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John Hinckley Jr. is staring at me again. Or is it a glare? He is at least 50 feet away, so it’s hard to be sure. Either way, he doesn’t seem pleased to see me.

I’m sitting on a bench outside the guarded entrance of the John Howard Pavilion, a six-story brick building that houses the criminally insane at St. Elizabeths Hospital. For days I’ve been coming here to loiter near the front door and to watch Hinckley. Now he’s returning my relentless gaze.

Every day, it’s been the same routine. I drive along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, counting the corner liquor stores right up to the hospital’s fenced, hilltop perch in Anacostia. I turn into the gate, wave to the security guard, and head into the bucolic—if slightly seedy—campus, laid out nearly a century ago by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Like Hinckley and many other patients, I’m now free to roam the sprawling grounds, which are dotted by decaying century-old buildings and graceful magnolias, among more than a hundred kinds of trees that shade these 350 acres. Following a winding road, I pass the Blind Crossing and the Deaf Crossing, to the far eastern corner of campus, where I park outside the Howard Pavilion.

The real surprise is how remarkably easy this excursion is in the first place. It’s probably harder to sneak onto a country-club golf course and play a few holes than it is to spend an afternoon at St. Elizabeths shadowing John Hinckley. Nobody asks me who I am or why I’m here. In fact, nobody approaches me at all.

The lack of security suits me just fine, especially on my first visit, which feels like wandering onto a college campus and trying to find the right dorm: exactly what Hinckley did when he stalked Jodie Foster at Yale. Losing my bearings among the maze of Gothic buildings—most of which are dark and empty—I stop to ask a woman directions. She politely points the way, telling me to simply follow the road until the very end: The maximum-security Howard Pavilion is St. Elizabeths’ very own leper colony, where the most dangerous mentally ill patients are confined at the farthest edge of the grounds.

As for actually locating Hinckley himself, that’s a cinch as well. I take the sidewalk around to the front of the U-shaped pavilion, and there he is, just sitting there right out in the open, as if he has been waiting for me.

At first, Hinckley doesn’t seem to notice me much. I take a seat at one of the benches that ring the circular driveway. Here patients gather to smoke cigarettes and drink sodas and exorcise their private demons in the muggy air. It’s a motley crew of shipwrecked souls, clinging to the rotting, rickety benches like slabs of driftwood. A gray-bearded man, his gnarled, filthy toes jutting from bandaged sandals, sucks a honey bun from a plastic wrapper that’s melting in the heat. Next to him is another elderly gent, rail-thin and impeccably dressed in a summer suit and tie. Everything’s perfectly in order—except for a shock of ballpoint pens poking from his trim Afro like a crown of thorns.

A few simply rock back and forth, staring at nothing; others rub their arms and legs compulsively and moan softly. Some chat amiably with each other or to me; still others talk quite loudly and emphatically only to themselves.

But Hinckley doesn’t talk to anyone. He doesn’t sit on the circle, and he rarely socializes with the rabble. In fact, he shuns the group area altogether, with its mindless banter and obligatory greetings. Instead, he walks straight across the driveway to his own secluded spot—a green bench on the grass under two small trees. There he peruses a pile of newspapers, magazines, and books that he carries around in a plastic bag; sometimes he writes in a notebook—poetry, probably—or simply watches the scene.

Nobody ever occupies Hinckley’s bench. The folks here may be crazy, but they know rank when they see it. Hinckley’s not just any patient, but someone special: the aloof sage of St. Elizabeths in his shady nook. In some sense, he is upholding a tradition as bard-in-residence here. He’s not the first poet to make St. Elizabeths his home: Following World War II, Ezra Pound spent 12 years here after being indicted for treason and adjudged insane.

Three days into my observation, Hinckley is more interested in me than in his muse. He’s not happy about a newcomer in his domain. Whether it’s a stare or a glare, his look definitely warns: Mind your own business.

I don’t blame him for raising his hackles. It’s a perfectly understandable reaction, especially for a celebrity patient who for years received death threats. I’m close to his turf, and that’s enough to make him supremely suspicious. Even as the guards ignore me and the patients accept me as their own, Hinckley seems to realize that I don’t belong here.

As for our staring contest, Hinckley’s the easy winner. He burns a hole through me in no time flat. I nervously light a cigarette and go back to my own mass of reading material: newspapers, magazines, and some poems by Edgar Allan Poe…and John Warnock Hinckley. Poe is one of Hinckley’s favorite poets, but his midnight lines prove thoroughly unreadable out in the blinding sunlight. Hinckley’s own verse, though, fits right in with the mood, as I roast in the July humidity and feel the heat from the author’s watchful eyes:

Pretend you are a virgin on fire

An outcast in the midst of madness

The scion of something unthinkable

Satan’s long lost illegitimate son

A solitary weed among carnations

The last living shit on earth

Hinckley doesn’t need ominous ravens and fancy rhymes to get his point across. A heavy dose of old-school Romanticism and contemporary angst does the job quite well:

Regardless of everyone’s friends

I plot revenge in the dark

I plot escape from this asylum

Regardless of Disneyland

I follow the example of perverts

I follow the long lost swine

Reading these poems, you’d think Hinckley was bemoaning his incarceration in a mental institution, but he wrote these lines nearly two decades ago. (They appeared in his parents’ 1985 memoir, Breaking Points.) Back then, in 1981, he was an aspiring poet and rock musician, bouncing back and forth between college in Texas and his parents’ mansion in Colorado. Mostly, though, he was the consummate loner and ultimate loser—”the scion of something unthinkable.”

As he wandered about, Hinckley tried to woo a celebrity he’d never met—Jodie Foster—with poems, love letters, and phone calls. He told her he was her Napoleon and she was his Josephine. Ever so patiently, he courted his unattainable dream lover from afar. But finally he realized the sweet lines and other Petrarchan moves weren’t doing the trick. So he decided it was time for action instead of words, time to prove himself—not just to her but to the whole world. He bought a couple of guns and tried to win her love by shooting President Ronald Reagan.

That was all a long time ago. Who knows what he’s scribbling in his notebook these days? Maybe Poe and Foster have dissolved into the mists of the past, the overheated stuff of adolescent fantasies. Maybe not.

In person at least, John Hinckley Jr. remains instantly recognizable as “the guy who shot Reagan,” a faded media icon trapped in a time warp. Except for a slightly receding hairline, the 42-year-old still resembles the stuck-in-the-’70s college dropout and failed assassin—right down to his shoulder-length sandy hair and sideburns. His pudgy baby face and preppy attire—usually a button-down shirt and khakis—betray his pampered upbringing as the son of an oil baron. They also set him apart at St. Elizabeths, especially compared to the haggard, time-worn countenances of his fellow patients, many of whom are poor and black. Hinckley is by no means rotting away at St. Elizabeths.

