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 alleged 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 that 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.
When von Brunn was captured he possessed a list he had made of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to another law enforcement officer who requested anonymity. The purpose of the list was not immediately clear, the official said.
The dead guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, was a six-year veteran of the facility who lived in Temple Hills, Md. Museum 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.”
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 6 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 schoolchildren 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.”
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 condominium in Annapolis, Md., to check his computer. A neighbor, Harold Olynnger, said in an interview that he and his companion had not been allowed back in their condo since early afternoon because agents feared the suspect’s home might contain explosives.
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.
Navy records show von Brunn enlisted in 1942 as an apprentice seaman before accepting an appointment as a naval midshipmen in the volunteer reserves in March 1943. On his application for enlistment, the 21-year-old listed his reason for signing up as “patriotic.”
His records show he had language qualifications in both English and French after spending three years in college. He was 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 and believed 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.
“We’ve been tracking this guy for decades,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research for the law center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate crimes.
“He thinks the Jews control the Federal Reserve, the banking system, that basically all Jews are evil.”