News & Politics

How John Hinckley Lives Now

He drives a Toyota. He eats fro-yo. He shops at PetSmart. You just might run into him.

How John Hinckley Lives Now
Photograph of Hinckley in Williamsburg by Jae Donnelly for

Every morning, John Hinckley Jr. leaves his room inside St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital and goes outside at 8:30 to feed his cats. They are a ragtag colony numbering more than two dozen, all feral. They especially like 9Lives.

It’s a routine Hinckley has kept up for many years now, at least when he’s in Washington. For two weeks each month, Hinckley leaves the hospital to stay with his mother—conveyed to Williamsburg, Virginia, by a limo service she hires for the trip.

Jo Ann Hinckley pays the $5,000 to $10,000 cost of each monthly visit, using the family’s dwindling oil fortune to cover the elaborate treatment team for her son in Williamsburg. She isn’t crazy about having cats in the house, especially wild-eyed strays, but sometimes John can’t help himself and brings one along. “They love me,” he told a psychiatrist last spring. “They come up to me, get my rub. I pet them all the time.”

One afternoon in late 2014, the limo dropped John off with a new favorite in tow. This was his first time bringing the animal, and she didn’t take to being cooped up. At night, the cat yowled so loudly that the Hinckleys couldn’t sleep. When John let her out, she sprinted for the woods. The cat didn’t come home that evening, or the next.

Hinckley went for daily walks around the neighborhood. He helped his mother around the house and fed the swans in the pond out back. The two of them took a drive to see the autumn leaves and had dinner at Ruby Tuesday. He tried to put his runaway feline out of his mind.

The day before Hinckley was to return to St. Elizabeths, he went outside. There on the doorstep was the cat, feasting on a meal he’d set out just in case. “I’m so glad she came back and was safe,” he told his treatment team in a post-visit interview. “I didn’t let her out of the house again.”

• • •

Hinckley was a 25-year-old college dropout on March 30, 1981, the day he went to the Washington Hilton with a $47 pawnshop revolver and shot President Ronald Reagan.

He said he did it for actress Jodie Foster and called it “the greatest love offering in the history of the world.” The following year, a DC jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Since that time, he has been committed at St. Elizabeths.

John Hinckley
Chaos at the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981, after Hinckley shot President Reagan with a $47 pawn shop revolver. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

For years, Hinckley wasn’t allowed off the hospital grounds in Southeast DC. Beginning in 1999, however, the court began granting him certain freedoms. Hinckley could leave for outings around the District with St. E’s staff; later, he was allowed overnight stays in Williamsburg, where his parents had relocated. Today, his monthly 17-day visits there come with some conditions: He can’t be on the internet without his mother’s supervision, for instance, and isn’t allowed to circulate about town by himself if his stops aren’t prearranged.

Over the years, the visits—like everything else about Hinckley—have been a subject of public fascination. The hearings where Hinckley’s lawyers petition for his release from St. Elizabeths draw regular coverage. Reporters have descended on the bucolic Virginia town in the hopes of catching him. In April 2014, published exclusive pictures of the now 61-year-old would-be assassin: a doughy interloper in a visor blending in with the country-club set.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: “Free John Hinckley” (2011)

One person who has never taken part in the spectacle, though, is Hinckley himself. For decades, he has been barred by the court from speaking to the press. Sometimes he doesn’t even attend his own hearings, due to the “arduous” and “undignified” process by which wards of St. E’s get to the federal courthouse, according to his lawyer, Barry Levine. “They put the patient in chains, very close to the middle of the night, and bring him to the court where he stays below,” Levine once explained. “He just doesn’t want to go through that.”

Wow, is that how people see me? I have these other aspects of my life that no one knows about. I’m an artist. I’m a musician. Nobody knows that. They just see me as the guy who tried to kill Reagan.

John Hinckley

But that doesn’t mean Hinckley hasn’t been talking. Over his 35 years in confinement, he has been interviewed by psychiatrists, nurses, and therapists; evaluated by medical teams; and watched by Secret Service details. The notes from these Court TV–meets–Crime and Punishment conversations and reports fill a voluminous case file, thousands of pages and counting, hidden in plain sight at US District Court in downtown DC.