The main difference between the Hinckley of today and the mug shots of old is a cosmetic detail: Contact lenses have replaced the clunky glasses that drooped down his nose and made him the exemplar of nerdy would-be assassins the world over. Now that his eyes are no longer obscured by reflection, they reveal no great mystery beyond a grim determination. Unlike the blank, medicated stares of many of his fellow patients, Hinckley possesses the look—not so much haughty as self-contained and stubbornly proud—of someone who’s only too aware of his predicament.

Even if Hinckley’s physical appearance has barely changed, his lawyers and doctors say he’s a completely different person from the psychotic gunman found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982. More than 15 years of confinement at St. Elizabeths have rehabilitated Hinckley, they claim. He’s no longer psychotic or delusional, and certainly not dangerous. He’s more than ready, they say, if not for full release, then at least for limited excursions off hospital grounds.

Last month at a hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, Hinckley’s lawyers officially requested that he be allowed to go on monthly field trips with his elderly parents. The four-day hearing featured a cast of characters—psychiatrists, Hinckley’s father, even a femme fatale of sorts—similar to the one that starred in the original trial that riveted the country back in ’82.

While that trial focused on a supposedly insane act of violence, Hinckley’s lawyer Barry Levine used the recent hearing to try to transform the Hinckley case into something different: a parable about crime and punishment in the morally ambiguous world of the mentally ill.

“In this nation, we do not punish those who are sick, we try to treat them,” Levine told a federal judge and a half-filled courtroom. “[Hinckley] went to St. Elizabeths in the ’80s, and his stay there was somewhat stormy. But there was a slow and gradual progress….In the ’90s, he responded properly to treatment….The improvement that we have witnessed, we submit—and the evidence will show—was remarkable.”

Levine presented a portrait of a model patient: Hinckley hasn’t needed medication for five years, and he holds a steady clerical job at the acute-care hospital. He resides in a minimum-security ward and has full grounds privileges. (He could escape any time he wanted from the decrepit, low-security campus, says Levine, but he’s never made an attempt.) His father, Jack Hinckley, who had broken down sobbing at the ’82 trial, testified confidently that his son was fully recovered and had earned the right to the “modest” request. Most importantly, Levine emphasized, Hinckley’s treatment team of doctors had unanimously recommended the requested furlough.

Prosecutors argued that Hinckley remains a sick and dangerous man who cannot be trusted. As U.S. Attorney Robert Chapman pointed out, the scenario presented by Levine was eerily familiar: Back in 1987, Hinckley’s treatment team unanimously approved a similar request. The doctors were convinced that Hinckley had recovered and was no longer obsessed with Jodie Foster. But shortly before a scheduled hearing on the furlough request, a search of Hinckley’s room revealed 57 photos of Foster. The obsession seemed present-tense enough to deny the privileges he sought.

During last month’s hearing, prosecutors asserted that Hinckley has recently been up to his old tricks again, namely stalking and harassing a woman with whom he’d become acquainted. Their star witness, Jeannette Wick, is a longtime employee at St. Elizabeths; she testified that what started as a casual professional relationship with a patient in 1995 degenerated into something threatening, if not sinister. After he was told to stay away from Wick, Hinckley allegedly phoned her repeatedly and “stared her down” from afar.

Levine argued that Hinckley had a close friendship with Wick that simply turned sour. Hinckley’s version, which includes a back rub, a game of footsie, and personal conversations, was supported somewhat by Hinckley’s own doctor, who testified that he found the patient’s account more plausible than Wick’s.

The judge decided that Hinckley’s progress didn’t erase his spotty history at St. Elizabeths. “The history of this case suggests a deceptive individual who has, in the past, deceived those treating him in ways too numerous to recount,” wrote Judge June Green in a 15-page ruling that emphatically denied the request.

Is Hinckley a model patient who has recovered from mental illness, or a coolly manipulative madman? That has been the legal quandary for years now, as the two sides have reversed their positions since the insanity trial in 1982. Hinckley’s lawyers contend that their client is healthy and cured and ready for a road trip, while federal prosecutors claim that the man they tried to prove was sane at the time of the shooting is mentally ill and remains a serious threat.

Levine calls Hinckley a “political prisoner” who is being confined because of notoriety, rather than for his present mental condition and recent exemplary behavior as a patient at St. Elizabeths. According to Levine, Hinckley is still being unduly punished as the man who shot Reagan rather than the patient who is legally entitled to treatment, recovery, and eventual release into the community. “What makes this a high-profile matter is not him but his victims,” says Levine, whose clients have included Mike Tyson and former Reagan administration officials Elliott Abrams and Bud McFarlane, who gained pardons during the Iron-contra investigation. “If one were to concentrate on his therapy and his achievements in the course of therapy, then he long ago would have been a person for whom release would have been appropriate.”

During the hearing, Hinckley himself never took the stand to testify. He sat impassively in nicely tailored suits and rarely changed his blank expression. He knew the judge was watching his every move. After spending the ’80s mouthing off to everyone from Penthouse to the New York Times to serial killer Ted Bundy, he doesn’t talk to the media, or to anyone else for that matter. If nothing else, Hinckley has apparently begun to understand that being famous, long an objective of his, is exactly what stands in the way of his current objective: shaking off the bonds of confinement at St. Elizabeths.

Hinckley has wised up. The former bad boy—who once boldly mail-ordered (from his hospital room, no less) a nude drawing of Foster back in the crazy ’80s—has apparently settled into a mellow middle age. No more Napoleon on his high horse. No more escapades and no more hi-jinks. Nothing but silence. Just Hinck the Sphinx.

These days, it is others who are trying to rekindle interest in a case that many would rather forget, if they haven’t already.

His parents, Jack and Jo Ann, continue to crusade as their son’s strongest advocates, pouring money into what some would consider a hopeless case. They visit their son regularly, and the couple say they’ve logged more than 200 family-therapy sessions at St. Elizabeths. During and shortly after the recent hearing in Washington, they appeared on the Today show and Larry King Live to plead their cause; they assured the public that their lost son has finally found himself and is ready for chaperoned field trips.

His parents aren’t the only ones who have an interest in keeping his case visible. His victims, former White House press secretary Jim Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and D.C. policeman Thomas Delahanty, have been hounding Hinckley for more than a decade. After the ’82 acquittal, they filed a civil suit demanding millions in damages. In 1995, Hinckley signed an unusual agreement that gave them the rights to his life story, the only substantial asset he has. Apparently, the Hinckley saga is still considered hot property; publishers and producers are reportedly salivating at the chance to get a crack at it. “A well-written book with a point to make sells,” says the victims’ lawyer, Frederic Schwartz.

