the shooting, checking on residents and reassuring them.

“One of the things that was rewarding for us and helped community members was when we set up teams of police, fire and sheriff personnel, as well as social workers from the Department of Community Services. We went door-to-door and just listened to people talk and reassured them,” Brown said. “We heard great stories and reassured school kids that tomorrow is a new day.”

The afternoon of June 14, Del Ray residents gathered for a community walk. The walk, organized by Karen Johnson and Emily Busse, was intended as a way to bring neighbors together. Johnson said the walk happened organically.

“Everybody wanted to be with each other that day. We thought it would be meaningful to get a handful of us to walk [Mt. Vernon] Avenue together and be together. From there, it turned into an event,” she said. “… It just happened – and I think it happened because we all wanted to be with each other that day.”

Members of the faith community, including Father John Roddy of Del Ray’s St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Catholic Church, law enforcement, community leaders and residents joined together that night.

Lawhorne said the walk speaks to the nature of the community.

“They always rise to the occasion and take care of each other and find comfort in supporting one another,” Lawhorne said. “I don’t think Simpson Field changed Del Ray – it just once again proved how much they care about each other.”

It’s not just Del Ray residents that found meaningful connections in the aftermath of a traumatic event in the community.

Chad Shade (Photo Credit: Louise Krafft)

Chad Shade, an Alexandria Fire Department paramedic, by all accounts, shouldn’t have responded to the scene the day of the shooting. He was off-shift at his station at the time, Station 202, which is located on East Windsor Avenue.

While he was talking with his colleague and fellow paramedic, Fiona Apple, a resident came to the station, saying that a shooting with multiple injuries had happened a few blocks away. Then, the initial dispatch to the scene came on their radio.

Apple was about to leave for the scene with two EMTs who were new to the department. Shade, knowing the severity of the situation, decided to ride with them.

The four arrived on the scene shortly after Hodgkinson was shot. They quickly identified six potential victims and were told by several individuals to treat a patient that turned out to be Mika, who had suffered two wounds.

“From our perspective, anytime you have multiple victims you go into triage mode where we’re categorizing them as red or yellow or green or black, which would be dead on arrival,” Shade said. “Three [patients] were in that red category and where Matt was positioned and the severity of his injuries, he was the most critical patient. We needed to scoop him up and get him to a trauma surgeon because the only thing that was going to correct his injuries was an [operating room] suite.”

After being on the scene for six minutes, Shade and Apple transported Mika to the ambulance. Their first priority was protecting the patient, Shade said, followed close behind by ensuring the safety of the crew.

“We didn’t know if there was another shooter. We didn’t know if the initial shooter had placed some sort of IED,” Shade said. “… We were trying to limit the exposure of patients to a potentially dangerous scene – not only the patient, but the crew.”

Mika’s injuries were severe, Shade said. He had a severe, life-threatening chest wound that Shade described as the size of his fist.

“I’ve seen and treated a lot of gunshot victims, a lot of stabbing victims in the time I’ve been a medic and he amazed me. He had that true look of impending doom,” Shade said. “You’ll have patients that look at you and say ‘I know I’m going to die,’ but Matt, I think a lot of it speaks to his composure. He’s so self-driven and his will to do things and succeed in life in general is so great.”

Mika went on to make a full recovery, against the odds. Now, Shade and Apple, who has since retired, keep in touch with Mika and have become friends. Both have had gatherings with him since and attended a Washington Nationals baseball game with him. Mika and his girlfriend have been to Shade’s house to have dinner with his family.

“Fiona and I truly had a hand in his care. We would have never expected him to survive, however, we’re fortunate – we’re so fortunate – that we had a hand in his care and could make a difference,” Shade said. “That’s all we ever hope to do, to make a difference.”

What strikes many of those involved in retrospect is how much worse the situation could have been. Brown said that’s due to training – the police department had, a few months before the shooting, participated in active shooter training – and a lot of serendipity.

He said the most surprising lesson for the department was the national media coverage the event generated.

“I think the thing that came out of this was, because it was so high-profile, the police department learned how quickly things can become worldwide news,” Brown said. “That’s something you don’t generally see and [the department] responded pretty well.”

Euille said he still goes to the YMCA every day, but he now makes an effort to approach and introduce himself to new faces. He said the media attention he got in the 24 hours after the shooting, once he made it known that he had conversations with Hodgkinson, was a whirlwind.

“People were concerned about my personal physical health and mental well-being,” Euille said. “They thought, ‘Hey, you went through a lot and everything. You probably have this grudge against yourself that you could’ve done more and should’ve done more, but you didn’t know.’ And that stuck with me for a while, but you know, I’ve gotten over it now.”

Despite the tragedy of the event itself, both Euille and Lawhorne said it showcased the strength of the Del Ray community and Alexandria as a whole.

“I characterize that day as being Alexandria’s worst of times, in terms of what happened,” Euille said, “while at the same time, I think it also characterized Alexandria’s best of times in terms of how public safety folks, police, fire, sheriffs and everyone were fully engaged, and how they responded in a timely manner.”

Lawhorne said one of the most powerful moments of the shooting’s aftermath was the Alexandria Little League baseball game that reopened Simpson Stadium about a week after the shooting.

“Being there with all those kids that day is just something that I always remember as a defining moment for me and the community that we’re okay,” he said. “Sometimes it takes kids to remind you of that.”