By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010; B01
The elderly white supremacist charged with killing a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June died Wednesday afternoon at a North Carolina hospital, authorities said.
James W. von Brunn, 89, who was wounded in the head during the assault, had been undergoing mental health evaluations at a federal prison in Butner, N.C., in recent months. He died at a hospital near the prison shortly before 1 p.m., a federal prison spokeswoman said.
Von Brunn's quiet death contrasts sharply with the brazen violence he unleashed June 10 in what prosecutors have described as a suicide mission, an attack that shocked the nation and sent tourists scattering for cover on a busy downtown street.
Prosecutors said that von Brunn, an admitted white supremacist who lived most recently in Annapolis, had been planning the assault for months and that he hoped "to send a message to the Jewish community" that the Holocaust was a hoax. "He wanted to be a martyr for his cause," a prosecutor said in court.
Before the shooting, von Brunn had finalized his funeral plans and gotten his finances in order for relatives. Then, shortly before 12:45 p.m., he double-parked his red Hyundai on 14th Street NW in front of the museum and walked toward the front doors, a rifle at his side, authorities have said.
As von Brunn neared the entrance, security guard Stephen T. Johns, 39, opened the door for him. The white supremacist fatally shot Johns at point-blank range, authorities have said.
Other guards quickly returned fire, wounding von Brunn in the head. He was treated at District hospitals but needed a wheelchair and had difficulty speaking during a court hearing several months ago.
Von Brunn was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of first-degree murder, committing a hate crime and gun violations. If convicted, he would have been eligible for the death penalty.
His guilt was never in serious doubt -- the shooting was witnessed by dozens of people, it was captured on surveillance video and the assailant was carted away in an ambulance -- but some had hoped to glean some insights into von Brunn's psyche during the court process. Many, including Johns's relatives, remain shocked that anyone could be filled with so much hatred that he would shoot a helpful security guard at a museum that serves as a memorial to the slaughter of millions of people.
Johns left behind a young son.
"I just hope he was ready to meet his God," said Nola Gorham, Johns's grandmother, of von Brunn. She said that she didn't wish him bad luck, even though he did "a terrible thing," but that "nothing can bring closure."
The museum issued a brief statement on its Web site Wednesday that didn't mention von Brunn by name and continued to hail Johns's heroism. "This tragedy is a powerful reminder that our cause of fighting hatred remains more urgent than ever," the statement said.
Von Brunn's son, Erik, told a reporter that he was aware of his father's death but declined to comment further. The son has said that he wished his father had died in the attack, not Johns.
During a September court hearing, von Brunn told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton that he wanted a quick public trial, but the judge delayed the defendant's day in court pending mental health tests.
He had been held at the prison in North Carolina since Sept. 25. In addition to his wounds from the attack, he also suffered from congestive heart failure and sepsis, prison officials said.
It is not clear when he was taken to the hospital or how he died.
Von Brunn was known for decades as a loner and white supremacist who spun elaborate conspiracy theories about Jews and black people in leaflets, in books and on his Web site.
In December 1981, he walked into the Federal Reserve with a handgun and threatened to take the members of the Board of Governors hostage. He had hoped his actions would lead to the deportation of all Jews and black people from "the white nations" of the world.
He was convicted and served a little more than six years in federal prison.
Staff writer Michael E. Ruane and researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.