As part of the agreement, Hinckley will grant an exclusive, no-fee interview for a nationally televised appearance. The event is intended to kick off media interest in a book (and movie and whatever) based on his life. But more than a year after the settlement, Schwartz is still waiting for Hinckley to choose an interviewer and get things rolling, and he’s becoming impatient. “We simply can’t wait any longer,” says Schwartz. “Our clients are getting old.”

But Hinckley has been procrastinating and for good reason. His lawyers claim that any attempt by Hinckley to jump back into the media spotlight—even for the ultimate purpose of paying restitution to his victims—will damage his chances of gaining release.

There are other unpleasant specters looming on the horizon for Hinckley: While he and the ailing Reagan have faded into relative obscurity, Foster’s star shines ever brighter, which must be an irritant to Hinckley whether he’s over his obsession or not. Her new movie Contact has opened in Washington, and it’s being hailed as her latest triumph. In the flick, Foster plays a sky-watcher who communicates with extraterrestrials (here she is, making friends with beings from outer space, but she couldn’t even give Hinckley the time of day). The two-time Oscar winner has done quite nicely for herself in the years following the incident she once said nearly destroyed her life. Now she’s considered one of the most powerful players in Hollywood, and there are a few dozen web sites where her rabid fans can worship her from afar.

Don’t look for Hinckley to be logging onto the Jodie home page any time soon. Patients aren’t allowed to have computers at St. Elizabeths. Besides, Hinckley abandoned his Foster fixation long ago, according to Levine, this time for good. He’s supposedly got other things on his mind. He has a steady girlfriend, a woman he met when she was a patient at St. Elizabeths. In 1982, a high-society Washingtonian named Leslie DeVeau shot her 10-year-old daughter Erin to death and then turned the gun on herself, only to shoot herself in the arm, which was subsequently amputated. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, she was released from St. Elizabeths after five years. Now 54, she visits Hinckley daily and, according to Levine, is ready to marry him upon his release. And he’s a willing would-be groom.

All those plans—whether it be nuptials or TV interviews or even a drive in the country with his folks—must seem far off to Hinckley now, especially in light of the judge’s recent denial.

Watching him these last few days, it seems apparent that Hinckley believes he has paid his debt

and done his time. Of course, most patients will swear they don’t belong here, even as they speak in a manner that immediately belies their assertion. Which makes Hinckley’s silent declaration all the more striking. Whether it’s an act or a put-on, it’s pretty convincing.

The summer days can seem awfully long at

St. Elizabeths, especially after 15 years. Hinckley has seen patients like DeVeau who come and go in only a few years, and he’s seen others who have remained here for decades. Those are the lifers who are now resigned to the fact that they’ll never get out of the nuthouse.

His colleagues at St. Elizabeths say Hinckley is for the most part unremarkable. “Aw, Hinckley’s an all right guy,” says a patient, delicately nibbling a hard-boiled egg as if it were the finest caviar. He watches as Hinckley makes a beeline for the front door, head down and avoiding eye contact, carrying his sack of literature. The patient approves of the loner: “He just keeps to himself, that’s all.”

Soon after, the remaining patients follow Hinckley inside Howard Pavilion; then the guards stub out their cigarettes and take their leave as well, and I’m alone.

I wander over to Hinckley’s bench. It really is a nice spot under the shady trees, and it feels several crucial degrees cooler than the baked-pavement area near the entrance. Scattered on the grass lie five empty cans of Diet Coke, which Hinckley has been guzzling all afternoon; on the bench is a Reader’s Digest, apparently not even worth lugging inside.

The view from here is altogether different from the one afforded by the group benches. The other patients sit with their backs to the building and have a vista of the campus, which now includes a vast mound of dirt, part of ongoing construction for a Metro stop.

From his secluded spot, however, Hinckley reverses the perspective to dwell not on his campuswide freedom but on his confinement: He spends day after day contemplating the brick, barred-windowed building that looms above, the prison where authorities seem hellbent on making sure he spends the rest of his life.

Long before he checked into St. Elizabeths for his indefinite leave of absence from society, John Hinckley Jr. stayed at the swank Park Central Hotel, two blocks from the White House. It was March 29, 1981. The next morning, he walked to a nearby McDonald’s, where he had an Egg McMuffin and pondered the day before him. He had decided he needed to do something special to impress Foster, so he was mulling over all sorts of options: shooting into the crowd during a tour of the White House, storming the Senate gallery and opening fire, assassinating Sen. Edward Kennedy. Back at the hotel, though, something he saw in the newspaper settled his immediate plans: At 1p.m., President Reagan was scheduled to address a gathering at the Hilton hotel above Dupont Circle. Hinckley sat down and wrote a letter to Foster:

There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason that I am writing to you this letter now.

As you well know by now I love you very much, the past seven months I have left you dozens of poems, letters and messages in the faint hope you would develop an interest in me…

Jody [sic], I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever. 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. I’ve got to do something now to make you understand in no uncertain terms that I am doing all of this for your sake.

Jody, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historical [sic] deed to gain your respect and love.

More than a decade later, this letter seems stilted and almost Victorian in its formal, prudish tone—awfully courtly for a stalker—and defense lawyers used it to demonstrate that Hinckley was crazy as a loon. Certainly, no one disputed that Hinckley was a severely disturbed and angry young man. At 25, he had yet to make a single friend in his life. Unable to hold steady jobs or stay in school, Hinckley survived by sponging off his wealthy father. But three weeks before, Jack Hinckley—ashamed of and fed up with his spoiled son—had finally cut him off and kicked him out for good. (According to Hinckley’s ’82 defense team, this traumatic expulsion from the House of Dad left him helpless in his descent into madness; other Oedipal interpretations emphasize that Hinckley’s mother’s nickname was, at that time, “Jodie.”)

More to the point, Hinckley had seen the movie Taxi Driver at least 15 times, becoming obsessed with the teen prostitute played by Foster. He also identified with the film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle, the loner who tries to assassinate a political candidate to prove his love to her. The Taxi Driver-Hinckley nexus has long been part of pop-culture lore, and it has provided ammunition for those who claim the media turns couch potatoes into pathological murderers.

Hinckley’s desire to both worship a celebrity and become one is beyond argument. His fixation on Foster gave the aimless loner an identity and a real sense of purpose, for perhaps the first time in his life. “Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society,” wrote the philosopher Guy Debord in 1967. “The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role.” Put a bit more simply, worshiping a movie star can give any sap out there a reason to live.

Thanks to Foster, Hinckley—who wasn’t exactly busy with other projects—could feed on the fantasy that he had a girlfriend, whether she agreed or not. And being a celebrity, Foster was the Girlfriend, famous enough for the ascension with Hinckley: “One day you and I will occupy the White House and the peasants will drool with envy,” he wrote her.

