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Nazi Concentration Camp Guard Arrested in Mich.

U.S. seeks to deport Johann Leprich, who was hiding in home's secret compartment.

July 03, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A Nazi concentration camp guard who fled efforts by the United States to deport him in the mid-1980s, and who was hiding out in his former home in a Detroit suburb, has been arrested by federal agents, federal authorities said Wednesday

Johann Leprich, 77, was arrested late Tuesday night in Clinton Township, Mich., on immigration-related charges by agents of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The agents found him hiding in a secret compartment beneath the stairs, authorities said.

Leprich was a Nazi guard at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where more than 100,000 prisoners died, many used as slave laborers and worked to death at a neighboring stone quarry.

A native of Romania, he entered the United States in 1952, claiming that he had been a soldier in the Hungarian army during the war. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1958.

He was stripped of his American citizenship in 1987 for concealing his Nazi past. A U.S. District Court judge determined that he had spent the war as a member of the Death's Head Battalion, a unit of the SS, and had served as an armed guard at Mauthausen in 1943 and 1944. But Leprich fled the United States before he could be deported.

His case attracted renewed interest after the television show "America's Most Wanted" reported in 1997 that Leprich had been traveling freely between the United States and Canada, at one point renewing his Michigan driver's license in person.

"For 10 years after his deportation, he lived openly," said Steven Rambam, a New York private investigator who was a consultant to the show. He said Leprich had even received Social Security benefits for a number of years.

"This is not a triumph of investigative work," Rambam said of the arrest. "But I must say it is poetic justice. Think of all the Jews who had to spend all of World War II hiding in secret compartments."

On Wednesday, the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which pursues cases involving Nazi officials, asked a federal immigration court in Detroit to remove Leprich "with all deliberate speed," Eli Rosenbaum, the unit's director, said in a prepared statement.

"This arrest makes clear that those who participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust will not escape the determined reach of U.S. law enforcement, regardless of how much time has passed," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said in a statement. "Nazi collaborators will not find a safe haven in the United States."

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called the case "another example of the results that can be achieved when federal and local law enforcement authorities work together and combine their resources."

In addition to immigration authorities, agents from the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and local police were involved in the arrest, authorities said.

Leprich had been married, and his wife had at one time shared the Michigan address where he was arrested. A telephone message left at the residence Wednesday was not returned.

Since the Justice Department's special investigations unit began operations in 1979, 71 onetime Nazis have been stripped of their U.S. citizenship and 57 deported.

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