Witnesses describe shock of the shooting at a congressional baseball game practice in Virginia

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Crime scene investigators search for evidence at the scene of a multiple shooting in Alexandria, Va., on June 14, 2017. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and four others were shot during a congressional baseball practice. (Photo: AP/Cliff Owen)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Five people, including Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise and a congressional staffer, were taken to hospitals after a shooting Wednesday morning at a practice for the annual congressional baseball game. Witnesses told Yahoo News they initially reacted with disbelief. One bystander also said people on the scene described the shooter asking people on the ballfield whether they were Republicans or Democrats before calmly and “deliberately” drawing a weapon and opening fire.

The congressional baseball game is a longstanding tradition in which members of Congress from the two major parties face off while raising money for charity. This year’s event is scheduled to take place Thursday evening. Republican players practice at Eugene Simpson Field in Alexandria, while the Democrats prepare on a field at Gallaudet University in Northeast Washington D.C.

Marty LaVor is a former House staffer-turned-photographer who has been involved with the game for years. He told Yahoo News that he was at the practice when the shooter arrived around 7 a.m. LaVor said that when he initially saw a man with a gun, he didn’t realize the danger, and his first thought was that it was “too early” for someone to be out shooting birds. LaVor said the shooter approached from the third-base line.

“There was a white male behind the fence. It was a glance and that was all I saw. I saw the rifle,” said LaVor. “I saw some guy and then I saw the rifle and then I heard, ‘Get in the dugout!’”

LaVor said he dove into the dugout “on top of” a member of Congress when the warning shouts began. Hours after the shooting, his pants were still dirty from hitting the ground. It happened so quickly that LaVor did not notice what the shooter was wearing, or whether he said anything before opening fire. He did see one staffer who had been shot in the torso, or Scalise, who had to be carried off the field.

President Trump gave a statement on the shooting from the White House shortly before noon. Trump said Scalise “was shot and badly wounded, and is now in stable condition at the hospital, along with two very courageous Capitol Police officers.” The president also said “two others” were wounded, and the shooter “died from his injuries” after exchanging fire with Capitol Police officers who were at the scene.

“Many lives would have been lost if not for the heroic actions of the two Capitol Police officers, who took down the gunman despite sustaining gunshot wounds during a very, very brutal assault,” said Trump.

LaVor echoed that sentiment.

“We are alive because of the Capitol Police,” LaVor said. “I want everybody to understand that they put their lives on the line for members and everybody every day, and they are the ones who saved us.”

David Woodruff, who said he is a former congressional staffer who lives about a “mile and a half” from the field, was jogging by when the shooting took place. He spoke to reporters near the scene, dressed in just running shorts.

Related slideshow: Shooting at GOP baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. >>>

“I was on the sidewalk right next to the diamond. … As I was running, I … heard an initial volley of about 12 to 14 shots, followed by about four more,” Woodruff recounted. “At that point, then I ducked into a parking garage and called 911.”

Woodruff said another person on the scene described seeing a chilling interaction between the gunman and the people on the field. He said the other witness claimed the shooter initially “asked if the team that was practicing was Republican or Democratic.”

“Upon hearing it was Republican, he opened up a bag, pulled out a rifle and began shooting,” said Woodruff.

Woodruff said the witness he spoke to noted the shooter moved “extremely deliberately” but also was “extremely calm.”

“People didn’t even quite realize it was out of the ordinary until they heard the gunshots,” said Woodruff.

Yahoo News has reached out to the Capitol Police, the Alexandria Police Department and the Washington, D.C., field office of the FBI to see whether they are aware of witness accounts that the shooter asked people on the field about their party affiliation. The Alexandria Police Department is referring all requests to the FBI, which did not respond.

