Museum Shooting Planned, Officials Say

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

The elderly white supremacist accused of killing a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June had planned the attack for months and was on a suicide mission, a federal prosecutor said in court Wednesday.

The disclosure came during a brief hearing in the District's federal court during which the suspect, James W. von Brunn, spoke publicly for the first time since the June 10 shooting.

"The Constitution guarantees me a speedy and fair trial," von Brunn, 89, said in a halting voice. Wearing a blue jail uniform, he appeared frail and sat quietly in a wheelchair.

Von Brunn is accused of killing security guard Stephen T. Johns, 39,, after Johns held open the door for him so he could enter the museum near the Mall. Other guards returned fire, wounding von Brunn in the head.

The daytime shooting, which unfolded in a part of Washington that is routinely crowded with tourists, sent shock waves through the nation.

Von Brunn has not been able to walk since the shooting and has difficulty speaking and hearing, his attorney, A.J. Kramer, said in court.

During the court proceedings, prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton to detain von Brunn pending trial. Walton granted the request.

For the first time, prosecutors also explained von Brunn's alleged motives. A longtime white supremacist, he wanted to "send a message to the Jewish community" that the Holocaust was a hoax, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Waid said. "He wanted to be a martyr for his cause," she said.

According to e-mails and von Brunn's writings, Waid said, investigators determined that the attack had been in the works for months. "This was a premeditated and planned plot," she said.

Waid declined to elaborate on the e-mails and to whom they were sent. Ben Friedman, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to say whether anyone else knew about the plot. No one else has been charged in the shooting.

During the hearing, Waid said von Brunn was on a suicide mission and did not think he would "come out alive." Before the attack, she said, von Brunn finalized his funeral plans and got his finances in order for relatives.

Waid said von Brunn has no family or friends to care for him if he's released. "This defendant has nothing to lose," Waid said. "If given a chance, there is no doubt he would try to kill again."

Von Brunn was living with his son at the time of the shooting, but his son has disavowed him.

Waid noted that von Brunn was sentenced to prison for attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board in 1981.

Waid said the June crime was extensively recorded, with security video showing von Brunn leaving his car, a rifle at his side, and shooting Johns as the guard opened door. It shows other guards returning fire and wounding von Brunn and authorities removing the rifle from his hands, Waid said.

Previous hearings were delayed until von Brunn recovered. He displayed emotion only a few times Wednesday. Once, he shook his head when Kramer, a federal public defender who has met with him about a dozen times since the shooting, asked the judge to order a mental competency exam for him.

As Kramer was explaining his request, von Brunn exclaimed, "Your honor!" Kramer bent down to whisper in von Brunn's left ear.

"He does not agree with this course of action," Kramer told Walton. "He is adamant that he wants a fair and speedy trial."

Von Brunn then spoke: "I'm a United States citizen, and as a U.S. naval officer I swore to protect my country. I take my vows very seriously."

Walton ordered that von Brunn undergo a mental competency exam and deferred an arraignment until tests are completed. He scheduled a hearing for Oct. 14.

Von Brunn is an admitted white supremacist and anti-Semite who has ranted against Jews and blacks for decades. A seven-count indictment charges him with first-degree murder, hate crimes and gun violations in the shooting. The indictment says von Brunn shot Johns "willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation."

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