Politics & Government

Holocaust Museum suspect trumpeted his anti-Semitic ties

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)
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

WASHINGTON — A rifle-toting 88-year-old man with a history of anti-Semitism allegedly entered the crowded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday and opened fire, fatally wounding a security officer before he was shot and severely wounded as terrified tourists scurried for cover.

Law enforcement officials identified the gunman as James von Brunn, who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore, describes himself as a World War II PT boat captain and trumpets his ties to hate groups on his Web site.

Von Brunn was jailed for scheming in 1981 to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board to retaliate for high interest rates. He was caught on the institution's second floor with a hunting knife, a revolver and a sawed-off shotgun. His Web site, Holy Western Empire, is rife with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and public records show that the shooting suspect lived in Hayden, Idaho, from 2004 to 2005. The northern Idaho town was formerly home to Richard Butler, leader of the Aryan Nations.

The wounded gunman and guard Stephen Tyrone Johns were rushed by ambulance to the nearby George Washington University Hospital, where Johns was pronounced dead within hours. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said that the gunman was in critical condition.

At the White House, President Barack Obama said he was "shocked and saddened" by the shootings.

"This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honor those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world," the president said in a statement. "Today, we have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends in this painful time."

The museum said in a statement that the slain officer, who'd worked at the museum for six years, "died heroically in the line of duty today. There are no words to express our grief and shock over these events. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Johns' family."

The museum said it would close Thursday and fly flags at half-staff in Johns' memory.

The attack came during Washington's peak tourist season at the memorial to 6 million Jews exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. The museum, which opened in 1993 at the edge of Washington's National Mall, was teeming at its capacity of about 2,000 visitors when the gunman strode into the main entrance at about 12:50 p.m., authorities said.

Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said, "It appears that the gunman entered alone," carrying "a long rifle that was visible." He "was engaged immediately," she said.

Lanier said that an off-duty police officer who was within a block of the museum heard the gunfire and rushed to assist the U.S. Park Police.

Sgt. David Schlosser, a spokesman for the Park Police, said that at least two security guards returned fire, including Johns.

Tourists, including small children, witnessed the security guard lying in a pool of blood on the main floor.

"There was blood everywhere," one museum visitor, identified only as "Maria," told CNN. "I saw a lot of blood on the floor. . . . There was just chaos everywhere."

Dave Unruh, a Sedgwick County commissioner in Kansas, was vacationing with his family, strolling through the museum's first floor, when they heard the first gunshot.

"It was followed by four or five other shots," Unruh said. "Right away, somebody said, 'Hit the floor. Hit the floor.' We did. We kind of instinctively knew what was going on. We were all pretty frightened."

"You know, you go through security, metal detectors and have bags checked," he said. "This is the Holocaust museum. You think, why do they need the security? And then somebody does something like this."

Rebecca McDowell, 10, and her 5-year-old sister, Lydia, of Smith Center, Kan., were in a first-floor exhibit known as "Daniel's Story," accompanied by their grandmother, when the shots rang out.

"It was scary, and I was crying," Rebecca said. "I was trying to be strong, so Lydia wouldn't get scared. I really didn't know what happened."

The girls' grandmother, Barbara Hampson, 60, of Fresno, Calif., said she and the girls were quickly herded to the museum's basement with about 40 others, where they were held until police had matters under control.

Mark Lippert, of Spring Valley, Ill., was in the same first-floor exhibit with his bride-to-be.

"I heard four pops and I looked at my fiancee and said, 'That sounded like gunshots,' but thought, 'No, that can't be.' But then I saw kids running towards me, and the look on their faces was pure fear."

Lippert said he tried to get out of the building, but got stuck by an emergency door, because he didn't realize he had to hold a mechanism for 15 seconds to exit.

"That was the real scary part, when we got the door opened and looked back at people's faces and they were really scared.''

The incident raised concerns that it could incite hate groups to target the museum further, given that scores of white supremacy and anti-Semitic groups across the United States routinely express hate toward Jews. The museum hasn't previously been the scene of violence.

Washington police immediately evacuated the building and cordoned off surrounding streets. A helicopter hovered overhead and dozens of squad cars lined 14th Street.

Joseph Persichini, the chief of the FBI's Washington Field Office, said the bureau had no warning of any attack on the museum.

"We have a lot of work to do right now," Persichini said.

Attorney General Eric Holder and members of Congress were due to attend an event at the museum Wednesday night, but there was no indication that the attack was linked to that event.

The attack was the second at a heavily secured Washington tourist attraction in which an armed assailant has slain a security officer. In 1998, a gunman with a history of mental illness entered the U.S. Capitol and opened fire during security screening, making it as far as the office of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and killing a guard before he was wounded and subdued.

The Holocaust museum's chief of staff, Bill Parsons, drew a common lesson from the latest incident: "Never take your guard force and your security people for granted. They did exactly what they were supposed to do to protect people at the museum."

(Erika Bolstad and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington and Beccy Tanner of The Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kan., contributed to this article.)


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