WASHINGTON — An 88-year-old gunman with a violent and virulently anti-Semitic past opened fire with a rifle inside the crowded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday, fatally wounding a security guard before being shot himself by other officers, authorities said.
The assailant was hospitalized in critical condition, leaving behind a sprawling investigation by federal and local law enforcement and expressions of shock from the Israeli government and a prominent Muslim organization.
Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the gunman was “engaged by security guards immediately after entering the door” with a rifle. “The second he stepped into the building he began firing.”
Law enforcement officials said James W. von Brunn, a white supremacist, was under investigation in the shooting and that his car was found near the museum and tested for explosives. The weapon was a .22-caliber rifle, they added. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the investigation just beginning.
Museum officials identified the dead guard as Stephen T. Johns, a six-year veteran of the facility. Director Sara Bloomfield said he “died heroically in the line of duty.”
At the White House, just blocks away from the museum, President Barack Obama said, “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.”
Von Brunn has a racist, anti-Semitic Web site and wrote a manuscript titled “Kill the Best Gentiles,” alleging a Jewish “conspiracy to destroy the white gene pool.”
In 1983, he was convicted of attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board and served more than six years in prison. He was arrested two years earlier outside the room where the board was meeting, carrying a revolver, knife and sawed-off shotgun. At the time, police said von Brunn wanted to take the members hostage because of high interest rates and the nation’s economic difficulties.
Writings attributed to von Brunn on the Internet say the Holocaust was a hoax and decry a Jewish conspiracy to “destroy the white gene pool.”
“At Auschwitz the ‘Holocaust’ myth became Reality, and Germany, cultural gem of the West, became a pariah among world nations,” it says.
The museum, which opened in 1993 and has drawn nearly 30 million visitors, houses exhibits and records relating to the Holocaust of more than a half century ago in which more than six million Jews died at the hands of Nazis. Its Web site says the museum “teaches millions of people each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide.”
The museum was crowded with school children and other tourists at the time of the attack, but they all escaped injury in the outburst of violence.
Ashley Camp, 14, of Forsyth, Ill., on a field trip with more than 40 other students, said she heard two or three gunshots. Soon after, she recalled, a security guard ordered the group to run to the exit.
“We had to sprint as fast as we could out the door,” she said. “I thought it was the movie (part of a museum exhibit), but then everyone started screaming and running.”
The attack was the third in a recent wave of unsettling shootings that appeared to have political or ethnic underpinnings.
A 23-year-old Army private, William Andrew Long, was shot and killed outside a recruiting office this month in Arkansas and a fellow soldier was wounded. The suspect, a Muslim convert, has said he considers the killing justified because of the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.
Late last month, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot to death in his church.
Johns, the security guard killed Wednesday, was black.
Only last week, Obama visited the site of a German concentration camp at Buchenwald in Germany where he noted, “There are those who insist the Holocaust never happened.” He added, “This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.”
In a statement from Israel’s government, Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein said the shooting was “further proof that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial have not passed from the world.”
And the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent American Muslim organization, said in a statement, “We condemn this apparent bias-motivated attack and stand with the Jewish community and with Americans of all faiths in repudiating the kind of hatred and intolerance that can lead to such disturbing incidents.”
Within minutes after the attack, federal agents were dispatched to von Brunn’s home in Annapolis, Md., to check his computer. Joseph Persichini, assistant director in charge of the Washington FBI field office, said the shootings were being investigated as a possible hate crime or a case of domestic terrorism.
According to a relative, von Brunn attended Washington University in St. Louis and is an artist.
He was commissioned as a naval officer decades ago and discharged from the Navy in 1956. A cousin, Virginia Gerker, of St. Louis, said in an interview she hadn’t seen him in 50 years. She said her family had “disowned” him, believing him to be mentally ill.
About a dozen years ago, he applied to have his art shown at a gallery in Easton, Md., according to two of the owners. Laura Era and Jennifer Wharton said they rejected his work and he stomped out.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said von Brunn’s Web site has long been listed as a hate site.
The Rev. David Ostendorf, executive director of Center for a New Community in Chicago, a national civil rights group, said von Brunn has described in his own writings a long relationship with Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby, the Spotlight Newspaper and a well-known white supremacist and anti-Semite.