Despite her fame, Foster remained approachable in a way that would be unthinkable now. Back then, it was easy for Hinckley to follow up on his cinema-inspired obsession and actually make contact with Foster. In that almost innocent era (which Hinckley’s act ironically helped end), fans could quite easily enter the private world of their celebrity idols—or at least try to shatter the façade that separated them. All he had to do was get her phone number, call her up, and take it from there.

During a seven-month mission, Hinckley not only spoke to Foster often on the phone, but he stalked her quite closely at her Yale dorm in New Haven, Conn. Staying at a cheap motel and dining at a nearby McDonald’s, Hinckley hung around the dorm constantly, watching Foster go about her life as a student; he even slipped an epistle or two under the door of her room. He became such a presence that he soon became the butt of jokes. During one of the phone calls, played in court during the ’82 trial, one can hear her roommates giggling in the background, as Foster tells Hinckley, “They’re laughing at you.” Her rejection of his advances was thus all the more palpable: It was actually Jodie who was telling Hinckley to get lost, not some PR flack or henchman.

Hinckley’s sense of desperation brought him to Washington, where he would make a last-ditch try to prove himself. After finishing his letter to Foster, Hinckley loaded his .22 revolver and took a taxi to the Hilton, where he loitered outside in a cold drizzle for a while, waiting for the right moment. He was almost ready to abandon his mission when Reagan and his entourage appeared at the hotel entrance. This was the cue. As Reagan headed toward his limousine, Hinckley pushed through the crowd and fired six shots at close range. Every bullet found a human target, but only one hit Reagan. The final shot ricocheted from the car door into Reagan’s chest, where the slug lodged inches from his heart. He survived emergency surgery at George Washington University Hospital. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady was shot in the head and suffered permanent brain damage; security officers Timothy McCarthy and Thomas Delahanty were also wounded in the shooting.

At first, Hinckley’s “historical deed” simply put him in a group of recent would-be presidential assassins who had bungled their big chance. Just a few years before, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore had each taken potshots at then-President Gerald Ford; both were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Hinckley seemed to fit nicely into this buffoonish trio of losers. Of course, Saturday Night Live and stand-up comedians had a field day. Not even an assassination attempt, it seemed, could get people to take Hinckley seriously.

But his trial changed all that. His defense team, led by attorney Vincent Fuller of the famed Williams & Connolly law firm, methodically went about convincing the jury that Hinckley was mentally ill—and thus not responsible for his actions—at the time of the shooting. A gaggle of psychiatrists testified for both sides. Those for the defense claimed that Hinckley was indeed psychotic; one went as far as declaring him “a process schizophrenic,” which meant that Hinckley had developed a delusional madness slowly over years of isolation and severe depression.

The prosecution had its own stable of high-profile head doctors. Dr. Park Dietz, who later testified at the Jeffrey Dahmer trial, claimed that Hinckley was simply a disturbed opportunist, and a spoiled brat to boot; he suggested that the assassination attempt was simply “an easy way for Hinckley to achieve the fame he was unwilling to work for.”

The burden of proof rested on the prosecution, which had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hinckley was sane when he shot Reagan. Of course, that was a tough assignment. After a screening of Taxi Driver and a viewing of a medical photo of Hinckley’s atrophied brain—among a bevy of controversial defense exhibits—and after 24 hours of deliberation, the jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity.

Suddenly, the case wasn’t so funny anymore. There was a national uproar, and every politician worth his pork clamored for changes in the law. Hinckley made the perfect scapegoat, and it didn’t help that he was the son of a millionaire who had snagged the best defense that money could buy.

In the years since, the acquittal has branded Hinckley not only as “the guy who shot Reagan,” but also as the scoundrel who got away with it before slinking into the sanctuary of St. Elizabeths. Hinckley’s various attempts to gain release—especially the ’87 debacle—have convinced many that he remains a threat, whether he’s “cured” or not. “John Hinckley is dangerous because he has the characteristics of a sociopathic assassin,” wrote James Clarke in his 1990 study, On Being Mad or Merely Angry: John W. Hinckley Jr. and Other Dangerous People. “He is intelligent, shrewdly manipulative, and, of course, profoundly disturbed.”

For Clarke, Hinckley’s good report cards reveal merely that he’s obeying the dictums of a high-ticket defense team: “As Hinckley has demonstrated, sociopaths can fake normality when seeking hospital privileges or parole, just as they can fake insanity to avoid punishment during a trial. Prisons are filled with violent criminals who differ from Hinckley only in that they did not have the expensive legal and psychiatric talent that was summoned on his behalf.”

Hinckley’s lawyer Levine points out that regardless of how much mistrust is out there, his client has a legal right to fight for eventual release. “When one has been found not guilty by reason of insanity, one is entitled to treatment,” says Levine. “John Hinckley has worked very hard and has done very well in his therapy, and has, by millimeters, gained additional privileges. And going off the campus into the community is now the next step in that therapy.”

And yet, that may prove to be the hardest step of all. Authorities are well aware that the seemingly harmless furlough could open the door to Hinckley’s eventual total release. Nobody wants to be the judge or review board that frees a would-be presidential assassin, even if only for a field trip with his folks.

Like every patient at St. Elizabeths, Hinckley can petition every six months for release. Over the years, he has made several requests to go on furloughs. Last month’s proceeding marked the first time a full-blown hearing has been held to consider his request.

The hearing showed that Hinckley has made substantial progress during his stay at St. Elizabeths, which early on was fraught with suicide attempts and publicity stunts; and later, the discovery of his secret stash of Foster photos. Most of all, though, the hearing revealed that medical experts still can’t agree about what’s really going on inside the mind of John Hinckley.

Two psychiatrists and two psychologists testified for the defense. They claimed that Hinckley’s psychosis—which has never actually been pinned down—was in full remission. However, they said the patient still showed a severe narcissistic personality disorder. In other words, the former madman is now merely a middle-of-the-road neurotic.

One psychiatrist outlined in detail the clinical definition of “narcissistic personality disorder.” An individual must have at least five of the following symptoms, he testified: grandiose sense of self-importance; preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited power and success; believing oneself to be special; requiring a lot of admiration; sense of entitlement; tendency to be exploitative personally; lack of empathy; envy; being perceived by others as haughty or arrogant. (As a recent issue of the New Yorker drolly noted, the courtroom audience tittered at this grocery list of egomaniacal traits, which describe many a Beltway power player: “‘Sounds like everyone in Washington,’ someone whispered.”)

