Strong Start Gave Way to Downward Spiral

(Courtesy Of Washington University)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

Looking back, James W. von Brunn's best year was probably 1951.

He was a talented young commercial artist. Newly married to the daughter of a British novelist, he had just illustrated his father-in-law's latest book. And that June, von Brunn and his wife had their first child, a son they named Jim.

In 1951, von Brunn's future seemed bright. He had been a World War II PT boat skipper. He had talent and education. And he had married into a family whose pedigree went back to England and whose roots were now in the gentility of rural life by the Chesapeake Bay.

Within a few years, it all came apart. Von Brunn and his first wife, Joan, separated, then divorced. Their teenage son was sent off to boarding school, a life estranged from his father and, years later, a lonely death in a cheap motel room. And von Brunn, infected with paranoia and virulent anti-Semitism, was well on the way to his own disaster.

As the 88-year-old white supremacist recovers from the gunshot wound incurred in his alleged June 10 attack on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and awaits his first court appearance, as soon as next week, his early days of promise on Maryland's Eastern Shore are a striking contrast to the bitter, self-destructive time that followed.

Von Brunn has been charged with the killing of museum security guard Stephen T. Johns, whom prosecutors say he shot with a rifle as Johns held the door for him. Authorities found racist and anti-Semitic writings in the suspect's car and reported that he had been engaged in anti-Semitic proselytizing for decades. His second wife, from whom he is long divorced, and a son from that marriage have verified those accounts and denounced him.

But in 1951, five years home from the war, the college-educated, middle-class son of a St. Louis steel mill supervisor seemed to have everything going for him: a family, a job and connections with the upper crust.

Two years ago, when police found his son Jim dead in a $60-a-night motel room in Seaside, Calif., the last remnant of that life was gone.

Jim had pneumonia, anxiety and depression, and his life had been unraveling for years. He was bankrupt and living out of his Plymouth. And he had just been asked to leave his old fraternity buddy's home, where he had resided for months, sleeping in the dining room, afraid to eat or go outdoors.

The motel staff found Jim in bed, with a narcotic drug patch on his upper left arm. He was 55.

When authorities informed James von Brunn that his son was dead, he first told them that he wanted nothing to do with it. But after the Monterey County Sheriff's Office had Jim's remains cremated and scattered his ashes in Monterey Bay, the elder von Brunn complained and feuded with local officials until this May.

Cmdr. Mike Richards of the county sheriff's office recalled: "He just couldn't let it go."

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