In recent years especially, Hinckley has had plenty to say—about his cats, his music, his wish to be free of St. E’s, and the reputation that has kept him locked up there. “Wow, is that how people see me?”  he asked one of his therapists in 2011 after a psychotic 22-year-old gunman shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. “I have these other aspects of my life that no one knows about. I’m an artist, I’m a musician. Nobody knows that. They just see me as the guy who tried to kill Reagan.”

John Hinckley St. Elizabeths Hospital in DC
St Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Southeast DC, where Hinckley has been committed since a jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Today, he only spends about two weeks a month here. Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Today, the Hinckley papers might be only a historic curio—a where-are-they-now about the troubled young man who achieved infamy in 1981—but for one thing: Many people who have watched the case over the years believe that Hinckley’s permanent release, with conditions, isn’t a matter of if but when. His mother is 90. He wants to live by her side for whatever time she has left. After that, he wants to live on his own. As such, the courthouse files offer a twofold appeal that combines the prurient with matters of public interest: first, a glimpse into the mind of America’s most infamous mental patient and, second, a preview of what his life outside the walls of St. E’s might look like if it comes.

• • •

Hinckley’s early furloughs in Williamsburg did not go well.

He moped around the house and holed up in his room. “Look, you just can’t create a stallion from a mule,” as one of his minders put it.

When he did venture out, there were breaches and deceptions. In 2011, Hinckley repeatedly went to a Barnes & Noble when he was supposed to be at the movies. On one occasion, Secret Service agents watched as he stood before a shelf of books about presidential assassinations, including an account of the moment he severely wounded Reagan and press secretary James Brady. On another visit, Hinckley was back at the same shelf—again, not touching, just looking. An agent said the scene gave him goose bumps.

“The cashier asked if he was a member of the Barnes & Noble discount club,” the agent wrote in his report, describing Hinckley’s purchase of a book about Elvis. “The Subject replied yes and provided a number. The cashier then asked for his first name. The Subject remained silent and paid the cashier with cash.”

The agents may have hated it, but Hinckley’s doctors came to believe he would never reintegrate into society without more structure and planned activities. Today, there are outings at the bowling alley and ferry rides, day trips to Colonial Williamsburg, and art-history lectures on topics such as “Leonardo da Vinci & the Idea of Beauty” at the nearby College of William & Mary. “High-brow,” he concluded in a post-visit interview with his psychiatrist after one such talk. “Incredibly interesting,” he summed up after another.

Hinckley stocks up on cat food at PetSmart ($100 per visit); frequents Wendy’s, KFC, and Sweet Frog (he likes its yogurt); and haunts used-record stores (recent purchases include David Bowie’s The Next Day). “It can be boring at times,” he has said. Once, after seeing a Beatles cover band, Hinckley noted being turned off by Williamsburg’s “conservative” crowd.

“It’s really refreshing to be in a group of people who aren’t completely out of their minds,” Hinckley once explained. … He described to a therapist how nicely he’d hit it off with one gentleman in particular: “He’s my age. He has three cats. What else could I ask for?”

At least one night per trip, Hinckley attends group therapy, including at a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. His caseworker noted being “floored” by Hinckley’s interest in the gatherings. “It’s really refreshing to be in a group of people who aren’t completely out of their minds,” Hinckley once explained. “Their mental-health problems are more like depression and anxiety. They can carry on regular conversations.” He described to a therapist how nicely he’d hit it off with one gentleman in particular: “He’s my age. He has three cats. What else could I ask for?”

Nearly everywhere he goes, Hinckley drives himself in his mother’s Toyota. He obtained his Virginia driver’s license in 2014 after two tries on the road test. (He failed the first because he didn’t yield for a fire truck.) “I love the feeling of being able to drive on the open road,” he told a therapist.

