WASHINGTON – An 88-year-old white supremacist has been charged with murder for killing the security guard who had opened the door to let him into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, officials said Thursday.
Security Guard Stephen T. Johns was shot to death Wednesday by Holocaust denier James von Brunn, who had left his car in a lane of traffic outside an entrance to the museum before walking in with a concealed rifle, Police Chief Cathy Lanier said at a news conference.
Von Brunn, who once tried to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve, started shooting immediately, exchanging fire with guards who shot and critically injured him, stopping him from entering the museum and hurting anyone else, Lanier said.
In his car, officers found a notebook with a handwritten note saying, “You want my weapons – this is how you’ll get them. The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews,” according to a court affidavit.
The museum was closed and flags flew at half-staff Thursday in honour of Johns, 39. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said quick work by law enforcement “literally saved the lives of countless people.”
Bouquets of roses, lilies and other flowers had been left outside the museum walls Thursday morning. The entrance where the shooting occurred was still cordoned off by police tape.
Von Brunn was being treated at a Washington hospital. A self-described artist, advertising man and author living in Annapolis, Md., von Brunn wrote an anti-Semitic treatise, “Kill the Best Gentiles,” decried “the browning of America” and claimed to expose a Jewish conspiracy “to destroy the White gene-pool.” He also wrote of a lifetime of seething anger.
“It’s better to be strong than right,” he said in one of his dark screeds online, “unless you like dying. Crowds hate good guys.”
Von Brunn was charged with murder and killing in the course of possessing a firearm at a federal facility, both capital offences under federal law, and authorities said Thursday hate crime charges were also possible.
“We know what Mr. von Brunn did yesterday at the Holocaust museum. Now it’s our responsibility to determine why he did it,” said Joseph Persichini, assistant director of the Washington FBI field office. “We have to ask ourselves did all these years of public display of hatred impact his actions.”
The Homeland Security Department called the shooting a criminal incident and said it does not appear to have a connection to terrorism, according to a joint Homeland Security and FBI assessment issued Wednesday.
However, Persichini characterized the incident as “domestic terrorism.”
The assessment, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, said von Brunn is associated with right-wing extremism.
Persichini said Thursday that authorities found many documents in von Brunn’s vehicle and that any people or places named in them have been contacted or visited. He said he would not characterize it as a list.
Outside the museum, authorities searched von Brunn’s car for explosives, but found none. A court affidavit describes the shooting at the museum in detail and says it was captured on security video.
FBI agent Ronald Farnsworth said in the document that for the past two years, von Brunn has been living with his son and his son’s fiancee in nearby Annapolis, Maryland, renting a room from them for $400 a month. FBI agents searched von Brunn’s bedroom and found numerous papers and a 30/30 rifle.
Investigators are trying to determine how von Brunn acquired the .22-calibre rifle used in the attack, said two other law enforcement officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israeli officials and U.S. Muslim and Hispanic groups all expressed shock at the attack, which unfolded in a public space filled with records, photographs and exhibits standing as stark testament to the Nazis’ killing more than 6 million Jews in the Holocaust of more than a half-century ago. Johns, the guard who died, was black.
The museum was crowded with schoolchildren and other tourists, but all escaped injury.
Ashley Camp, 14, on a field trip with more than 40 other students, said she heard two or three gunshots. Soon after, 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.”
Law enforcement officials said von Brunn’s car was found near the museum and was tested for explosives. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
Von Brunn was sentenced in 1983 for attempted armed kidnapping and other charges in his 1981 bid to seize Fed board members. A guard captured him outside the room where the board was meeting. He had a revolver, sawed-off shotgun and knife in a bag with him. He served more than six years in prison.
Associated Press writers Desiree Hunter in Montgomery, Alabama, Sarah Brumfield and Aaron Morrison in Baltimore, Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland and Eileen Sullivan, Lolita C. Baldor, Devlin Barrett, Ted Bridis, Barry Schweid and Nafeesa Syeed in Washington contributed to this report.