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Investigators in Holocaust Museum shooting continue to look for clues

The shooting that killed a security guard is now a homicide and hate-crime investigation. Alleged gunman James W. von Brunn, 88, a known anti-Semite, could face first-degree murder charges.

June 12, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — James Wenneker von Brunn had double-parked his 2002 red Hyundai outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at lunchtime Wednesday and was approaching the entrance when security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns "was kind enough to open the door" for him, Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said Thursday.

Von Brunn, 88, then raised a .22-caliber rifle he had been carrying at his side, aimed it at Johns and fired once, mortally wounding him in the left upper chest, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by FBI Agent Ronald Farnsworth.

The suspect "continued through the door and raised his firearm as if to fire again," the affidavit said, when two other security guards shot back at him eight times with their .38-caliber service revolvers. Struck in the face, Von Brunn fired twice more.

The self-described anti-Semitic ideologue was charged with murder Thursday in Johns' death. He could face the death penalty if convicted, though acting U.S. Atty. Channing Phillips said that no decision had been made as to whether prosecutors would seek it.

Information gathered in the investigation indicated that Von Brunn had come to the museum intent on making a deadly political statement and possibly provoking a gun battle.

"You want my weapons -- this is how you'll get them," said handwriting in a notebook left behind in Von Brunn's car, according to the affidavit. "The Holocaust is a lie. Obama was created by Jews. Obama does what his Jew owners tell him to do. Jews captured America's money. Jews control the mass media. The 1st Amendment is abrogated -- henceforth."

The writings, signed by Von Brunn, also made reference to his white supremacist website, holywesternempire.org, and his self-published anti-Semitic book, "Kill the Best Gentiles!" in which he claimed that Jews were engaged in such a secret campaign.

Von Brunn's rifle contained 10 more rounds of ammunition, the affidavit said.

In his car, authorities found other names and locations, but there was no indication that he had compiled a hit list of other potential targets, said Joseph Persichini Jr., assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office. Persichini and Lanier said the probe had expanded nationwide and involved hundreds of police and federal agents who were interviewing friends, relatives, acquaintances and white supremacist sympathizers.

Officials also searched Von Brunn's apartment on the 600 block of Admiral Drive in Annapolis, Md., where Brandy Teel told FBI agents that she lived with Erik Von Brunn, the suspect's son. According to the affidavit, Teel said the elder Von Brunn had moved in two years ago and was paying $400 a month in rent.

When Von Brunn moved in, Teel told authorities, he brought two weapons -- a .30-30 rifle and a .22-caliber rifle. A search of the apartment found the .30-30 rifle, ammunition for the .22-caliber, and ledgers, journals and manuscripts, the affidavit said.

At a news conference, authorities urged the public to come forward with information about Von Brunn, including what might have set him off and whether he had any help or co-conspirators. He remained in critical condition and under heavy guard Thursday at George Washington University Hospital, the nearby trauma center where he and Johns were taken immediately after the exchange of gunfire.

The FBI is investigating the shooting as a potential hate crime, which could bring additional federal charges, it said. On Thursday, Von Brunn was charged with murder and possessing and using a firearm in a federal facility.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also was trying to determine where Von Brunn might have gotten the rifle and any other weapons. He is prohibited from possessing a firearm because he was convicted in 1983 of trying to kidnap Federal Reserve Board members to protest economic policies.

Persichini said that the FBI had long known about Von Brunn and his writings, but that it had lacked the legal basis to open a formal investigation into him.

All indications were that Von Brunn acted alone, Persichini said. He said that authorities had seized piles of potential evidence during searches of Von Brunn's car and home, and that forensic experts were beginning to comb through the vast amount of information on Von Brunn's website.

"We know what Mr. Von Brunn did yesterday at the Holocaust museum," Persichini said. "Now it's our responsibility to determine why he did it."

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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