Gunman who shot Republicans was Sanders fan, had run-ins with law

James T. Hodgkinson, seen here in a picture obtained on his Facebook page, was identified as the gunman who attacked a Republican congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia before dying in a shootout with police (AFP Photo/-) (Facebook page of James Hodgkinson/AFP)

Washington (AFP) - James T. Hodgkinson, the rifle-toting 66-year-old who opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for a baseball game Wednesday, was a fervent fan of leftist Senator Bernie Sanders and angered by the policies of President Donald Trump.

He showed no previous signs of violent extremism and his attack shocked people who knew him as "Hodges" -- a popular, "laid-back" blue-collar worker in his hometown of Belleville, Illinois.

But over the years, he has also had a number of scrapes with local police, including in March -- apparently just before he moved to the Washington area -- when neighbors complained that he had fired about 50 shots from a hunting rifle into nearby trees.

Hodgkinson died following a shootout with police on a baseball diamond in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, after his early-morning rifle and pistol attack left four people with gunshot wounds and two others with minor injuries.

Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, was in critical condition after surgery for a bullet wound to the hip.

Stocky, with graying hair and a well-trimmed mustache-goatee combination, Hodgkinson was a strong critic of Trump's administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

Calling himself a democratic socialist on his Facebook page, he bashed Republicans for their health care and pro-rich policies, arguing for much higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans. He also branded Trump a "traitor."

"Trump has destroyed our Democracy. It's Time to destroy Trump & CO," he posted recently on Facebook with a petition against the president.

He was meanwhile an ardent supporter of Sanders, the feisty hero of the left who lost to Hillary Clinton last year in a tough fight for the Democratic White House nomination.

Sanders' portrait topped Hodgkinson's Facebook account, and he posted a lot of pro-Sanders campaign materials -- and anti-Clinton and anti-Trump materials -- during last year's race.

Sanders said in a statement that Hodgkinson "apparently" worked as a volunteer for his presidential campaign.

"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."

- Blue-collar 'working man' -

Family and acquaintances in Hodgkinson's hometown of Belleville, Illinois -- across the Mississippi River from St Louis, Missouri -- expressed shock that he was behind Wednesday's bloodshed.

Hodgkinson, who had a home inspection business, "was a really nice guy. Laid back, rough around the edges. He was a working man," said Matthew Jett, who works at the Main St. Cafe in Belleville, where Hodgkinson was a regular.

"He was pretty popular around here, people knew him. I'm surprised as anybody," Jett told AFP.

Records show a number of run-ins with local police over three decades, mostly small issues like drunk driving and lacking correct business permits.

But in 2006, he was arrested on assault charges, and threatening someone with a shotgun, in an incident involving his daughter and her friends. Eventually the charges were dropped.

Hodgkinson was clearly passionate about progressive politics.

"I know he wasn't happy with the way things were going, the election results and stuff," his brother Michael Hodgkinson told The New York Times.

Mike Bost, the Republican congressman who represents the district that includes Belleville, said Hodgkinson had contacted his office frequently to express his disagreement with policies.

Bost told The Washington Post that Hodgkinson had never made any threats.

"This one never crossed the line, but he was always angry," he said.

- Path to attack unclear -

But Hodgkinson's path from anger over Trump to opening fire on a Republican legislators' baseball practice remained a mystery.

"I have no indication of why, why today, at all," FBI Special Agent Tim Slater told reporters.

Hodgkinson closed his home inspection business in December, he noted on his Facebook page.

The FBI said it appeared he had been living in Alexandria out of his car since March.

Former Alexandria mayor Bill Euille told MSNBC he had met Hodgkinson almost daily at the local YMCA, giving him tips on where to eat and find a job.

But they never talked politics.

"I didn't even know until today that he was a Bernie Sanders person," Euille said.

Minutes before the shooting began Wednesday, Representative Ron DeSantis said he was approached by a man at the baseball field asking if the team was Republicans or Democrats.

DeSantis didn't think anything of it at the time, he told MSNBC.

Hours later, though, he said, "Once I saw the picture, I was like, 'Oh boy, this is the guy.'"