Not only was Hinckley now mentally sound, argued the defense, he was also no longer dangerous. “Under most conditions, his potential for violence could be virtually no different from that of the average person in the general population,” testified clinical psychologist Mark Binderman. The assassination attempt—the only markedly violent act in his life—was simply the culmination of a madness that had plagued Hinckley for years. “His dangerousness emerged from a lengthy psychosis,” testified psychiatrist William Carpenter, who went on to elaborate: “The violence that is associated with Mr. Hinckley’s behavior occurred during a psychosis. He had a severe brain disorder; he was severely psychotic, and that, combined with the degree of isolation and a long period of time, is what created the circumstances for violence….His history does not have any indication of violent eruptions independent of being in the throes of a severe brain disorder.” Carpenter went on to suggest that those potentially explosive conditions didn’t apply to the John Hinckley of today, a stable, if a bit self-absorbed, patient who continues to respond well to therapy.

But the prosecution had a psychiatrist who presented a very different view of Hinckley. Dr. Raymond Patterson said Hinckley had indeed made extensive progress through therapy, but this was a mostly superficial improvement in a controlled setting: “I have some concerns that some core personality issues remain unchanged,” testified Patterson, who once served as the Hinckleys’ family therapist at St. Elizabeths. Patterson said that Hinckley still showed disturbing symptoms from his initial diagnosis 15 years ago. According to Patterson, behind the kinder, gentler version of Hinckley presented by the defense lurked the old John Hinckley: deceptive, withdrawn, and unwilling to share crucial information with his treatment team.

Most troubling of all, Hinckley had failed to tell doctors about his relationship with Jeannette Wick, which Patterson said bore “striking similarities” to his obsession with Foster.

Wick is chief pharmacist at St. Elizabeths, and her testimony proved the most dramatic of the hearing. Though she is a petite, articulate blonde, Wick doesn’t really resemble Foster, as the prosecution implied. Taking the stand in her starched, white uniform, she described herself on the job as a sociable, friendly woman who often lends books to fellow employees and patients.

That’s how Wick first met Hinckley, who often does errands at the pharmacy as part of his industrial therapy job at the acute-care hospital. In the spring of 1995, she was carrying a new book by mystery writer P.D. James, and Hinckley asked if he could borrow it after she had read it. They struck up a conversation, and soon Hinckley was spending time at Wick’s office. According to Wick, their conversations at first centered on books but were mostly typical office chitchat. “I remember him telling me that he was extremely bored, and that he didn’t have anything to do,” she testified. “And I said to him, ‘You should learn to crochet,’ and he laughed and he said, ‘The other guys at John Howard will make fun of me,’ and I said, ‘Who cares what the other guys think? If you want to crochet, crochet. I’ll show you how.’”

After a while, though, Wick decided that Hinckley was hanging around too much, making unannounced and sudden appearances, and intruding on her privacy: “There was one day when I was on the phone with my lawyer, and I frequently talk on the phone looking out the window with my back to the door, and I turned around and almost jumped out of my skin because John was sitting at the other side of my desk. He did at that point ask questions about my marriage, and I teared up and said, ‘It’s off-limits.’” Around that time, Hinckley “shocked” Wick by announcing that he knew her entire schedule; he also gave her love songs he had recorded on cassettes, which included a song featuring the pet name of Wick’s daughter.

Eventually, she consulted Hinckley’s therapist, and Hinckley was told to call before visiting Wick at her office. According to Wick, he deluged her office with calls, sometimes as many as 15 a day. “As time went on, I started to get really irritated,” she testified. “[And then] I was flat-out angry.” Finally, she complained to a superior, and Hinckley was ordered to avoid contact with Wick. She said he still harassed her from a distance, not only at the office but on her daily power walks around the campus. Once, at the acute-care hospital, she was standing in the elevator as Hinckley watched her from outside: “The elevator door frequently does not close in this facility, and I was pushing madly and it would not close.” And there stood Hinckley, a few feet away, “glaring into the elevator….He stares at me. I guess the kids would say he stares me down.”

According to Levine, Hinckley and Wick had an intimate relationship that she was in denial about. Hinckley claimed that he had given Wick a back rub after she complained of a muscle strain; he also claimed that they had played “footsie” under her desk, and that she had once presented him with a gift, a copy of Stephen King’s novel Dolores Claiborne. (Wick denies all of this.)

One of Hinckley’s doctors, Dr. John Kelley, said he found his patient’s version more believable than Wick’s. “I knew about some of the incidents of personal information that John claimed that Jeannette Wick had told him,” testified Kelley, who is chief medical officer for psychiatrists at Howard Pavilion. “I knew some of the incidents to be true from an independent source.” Moreover, Kelley said he considered the relationship, excluding its bitter end, a rather healthy thing for Hinckley. “I don’t attribute any malignant motives to Mr. Hinckley,” he testified. “If anything, by his own admission, he was somewhat infatuated with her. She was a staff person who paid attention to him….The most you can say is that he was annoying after she told him to call before he came. In her version, he called an awful lot….But I would say that made him annoying. That doesn’t make him dangerous.”

Levine emphasized that Hinckley stayed away from Wick once he was told to. He said that Hinckley’s girlfriend Leslie DeVeau knew about his friendship with Wick and had encouraged it. According to Levine, the very fact that Hinckley even had the relationship at all—and not some fantasy—proved that it didn’t echo his Foster obsession. However, Wick’s testimony—cited extensively by the judge in her ruling—proved a major blow to Hinckley’s case.

Jack Hinckley has fought long and hard—and spent huge sums of money—to make sure his son gets every consideration in the eyes of the law. (This sort of support is rare at St. Elizabeths, where many patients don’t even have visitors, much less a bottomless legal fund.) Hinckley’s testimony at the recent hearing was just one more salvo in a battle that began the day his son shot the president. When he took the stand, the 70-year-old presented a portrait of unconditional love that any parent would recognize—but that many would be hard-pressed to emulate.

Ever since the shooting, Jack Hinckley and his wife Jo Ann have all but dedicated their lives to trying to atone for their son’s sin. The couple’s bestselling memoir, Breaking Points, is a bizarre but heartfelt attempt to trace their son’s downward spiral and to confront their own feelings of guilt. The retired oil baron not only describes his religious conversion but confesses that he failed his son in his time of need.

“The one thing I want more than anything else in the world is John’s freedom,” testified Hinckley. “We’ve waited 15 or 16 years already, and I’m not asking for complete freedom. All we’re asking [is] that he be allowed to take the next step.”

The proposed monthly 12-hour field trips, explained Hinckley, would be “modest,” low-key excursions, probably entailing a trip to a restaurant or a record store John was interested in visiting. He said he would provide authorities with a full itinerary of their every move, and the Secret Service was welcome to tag along. “If we thought there was any chance at all that what we’re requesting here is dangerous, we never would never do it,” he says. (In fact, his son did receive one special leave in the late ’80s: He had Easter dinner with his family at a Northern Virginia residence, and there was no incident.)