The shooter has been identified as a 66-year-old Illinois man named James T. Hodgkinson. Facebook pages that are suspected of belonging to Hodgkinson but which have not been verified by law enforcement agencies contain a slew of posts attacking Trump and other Republicans. Hodgkinson also posted extensively in support of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. In a statement he delivered on the floor of the Senate, Sanders said he was “informed that the alleged shooter at the Republican baseball practice is someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign.”

“I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values,” said Sanders.

Sanders also praised the Capitol Police and offered his “hopes and prayers” for a “full recovery” to Scalise and the others who were wounded. Robert Becker, who was the state director for Sanders’ presidential campaign in Iowa, told Yahoo News that Hodgkinson did not make an impression.

In this undated file photo, James T. Hodgkinson holds a sign during a protest outside a U.S. post office in Belleville, Ill. Hodgkinson has been identified as the gunman in the June 14, 2017, shooting in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat via AP)

“Nobody remembers this guy. That doesn’t mean he didn’t come in and knock some doors one Saturday, but he didn’t stand out,” said Becker. “Nobody remembers him. Beyond that, we just stand by Bernie’s statement. We condemn violence in any way.”

Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat whose district includes the scene of the crime, arrived at the ballfield soon after the shooting. Beyer told Yahoo News authorities described the shooting as a “closed incident.”

“It looks like a lone wolf one shooter doing something completely reprehensible and dangerous,” Beyer said.

Nevertheless, Beyer said, the shooting might lead him to take precautions.

“My wife may want me to be more careful in terms of all the stuff you do, where you drive a different route every day and be more aware of your surroundings,” said Beyer. “You can’t live in fear, but you also need to live in health.”

Alexandria is a suburb of Washington, D.C., that is just south of the Pentagon on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. While it’s not technically part of the nation’s capital, the city is very much a part of official Washington and is home to many current and former campaign, congressional and White House staffers.

The shooting also caused a tense scene at Gallaudet University in D.C., where the Democrats were holding their morning practice. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who plays the outfield, said the coach, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, suddenly called all the players over to the pitcher’s mound and informed them about the shooting.

“We all then proceeded to go to the dugout, where we prayed for our friends and colleagues on the other side of the aisle,” said Jeffries.

According to Jeffries, Doyle led the Democratic team in the Lord’s Prayer. The Republicans had Capitol Police security details at their practice because their team included members of congressional leadership. There was no security at the Democrats’ practice.

House Democrats pray for their colleagues at a baseball field in Washington after hearing that a gunman fired on Republican lawmakers at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., on June 14, 2017. A rifle-wielding attacker wounded House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and several other people as congressmen and aides dove for cover. (Photo: Rep. Ruben J. Kihuen via AP)

“It was clear to many of us as we were on that field and in the dugout that, if this was a targeted attack, we were sitting ducks out on that field,” Jeffries said.

Though they did not have a security detail, Jeffries said officers from the Capitol Police and from Galladuet arrived at the Democratic practice “relatively quickly.”

Despite the incident, Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, wrote on Twitter that the annual baseball game will proceed as scheduled, and teams will “play for charity, but also for the victims & the heroic officers who took down the shooter.” Jeffries said there had been a “collective decision” to continue the game and show “that in the face of violent disruption we as an institution will continue to stand together as Americans often do in the face of adversity and move forward.”

For his part, Jeffries said he hopes the event will “communicate both our concerns for the shooting victims as they recover as well as our thanks and gratitude for the bravery of Capitol Police special agents who clearly saved lives by their presence and heroism today.” Jeffries will be starting the game in left field.

“I’m committed to playing in the game, whenever and wherever it takes place,” he said.

LaVor, the witness who has been involved in the game for years, will almost certainly be pleased it was not canceled. As he stood by the scene of the shooting soon afterwards, LaVor told Yahoo News he hoped the game would still be on. When asked why, LaVor threw up his middle finger and said he thought playing would send a similar message to the shooter, and that the game would draw huge crowds.

“You will have a show of people tomorrow if it’s on that will go way beyond anything that they could have ever expected,” LaVor said.

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