John Hinckley to Be Freed: Inside Metro Denver Stay Before Trying to Kill Reagan

Today, a federal judge ordered that former Evergreen resident John Hinckley be released from the Washington, D.C.-area hospital that's been his official home since he who was found not guilty by reason of insanity for trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

More than three and a half decades after Hinckley's failed murder bid, most people only remember that he decided to kill Reagan because he thought it would impress his favorite actress, Jodi Foster. But few recall his activities in Colorado prior to the shooting — including a two-week stay at the Golden Hours Motel on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood that ended immediately prior to the assassination attempt.

There, as we reported in an extended section from "Just the ’Fax," a 2004 slice-of-life feature article about Colfax, he interacted with Kathy Lee, the young daughter of the Golden Hours' owners. Now a well-known radio personality on 103.5 The Fox, Lee remembered Hinckley asking about Foster — and not being as creepy as some of the other guests.

At the time of our article, Hinckley had just been given approval for six unsupervised visits with his parents in the Washington, D.C.-area — a decision that was controversial at the time. But as noted by the Washington Post, these trips away from St. Elizabeth's Hospital grew in duration over the years; he's recently been allowed to stay at the home of his ninety-year-old mother in Williamsburg, Virginia, for seventeen days each month.

“After thirty-four years as an in-patient at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and in view of the foregoing findings, and the successful completion of over eighty...visits to Williamsburg over the last ten years, the Court finds that Mr. Hinckley has received the maximum benefits possible in the in-patient setting,” U.S. District Judge Paul L Friedman wrote in an opinion on view below. “The court finds by the preponderance of the evidence that Mr. Hinckley will not be a danger to himself or to others if released on full-time convalescent leave to Williamsburg under the conditions proposed.”

In our 2004 piece, Denese Klocker, manager of a McDonald's across the street from the Golden Hours, which Hinckley patronized, admitted to being creeped out that the would-be killer had gotten permission for unsupervised trips out of the hospital. "This is his old hunting ground," she told us. "What if he were to walk in here? I wouldn't even know him."

Few would after 35 years — but the legend lives on. Here's our original story about Hinckley's Golden Hours stay, including a visit to his room.

Just the 'Fax
January 22, 2004

When Paul Kim, the present owner of the Golden Hours Motel, is asked about John Hinckley, who tried to kill then-president Ronald Reagan almost 23 years ago, he responds with a blank expression that slowly turns quizzical. "I read about him in the newspaper," Kim says. "He stayed here?"

Did he ever. For two weeks in March 1981, Hinckley roomed at the Golden Hours before traveling to Washington, D.C., where he wounded Reagan and permanently injured press secretary and future gun-control advocate James Brady. Since being found not guilty by reason of insanity for the shooting, Hinckley has lived rather quietly at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in D.C. — but he recently returned to the public eye. In late November, his clumsy gunplay was dramatized in The Reagans, a mini-series produced for CBS but shunted off to Showtime after conservative critics complained that the production was historically inaccurate, as if any bio-pic has ever been otherwise. (Hinckley has previously been characterized in at least two made-for-TV movies, 1991's Without Warning: The James Brady Story and 2001's The Day Reagan Was Shot.) Then, on December 17, a U.S. district judge granted Hinckley six unsupervised get-togethers with his parents in the Washington area, sparking the ire of Reagan family members.

The press coverage that followed this decree immediately grabbed the attention of Kathy Lee, a producer for the Lewis & Floorwax Show on KRFX/The Fox. In 1981, Lee's parents not only owned the Golden Hours, but they lived there with Kathy, then eight years old, and her two sisters. "All of us remember him," she says of Hinckley.

Today, kids growing up in such a transitory environment would probably be kept on a short tether, but young Kathy was allowed to interact with any guest she wished. Her favorites were followers of the Grateful Dead, who turned up in force at the Golden Hours whenever the band was in town. There were limits, however. "My mom said I couldn't hang outside with them," Lee points out, "because she said, 'Those people like to smoke happy smoke.' And I'd be like, 'What's happy smoke?'"

By these standards, Hinckley was rather nondescript: He favored brown pants, brown jackets, brown button-down shirts and a semi-conservative hairstyle. Still, he made an impression on Lee even before he drew a bead on the chief executive. She and her sister Linda, two years her senior, loved to jump rope or play on the stairs at the motel, "and he would hang out where we were playing, buy everyone sodas and sit there and watch us, ask us questions," she says. "I remember him asking about Jodi Foster. He told us, 'She's my favorite movie star. What do you think about her?'"