Jack Hinckley told the court his son was a different person, “well-adjusted” and “outgoing,” from the delusional maniac who tried to shoot the president or who hid pictures of Foster in his hospital room as late as 1987. “I don’t think he’s seriously mentally ill,” he testified. “I don’t think he’s mentally ill at all to speak of….I would say that he’s recovered to the point that he’s ready to go out and do bigger and better things.”

The judge didn’t think Hinckley was ready for “bigger and better things” just yet. Ultimately, even more than Wick’s testimony it was Hinckley’s own writing that helped seal the denial of his furlough request. The problematic entry comes from a journal titled A World of Mine Own, found in ’87 in Hinckley’s hospital room. In her ruling, Judge Green cited an entire passage:

I dare say that not one psychiatrist who has analyzed me knows any more about me than the average person on the street who has read about me in the newspapers. Psychiatry is a guessing game and I do my best to keep the fools guessing about me. They will never know the true John Hinckley. Only I fully understand myself.

Green seized on this as evidence of Hinckley’s extensive record of deceit and manipulation: “What is particularly disturbing is that this statement was written at a time when the Petitioner had already undergone five years of treatment and had convinced his treatment clinicians that he had recovered sufficiently for conditional release,” she wrote. “Statements such as these cause the Court to proceed carefully in weighing current assessments of the Petitioner by his experts.”

Levine reserved his scorn not for the judge’s ruling but for the hospital’s review board, which denied the request (and the treatment team’s recommendation) and made the hearing necessary in the first place. “The review board has stopped practicing medicine and is wallowing in its version of politics,” says Levine, who has appealed the ruling.

At the next hearing, scheduled for December, Hinckley may testify, according to Levine. He’s lucid and anxious to tell his side of the story, says Levine. It was only the prosecution’s tactics that kept Hinckley from taking the stand last month. “It became very obvious to me during this hearing why John should not testify,” says Levine. “The government’s entire case was concentrating on the early years, and he was going to be cross-examined on those years, and I wasn’t going to give them the chance to do that.”

Levine says the most damaging evidence in the hearing—such as the journal entry—is decade-old stuff dredged up to keep Hinckley confined indefinitely. That was back when Hinckley was a sick man, says Levine, but now he’s healed.

“The government’s case rests on the old John Hinckley,” says Levine. “And they do not ever come to grips with the new John Hinckley.”

“The friendliest people in the world are in West Virginia,” says the patient, as if making a scientific pronouncement. “Everybody else is civil, but they’re friendly. They’re sane, for real.”

We’re sitting on a bench outside the Howard Pavilion on another hot, muggy afternoon. Hinckley is ensconced in his usual spot, immersed in his stack of literature. Once in a while, though, he steals a look our way.

My companion is a tall, talkative man, crowned by a black stocking on his head. He sits upright on his bench, as rigid as if he were behind a desk in class. Like most of the patients who hang out by the entrance, he’s a dedicated chain smoker, rain or shine. He takes impossibly deep drags on his cigarettes, holds the fog deep in his innards until it hits bottom, and finally lets out massive billows of CO2 as if he were blowing all his troubles away.

“Everything in West Virginia is friendly,” he goes on. “Even the dogs and cats are friendly.”

Well, what about St. Elizabeths? It seems the obvious inquiry to make. He scowls and exhales his smoke too soon, spoiling his rhythm. “Here in this shit farm—excuse my language—they don’t want you to be sane. To me, six months in here is too long for anybody. See, you regress. If you have any type of advancement in here as far as blending back with civilization, over six months, you deteriorate backward and there’s no hope for you. People in here can’t stay sane long.”

That’s the way most afternoons go in front of Howard Pavilion. Once in a while, a name will stick out of the banter (“Hey Swann, man, how ya doin?”), and you realize you’re sitting next to the Shotgun Stalker, who terrorized Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant a few years back, allegedly gunning down four people in random drive-by shootings. Neighbors told authorities he often talked to squirrels, among other peculiar habits, and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. But here at St. Elizabeths, the Shotgun Stalker’s as friendly as the next guy.

Indeed, the John Howard Pavilion boasts patients of all sorts. Out of the dwindling population of 755 at St. Elizabeths, 254 forensic patients currently reside in the pavilion, built in 1959. Like Hinckley, many have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Some are here only temporarily, awaiting evaluation and trial. There are also residents who became mentally ill while in the D.C. prison system. Every Howard resident is locked down during the night, but many, like Hinckley, have earned privileges that allow them to wander the grounds.

Out on the circle, patients bum cigarettes or change for sodas. Some are as generous as Christmas, while others keep an obsessively close tab on every penny that changes hands. One day a young man—probably no more than 18—asks me for a nickel, which I give him. The next afternoon, the moment he spots me, he saunters up and—flashing a mischievous smile—hands me a nickel.

Hinckley apparently doesn’t smoke, and he doesn’t need spare coins for his sodas. Once in a while he gets up from his bench, and that’s when you really notice what a short, dumpy guy he is. Then he ambles to the entrance in his slow, stooped-shouldered way—as if he has a lot of time to kill. In fact, the gold wristwatch slinking down his forearm seems to be weighing him down. Reappearing at the door with a can of Diet Coke, he heads straight back to his spot and settles back in until it’s time for another.

I watch Hinckley for long intervals when he doesn’t read or write or do much of anything. He seems to be meditating. Sometimes he sits cross-legged, hunched over with his chin in his hand in The Thinker’s pose; other times, he slouches casually, an arm outstretched on the back of the bench. He just stares ahead and takes it all in, and sometimes I’m reminded of a line by Poe: “They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Then it strikes me that his thoughts are likely not mystical at all. He’s probably wondering who the hell is this creep who keeps coming here to stare at him day after day. Watching Hinckley has got me reading too much into everything.

Like the day before, Hinckley has my number. His renewed vigilance is definitely not a figment of my imagination. This time it’s not exactly a staring match, but his strategic watchfulness is unnerving.

A newcomer takes a seat on a nearby bench, plopping himself down with exaggerated relish, as if the warped, splintered boards—only two of four remain, making barely enough seat for a starving alley cat to take a nap—are the most comfortable cushions imaginable. He’s obviously in a good mood, and I welcome his arrival to help ease the tension of my own private Cold War with Hinckley. He bellows some lines from Arlo Guthrie’s ’60s stoner anthem, “Coming Into Los Angeles.” He stumbles over some verses and forgets the rest. No matter—he’s celebrating some sort of triumph, and it doesn’t take long to find out exactly what.

“I refused to take my medicine, and I’m feeling fucking great!” he shouts, limbs and hair flailing in a paroxysm of pure joy. “I couldn’t feel any better than this.”