Hinckley gets around in his mother’s Toyota—after failing his road test twice. Photograph by Jae Donnelly for

The clinicians at St. Elizabeths have reported to the court that their ward is a different person now “as a direct result of his expanded freedoms.” Gone is the suicidal, reclusive patient who used to hide photos of Jodie Foster in his room and write fawning letters to Ted Bundy. The new Hinckley is “grounded” and “stable,” “connected, considerate, empathetic and insightful.”

“[I’m] thrilled about how much John is coming out of his shell,” his therapist in Williamsburg said in a post-furlough interview with Hinckley’s St. E’s treatment team in 2014. “He really seems like a person, not someone just drudging through life with slumped shoulders.” At another point, the therapist noted, “His mood has continued to improve dramatically. . . . He’s smiling more, he’s laughing and joking and is more upbeat.” 

Still, he has his social limits. In December 2014, the parents of a new lady friend from NAMI meetings invited Hinckley over for dinner. He declined. It wasn’t anything against the family. In fact, his mother had described them as lovely. The problem, he said with a “shy smile” noted by a therapist: “I’m not the dinner-party type of guy.”

• • •

Jo Ann Hinckley lives in Kingsmill Resort, a gated community on the James River where eagles soar above the woodland tree-tops and the Stars and Stripes are plentiful.

The 2,900-acre grounds—protected by a gate guard and 24-hour security—are home to 15 tennis courts, three pools, a spa, a yacht club, and three golf courses.

The Hinckley house is a split-level contemporary atop a hill and has one of the best views in the neighborhood. John’s bedroom overlooks crape-myrtle trees and a gazebo, and the back yard slopes down to the 13th tee of Kingsmill’s acclaimed River Course. Last spring, Mrs. Hinckley told a psychiatrist that she has watched from her window as Bill Clinton passed by “a couple times” on a round with his entourage.

John Hinckley Kingsmill Resort
Hinckley spends two week a month at his mother’s house at Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, overlooking this golf course where Presidents play. Photograph by Steve Helber/AP Photo.

Jo Ann and her husband, Jack, moved to the resort in 1985 after relinquishing control of their oil-exploration company in Colorado. They wanted to be closer to their son. Jack, a staunch Republican, blamed himself for the attempt on Reagan; he believed his tough love had left his bohemian son easy prey to the psychosis that triggered the event. (Newsweek memorably called John Jr. “a child of the right gone wrong.”)

After relocating, Jack Hinckley worked to repair the damage. The couple and their son attended group therapy at St. E’s. But the relationship between the men remained rocky until Jack died in 2008. Seven years later, John Hinckley was still talking to one of his therapists about “his difficulty relating with his controlling, domineering father.”

Hinckley and his mother share a more placid, loving bond. “I just miss him so much when he leaves and can hardly wait for him to come back,” Jo Ann said in one of her post-furlough interviews with her son’s treatment team. “Everything has gone so well, and I will give the thanks all to John. He has everything under control, and he is so good about all his appointments. No one has tried harder than him. I’m in awe of him, and he is just the nicest person to have in the house.”

I just miss him so much when he leaves and can hardly wait for him to come back. He has everything under control. I’m in awe of him.

Jo Ann Hinckley

Around Kingsmill, most locals admire Mrs. Hinckley’s devotion to her son. Joe Mann, a resident for decades, says some even sympathize. That’s as far as the goodwill goes, though. “People here are not in favor of the situation with Hinckley’s visits, taking his mom’s car and running around town,” Mann says of the genteel retirees who prize Kingsmill’s privacy and quiet. “They just don’t have the gumption to do anything about it.”

Mann, a retired executive, has been doing something: penning spirited editorials in the Virginia Gazette and taking to his personal blog to speak out against the prospect of Hinckley taking up permanent residency. “You’ve got all these people saying what a sweet guy he is,” Mann tells Washingtonian. “Holy Christ! He’s a sweet guy, all right, but he shot up the President of the United States. . . . There’s no way you can cure whatever was in his brain that caused him to do what he did back then.”

For the most part, the town has actively shunned Hinckley—albeit in a quieter fashion than Mann. Hinckley has tried to find volunteer work and get involved in the community, socialization that’s important to a judge evaluating his ability to live independently. He has solicited the Williamsburg Methodist Church, the law library at William & Mary, the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, the Salvation Army, a seniors program, and a church-sponsored food pantry called FISH, among others. They have all rejected him, court filings show.

