Reporter had early encounter with Holocaust Museum suspect

McClatchy NewspapersJune 11, 2009 

Holocaust Museum Shooting

This undated photograph provided by the Talbot County Sheriff Office on Wednesday, June 10, 2009, shows James von Brunn. (AP Photo/Talbot County (Md.) Sheriff Office via The Star-Democrat)

AP

There was a time when James von Brunn didn't want the public to know how much he hated Jewish people. I know because he was furious at me for wanting to spread the word. It even got physical for a moment.

It was May 1994, and I was working at a reporter for von Brunn's local newspaper, The Star Democrat in Easton, Md. My assignment: find the source of an anti-Semitic program airing on Easton's cable access channel. It led me, of course, to von Brunn.

"The enemy of the white race has always been the Jew," von Brunn told me as we sat in a conference room off the newsroom. "They seek to destroy us."

Though I took notes throughout, von Brunn became agitated when he realized I planned to report not just on the cable shows, but on him, too.

Easton Cable mostly aired grainy footage from youth sports games and the high school prom, so we were fascinated to know who had secured air time (as was his legal right) for a show that dismissed Anne Frank's diary as fiction created by her father.

Von Brunn didn't appear in the low-quality videos, with three men sitting in front of a Canadian flag and pointing out alleged discrepancies in the Frank diaries.

No one at the paper had heard of von Brunn, then in his early 70s. The story I wrote on my ninth month in my first newspaper job didn't identify his occupation, only that von Brunn was a local businessman. (He was in the mortgage business at roughly the same time, a Star Democrat editor told me Wednesday.)

Von Brunn told me publishing his quotes would hurt his standing in Easton, a town of 12,000 near the Chesapeake Bay. I certainly had some explosive quotes to print.

When I asked von Brunn if he was a racist, he replied: "Definitely. I am an acknowledged racist in that all races should have the right to develop their own culture." He called the Holocaust a "cruel hoax."

And there were some details I thought were so bizarre I probably wouldn't use — like von Brunn's seemingly fantastic claim he once was punished for trying to kidnap a member of the Federal Reserve. That, of course, was true. He was arrested for the attempted kidnapping in 1981 and served time in a federal prison. Before easy access to the Internet, it was too hard to research for a six-day-a-week paper like the Star Democrat.

In fact, there was quite a bit about von Brunn I didn't find out before the story ran.

The Southern Poverty Law Center had been tracking him since the 1980s, and he was active in the white supremacist movement.

But it wasn't until the Internet became an information superhighway that von Brunn's private views became so easily accessible. He posted online chapters of his pro-Hitler treatise, Kill the Best Gentiles, and sold copies from the Easton post office box of an organization called "Holy Western Empire LLC."

Worried about where my article was heading, von Brunn protested to the paper's publisher, who called the two of us and my editor into his corner office.

I thought von Brunn might try to dispute my account of his racist world view. Instead, he revealed more layers of it, insisting U.S. soldiers in World War II fabricated accounts of Nazi concentration camps.

When my editor, Denise Riley, objected, von Brunn quickly dismissed her as part of a larger effort to keep views like his suppressed.

"Mrs. Riley, how do I know you don't have some sort of hidden bias?" I quoted von Brunn as saying. "How do I know you're not married to a Jew?"

It was one of those scenes even a young reporter knew would make great copy, and I was taking down every word.

This was part of the problem von Brunn had come to the office to fix, and he ordered me to stop taking notes. Of course, I didn't. So he reached over, grabbed the top of my notebook and tried to snatch it from my hands.

That didn't work — I had about 50 years on him, and was holding on fairly tight already. But it did end my time with James von Brunn.

The publisher ordered him out of the building, and von Brunn complied. The story ran with all of the quotes you read here. And I never thought of von Brunn again until a Star-Democrat editor called me Wednesday afternoon to remind me who he was.

ABOUT THE WRITER Hanks covers the tourism industry for the Business section of The Miami Herald.

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