By Thomas Fields-Meyer
September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

JO ANN HINCKLEY WAS ABOUT TO iron her husband’s shirts when the nightmare began. She had flipped on the TV in her suburban Denver home that afternoon—March 30, 1981—to catch a game show. Instead she heard the shocking bulletin: President Reagan had been shot. Within minutes the news took an even more sickening twist. The suspect in the attack was her 25-year-old son John. “We were dumbfounded,” Jo Ann, 71, recalls of her family’s reaction. “I did not think any of us would survive.”

Least of all John, a dour loner whose mind had become so bent that he had fired at Reagan to attract the affection of a celebrity he had never met—actress Jodie Foster. Judged not guilty by reason of insanity, Hinckley, now 42, has spent the last 15 years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, a Washington psychiatric facility. Last June, Hinckley’s request for monthly 12-hour outside visits with his parents was rejected by the hospital’s review board and then by a federal judge. In her decision the judge cited, in part, charges by a hospital staffer that Hinckley harassed her, a claim other employees have disputed. With most of Hinckley’s psychiatrists agreeing he has recovered from the psychotic disorder that provoked the attack, John has appealed the court’s ruling and his parents have launched a crusade on his behalf. Since no would-be presidential assassin has ever been released from confinement, the case has triggered a debate over the nation’s most notorious mental patient and how the justice system deals with the criminally insane.

Having overlooked the warning signs of their son’s mental illness—including his antisocial behavior, his inability to express emotions and his failure to stick with a jot)—Jo Ann Hinckley and her husband, Jack, 72, have poured much of their energy since the shooting into promoting mental-health awareness and aiding in John’s rehabilitation.

Relocated from Colorado to Virginia in 1985, they attend monthly family therapy sessions, often bringing a McDonald’s lunch—his favorite—for a picnic on the grounds. Since John’s admission a Quarter Pounder is about as close as he has come to tasting freedom.

Is he finally ready for more? Two psychiatrists and two psychologists who have recently examined Hinckley say that after years of therapy sessions and medication, he is no longer delusional or psychotic. The most negative assessment at the June hearing came from Dr. John Kelley, a medical director at St. Elizabeths. “Although he has substantially changed during his hospitalization,” Kelley said, “the changes have been superficial in nature.” Still, even Kelley argued that Hinckley—whose narcissistic personality disorder has improved, doctors agree—should be granted visits away from the hospital as an integral part of his treatment. Jo Ann Hinckley says her son is a danger to no one: “The John Hinckley of 16 years ago does not exist today.”

If only it were so simple. In fact, the John Hinckley who passes his days on the 300 acres of St. Elizabeths is the same man who horrified the nation when he fired six bullets from a revolver that rainy afternoon outside the Washington Hilton, wounding the President, a Secret Service guard, a Washington police officer and—most seriously—Reagan press secretary James Brady. Hit by a bullet just above his left eye, Brady was left crippled and mentally debilitated for life. “His parents care about him, and God bless them for that,” says talk show host Michael Reagan, the President’s son. “But…when you commit a crime, you do the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re mentally ill.”

Public outcry over Hinckley’s verdict provoked such sweeping changes in how courts deal with insanity rulings that today, in cases like Hinckley’s, the insanity defense is much more difficult to prove. Still, under 1981 laws, Hinckley can be freed once he is ruled sane. “The whole point of committing someone into psychiatric care is to take the appropriate steps as the treatment progresses,” says former St. Elizabeths psychotherapist Corrintha Rebecca Bennett.

In the first decade after the attack, Hinckley made so little progress it seemed unlikely that St. Elizabeths could ever consider releasing him. He attempted suicide three times after his arrest, and his obsession with Jodie Foster continued. A 1987 search of his quarters turned up 57 hidden photos of the actress. He also had some disturbing pen pals—notably mass murderer Ted Bundy, to whom he wrote on death row. “For years we were struggling and hoping for something to happen to John,” says Jack, a retired oil executive. “Around the beginning of this decade, he just seemed to be coming out of it.”

Doctors took Hinckley off psychiatric medication in 1992, and since 1994 he has worked mornings at a computer in a hospital clerical job, earning promotions and a certificate of appreciation in 1995. He also has unlimited privileges to wander the hospital’s grounds, which he does almost daily with Leslie deVeau, his girlfriend of more than a decade, with whom he shares a love of books (he favors P.D. James). DeVeau, a former social worker who works at St. Elizabeths aiding outpatients in recovery, has a horrific past herself: She shot her 10-year-old daughter to death in 1982, then put a bullet in her own shoulder, forcing the amputation of her left arm. Judged insane, she was released from St. Elizabeths after just four years. “Leslie has done more for John than anyone else,” Jo Ann says of deVeau, who usually lunches with Hinckley, a break in his schedule that also includes writing song lyrics and, when he’s allowed, playing the guitar.

More to the point, deVeau may be the first person outside the family to forge an intimate bond with Hinckley. Though he was athletic and well-liked in grade school, as he entered adolescence he retreated to his bedroom. Shy and friendless, he killed countless hours alone listening to Beatles records and plucking on a guitar. “He was truly depressed,” says Jo Ann, looking back. “We just thought he was an unhappy child.”

Overshadowed by popular older siblings—Scott, now 47, and Diane, 44—Hinckley never lived up to the demands of his father, a self-made entrepreneur with little tolerance for failure. In 1976, Hinckley dropped out of Texas Tech and flew to California in an ill-fated attempt to peddle his songs to record companies. “He was unsuccessful at everything,” says Jack. “I did not understand—and that made it doubly hard.”

Frustrated by their son’s lack of direction, in 1980 the Hinckleys sent him to a psychiatrist, who told them he was merely a late bloomer and that sending him to a psychiatric institution might scar him for life. After a series of trips from Colorado to the East Coast, John called penniless from New York City, then flew home, where Jack gave him $200 and told him there were no more chances. “From here on,” he said, “you’re on your own.” Just over three weeks later, John shot the President.

Even after 16 years, despite what his doctors say, the public simply may not be willing to set free a would-be presidential assassin. (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, 48, who attempted to shoot President Gerald Ford in 1975, is serving a life term in a Florida prison. She has never sought a parole hearing.) Dr. Henry Weinstein, a New York University expert on psychiatry and the law, says a single factor will eventually aid Hinckley’s case: “the passage of time.”

That is a discomforting thought for Jo Ann and Jack, who are tortured by the image of their son hopelessly passing his days in an institution though they feel he has recovered. Says Jo Ann: “The heartache never goes away.”