So did a local singles group, which once asked Hinckley and his sister to leave a gathering. Staffers at the ARC of Greater Williamsburg said they wouldn’t participate in a bowling event for the mentally challenged if Hinckley was there assisting. And he was disinvited from helping out at a local bingo night for the elderly.

Heritage Humane Society refused even to meet with Hinckley, a snub he took especially hard because he wanted to help find homes for strays. “When it gets to a certain level and my name gets brought up, my reputation gets in the way and I hit another roadblock,” he once said. “Everyone keeps telling me to keep my chin up. I’m trying. Since day one in Williamsburg, I’ve been faced with this stuff.” 

Hinckley has also sought paying jobs, telling his minders he’d like to help his mother cover expenses. Colonial Williamsburg, Martin’s Food Market, a silversmith called the Master Craftsmen Shop, and a day-trading group all passed on his applications. After unsuccessfully applying at a Starbucks and a Subway, Hinckley said he was “bummed out” by the over-the-shoulder presence of Secret Service agents.

“I don’t get angry,” Hinckley told a psychiatrist in 2011. “I don’t say, ‘How dare you?’ I understand the reasoning. I’ve always maintained it is my name that people react to, not me.”

He finally managed to secure volunteer jobs at Eastern State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Williamsburg. He has a desk job at the hospital library and works at its canteen, a “hopping place,” in his words. (Hinckley has joked about being “too old and decrepit to stand on my feet for eight hours with 20-year-old kids.” He has arthritis and high blood pressure.)

The shunning doesn’t affect just Hinckley. The house next door to his mother’s was for sale for more than two years, far longer than most Kingsmill homes linger on the market. “I understand people’s feelings,” she has said. Still, she noted that some of the press about her son’s time in Williamsburg has “hurt.” The coverage was especially ugly after a Washington medical examiner ruled James Brady’s 2014 death—33 years after his debilitating injury in the assassination attempt—a homicide. (Prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges.) Last spring’s hearing on Hinckley’s motion for permanent leave from St. Elizabeths stirred the pot again.

“Who will guarantee that he won’t go off on somebody?” a Hampton man wrote to the Daily Press. “Not no, but HELL NO!”

“I’m glad not to be one of his neighbors,” a woman from Williamsburg wrote in. “His was no ordinary offense, and I think he is a real threat to women.”

Said another: “His mother has always protected him. But once she is no longer there, we don’t know what he might do.”

• • •

One day last January, Hinckley was supposed to go to a photography lesson.

Taking pictures was a new hobby, and his caseworker had helped find a willing mentor in nearby Yorktown: a former photographer for Look magazine who used to shoot photos of the Kennedys in the ’60s. The elderly artist thinks Hinckley has a natural eye, and Hinckley likes him. But that day, the instructor was sick and had to cancel.

Impromptu changes to Hinckley’s schedule are frowned upon by his medical team. Nonetheless, he decided to use the time to stop in at a Williamsburg recording venue—a state-of-the-art studio called JT Asylum Productions.

Hinckley has been playing guitar and writing songs since his teens. In his early twenties, he went to Los Angeles to peddle his music to the publishers on Sunset Boulevard. (It was during one of these visits that he saw Taxi Driver 15 times and became infatuated with Foster.) He thinks of himself as a singer/songwriter in the tradition of James Taylor and John Denver, and he still dreams of making it in the music business. That’s the reason he stopped in at Asylum—to see about making professional recordings. The proprietor is a session musician who has played on hit singles with Bruce Hornsby. But Hinckley was disappointed when he found out it would cost $150 to cut a song.

When he left the studio, he knew he had screwed up. Any adjustments to Hinckley’s furlough agendas must be reported to his caseworker. It was a grave lapse in judgment—he hadn’t committed so alarming an offense in roughly four years, since the Barnes & Noble pit stops, and his handlers were perturbed. Yet when Hinckley was questioned about the incident later, he downplayed it.

