By Ashley Halsey III and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 12, 2009
The anger of James Wenneker von Brunn was too big for the quiet civility of the small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore where he made his home for much of the past three decades.
The venom that seethed within him spilled over time and again, shocking the people of Easton who bore witness. They were shocked once more at news of Wednesday's fatal shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but not at word that the alleged gunman was the 88-year-old white supremacist who once lived in their midst.
"Was he capable of this? Yes," said Laura Era, who saw him explode with anger twice in her Harrison Street art gallery. "Our intuition that he was creepy, that he might go postal, all came back to us when we heard the news."
As more details emerged yesterday about von Brunn, an avowed racist and anti-Semite who was shot and critically wounded by museum guards, the U.S. attorney's office in the District charged him with murder and another offense under a federal statute that makes him eligible for the death penalty if prosecutors decide to seek it.
In an incident that was captured by the museum's security cameras, he allegedly entered the building with a .22-caliber rifle and shot 39-year-old security guard Stephen T. Johns in the chest.
FBI agent Ronald Farnsworth said in a court affidavit that von Brunn, driving a red 2002 Hyundai, double parked outside the museum entrance on 14th Street SW near the Mall at 12:44 p.m., got out of the car and walked toward the building, carrying the rifle at his side. Johns, a guard at the museum for six years, "was kind enough to open the door" for a person whom he apparently thought was a harmless elderly visitor, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said at a news briefing yesterday.
Authorities who viewed the video did not say whether von Brunn was holding the rifle at his side in a way that concealed it from Johns.
Von Brunn "raised his rifle, aimed it at [Johns] and fired one time," hitting the guard in the upper left side of his chest, Farnsworth wrote, adding, "The defendant continued through the door and raised his firearm as if to fire again." But two other guards fired first, and von Brunn, who was shot in the face, "fell backward outside the door." He remained in critical condition yesterday at George Washington University Hospital.
Investigators found three spent .22-caliber shell casings from von Brunn's rifle and 10 live rounds still in the weapon. The two guards apparently fired eight rounds from their .38-caliber revolvers. According to a federal law enforcement source, the rifle is a Winchester model that is at least 70 years old.
Searching the Hyundai, Farnsworth said in the affidavit, investigators found a notebook in which von Brunn had scribbled some of his thoughts.
"You want my weapons -- this is how you'll get them," von Brunn had written. "The Holocaust is a lie. . . . Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. . . . The 1st Amendment is abrogated -- henceforth."
To people who knew him on the Eastern Shore, the rants are familiar.
Easton is the seat of Talbot County, a place where bloodlines run deep into those of the colonial founding families and where the countryside that fans from Easton's outskirts is divided between farmland and the estates of moneyed families. Civil behavior and good manners are the price of acceptance in proper circles.
Von Brunn didn't fit.
"Most people who I know to be bigoted are quiet about it in polite company," said Denise Riley, editor of the local newspaper. "But this guy was right out there in the open about it."
Like many people who bear a grudge against the world, von Brunn -- a former Navy officer who commanded a PT boat in the Pacific in the last weeks of World War II -- appeared to be a loner to neighbors, who said they saw him but never knew him.
A 1943 graduate of Washington University in his home town of St. Louis, he bounced from one address to another on the Eastern Shore. He worked in the mortgage and real estate businesses, peddled his paintings of Western landscapes and shared with all who would listen his hatred for blacks and Jews.
He wound up living with a sister on Trippe Avenue in Easton before decamping to an Annapolis apartment rented by his son and the son's fiancee about two years ago. The fiancee told investigators that von Brunn, who paid the couple $400 a month for a room at the apartment, had two rifles when he arrived, a .22-caliber and a .30-caliber, according to Farnsworth's affidavit.
Authorities took the .30-caliber rifle and a quantity of .22-caliber ammunition from the apartment after the shooting.
Von Brunn's determination to make the case that the Holocaust was a fraud found its way into every conversation of consequence and poisoned the few friendships he attempted, people who know him said. He invited Laura Era's mother, Dorothy Newland, now 88, out to supper one evening about 10 years ago. She thought him "a good looking, well-spoken man."
But as they shared drinks and salads at the Rustic Inn, he talked about a book he was writing.
"It was all about things he objected to," Newland said. "He was very definitely against certain political things. I don't remember the details or whether it was particularly racist. I only listened with half an ear because I knew I wouldn't buy the book." She had heard enough, however, to know not to date him a second time.
The book, eventually titled "Kill the Best Gentiles!," rails against the Talmud, blacks and Jews, and belief in the Holocaust. He posted similar rants on his Web site.
Joseph Persichini, head of the FBI's Washington field office, said authorities knew of von Brunn well before the shooting but lacked the legal basis to investigate him.
"Many of these individuals are totally aware of what you can and cannot say, and crossing the line, which would initiate a domestic terrorism investigation. . . . That's the delicate balance," Persichini said.
Riley, editor of the Star Democrat newspaper, said von Brunn arranged in 1994 for a local public-access cable channel to run a Canadian-produced documentary on the "myth of the Holocaust." Von Brunn had paid for an ad in the paper promoting the show, but someone objected when he sought to have it published again.
Von Brunn and Riley faced off. Her father, an Army medic, had helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp, and snapshots of bodies piled atop one another had haunted her since childhood.
"I said that I found it incomprehensible that someone who said he had fought in that war could be spouting this junk," Riley said. "He turned toward me and almost hissed and said, 'Mrs. Riley, how do I know your husband isn't a Jew?' " The anger escalated into a brief tussle as von Brunn tried to grab a notebook from a reporter and then was escorted from the building.
"An incident like that is seared in your memory forever," Riley said.
He frequented the Troika Gallery, owned by Era, Newland and a third woman, Jennifer Wharton. On two occasions, his temper exploded in their shop. His work, mostly Western landscapes, some with flags and bald eagle themes, did not measure up, the owners said. Newland said he was "not only an amateur, but he was in acrylic, not oil."
When they told him it wasn't good enough for their gallery, Era said, "he went stomping out, screaming that he would never come back. But in a few months he did."
Newland and Era recalled another incident: More than a year ago, he stormed into the gallery in a fury. He had seen a bride and groom emerging from their wedding ceremony in the garden of the nearby Historical Society. One was white, the other black. Paying no mind to the customers in the gallery, he vented his anger to Wharton.
"He charged in here spewing things about race," Era said. "Jennifer told him he had to leave."
And that was the last they saw of him.
"He must have had a mental glitch, and he needed to be needed," Newland said. "But we couldn't need him."
Staff writers Michael E. Ruane, Joe Stephens, Nikita Stewart, John Wagner and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.