He bends toward me, apparently to share a secret. His dirty green-tinted eyeglasses are nearly the same color as his rotten teeth. His long, wild hair leaps from his head like a fright wig. His lanky limbs are all akimbo.

“The doctors have a firm belief in medicine, but I don’t believe in that garbage,” he whispers. “That medicine they use is a chemical straitjacket.”

Checking out Hinckley, I notice that he seems to be amused by my new friend’s antics; he’s probably seen this sort of spectacle hundreds of times. Though he hasn’t even cracked the smallest of grins, he seems to be taunting me all the same: See why I sit over here? See why I keep to myself? Welcome to St. Elizabeths, asshole.

Of course, this is all in my head. Or that’s what I tell myself. It’s starting to feel extremely hot in the blazing afternoon. But the sun’s not even out. It’s that stifling D.C. gray haze and humidity that’s making it hard to breathe.

I’m still shaking off the willies when a patient strolls right across the driveway, waving greetings to Hinckley, and takes a seat next to him on the bench. In the entire time I’ve been watching Hinckley, no one has even approached his turf, much less dropped by for a visit. It’s absolutely unprecedented, and there’s more: Hinckley graciously receives his guest, and soon they’re chatting away like old buddies.

At one point, Hinckley even hands him what appears to be a work in progress on loose-leaf paper, something he’s been writing that very day. The guy reads for a bit, chuckling, and says something to Hinckley, who breaks into a hearty laugh. It’s a shocking sight. For days, Hinckley’s face has mostly been frozen in the same glum expression.

Then they look over at me, both guffawing at some inside joke.

I nearly bolt right then. No, I finally decide, they’re probably not even talking about me. Besides, I realize, this is exactly the opportunity I’ve been looking for: Hinckley in a sociable mood. It’s time to try to make contact.

After a few minutes, the patient takes his leave. Hinckley buries himself back in his solitude, leisurely pulling out a newspaper.

Instead of approaching him head-on, I opt for a wide flank movement around the sidewalk, so as not to raise a ruckus. I’m not even looking at Hinckley, but I can feel not only his gaze but the stares of the patients. It’s the first time I’ve stirred in my entire stay outside Howard Pavilion. Passing the last bench, I suddenly veer toward Hinckley, and by the time I hit the grass it’s too late to stop.

When I finally get the nerve to look at him, he’s glaring at me, his brow furrowed defensively. Less than 10 feet away, he puts down his USA Today and gives me a look that says, Who the hell are you and what do you want?

I stand my ground and tell him I’m a reporter.

He sighs, as if a little disappointed. All this fuss and for what—just another media parasite come to get the big interview.

“I can’t talk to you,” he says clearly and emphatically, looking me right in the eyes. It’s in the terse tone of a reprimand.

I tell him I understand the situation he’s in. I just thought I’d give it a shot. Nonetheless, I offer him a package of poems and articles, an attempt to leave him with a calling card of sorts.

“I can’t accept that from you,” he says, exasperated, as if scolding a schoolboy. “I can’t even be talking to you. You need to call my lawyer.”

Then he just stares at me.

Defeated, I retreat to the nearest bench on the sidewalk and try to pretend nothing has happened. But a guard is already heading toward me; she’s seen our encounter. Softly, almost coaxingly, she asks me who I am and what I’m doing here. I tell her I came to try to interview Hinckley. She says that unless I have official permission to be here, I will have to leave immediately. As we walk inside and she alerts the other guards, Hinckley’s already on the phone at the front desk, probably on the hot line to his lawyer. Minutes later, guards give me a motor escort to the side gate of St. Elizabeths.

Though he became famous for stalking Foster and shooting Reagan, John Hinckley Jr. has always considered himself first and foremost a writer. He decided early on that he could never follow the family tradition of big business established by his father and older brother. All through the various crises of his life—his tormented adolescence, his obsession with Foster, the shooting and its aftermath, and his stay at St. Elizabeths—he has continued to write. Not just any sort of scribbling, mind you, but ambitious highbrow stuff.

“I’m a poet first and would-be assassin last,” Hinckley announced in the March 1983 Penthouse, his only extended interview. In a question-and-answer session conducted by mail, Hinckley waxed philosophical about everything from handgun control (“I’ve become a strong advocate”) to rock ‘n’ roll (“Should I feel guilty because I like the Go-Gos?”) to Foster (“I’ve been through a thousand times more shit than Jodie in the past two years”).

Mostly, Hinckley complained about the violent, philistine society that spits out psychos like himself. “America doesn’t have much culture at all,” he griped. “That’s the problem. No one gives a shit about poetry or opera.” When pressed to name his favorite authors, he came up with a list—and there was John Warnock Hinckley right up there with the immortals of literature: “I like Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, Jack London, Stephen King, Charles Bukowski, Thomas Wolfe, Oscar Wilde, and myself.”

The article was accompanied by a sample of verse that Hinckley had penned at St. Elizabeths—a handwritten 30-line poem, titled “Something to Do With Nothing,” reprinted in his neat cursive:

Snowflake July cough

What did you precipitate

As told to Edgar Allan guilty

not by reasons incomprehensible…

ridicule the boy just standing

on borrowed lives waiting once

for a precocious teen exercise her

left wing narcissistic mate

And in his shady nook in front of Howard Pavilion, Hinckley still plugs away at what may be his only marketable skill. “He spends a lot of his time reading and writing,” says Levine.

In fact, Hinckley’s extensive written output is quite literally his legacy to the world. This intellectual property may soon be worth millions—but most of this sum will go to the victims of the assassination attempt.

In the years since the shooting, the victims have never commented publicly on the Hinckley case. James and Sara Brady remain in the vanguard of the handgun control movement. Yet shortly after the ’82 aquittal, Brady, McCarthy, and Delahanty filed a civil suit against Hinckley, demanding hundreds of millions in damages. But Hinckley has remained virtually penniless since the shooting; now retired, his father has continued to pay the monumental legal costs, but there’s not much else coming his way from the family fortune. Hinckley didn’t have any money, property, or assets, but he did have his strange saga—and all his scribblings—to sell. And that’s what he did.

In 1995, Hinckley signed an out-of-court agreement that gave the victims full and exclusive rights to his life story, including his entire intellectual property. He also agreed to cooperate with any projects undertaken by the owners of those rights. Under the settlement, the victims would keep 80 percent of the first $3.6 million paid for Hinckley’s story. Twenty percent of that initial sum—and all subsequent earnings—would be deposited in a trust fund for Hinckley, for medical expenses and a modest allowance if he’s ever released from St. Elizabeths.