“I did not record anything while I was there. Maybe at some point I want to record, but I will clear it before I do,” he explained. “I want to record at a studio just for the sound of it. [The producer] is an excellent musician, so he would be great on any recording.”

Then he became defiant: “Things come up spur of the moment, and there is a quick change.” In a separate interview, he lamented, “You expect me to live the rest of my life by an itinerary? I can’t do it. No one can do it.” 

You expect me to live the rest of my life by an itinerary? I can’t do it. No one can do it.

John Hinckley

Hinckley takes Risperdal for psychosis, although his records show that the illness has been in remission for years. Managing his narcissistic personality disorder is trickier. Classic traits of the condition include a grandiose sense of self, a preoccupation with fantasies, a tendency to exploit people, and a lack of empathy. Meds can do little to alleviate the most pernicious manifestations.

That’s why for a neighbor like Joe Mann, an unannounced Hinckley outing to a local music studio in the heart of brick-and-cobblestone Williamsburg is a worrisome omen. “These psychotropic drugs don’t cure anything—all they do is suppress,” Mann says. “All it takes is to miss a dose or two and they might as well have never been on it.”

The episode encapsulates what a conundrum Hinckley’s treatment team faces. That he took the initiative to “diversify his social portfolio,” as one clinician put it, can be construed as a positive. He went to Asylum pursuing a pastime his clinicians believe has been overwhelmingly good for him. Hinckley has participated in music therapy for years and has recorded hundreds of his own songs. Some time ago, what you heard was nihilism and adolescent darkness. In recent years, he’s been more into heartfelt, uplifting stuff, and, one therapist noted, “there is often a theme of hope in his music.” 

But because he’s the man who shot Reagan, it’s not that simple. What if Hinckley were to play at an open-mike night? Somebody could film his performance and post it on YouTube—a violation of his media ban.

Then there’s the matter of the band that Hinckley has repeatedly told his clinicians he’d like to start with “Ms. L,” a woman he knows from NAMI meetings who suffers from bipolar disorder. The two rehearse in his bedroom. “She sings some of my songs and plays bass on my songs as I guide her,” he has explained. Next, they’re in the market for a drummer.

Hinckley wrote to DJs at KZEW in Dallas, TX., explaining how he “used to listen to the song ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie while [he] was stalking Carter and Reagan,” (left); A list of some of the albums he’s purchased, (right).
There’s no guarantee that a Hinckley-headlined band would attract a label, but it’s entirely plausible that a bootleg would wind up on, say, The Howard Stern Show.Public exposure and the possibility of press—it all risks dredging up Hinckley’s old demons. After all, his craving for fame in the ’80s was partly fed by his youthful musical aspirations. “Mr. Hinckley being ‘zealous’ about starting a band, as well as wanting to ‘impress a girl,’ ” one psychiatrist warned, are “two risk factors occurring together.” (Hinckley has said that if his band planned a tour and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, he understood he’d have to “exit” the group.)

• • •

Given that his confinement began with an obsession over an actress, Hinckley’s relationships with women are closely monitored by his treatment team—and occupy a large chunk of the case files.

Many interactions they’ve logged seem thoughtful and positive: the Mother’s Day song he composed for Mrs. Hinckley, the back scratcher he gave to one girlfriend at St. E’s, the copy of Taylor Swift’s Red for another.

At other times, though, Hinckley’s intentions were less clear-cut. Not long ago, he appeared to make a young and attractive (but married) employee at Eastern State Hospital uncomfortable when he gave her one of his paintings (another hobby). In 2009, Hinckley used a computer at his St. E’s library job to Google photos of his female dentist. When questioned, he said she had invited him to view the pictures, a claim she denied. A St. E’s doctor said the photos were not “salacious”; they showed her graduating from dental school at Howard. Prosecutors said the incident showed how Hinckley was continuing to exhibit deceptive behavior.

At one point, there was an engagement that came with a gift of jewelry, which Hinckley told a psychologist “was like the ring William gave Kate”—referring to the British royal couple.

