Emerging from a Buried Life into a Nightmare, Hinckley May Have Been Driven by a Murderous Movie Fantasy

updated 04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/13/1981 01:00AM

When a reporter phoned JoAnn Hinckley to tell her that her son had been arrested for shooting the President of the United States, she reacted with stunned disbelief. "This is some kind of joke, isn't it?" she asked. Inevitably, her shock was shared by nearly everyone who had known John Warnock Hinckley Jr. as he passed through a nondescript boyhood. To them, this blond, blue-eyed son of a wealthy oil executive was quiet, polite and describable in all the standard clichés: He was "a nice guy" and "a normal kid" from an "all-American family." But those who knew him recently remembered another Hinckley—a gun-collecting recluse living in a filthy apartment, flirting with fascism and fantasizing about a teenage actress he would never have the courage to speak to. At yet another level was a hidden anger, revealed only to those he believed shared his fanaticism. Recalls president-elect Michael Allen, who expelled him from the National Socialist Party: "He wanted to shoot people and blow things up."

As is so often the case, there were no landmarks in Hinckley's background to suggest the tortured course he would follow. Now 25 years old, he grew up in Dallas' affluent Highland Park area. His father—an engineer, president of an oil exploration firm and an active member of the local Episcopal church—set high standards for his three children, and Hinckley's brother and sister seemed to live up to them. His sister, Mrs. Diane Sims, was a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen. Scott Hinckley entered the family business and became a vice-president; ironically, he was scheduled to be a dinner guest the night after the shooting at the home of Vice-President George Bush's son Neil. But in John Jr. the flame seemed to be lacking. He dabbled in school activities—the Spanish club, the rodeo club and Students in Government—but made little impression on teachers or classmates. "He was quiet and low-key," says classmate Beverly McBeath. "Something must have happened to him after high school."

Perhaps something did, but if there was a turning point it passed unperceived. After graduating from high school in 1973, Hinckley enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. In and out of Tech for the next seven years, he switched from the school of business to the college of arts and sciences before dropping out for good last July. The impression he left was hardly indelible, but Otto Nelson, an associate professor of history, remembers that Hinckley wrote two well-thought-out papers on Nazism—a review of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf and a report on a book on the death camp at Auschwitz. At about the same time Hinckley took a one-bedroom apartment off-campus and lived there alone, seldom speaking to neighbors. Mark Swoffard, the building's superintendent, remembers being called in once to clean out a drain. "It just blew me away," he says. "There was garbage piled up all over the cabinets and even in the bookshelves. Other than that, it looked like no one lived there. A guitar and a television set were the only things that he had."

No doubt sensing in himself the root-lessness that Swoffard briefly observed, Hinckley drifted from Lubbock last summer. He tended bar for a while in Denver, near his parents' new home in Evergreen, Colo., then unsuccessfully sought a job selling photography in Hollywood. Last October 9 he was arrested at an airport in Nashville and charged with the possession of three concealed handguns. Though President Carter was also in Nashville at the time, speaking at the Grand Ole Opry, no connection was ever suspected. Four days later Hinckley turned up in Dallas, where he bought the pistol allegedly used to shoot Carter's successor.

Finally, of course, no one could have predicted what Hinckley was planning—no one but Hinckley himself. And that, in a chillingly prophetic note to actress Jodie Foster, is precisely what he did. Apparently possessed by some deeply felt secret vision of the actress, he carried her picture in his wallet, wrote letters to her and somehow developed the idea that President Reagan had treated her shabbily. Searching Hinckley's Washington hotel room after his arrest, federal agents came upon a message allegedly intended for Foster. "I will prove my love for you through an historic act," it read. "I will probably die for what I am about to do. It is now 12:30, an hour before I go to the Hilton Hotel."

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