Local News

A local paper’s dogged search for details about Alexandria shooter

June 15, 2017
This 2012 file photo shows James Hodgkinson of Belleville protesting outside the United States Post Office in Downtown Belleville, Ill. (Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat/TNS via Getty Images)

Reporter Joseph Bustos ran into the Belleville News-Democrat newsroom yesterday, nearly plowing into the sports editor. He had been home watching news coverage of the Virginia shooting at a congressional baseball practice when he heard a report that the alleged gunman was from Belleville. He was getting dressed and brushing his teeth when his editor texted for him to hurry in.

The Belleville paper called up nearly all of its 30-person staff after reporters and editors learned the man who fired shots at Republican members of Congress in Alexandria, Virginia—critically wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and injuring five others—was from their southeastern Illinois city. The alleged shooter, who was killed by police, was James Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old former home inspector from Belleville.

The McClatchy-owned News-Democrat broke some of the first reports about the shooter and provided an early portrait of a man who was angry with Republicans and with President Donald Trump. He was a prolific letter writer to his hometown paper, complaining about tax policies that benefited the wealthy, and was known to local police for a range of incidents, including shooting into the woods near his neighborhood just a few months ago.

Bustos, who nearly ran over sports editor Todd Eschman in the lobby, was one of six bylines on a story the News-Democrat published shortly after the shooter was identified. Within hours of Hodgkinson’s name going public, the paper had published roughly a dozen pieces that included Hodgkinson’s history with local police and reactions from the community.

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“The entire newsroom just dropped whatever they were doing and covered it,” says Bustos, who came to the paper two years ago from the Northwest Herald in suburban Chicago. “It’s the type of day in your career that you live for. There’s all the mundane, the county board meetings, and days like yesterday is why we do this.”

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Among the News-Democrat’s stories is a compilation of letters sent by Hodgkinson to the paper between 2008 and 2012. The letters, which amount to nearly 6,000 words, mainly criticize the federal tax structure and the Republican Party, and portray Hodgkinson as a man who wanted wealthier Americans to shoulder more of the tax burden.

It’s not the Grand Old Party anymore,” Hodgkinson writes in one. “It’s the Greedy One Percenters.”

In the evening, the paper published an editorial on the shooting. “Hodgkinson’s letters to the editor were printed on these pages,” wrote the editorial board. “If their rhetoric showed clues to his future actions, it sure is not evident. His calls for higher taxes on the rich were mild compared to many other voices out there.” The editorial noted that the paper, like its readers, will be “searching for answers, grasping for comforting thoughts.”

The News-Democrat’s full-court press is an impressive effort by a local paper that not only dug deep on a breaking national story but did so with speed and expertise. Coverage by the News-Democrat provided other news outlets with leads and key insights on what might have driven the shooter to act. Matt Pearce, a national reporter for the Los Angeles Times who wrote his paper’s story on Hodgkinson, called the News-Democrat’s reporting “fantastic.

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The News-Democrat provided the kind of comprehensive coverage that “only strong, local news outlets can do,” says Mark Poepsel, an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. “They covered the shooter’s history with local police in detail without sensationalism. They talked to community residents about whether this should reflect on their city, and they covered the question of the man’s mindset with six reporters to develop a multi-faceted story and avoid armchair psychoanalysis as much as possible.”

Belleville is home to fewer than 50,000 people, and the News-Democrat has existed in one form or another for more than a century. Its exceptional coverage relied heavily on institutional and individual memory alike.

“Everyone was searching their memories for any connection they may have had to Hodgkinson,” Eschman tells me. Some reporters discovered they had Facebook friends in common with the alleged shooter. Others “vaguely recalled him, but not anything unusual stood out about him.”

“Holy cow, I went to high school with this guy,” Roger Schlueter, the paper’s “Answer Man” columnist, told his colleagues. “He used to call me all the time.”

Copy editor Elizabeth O’Donnell* found a story in the paper’s archives that Sue Boyle, a long-time features writer and the paper’s current food editor, had written in 1997. That year, a foster child living in Hodgkinson’s home committed suicide. “That was him?” O’Donnell asked. Boyle was floored.

The News-Democrat was already having a big news week before the shooting. The paper had been covering an alleged adult sex-trafficking case with possible links to the death of a baby girl in Belleville.

Editor Jeffry Couch says he came into the office on Wednesday with his mind on that story and on localizing the baseball practice shooting in DC. When the shooter was identified as a Belleville man, “everything just went into motion,” Couch tells CJR.

“We just ran dozens and dozens of traps on it, trying to find people who knew him,” Couch says. The paper found photos of Hodgkinson in its archives, along with the letters to the editors. “It wasn’t someone we remember, even after finding these things.”

As the national media descend on Belleville, the hometown paper will continue to dig into records to try to better understand and explain Hodgkinson, says Couch. “We still have a lot of people to talk to,” Couch says. “There are some other strings to follow. We think there will be plenty more to do.”

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*An earlier version of this story misattributed the authorship of this story about Hodgkinson. The story was written by Lexi Cortes and Elizabeth Donald—not Elizabeth O’Donnell.

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.