WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — In little more than a week, the only living man to have shot an American president could pack his bags and leave a Washington psychiatric hospital for the last time.
John Hinckley Jr. has already been living with his 90-year-old mother at her home overlooking a golf course in Williamsburg, Virginia, for 17 days each month. Thanks to a judge’s order Wednesday, he’ll be able to live there full time, starting as early as Aug. 5.
Hinckley was 25 and had suffered from psychosis and depression for several years when he shot President Ronald Reagan and three others outside a Washington hotel on March 30, 1981. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to St. Elizabeths hospital.
Now 61, Hinckley has graying hair and suffers from arthritis and high blood pressure. He enjoys painting and photography and cares for feral cats. During his time in Williamsburg, he drives himself around town in a Toyota Avalon, going to movies and eating at fast-food restaurants.
The community has been reluctant to embrace him – he’s been turned away from volunteer opportunities because of his notoriety and from restaurants where he’s applied for part-time jobs. Some neighbors are wary of his presence, although the police chief said there’s no need for his officers to pay special attention to Hinckley.
But unless he violates the conditions of his leave, he won’t return to St. Elizabeths, despite opposition by prosecutors to greater freedom for the would-be assassin. The order by Judge Paul Friedman cannot be appealed.
The assassination attempt was fueled by Hinckley’s obsession with the movie “Taxi Driver” and its then-teenage star, Jodie Foster. He used a pawn-shop revolver to fire six shots at Reagan, the president’s aides and his protective detail outside a Washington hotel, wounding the president and three others.
Doctors have said for years that Hinckley’s mental illness was in remission, and Friedman concurred in his ruling. Hinckley was a “profoundly troubled 25-year-old young man” when he shot Reagan, the judge wrote, but has not exhibited symptoms of major depression or a psychotic disorder for more than a quarter-century.
“The court finds that Mr. Hinckley has received the maximum benefits possible in the inpatient setting (and) that inpatient treatment is no longer clinically warranted or beneficial,” Friedman wrote.
Hinckley was first allowed to leave St. Elizabeths in 2003 to visit his parents in Washington, and he began staying with them at their home in 2006. For the past two-plus years, he has been allowed to spend more than half of each month there.
People in the neighborhood and around Williamsburg have gotten used to seeing him, even if they’re not thrilled about it.
“From a mental illness perspective, I just have some reluctance about having him roam free like this,” said Tom Campbell, 77, a retired manager at NASA. “How can he be allowed to roam the streets as if nothing happened?”
Philip Yosway, 85, a retired Navy pilot who lives about 12 miles from Hinckley’s mother, had similar concerns.
“I’m not sure he’s mentally stable,” said Yosway, who added that Hinckley should still be confined as a result of his “heinous” crime.
The police chief of the Kingsmill community, James West, said the new resident will have zero impact on policing operations in the gated community of 2,400. He said officers haven’t kept extra tabs on Hinckley during his visits, and that won’t change. He declined to comment on whether any residents have ever called the police regarding Hinckley’s presence.
“It’s going to be business as usual,” West said.
Hinckley is likely to be busy. The judge ordered him to work or volunteer at least three days a week. He has volunteered at a church and a local mental hospital, but he has not found a paying job. He described it as “awkward” and uncomfortable to be tailed by Secret Service agents when he inquired about working at Starbucks and Subway, court records show.
Court records have revealed other details about Hinckley’s life in Williamsburg. A music lover, he has gone to concerts and looked at music sites online, and he often buys CDs. He’s also exploring photography as a hobby and attended lectures at a local art museum. He treats his elderly mother to dinner at Ruby Tuesday and takes her on scenic drives.
He has enjoyed participating in group therapy in Williamsburg, which will continue, per the judge’s order. “It’s really refreshing to be in a group with people who aren’t completely out of their minds,” he said, according to court documents.
Many restrictions attached to Hinckley’s temporary release will remain in place. He is barred from talking to the media. He can drive alone, but only within 30 miles of Williamsburg, and the Secret Service will periodically follow him. He also must return to Washington once a month so doctors can check on his mental state.
He will have to reside with his mother for a year. After that, he can live on his own, with roommates or in a group home in the Williamsburg area.
The government could not persuade the judge to order Hinckley to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and install a tracking device on his car.
Hinckley’s longtime attorney, Barry Levine, said he and his client were gratified by the order, and that Hinckley has thrived under his new liberties.
“Mr. Hinckley recognizes that what he did was horrific. But it’s crucial to understand that what he did was not an act of evil,” Levine said in a statement. “It was an act caused by mental illness, an illness from which he no longer suffers.”
The foundation that honors Reagan’s legacy said in a statement it was strongly opposed to Hinckley’s release. Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, also said she opposed it, writing on Facebook that “forgiving someone in your heart doesn’t (mean) that you let them loose in Virginia to pursue whatever dark agendas they may still hold dear.”
Reagan, who had emergency surgery after the shooting but was back to work within a month, died in 2004 at age 93. His press secretary, James Brady, suffered debilitating injuries and died of the after-effects in 2014. Brady became an advocate for gun control and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence used Hinckley’s release to renew its call for universal background checks for gun purchases.
Nuckols reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Sarah Brumfield and Jessica Gresko in Washington and Alanna Durkin Richer in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to his report.