Hinckley would later explain that he thought he could impress the child star by slaying Reagan. But even before he gained national notoriety, considering that Foster's Taxi Driver character was a child prostitute, Hinckley's inquiry could have been interpreted as molester talk. Lee didn't take it that way. "He just seemed like a normal person asking questions," she says. "It wasn't that we were afraid of him or thought he was creepy. Believe me, there were way creepier people. There was one guy who lived at the motel full-time who never wanted the maids to clean his room and always carried a paper bag with him. We never found out what was in the bag." In a youthful attempt to torment him, Lee and her playmates "used to stick naked Barbie dolls on his door."

Before Hinckley could receive such treatment, he split without paying his bill; according to Lee, his father later covered the outstanding balance (reportedly $55.40). The next time she saw him was on television at a friend's house immediately after the shooting. "I'm like, 'Wait a minute. That guy lives at our motel,'" Lee remembers. She returned home to discover that cops and the media already had the Golden Hours under siege.

The police investigation determined that Hinckley had purchased most of his meals across the street at a McDonald's (#418), differentiated from other restaurants in the hamburger chain by a row of seats made to look like Western saddles. Newspaper articles from the period suggest he may also have headed to 935 East Colfax for a March 11 screening of Taxi Driver at the Ogden Theatre, a movie house that eventually became a concert venue. Promoter Doug Kauffman, whose company, Nobody in Particular Presents, purchased the Ogden a decade later, was told by someone who claims to have been at the same show that Hinckley did indeed catch the flick. His source — former Denver resident Kirby McMillan Jr., aka Mojo Nixon, whose hit songs include "Elvis Is Everywhere" and "Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child" — isn't exactly unimpeachable. Even so, Kauffman sounds a cautious, albeit wry note. "The current ownership of the Ogden Theatre takes no responsibility for Mr. Hinckley's actions," he deadpans.

The Lees were guiltless, too, but Kathy's parents and her oldest sister, Diane, still had to fly to Washington, D.C., for a pre-trial hearing. By the time they returned, things had calmed down at the motel. Lee doesn't recall any particular demand for Room 30, the unit Hinckley rented, but she does say weird things seemed to happen there up until her parents sold the motel in 1986. On one occasion (she's not sure if it was before Hinckley's stay or after), she and a maid discovered that a forty-something man had committed suicide in the bathtub, leaving behind only a scattering of cocaine and a spoon.

Paul Kim, who bought the motel over two years ago, hasn't had anyone specifically ask for the Hinckley suite and says he couldn't satisfy such a request even if someone offered to pay more than the going rate of $35 per night "because I don't know which one it is." Indeed, there have been plenty of changes at the Golden Hours since the early '80s. The pool where Lee once played is gone, and all of the room numbers are different, running from "101" through "128," with a "131" thrown in for good measure.

From Lee's description, though, it seems clear that Room 120, on the motel's second floor, used to be Room 30. Inside it, a maid named Rachel (she keeps her last name to herself) is tidying up with a vengeance; she tosses a pair of old phone books out the open door to the pavement below, where they land with a thwap! After saying she's clueless about Hinckley's stay at the Golden Hours, she heads to another room while giving casual permission to visit the one she left behind — and a lovely space it is. Green and blue carpeting with occasional stains and tears. Twin beds with floral covers that sort of match the thick, multi-colored curtains over the adjacent window, but not really. A gold lamp with a dusty beige shade. A phone with a piece of duct tape on the cord. A light-red armchair covered in smudges. And nothing at all on the walls — not even a plaque commemorating the room's one confirmed celebrity occupant.

The McDonald's doesn't sport any references to Hinckley, either — and, even worse, the distinctive saddle seats are gone. But at least the store manager, Denese Klocker, is up to speed on the Golden Hours-Hinckley connection, having heard Lee talk about it on the Fox during a live remote at nearby Lakewood Fordland in December. Days later, the ruling allowing Hinckley's unsupervised trips from the hospital was announced, and Klocker found it "kind of scary," she says. "This is his old hunting ground. What if he were to walk in here? I wouldn't even know him."

Neither would anyone else in the neighborhood. John Hinckley's gone, and he's mostly forgotten.