By Michael E. Ruane, Paul Duggan and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 11, 2009
At 12:40 p.m. yesterday a man stepped through the doors of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He took two paces, lowered his rifle at a security guard and, before anyone could react, opened fire in a popular national landmark.
The guard, who did not have time to draw his gun, fell bleeding and fatally wounded to the polished floor. Other guards fired back, cutting down the assailant. Terrified patrons, many of them children, dived for safety. And what moments before had been a bright weekday in June became a tableau of violence.
As described by bystanders and authorities, the attack inside the famed Holocaust museum turned the crowded building and Washington's nearby tourist-thronged Mall into a scene of fear and chaos, with black-clad SWAT teams, hovering helicopters and racing emergency vehicles. Stunned witnesses described a fusillade of gunfire -- five shots or more -- the blood-streaked floor and the screams of frightened visitors inside the museum and on the street.
"It's like a scene from a movie," said Edward Bhopa, 54.
"A horror movie," added his son Andy, 28.
The suspect, identified by law enforcement sources as James W. von Brunn, 88, of Annapolis, was said to be a longtime, "hard-core" supremacist whose Internet writings contain extensive, poisonous ravings against Jews and African Americans.
The slain guard, Stephen T. Johns, 39, of Temple Hills, worked for the Wackenhut security company and had been employed at the museum for six years, the museum said.
Officials at George Washington University Hospital, where von Brunn, Johns and an unidentified victim with less serious injuries were taken, said Johns suffered a gunshot wound to the chest and died there. Von Brunn was shot in the face, and the bullet exited his neck, according to a high-ranking police source. He underwent surgery and was in critical condition last night.
Police recovered a notebook in the suspect's possession that apparently contained a list of District locations, including Washington National Cathedral. Police bomb squads were sent to at least 10 sites.
"There are no words to express our grief and shock over today's events," the museum said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Johns's family." The museum plans to close today and fly its flags at half-staff in his memory.
The museum, which has about 400 employees and 300 volunteers, gets about 2 million visitors a year.
Several people caught glimpses of the attack.
"We heard a really loud bang, and we saw a guy with a silver length of a gun walking through" the door, said Shannon Clark, a tourist from Iowa who was walking on the mezzanine at the time of the shooting.
Former defense secretary William Cohen was standing in the exit area when he saw a car that had stopped just outside the driveway. "I noticed an older man, but I didn't pay that much attention," he said.
Then Cohen heard shots.
"I've been around a lot of gunfire over the years, and it was real clear that's what it was," he said.
Maria Hernandez of Bristow was leaving an exhibit when she heard shots. "I saw a security guard pull out his gun," she said.
Visitor Liliane Willens was heading into a basement auditorium to listen to a Holocaust survivor talk about her wartime experiences when she heard a noise that sounded like a roof falling in.
The audience in the crowded auditorium was told to stay put and that there had been a shooting but that people were safe where they were, she said.
Eventually, the Holocaust survivor went on with her presentation.
"It was quite ironic, because here was somebody talking about a tragedy in World War II, and here was this tragedy going on outside," Willens said.
After about an hour and a half, the audience was directed to a cafeteria, and police let the group out one by one after taking contact information, Willens said.
The shooting was reminiscent of one in 1998 in which a man stormed into the U.S. Capitol and killed two police officers.
Von Brunn is said to have been a leading writer in the white supremacist fringe for many years. He also appears to be the author of a recent Internet posting suggesting that President Obama's background is being hidden from the public.
His online book, "Kill the Best Gentiles," contains hundreds of pages of conspiracy theories that include Holocaust denial, the ancient hoax of the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" and wild webs of fantasy about Jewish plotting against white people.
"This is a longtime white supremacist and anti-Semite approaching the end of his life who may have decided to go out shooting," said Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group in Alabama that tracks right-wing extremists.
On a rambling, racist and bitterly anti-Semitic Web site, a man who identifies himself as James W. von Brunn says he is a former World War II PT boat captain who was decorated for his conduct in battle and was an advertising executive and film producer in New York.
He says he is a member of Mensa, "the high-IQ society," and acknowledges being convicted in D.C. Superior Court for a 1981 attempted attack on a government building. He was "convicted by a Negro jury, Jew/Negro attorneys, and sentenced to prison for eleven years by a Jew judge. A Jew/Negro/White Court of Appeals denied his appeal," the site says.
He describes himself as an artist and author. Neighbors in Annapolis, who asked not to be identified, said that they recently invited the suspect to their home for a drink and that he unexpectedly brought up his belief that the Holocaust did not occur. "It was just off the wall," said one of the neighbors.
"Truthfully, it scares me, because I never imagined someone like that living right next to me," said another neighbor, Joshua Shyman, 16, who said he is Jewish.
Von Brunn refers on his Web site to "Marxist/Liberal/Jews bankers" and provides this information in a long, aggrieved biographical entry:
"Over my years of adversity, it became clear to me that a JEW strategy had emerged: 'Kill the Best Gentiles!' The tactics were WAR & DEBT . . . I was chased from one job to another for not genuflecting before God's Chosen."
In 1968, Von Brunn was sentenced to six months in jail for punching a Dorchester County, Md., sheriff during a fight at the county jail. He had been arrested earlier on a charge of drunken driving after a brawl at a local restaurant.
In 1981, he was arrested for entering the building where the Federal Reserve Board meets, at 20th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, with a revolver, which he pointed at the stomach of a security guard. The guard called for help, and the gun was taken from von Brunn. When he was arrested, police also found a 12-gauge shotgun that he had concealed under his coat. According to the records, von Brunn had made it to the second floor when guards stopped him, and he surrendered his weapons.
He told police, according to charging files, that his actions were "politically motivated" and that he intended to take Paul A. Volcker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and other members hostage so that he could be allowed to voice his opinions through the news media.