By Sarah N. Lynch
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - James Hodgkinson ate at local restaurants and complained about the prices, shared donuts with strangers at the YMCA where he hung out, stared into his laptop for hours, and generally drew little attention to himself, said people who encountered him before he opened fire on a congressional baseball team.
The shooting on Wednesday in which four people were wounded and Hodgkinson died after being shot by police, erupted after several unremarkable weeks of homeless wandering by the 66-year-old Midwesterner through the historic Virginia city, where the Republican lawmakers' team practiced regularly for an annual charity ballgame versus the Democrats.
In Alexandria, across the Potomac River from Washington, the YMCA is a neighborhood hub across the street from the field where Hodgkinson shot Republican Representative Steve Scalise, a congressional aide, a lobbyist and a police officer.
Former Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, a YMCA regular, said he spoke to Hodgkinson numerous times and even offered him job advice.
"He was always there when I arrived, sitting at one of the tables near the coffee machine and on a laptop,” Euille told Reuters. "On the third or fourth day, as I was sitting there having my coffee ... we greeted each other and exchanged names."
Hodgkinson arrived in Alexandria from Belleville, Illinois. It was unclear how or why he made his way to Virginia. The FBI said on Wednesday they had reason to believe Hodgkinson had been in the area since March, living out of his white van.
He seemed to spend his days in the YMCA lobby, Euille said.
After the two became acquainted, Euille said, Hodgkinson started asking about where to go for breakfast, for happy hours in the evening and for weekend activities.
Euille said he suggested some eateries. One was Joe Theismann's Restaurant, where staffers said one waitress recalled seeing Hodgkinson. He complained about the prices.
Euille, who was mayor until early 2016, said Hodgkinson asked for job advice, saying he was a home inspector. Euille said he referred him to the City of Alexandria’s website because local governments often hire inspectors.
The two men never talked about politics, Euille said. It became apparent after the shooting that Hodgkinson had posted angry messages against President Donald Trump and other Republicans on social media.
Euille said Hodgkinson usually only spoke routinely with him and with the front desk manager on the morning shift at the YMCA.
"If he was on his laptop and he came across something that was funny or a joke, he would say 'Hey Bill! Come over here! I want to show you something!'"
Hodgkinson's daily routine was to sit for hours in the YMCA, looking at his laptop, not using the exercise equipment, but sometimes using the sauna, Euille said. At the time, Euille said he did not realize Hodgkinson was living out of his van.
He said he noticed one day that Hodgkinson's gym bag contained not only gym gear, "but all of his worldly possessions," including toiletries, books, and street clothes.
"I didn’t sense anything ill about him. He was always rational ... I just felt sympathy for him," Euille said.
He said Hodgkinson brought powdered donuts and cookies and pastries into the YMCA, "like he was trying to become friends with other members," he recalled. "He had them sitting out on the table ... and he would say 'Hey please join and have a pastry. Have a donut.'"
Euille said he spoke to the FBI on Wednesday about his encounters with the shooter.
Residents of Del Ray, the Alexandria neighborhood where Hodgkinson opened fire, said the white van was discovered by police in the YMCA's parking lot next to the field. The area was roped off as part of an active crime scene investigation on Thursday.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Grant McCool)