Perhaps the most contentious relationship was Hinckley’s longest. For more than six years, he and “Ms. CB” were on again, off again, with, in Hinckley’s words, “varying degrees of romance.” At one point, there was an engagement that came with a gift of jewelry, which Hinckley told a psychologist “was like the ring William gave Kate”—referring to the British royal couple. Hinckley initially kept the engagement a secret from his family and his therapist in Williamsburg.

But once he began his extended furloughs, the relationship cooled, at least on his side. Ms. CB, who is African-American and has schizophrenia, proceeded to bombard the Kingsmill home with phone calls until Mrs. Hinckley said they had to stop. Later, when Hinckley told Ms. CB about Ms. L and their musical partnership, Ms. CB warned him, “Keep your hands off her.” She talked about moving to Williamsburg, but Hinckley told her, “You cannot come. It would disrupt my life greatly to have you there. I cannot factor in all your dramatics.”

To prosecutors, Hinckley’s romantic melodramas underscore an inability to move beyond his troubled past. A psychiatrist for the government in particular saw something manipulative in the soap opera with Ms. CB. Hinckley’s treatment team, by contrast, saw his willingness to stay friends with her as an example of his increased ability to care about someone other than himself.

John Hinckley
Left, a note written by Hinckley weeks before the assassination attempt. Right, a self-portrait of Hinckley. Photographs by Bettmann/Getty Images.

Several years ago, Hinckley’s clinicians weren’t ready to recommend that St. E’s release him. Today they are. Hinckley’s narcissism is “significantly attenuated,” they say. His obsessive interest in the welfare of his feral cats shows a healthy uptick in the empathy that he sorely lacked. And he has successfully handled unexpected stressors in life such as breakups and the death of his father.

After James Brady died, Hinckley’s health-care team noted that he expressed remorse. “It got me thinking pretty deeply into what I did to him with my crime,” he told a therapist. “I so diminished [Brady’s] life and disrupted the lives of his loved ones. It made me feel so sad for him and his family. . . . It was terrible what I did. I know it was mental illness, but I wished so bad that it had not happened.” 

Yet even his most ardent advocates have asserted that without the support of Hinckley’s family, a relapse would be a very real possibility. “You talk about real risk factor,” Hinckley’s psychiatrist in Williamsburg said in an evaluation before last spring’s hearing. “There is your biggest one. Not John’s empathy, not John’s narcissism, not John’s dangerousness. . . . The biggest risk factor is if his family support falls out. If that happens, then he should go back to the hospital.”

• • •

The Hinckley case is now lumbering through its fourth decade on the docket at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in downtown DC.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have come and gone; the opposing sides have weathered departures, retirements, deaths. At a hearing in early 2013, Hinckley’s lawyer, Barry Levine, likened the proceedings to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the legal case in Charles Dickens’s 1853 Bleak House that outlasted several generations and ruined the lives of those associated with it.

Even so, there’s a sense that the matter is nearing resolution. Judge Paul Friedman has dropped hints that he’ll make a ruling on the “logical evolution from where we started” since granting Hinckley conditional release in 2003. Last spring, Friedman told the courtroom, “I knew 12 years ago when I opened the door a crack . . . to permit weekend visits with [Hinckley’s] parents in the DC area, I knew this day would come. How could it not?”

Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis has taken an unyielding public stand against Hinckley’s petition, as has her brother Ron Reagan Jr. “Time is a matter of perspective. Sometimes 30 years isn’t so long,” Davis wrote in an essay for Time in 2011. “ . . . As far as the victims are concerned, he beat the legal system. He had wealthy parents who bought him a tenacious lawyer. Neither Levine nor Hinckley will be awakened in the night by Jim Brady’s screams.”

But the fact that recent hearings and filings have been dominated by tussling over conditions of Hinckley’s release seem to point to a scenario where he is freed.

The government has asked Friedman to move cautiously. Prosecutor Colleen Kennedy said last spring that Hinckley’s unannounced visit to Asylum Productions was just the latest evidence of his deviance. She acknowledged testimony that he “did fine” 80 percent of the time in Williamsburg but warned that the other 20 percent posed too great a risk: “When you take away Mr. Hinckley’s structure, his schedule, his itinerary, he loses his way. He deviates from the rules, he makes up his own rules. And then he lies about it.”

