On the afternoon of March 29, 1981, 25-year-old John Warnock Hinckley, Jr. arrived in Washington, DC on a Greyhound bus, and checked into an inexpensive tourist hotel. Like innumerable other visitors to the nation’s capital, he took a stroll to the White House. He asked other people nearby if recently-elected President Ronald Reagan was at home, and if so, how Hinckley might be able to see him.
But Hinckley wasn’t some well-wisher who hoped to snap a picture of the nation’s leader. On the afternoon of the next day, after Reagan exited the Washington Hilton Hotel where he’d given a speech to a labor group, Hinckley pulled out a revolver and opened fire, hitting three members of the president’s entourage and wounding Reagan in the chest with a bullet that ricocheted off the limo, before being subdued by Secret Service agents and police officers.
Reagan, somewhat miraculously, survived his injuries. But a shocked nation, which had been traumatized not quite 18 years before by the killing of one of Reagan’s predecessors, John F. Kennedy, once again was left to ponder an agonizing question: Why would someone try to kill their president? According to Mel Ayton, author of a 2014 book on assassination attempts, at least 15 armed assailants have stalked U.S. presidents since the 1800s, and four have succeeded in killing their targets. At least one of those attackers—Lincoln’s killer John Wilkes Booth—allegedly was part of a political conspiracy, while others may have been driven more by resentment of American society fueled by personal failures, or by a desire to be famous.
But in the case of Hinckley, the explanation for his act is in some ways much clearer. Court testimony, investigative documents and journalistic reporting provide a detailed, tragic picture of a young man caught in the throes of multiple severe psychiatric disorders
Trouble signs began to appear years before Hinckley tried to kill Reagan. According to a 1981 Washington Post profile, once his family relocated to the enclave of Evergreen, Colorado Dallas, where he didn’t mix much socially with his high school classmates. He attended Texas Tech University off and on for seven years, but similarly struggled to fit in. “There was a nervousness about him,” a custodian at his apartment building who sometimes talked to Hinckley recalled. “He moved about a lot. He got more anxious, more hyper as the conversation wore on.”
Hinckley gave up on college in 1980 and began drifting around the country. He famously developed an obsession with the movie “Taxi Driver,” in which an alienated, mentally-disturbed man stalks a political candidate and then rescues a child prostitute from her pimp in a bloody shootout. Hinckley saw the film more than 15 times, and developed fantasies about having a relationship with Jodie Foster, the young actress who played the prostitute. After reading a magazine article she wrote about being a student at Yale University, he wrote numerous love letters to her, and that autumn he traveled to New Haven in an effort to show his devotion. While there, he apparently spent hours drinking in a local bar and showing clippings about the actress to bartenders. He eventually headed to Colorado, where his parents had resettled.
Around that time, Hinckley also began to see a psychiatrist. According to a New York Times account of the doctor’s testimony, he didn’t know about Hinckley’s obsession with Foster and his interest in guns, and mistakenly thought that the patient’s problem was that he was unwilling or unable to live up to his family’s expectations. The doctor consulted with Hinckley’s parents and hatched a plan in which they would stop supporting their son financially and insist that he live on his own.
A Turn for the Worse
Hinckley’s condition took a turn for the worse. In early 1981, he again went to New Haven, where he hung around outside her dorm and slipped letters under her door. Around that time, his older brother Scott tried to convince their father to institutionalize Hinckley, and expressed fear that “he’s about to do something terrible.” But Hinckley’s father resisted, saying he was afraid that the trauma of being confined to a mental hospital might do Hinckley more harm than good. As the father later testified at at the trial, he instead stuck to the plan they’d developed with the psychiatrist. He met Hinckley at the Denver airport, gave him a few hundred dollars, and told him that he couldn’t come home. “I am the cause of John's tragedy,” he sorrowfully testified.
A few weeks later, Hinckley went to Washington, D.C. In his hotel room, he penned one desperate final letter to Foster, apparently hoping to impress her by saying that he might be killed in the attempt to assassinate Reagan. “I love you forever,” Hinckley wrote.
Prior to his trial, doctors diagnosed him as suffering from a complex array of mental disorders, including schizophrenia, narcissistic personality disorder, and major depression. They also described him as having “autistic-like thinking” and “serous defects” in his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, develop insights and make decisions.
Dr. William Carpenter, a psychiatrist who testified for the defense at Hinckley’s federal trial, said the young man was so overwhelmed by his delusions that he barely even thought about the president whom he tried to kill, or the other people he had wounded. “In his mental state, they were bit players,” Dr. Carpenter testified. His fantasies about Foster were so powerful that they didn’t fade, even when she actually appeared in the courtroom to testify and conspicuously ignored him. “He believes that she has become attached forever in history to him because of his shooting of the president,” the doctors who evaluated him at St. Elizabeths concluded.
In light of that evidence, Hinckley who was found not guilty by reason of insanity at his 1982 federal trial and was sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of prison.
Institutionalized for 35 Years
In the course of years of treatment, doctors began to see progress in controlling Hinckley’s illness. In 2003, a federal judge began allowing him to leave St. Elizabeths for brief, unsupervised visits with his parents. In 2015, Dr. Raymond Patterson, a psychiatrist who examined Hinckley and interviewed his caregivers, reported that Hinckley’s schizophrenia and major depression appeared to be in remission, and that his narcissistic personality disorder was lessened as well, though it still seemed to influence his behavior. He described the risk that Hinckley would commit any more violence as “low,” though he still expressed concerns about how he might fare if released.
In July 2016, a federal judge, who noted testimony by Hinckley’s psychiatrist that the failed assassin’s insights into his own illness had improved in the past five years, agreed with his caregivers that it was safe to release Hinckley from St. Elizabeths. In September, he was allowed to move to Virginia to live with his 90-year-old mother in a gated community, where he continues to receive outpatient psychiatric treatment.