John Hinckley Jr., the would-be assassin of Presidents Carter and Reagan and ultimately James Brady’s killer, was released a little more than a month ago. Several months before his release, a request was filed with the FBI for the file on his deceased father. The goal was simply to get a little more information and hopefully debunk or confirm conspiracy theories about connections between the Hinckley family and the Bush family. While those theories are briefly and indirectly addressed, the most interesting thing came from the end of an FBI interview with John Hinckley Sr. One of the statements from Hinckley and a search of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) website presented what appeared to be some true High Weirdness in the form of a time traveling neo-Nazi organization.
Intrigued by John Hinckley Jr.’s connections to this neo-Nazi organization, I turned to the ADL website. Unsurprisingly, the ADL had an entry on the neo-Nazi American Front, complete with its background and history. The only problem was that, according to the ADL entry, the American Front wasn’t found until about eight years later.
Source: ADL website
High Weirdness, indeed. Additional searching found claims that the group was actually founded in 1984, when some sources say the founder first encounter skinhead philosophy. This discrepancy may arise from 1987 being when the American Front’s documented activities and philosophies switched to overt Nazism. Other reports, like one from G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate infamy, claim that the group was founded as late as “around 1990.” The FBI wasn’t much more help. No files on the American Front have been released and the FBI’s website only makes some minor mentions of their criminal activities in the 1990s, when Liddy said they became active. The issue was becoming less clear by the minute, and edging closer to being an episode of Doctor Who complete with what looked like mysterious changes to the timeline.
Newspaper archives offered some mild relief from the apparent paradox, while raising significant questions about the trial of John Hinckley Jr. and the process of finding that he was insane at the time of the shooting. While his documented behavior gives the clear impression that John Hinckley Jr. was troubled, and his own notebooks and recorded words clearly imply he is insane, the discrepancies in the timeline presented provoke some interesting questions about the trial. Additional questions raised by hindsight, had they been known before, almost certainly would have had to have been answered before Hinckley would have been released into medical care.
Contemporary newspapers covering the trial are able to provide a relatively simple answer to the question of the American Front: Hinckley made it up and claimed himself as its leader as part of his delusions. At the time, this explanation seemed quite acceptable. Lingering questions remain, however. The timeline provided by newspapers and books about the assassination attempt and trial are mostly consistent on the statements that Hinckley bought his first gun in August 1979 and then created the imaginary American Front in September 1979. Once again, however, this violates the known timeline. John Hinckley Sr.’s statement to the FBI was clear about John Hinckley Jr.’s letter coming in “early 1979” and saying that he had become “associated” with the group. A statement from Mrs. Hinckley confirmed John Hinckley Sr.’s timeline, and only a single UPI article seems to put Hinckley’s apparent creation of this group before his letter to his parents, in the preceding fall. This discrepancy in the timeline, as documented by different parties, has yet to be explained.
A look at the both the statements made by Hinckley’s psychiatrist in the news and the references to his statements in the transcript of the trial’s closing statements shows that this allegedly imaginary connection to the American Front was a major factor in determining he was insane. After all, claiming to be the leader of an imaginary neo-Nazi group is rather insane thing to do. According to the closing arguments, and echoed in several newspapers, Hinckley had produced extensive and fictitious membership lists in addition to producing a newsletter for the group. The defense tried to emphasize this as part of the insanity defense, while the prosecution apparently didn’t find it bizarre.
Although his father was apparently unaware of it, John Hinckley Jr. had actually joined several real Nazi groups including the National Socialist Party of America. He marched in a rally for the latter, dressed in a Nazi uniform. Ultimately, the groups apparently turned him away for being too violent (according to both the Nazi groups and Hinckley’s notes). This is, however, at odds with statements Hinckley’s psychiatrist made, including that Hinckley saw the “American Front as standing somewhere between conservative Republicanism and the Nazis.”
The discrepancies in the timeline, the discrepancies in the description of the allegedly fictitious group and the group’s later emergence as real all raise a number of interesting questions. Given his real ties to Nazi groups and individuals, were NONE of the members of his group real? The investigation was closed and the trial over before the earliest estimate of the emergence of the legitimate American Front, as a spin-off of the National Front in the UK, which means that there was never an investigation into whether the name was a coincidence or a connection.
