What was John Hinckley thinking when he woke up on the morning of March 30, 1981, in downtown DC at the Park Central Hotel?
The 25-year-old son of a wealthy oil executive was exhausted, aimless, and volatile. He had been ricocheting around the country, from Los Angeles to his parents’ place outside Denver to Nashville to New Haven. He had arrived in Washington the previous afternoon after a cross-country bus trip and hadn’t slept much.
In the previous months, Hinckley had contemplated suicide and gotten arrested for carrying guns. He had considered assassinating a President—first Jimmy Carter, then Ronald Reagan. One of his two suitcases held a box of Devastator bullets; another held a .22-caliber revolver.
He woke up hungry that Monday. Around 9 am, he wandered into a McDonald’s on K Street and wolfed down an Egg McMuffin. Heading back to the hotel, he bought a copy of the Washington Star, the city’s afternoon paper. An item on A4 caught his eye: the president’s schedule.
He decided how he’d spend the day: He would try to kill President Reagan at the Washington Hilton.
Hinckley sat down to write a letter.
“Dear Jodie,” he began. “There is a definite probability that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan.”
For four years, Hinckley had been trying to win Jodie Foster’s heart. He had seen the actress in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver and decided they were meant for each other. He had called her, visited her dorm at Yale, sent her letters.
“Jodie,” he continued, “I would abandon the idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you. . . . I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you.”
And finally: “I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.”
He signed the letter, loaded the pistol, and headed to the Washington Hilton.
Ronald Reagan arrived at the Hilton around 2 pm and gave a speech to a union convention. When the President left the hotel and walked to his limousine, Hinckley was among 30 people behind the rope line a few yards away.
“President Reagan! President Reagan!” a voice yelled. Reagan turned toward Hinckley.
Hinckley reached into his right pocket, pulled out the pistol, gripped it with both hands, crouched, and pulled the trigger six times.
The first shot hit White House press secretary James Brady in the head. The second struck DC police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. The third sailed over Reagan’s head. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy took the fourth in his chest. The fifth hit the bulletproof glass of Reagan’s limousine.
Hinckley’s sixth bullet struck the top of the limo’s rear door and ricocheted into the car. It hit Reagan under his armpit and then barely missed his aorta. Jerry Parr, the lead Secret Service agent that day, had shoved Reagan into the limo when he heard the first pop. He didn’t know Reagan had been hit. But within seconds, as they sped down Connecticut Avenue toward the White House, Parr saw the President spitting up blood. The agent diverted the driver to George Washington University Hospital.
Next: Was Hinckley crazy, or just smart enough to pretend to be crazy?