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Grief, Shock After 'Outstanding' Guard Loses His Life in the Line of Duty

In this image provided by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, museum guard Stephen T. Johns, is seen. Johns was killed Wednesday, June 10, 2009, in Washington, when an elderly gunman opened fire at the museum. (AP Photo/U.S. Holocaust Museum)
In this image provided by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, museum guard Stephen T. Johns, is seen. Johns was killed Wednesday, June 10, 2009, in Washington, when an elderly gunman opened fire at the museum. (AP Photo/U.S. Holocaust Museum) (AP)

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By Christian Davenport and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Colleagues called Stephen T. Johns "Big John," for he was well over 6 feet tall. But mostly friends recalled the security guard's constant courtesy and friendliness.

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"A soft-spoken, gentle giant," said Milton Talley, a former employee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Johns was killed yesterday in the line of duty -- shot, authorities said, by an avowed white supremacist who entered the museum with a rifle.

Details of the shooting remained sketchy last night, but apparently the 39-year-old, who was armed with a .38-caliber revolver, did not have time to react when James W. von Brunn walked into the museum, according to police sources.

"Immediately upon entering the front doors of the museum, he raised the rifle and started shooting," D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said of von Brunn, 88, adding that he "was engaged by security guards, and there was an exchange of gunfire."

When the smoke cleared, von Brunn was critically wounded. The only casualty among the guards was Johns, who lived in Prince George's County. At least one bullet from a small-caliber rifle hit Johns in his upper-left torso, according to Johns's employer, the Wackenhut security company.

"Two other . . . armed security officers opened fire with their service revolvers," the company said. "The intruder was hit at once" and wounded.

Johns died at George Washington University Hospital.

"There are no words to express our grief and shock over these events," the museum said in a statement, describing Johns as "an outstanding colleague who greeted us every day with a smile."

Johns, a 1988 graduate of Crosslands High School in Temple Hills, lived in an apartment in the Temple Hills area. Friends said he had a son.

Allen Burcky, another former museum employee, said last night that workers there considered each other "like family" and that Johns was "very courteous, very helpful."

Lourdes Padilla, the mother of a close friend, said that Johns trained as a plumber but that she didn't think he had ever entered the trade. He remarried about a year ago, Padilla said.

Johns's sister, Jacqueline Carter, declined to comment as she entered her home in Temple Hills. "She's in bad shape right now," said a man who was driving her.

Wackenhut describes itself as the U.S. government's "largest contractor for professional security services." An official with the union that represents Wackenhut employees at the museum said Johns was paid about $20 an hour.

"It's a heavy loss," said Assane Faye, the Washington district director of the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America.

Like other guards at the museum, on Raoul Wallenberg Place SW near the Mall, Johns underwent training for which he received the D.C. police designation of "special police officer," which permitted him to carry a revolver on duty.

Faye said that during contract negotiations with Wackenhut two years ago, the union pressed for company-issued protective vests. Although Wackenhut seemed open to the idea, vests have not been issued, Faye said.

"I hammered this in our negotiations two years ago because of how sensitive that museum is," he said. "Our guards needed more protection." He said that one of the guards at the museum was "verbally assaulted by one guy walking by, saying anti-Semitic remarks. For that reason, I made that the center of the negotiation."

Authorities said Johns was not wearing a protective vest.

Susan Pitcher, a Wackenhut spokeswoman, declined to comment on the shooting beyond the company's statement.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, said officials at those institutions took immediate steps to enhance security after the shooting in Washington.

"The key component is not only to have your own security, but to work with the local police force," he said. "In our case, the LAPD has a very good grasp of where all sorts of extremists might be and are able to deploy very quickly."

William S. Parsons, the Holocaust museum's chief of staff, praised Johns and his colleagues.

"Never take your guard force or your security people for granted," Parsons said. "They did exactly what they were supposed to do."


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