Of course, there are other interesting elements in the FBI file on Hinckley’s father, not to mention information that addresses some of the conspiracy theories. However, one of the more interesting and coincidental things in the file is also probably the least meaningless, foreshadowing aside.
John Hinckley Jr. was born in Ardmore Sanitarium and Hospital, which sounds only slightly better than being born in Arkham Asylum. The other interesting, and much less sensational, element in the passage above is one of the things that would ultimately give rise to several conspiracy theories around the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Namely, the Hinckley family’s oil connections. John Hinckley Sr. had been an oil engineer, and by the time of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan he was the owner of Vanderbilt Energy Corporation. At the time of the attempted assassination, the company was worth over four million dollars and operated 200 oil and natural gas wells.
It seems that some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Hinckley family and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan come from the theory that the Vanderbilt Energy Corporation was connected to the Vanderbilt family. The FBI file, however, provides a different explanation in some of the clippings it collected. Namely, the company was named for Vanderbilt University.
According to statements in the FBI file, the Hinckley family found John Hinckley Jr. and the shooting to be a heavy burden. John Hinckley Sr. remarked that the boy was “different, ‘so out of it’, and sick.”
The heavy burden was not just a mental or emotional one – the lives of the family had been thrown into turmoil and unexpected danger. Among other things, they suddenly found themselves dealing with bomb threats.
While the FBI file sheds some light on the life of John Hinckley Sr.’s life and how it changed after the assassination attempt, most of the information is about John Hinckley Sr., who last spoke to his father about a week before the assassination attempt, the night before he left for California. When he spoke to his father he explained that the decision was made because he was going to have a “lousy job” either way, but in California he could be with his friends.
Coincidentally, California is where the American Front is usually to have originated. The FBI were unable to clarify with John Hinckley Sr. where in California his son had gone or who he had seen, except for the possibility of his girlfriend.
When the issue was revisited later, John Hinckley Sr. recalled that it was probably the “Los Angeles area” or Hollywood, but again that he didn’t know where or with whom.
Other statements paint an unhappy life for John Hinckley Jr., who was unable to hold down a job or stay in school.
While others give an insight in the emotionally numb mind of John Hinckley Jr.
And that he was not a drug user (dashing any possibility of building a PSA by combining drug use with his inability to stay in school).
Yet he identified with John Lennon intensely. The name had been his primary idol until, according to his doctor, that figure was replaced with Hitler. When Lennon was killed, however, John Hinckley Jr. still idolized the man. He was shattered by his death, and spent the night in Central Park. Afterwards, he warned his father not to “make any cracks about John Lennon,” and that he was “deeply depressed.”
John Hinckley Sr. went on to tell the FBI that his son had reportedly been at John Lennon’s funeral.
As for one of the most famous parts of assassination? John Hinckley Sr. had never heard of Jodie Foster or the movie Taxi.
As for his politics, John Hinckley Jr. apparently favored Ronald Reagan before he tried to kill him. This matches his original plan to kill President Carter, but it is nevertheless surprising to see him turn around and attempt to kill the President he had previously admired.
Despite contributing to the Reagan and Bush campaigns and speaking on their behalf (although not as a lobbyist), John Hinckley Sr. denied any connection to the Bush family prior to the assassination attempt. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to prove a negative, and files on the rest of the family have yet to be released. He could also only speculate on how John Hinckley Jr. had gotten from California to Washington D.C. to shoot at President Reagan.
Ultimately, the file provided a little insight into debunking some of the conspiracy theories but was unable to provide any hard evidence. Since it’s extremely unlikely that there are actually time traveling neo-Nazi involves, there are some lingering questions about the connections John Hinckley Jr. had to the Nazi Party and the various neo-Nazi groups, including the one he apparently created and one which would later share the same name and message.
As for lingering questions about the father, there seems to be little that the FBI could provide. However, his international activities give rise to the possibility that he could have been a CIA contact. Only time and additional FOIAs can tell.
You can read the full request and release here.