James J. Lee told Discovery hostages: 'Today is a good day to die'

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; B04

He pointed a gun at them. He talked up the explosives strapped to his back. He convinced his hostages they could die at any second.

"I don't care about them," Discovery building invader James J. Lee told a police negotiator over the phone. "I'll blow myself up and take them with me."

The remark was recalled by two of the hostages, Jim McNulty and Chris Wood, in an 80-minute interview Friday about the four-hour standoff on Sept. 1 in the lobby of Discovery Communications' headquarters in downtown Silver Spring. The ordeal ended when police fatally shot Lee as McNulty and Wood bolted for the door.

The third hostage, a security guard, has yet to speak publicly. Wood and McNulty praised him. "He kept everything calm," McNulty said.

Sept. 1 had begun like any other day for McNulty, a producer, and Wood, a marketing specialist. But everything changed when McNulty walked into the lobby about 1 p.m. and saw Lee pointing his gun at the guard. Lee turned the gun on McNulty and ordered him to the ground. Wood then came in and was ordered to the ground about 25 feet from McNulty. Soon there were just four people in the spacious glass-walled lobby.

Lee, an environmental militant who believed that humans were overcrowding the world, strapped on his explosives, donned a wireless headset and set out a speaker.

"Where are the snipers?" he said, according to Wood and McNulty. "Why don't I see any snipers? Today is a good day to die. You guys are going to be heroes if you get out alive."

But police were quickly descending on the building. Sharpshooters took their positions outside. Other tactical teams entered the building, making their way toward the lobby.

Inside, the three hostages tried to keep the situation from escalating. One time, Lee became angered when a video screen in the lobby showed images of children and animals. He was upset about the children, who he felt were contributing to overpopulation, but he had told his hostages that he liked squirrels.

To try to calm him, the guard told Lee that the children were learning about animals. "The animals that you like," the guard said, according to Wood and McNulty.

Forty minutes into the standoff, Lee ordered McNulty, 36, to stand and walk to him at the reception desk. By then, McNulty had heard Lee criticizing the networks. Asked what he did, McNulty underplayed his role, saying he was in scheduling.

"I'm done with you," Lee said. "Lay back down."

McNulty said he thought of his wife and his two young children.

Lee ordered Wood, 25, to walk forward. Wood also underplayed his job. He saw what looked like propane tanks on Lee's back and front with pipes attached to them. Lee told him about the movie "Speed," which featured a bomb on a bus.

"I watched 'Speed' and saw how to build this," Lee said. "Have you seen 'Speed'?"

Lee told Wood to lie down again. Back on the marble floor, Wood said that he envisioned the bomb going off, ripping through the reception desk and killing him.

Lee expressed frustration over what he thought were lower-level staffers. "I don't have anybody here," he said.

But he declined requests from negotiators to release at least one of them. "God, you're such a nag," Lee told the negotiator at one point. "I've watched those cops shows. I know what you're trying to do. You're not getting anything until I get what I want."

About 3 p.m., Lee made McNulty stand near him at the desk. Wood joined him about 4 p.m. The guard was standing on the other side of the desk, they said.

Lee noticed the guard apparently making hand gestures.

"I was just scratching my arm. Is that okay?" the guard said, according to Wood and McNulty.

Wood made eye contact with the guard. "I mouthed to the guard, and I said 'run,' and he shook his head, 'yes,' " Wood said.

Wood turned to McNulty, to his right, crossed his arms and signaled to him.

When he counted down to zero, the two hostages bolted. Seconds later, they said, the SWAT team came in and fatally shot Lee.

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