Thursday, November 23, 2017
Public safety

Rep. Scalise in critical condition after gunman attacks baseball practice

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A lone gunman who was reportedly distraught over President Donald Trump's election opened fire on Republican members of the congressional baseball team at a practice field in this Washington suburb Wednesday, using a rifle to shower the field with bullets that struck four people, including Rep. Steve Scalise, the majority whip of the House of Representatives.

Trump, in a televised statement from the White House, condemned the "very, very brutal assault" and said that "many lives would have been lost without the heroic action" of Capitol Police officers who took down the gunman. Law enforcement authorities identified him as James T. Hodgkinson, 66, from Belleville, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis.

Two members of Scalise's Capitol Police security detail were wounded as they exchanged fire with the gunman in what lawmakers described as several chaotic, terror-filled minutes that turned the baseball practice into an early morning nightmare. One was wounded by gunfire and one suffered other, minor injuries.

Standing at second base, Scalise was struck in the hip, according to witnesses, and collapsed as the shots rang out, one after another, from behind a chain-link fence near the third-base dugout. Witnesses said Scalise, of Louisiana, "army crawled" from the infield to the grass as the shooting continued.

Aides to Scalise said he underwent surgery at MedStar Washington Hospital Center and remains in critical condition by midafternoon.

On Wednesday evening, the president and first lady Melania Trump visited the hospital.

"The president entered the room, spoke with Scalise's family members and sat by his bedside with Mrs. Trump," press secretary Sean Spicer said. Scalise and his wife, Jennifer, have two children.

Local officers arrived at the field minutes after they received desperate calls for help, including from those still under siege at the field, authorities said. The FBI said it would take the lead in the investigation, treating it as an assault on a federal officer.

Tim Slater, special agent in charge of the bureau's Washington field office, said investigators were "exploring all angles" but could not comment on a motive. Asked whether the shooting was an assassination attempt, he said it was "too early in the investigation to say one way or another."

The FBI said Hodgkinson was armed with a handgun and a rifle. Witnesses described a man with white hair and a beard wielding a long gun as he stood behind the dugout.

"He was hunting us at that point," said Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., who was standing at home plate when the shooting began.

Former U.S. Rep. David Jolly told the Tampa Bay Times that Scalise's sister, Tara, lives in Pinellas County. She did not want to speak with a reporter who tried to contact her.

Bishop said the gunman seemed to be firing a series of two shots at a time, a firearms technique known as "double-tapping," sending off bullets that kicked up the gravel on the baseball field as they struck the ground. "There was so much gunfire, you couldn't get up and run," he said. "Pop, pop, pop, pop — it's a sound I'll never forget."

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was among the lawmakers practicing for the annual charity baseball game, which is still scheduled to take place today, told CNN that "the field was basically a killing field — it's really sick and very sad."

Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, who left the practice just before shooting, said later that he had encountered a man in the parking lot — later identified as the gunman — who "asked me if the team practicing was a Democrat or a Republican team."

"I told him they were Republicans," the lawmaker recalled. "He said, 'Okay, thanks,' turned around."

The shooting stunned the capital as it began its workday. Out of caution, officials quickly put in place a "robust police presence throughout the Capitol complex," and the Secret Service added security around the White House.

Speaker Paul Ryan addressed his colleagues in the House chamber shortly after noon, saying the body was united in its shock and anguish. "We do not shed our humanity when we enter this chamber," Ryan said, his voice seeming to nearly break at times. "For all the noise and all the fury, we are one family."

As the magnitude of the episode became apparent, House leaders canceled the day's votes, and Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both canceled speeches.

Trump came to the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House after the shooting and said, "We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation's capital is here because, above all, they love our country."

"We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace, and that we are stronger when we are unified, and when we work together for the common good," the president said.

Hodgkinson seemed to be a fervent opponent of Trump. He signed an online petition calling for the president to be impeached, posting it on Facebook with a comment: "It's time to destroy Trump & co."

His brother, Michael Hodgkinson, said Hodgkinson traveled in recent weeks to Washington to protest. "I know he wasn't happy with the way things were going, the election results and stuff," Hodgkinson said in an interview shortly after he received the news Wednesday. He said that he had not been close to his brother and that he had not been aware of why he remained in Washington.

Hodgkinson also appeared to be have been fervent fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to a Facebook page with references to the Vermont senator. A LinkedIn page for James Hodgkinson had a profile photo showing Sanders' famous hair and glasses and the words, "The Dawn of a New Democracy."

In a statement Wednesday morning, Sanders said he had been told the suspect had volunteered for his presidential campaign. He offered his "hopes and prayers" for the shooting victims.

"I am sickened by this despicable act," Sanders said. "Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action."

Two of those who suffered injuries were Capitol Police officers assigned to protect Scalise, the third-ranking member of the House Republican leadership team. Officials identified the two officers as Crystal Griner and David Bailey, both 32. Law enforcement authorities said in early reports that both officers had been shot, but later said only one was wounded by gunfire.

A friend of Zachary Barth, a staff member for Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, posted a message from Barth on Facebook saying: "I got shot this morning at the baseball fields. But I am in the hospital and ok. Thank you for the thoughts and prayers."

Matt Mika, 38, a former congressional staff member and the director of government relations for the Washington office of Tyson Foods, was wounded in the shooting, according to a spokesman for the company.

Information from Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary and the Associated Press was used in this report.

     
 
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