The mother of a Delaware man who shot himself after driving into a U.S. Capitol barricade over the weekend says she believes he struggled with brain trauma from growing up playing soccer.
Richard Aaron York III’s mother, Tamara Cunningham, said she suspects his past as a high school soccer player left him with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition popularly known as CTE. Some soccer players develop CTE because of repeated headbutts that are common in the sport.
“Something had been going on for a while,” Cunningham told The Guardian in an interview on Tuesday. “And it kept getting worse.”
A CTE diagnosis can only be definitively made with a postmortem brain autopsy. Cunningham said she had requested one from a private doctor and the local coroner, but was unable to plan the procedure immediately.
Nevertheless, in past cases where CTE was eventually confirmed in late football players and athletes in other violent sports, families suspected their loved ones had the condition beforehand because of behaviors they perceived as erratic or aggressive.
Cunningham spoke out on her thoughts about her son as police continued to investigate what could have motivated York to aim his car at a barricade outside the Capitol in Washington DC early Sunday.
As the case unfolded after federal agents searched former President Donald Trump’s Florida home on Aug. 8, some questioned whether 29-year-old York’s actions were politically motivated.
After all, an gunman enraged by the FBI searching Trump’s home for records kept there without permission attempted to break into an Ohio agency field office on Aug. 11. Authorities eventually shot and killed the would-be intruder in a deadlock.
But as Congress is in the midst of its annual August recess, police have said they don’t believe York was specifically targeting someone who would work on Capitol Hill.
And York’s mother said on Tuesday she was unaware her son was so closely associated with politics or supported Trump — in fact, she believed his voter registration listed him as a Democrat.
“We’re just not that kind of family,” Cunningham said when asked if something political motivated her son on Sunday.
Instead, researchers seem to view York’s violent death as the latest episode of a life marked by legal troubles over the past decade.
York, of Dagsboro, Delaware, pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges after police accused him of choking and assaulting his pregnant girlfriend in 2012, according to the news website Lehigh Valley Live.
He also reportedly pleaded guilty to assault and property damage charges in early 2020 after a co-worker at a roofer accused York of assaulting him in his home, Pennsylvania news channel Morning Call reported. The employee reportedly suffered facial and head injuries, and York was sentenced to approximately seven months in prison and two years’ probation.
At around 4 a.m. on Sunday, York ran into a car on a barricade on the east side of the Capitol. His vehicle went up in flames as he exited his car, possibly because he set it on fire, and he began firing a pistol into the air, Capitol police officers said.
The commotion prompted Capitol police officers to approach him, and as they approached, York shot himself, authorities said. No one else was injured.
To many, York’s death was reminiscent of the April 2021 murder of Capitol police officer Billy Evans. He was killed by a Virginia man who drove his car into a Capitol barricade.
Meanwhile, in 2013, Capitol police shot and killed a Connecticut woman near a facility checkpoint after her car crashed into a White House barricade and fled by running down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The drivers in each of those cases had mental illness, several media outlets said.
Cunningham said her son did too. She said she knew he was taking medication for it, although she was not aware of any diagnoses or treatments he had received.
Cunningham made it a point on Tuesday to discuss some of her son’s better days. York cooked breakfast and coffee for his grandmother every day, and regularly participated in spicy card games, she said.
He visited Cunningham and her fiancé most weekends and regularly accompanied them to car races and other celebratory events. He was the father of a nine-year-old boy who he didn’t see very often but loved when he had time with him, Cunningham added.
“When he functioned,” Cunningham said of York, “he was a great, great person.”