The victims’ lawyer, Frederic Schwartz, is in the odd role of playing pitch man for the man who shot his clients. A year after the agreement and more than 16 years after the crime itself, he says there are still plenty of major publishers and producers expressing interest.

The tale of Hinckley’s doomed love for Foster is more than just some Media Age parable, says Schwartz. It touches deep, fundamental truths about human nature. “This goes back to primeval times,” he says. “What he did was what any adolescent male does when they obsess over a woman—he tried to show that he was worthy of her. The seed’s in everybody.” Hinckley simply took the primitive urge to a different, more dangerous level, trying to prove his bravery in an act of twisted chivalry.

What Schwartz is proposing isn’t some confessional, quickie paperback penned by Hinckley and a ghostwriter. He says he’s interested in a project altogether more ambitious, a book that would sit on the shelf next to true-crime classics like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Too much time has passed to interest the public in anything less, he says. “The story of John Hinckley’s life will not sell, but a book that dissects what happened will. Almost every story with major historical figures is worth telling if it’s told right.”

Schwartz says that even though he is an admirer of Hinckley’s writing talent, the proposed book will not be the would-be assassin’s testament. “This isn’t Hinckley’s book—it’s not John Hinckley’s life story ‘as told to.’ It will be written by a talented author exploring these circumstances and trying to extract not only the facts themselves but also the lessons to be learned….But one of the resources he’s going to use is that he’s going to have exclusive access to John Hinckley and his papers.”

Hinckley’s collected works—poems, letters, songs, court filings, and drawings, among boxfuls of materials—already fill an entire room, according to Schwartz. In addition, anything Hinckley is presently working on becomes the “intellectual property” of the victims as well.

But before the project begins, Hinckley must choose an interviewer with whom he will appear in a nationally televised event. Schwartz has been waiting for Hinckley’s decision and the lawyer is becoming impatient.

Hinckley’s lawyers claim he is not procrastinating but simply obeying the rules of his therapy: He’s not supposed to pursue any media attention, and any such display could dash his chances for release. In fact, a reference to Hinckley’s asking Wick about Barbara Walters was used by the prosecution during the recent hearing. “He will not pick anybody while he’s in St. Elizabeths Hospital,” says Levine. “He can’t do it, [because] it’ll be held against him.”

Schwartz says that he understands the Catch-22 that Hinckley finds himself in, but he claims that hospital officials can be made to understand the importance of moving forward before the memory of Hinckley and what he did fades completely. “We expect all these issues to be resolved—an interviewer chosen, as well as an agent and somebody to write the book, and have everything moving ahead by the fall,” says Schwartz. “We allowed him to go through the hearing, and he’s done it, and we just can’t wait any longer.”

Schwartz believes that Hinckley’s mere signing of the settlement shows that he has finally decided to confront his crime as a mature adult. “It was an excellent way for him to show that he was being responsible, and that he did realize that, first of all, what he had done was wrong, and second of all, that there was a way that he could do the best he could to make up for the damage that he had done.”

Some don’t agree with Schwartz’s optimistic assessment. During the hearing, Dr. Patterson said he was bothered that Hinckley hadn’t told his doctors about the settlement. Moreover, he says Hinckley’s supposed generosity and maturity (as demonstrated by signing away the rights to his life story) were actually no great sacrifice. It instead showed Patterson that Hinckley was still interested in notoriety, even if it was only a sliver of the spotlight. “Mr. Hinckley, in my opinion, has never been after money—he’s been after fame,” testified Patterson. “It wasn’t about money in the ’80s, and it’s not about money now.”

Yet Schwartz sees something more: Hinckley’s apparent willingness to finally examine his role in his “historical deed” not on his formerly deluded terms, but in the real and painful context of its tragedy—the fact that it affected other human beings besides John Warnock Hinckley Jr.

“His being realistic includes the realization that what he did was newsworthy,” says Schwartz. “It wasn’t right, it wasn’t proper, it wasn’t good, but it remains newsworthy. And he is able to differentiate in his mind the fact that he’s being interviewed not because he’s a wonderful person or someone that people should look up to—it’s because he’s a player in history, and that maybe people can be helped by insights that he has into what he did, which was a terrible, terrible misguided thing.”

The rain is pouring down. I’m at Howard Pavilion, a few days before my meeting with John Hinckley. But his bench is empty and he’s nowhere to be seen. The place just isn’t the same without him, so I call it a day and head back to my car. But after getting behind the wheel, I notice two people sitting in the car parked next to mine. They seem to be talking and staring through the windshield at the nearby graveyard, pocked with tombstones of patients who died here but couldn’t afford a family funeral.

I realize it’s Hinckley in the passenger seat, and there’s a woman next to him, smoking a cigarette through the open window. This must be Leslie DeVeau, his girlfriend, the former patient. She still works at the hospital and meets Hinckley for lunch every day; their long-term relationship has been the talk of the place for years.

“They have had a very long and very stable relationship,” says Levine, who adds that “engaged” is a fair characterization of their relationship right now. “I believe that were the day to come when John were to be released from St. Elizabeths, they would marry.”

Indeed, during the hearing, Jack Hinckley spoke of DeVeau in the glowing terms in which a proud father speaks of a woman who’s not only right for his son, but an angel of grace: “[Meeting Leslie DeVeau] is the best thing that’s ever happened to John,” testified Hinckley Sr., “because she’s so supportive and such a rock. She’s such a good influence for him. They love each other very much I think, and they fuss—as all of us do—but they are just a terrific influence on each other, and we’re so glad to have her.”

But DeVeau is more than just a fiancée for John Hinckley Jr. In some ways, she is hope itself—and living proof that you can do a terrible thing, do your time at St. Elizabeths, and one day regain your freedom.

“She’s a very responsible person,” says Levine. “One could look at her to demonstrate how successful the therapy can be.”

Therapy can indeed work wonders. More than a decade ago, DeVeau killed her only daughter with a shotgun while the 10-year-old slept in the spacious family house in Friendship Heights. Authorities said DeVeau was insane at the time. But after a few years at St. Elizabeths, her doctors said she was cured, and she was released, a free woman.

Hinckley tried to kill the president, but now his doctors say he too is cured…

The rain lets up into a drizzle. Moving in his slow, deliberate manner, Hinckley lurches from the passenger side and walks around the car. He opens the back door and pulls out some goodies: two bulging CVS bags of newspapers and magazines, enough for a few hours of leisurely reading. He nods a goodbye and heads toward the pavilion.

But before Hinckley reaches the edge of the parking lot, she drives up behind him. Apparently, she wants to tell him something, or maybe he left something in the car. Then she pulls over and rolls down her window. Hinckley stops, leans over, and gives her a kiss on the cheek. She rolls the window back up and drives away.

Then John Hinckley stands in the rain and watches as she disappears around a bend.CP