If the court is going to release Hinckley, it must lay down stringent conditions, according to Kennedy. Most important, Hinckley should have no expectation of privacy. Prosecutors want law enforcement to have the right to read his e-mail and monitor his location via cell phone. They also want him to wear an ankle bracelet so the Secret Service can keep tabs on him 24-7.

When you take away Mr. Hinckley’s structure, his schedule, his itinerary, he loses his way. He deviates from the rules, he makes up his own rules. And then he lies about it.

Levine has countered that Hinckley has a constitutional right “to the least restrictive environment consistent with public safety.” He has also lashed out at prosecutors for fear-mongering and for dragging up infractions from a more fragile time in his client’s life. There is “no evidence of brooding” in the rehabilitated Hinckley, “he doesn’t isolate himself,” and he has abided by Judge Friedman’s order to become more engaged in the community. Moreover, Levine said, Hinckley has never been violent, and he’s demonstrated on his furloughs that he’s not a danger to himself or others. That’s all the only remaining locked-up person to shoot an American President needs to show to earn his freedom, the same as for any insanity acquitee.

• • •

As a possible release nears, Hinckley’s life situation is changing.

The family’s money won’t last forever. “Expense-wise, I’m feeling overloaded,” Jo Ann Hinckley said in 2014. The family has told the court that there are enough funds to cover up to five more years of treatment away from St. E’s.

John Hinckley's mother Jo Ann Hinckley
Hinckley is hoping to be sprung permanently from St E’s to live with his mother Jo Ann, who is 90. Photograph by Jae Donnelly for

Hinckley has said he intends to live with his mother “as long as she is mobile and sharp in the mind as she is now.” Hinckley’s brother, Scott, told the court last year that Mrs. Hinckley “is the queen’s age . . . in excellent health . . . [with] two parents who lived past 100, so her genetics are in good shape.”

But what happens when she dies or if she becomes incapacitated?

Scott Hinckley testified that his brother could stay with him as long as he gets a job. But Hinckley’s side has also pointed out that Scott lives in Dallas—a possible concern, because it’s home to former President George W. Bush and also where President Kennedy was assassinated. Hinckley would be comfortable residing in the same city where he’s spent the last three decades, Scott testified: “He has mentioned to me on a number of occasions that he likes the DC area. He likes what’s going on there. It’s a younger crowd. He probably knows more people.”

I’m fine with DC and would welcome it. It would be great with me. But the plan is that I would be living in Williamsburg, not in DC.

John Hinckley

Hinckley does love Washington. Although it’s not widely known, he travels around town with minders and fellow patients, at times in the past hitting the bank and a Walmart as well as Arundel Mills mall. At Christmas, his ward’s unit has gone to dinner at a local Golden Corral. Every month, Hinckley goes to a mental-health outpatient center at 35 K Street, Northeast—a squat, unmarked building just up the street from the US Capitol.

“I’m fine with DC and would welcome it,” Hinckley has said. “It would be great with me. But the plan is that I would be living in Williamsburg, not in DC.” 

It’s the visits to his mother’s over the last three years that Hinckley believes “have made me more human.” When he goes out to take photos around Williamsburg, he feels like a normal person, blending into a place that’s starting to feel like home. All those years of being “infamous, that’s enough,” as he put it.

In an evaluation with a psychiatrist before last spring’s hearing, he sounded hopeful and even confident about the chances of his release: “It’s big, but we’ve led up to this. It has been a steady progression after 34 years.”

His only real worry seemed to be his feral cats. He wouldn’t be able to take them to Kingsmill—Mrs. Hinckley won’t allow it. But she did tell psychiatrists that if John gets to move home for good, he can have a cat under one condition: It has to be housebroken.

Contributing editor Eddie Dean ( has written for the Wall Street Journal and Washington City Paper.

This article appears in our June 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Eddie Dean

Contributing editor Eddie Dean can be reached at [email protected].