James J. Lee's hostage standoff at Discovery was grueling time for officials

The Discovery Communications headquarters in downtown Silver Spring were given an all-clear Thursday morning, hours after a gunman was shot and killed by police at the end of a tense hostage standoff Wednesday afternoon.
By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010

From the early stages of Wednesday's hostage standoff in Silver Spring, tactical officers had positioned themselves to shoot James J. Lee. The big fear: Doing so would set off explosives attached to his body and kill his three hostages.

"It looks like he's got a dead-man's switch," a bomb-squad member said into his radio, part of the stream of information being sent into a command bus 700 feet away.

"Frazier, he's got a dead-man's switch," Assistant Montgomery Police Chief Drew Tracy said inside the bus. "What do you think about this pin?"

"That must be a positive safety," responded Battalion Fire Chief Kevin Frazier, an explosives expert. "He's using it as a safety."

The snippet of conversation, recalled by both men yesterday, was part of the intense, split-second decisions made over nearly four hours Wednesday. Commanders, snipers and bomb experts had to account for a children's nursery on the floors above the suspect, had to evacuate the building through an opposite corner, had to figure out Lee's explosives -- all while trying to learn who he was and see into this mind, according to interviews with seven law enforcement officials who were inside the bus.

"We had quick information on the person, quick intel," Tracy said Thursday. "His value of life was very low. He didn't value his life or others' lives."

Also Thursday, new details emerged about the ongoing investigation and Lee's bizarre past.

Bomb squad members searched Lee's home in Wheaton and found four additional explosive devices. Police also announced that Lee's gun found inside the Discovery Communications headquarters building was a starter pistol.

In 2003, according to court records, Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison for trying to smuggle an illegal immigrant into the United States. In recent years, however, Lee had taken to calling for "stopping all immigration pollution."

By 2008, he had moved to the D.C. area. That year, he launched a protest outside the Discovery building, earning him a short jail stay for disorderly conduct.

He returned about 1 p.m. Wednesday, walking into the building's large lobby, a room with glass on three sides, looking out onto sidewalks bustling with lunchtime pedestrians. He was armed with what looked like a gun and a contraption on his back. He took three men hostage, including a security guard positioned at a welcome desk.

It was a surreal setting. The lobby is designed to entertain visitors, with an exact replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Discovery employees call him "Stan," named after Stan Sacrison, who discovered the creature. A Triceratops sculpture sits nearby, as does a kinetic sculpture with moving gears and balls sliding down tracks.

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