Monterey County officials knew James W. von Brunn as a difficult man, a distraught father who insisted in numerous e-mails that the county had bungled its investigation into the death of his 55-year-old son.
Now they know Von Brunn, 88, as the alleged shooter at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a raging anti-Semite and racist who is charged with killing a security guard at the crowded site June 10.
Authorities have not found any connection between the two incidents. But in the wake of the horror at the Washington, D.C., museum, Von Brunn's lengthy correspondence with Monterey County officials provides a chilling glimpse of a man driven by a conviction that he was treated unjustly.
Von Brunn's son, James B. von Brunn, was unemployed and living alone in a motel in Seaside, adjacent to the city of Monterey. On Jan. 21, 2007, the longtime area resident was discovered dead in his room by the motel manager. An autopsy determined that he had died of bronchopneumonia, according to Cmdr. Mike Richards, a spokesman for the Monterey County Sheriff's Department.
The elder Von Brunn, living in Maryland, told police that he and his son had been estranged for years. He said the county could sell his son's belongings to pay for a cremation.
"He basically divested himself of all responsibility," Richards said. "At one point, we got his written authorization to scatter his son's ashes in a garden or at sea."
About a month after his son's death, Von Brunn started blanketing local officials with what would become two years of e-mail and telephone complaints. He said the coroner's investigation was shoddy and that one of his son's doctors had been guilty of malpractice, Richards said. Von Brunn also objected to his son's ashes being taken to sea, despite his earlier permission.
He also took issue with a statement from one of his son's friends in the coroner's report: The friend said the dead man had hated his father. "He thought it was slander and we were liable for it," Richards said.
Unable to get satisfactory answers from the sheriff's office, Von Brunn complained to other officials.
Monterey City Council member Jeff Haferman said Von Brunn painted a sympathetic portrait of himself as a World War II veteran who had lost his son and needed help from someone in Monterey because he was unable to travel.
Asked whether he could recommend a local attorney, Haferman steered him to the bar association's website. About a month ago, Von Brunn said that wouldn't work. "You have an awful lot of Jewish attorneys in Monterey County," Haferman quoted Von Brunn as saying. "I really don't want to work with a Jewish attorney."
At that point, Haferman, a researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School, looked into Von Brunn's past and quit responding to him. Von Brunn ran a blatantly anti-Semitic website called holywesternempire.org and in 1983 was convicted of trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve. The FBI has requested Von Brunn's correspondence, county officials said.
Von Brunn is hospitalized in Washington, D.C., shot in the face by museum guards returning his fire.
After the shooting, a surviving son, Erik von Brunn, denounced his father. "His views consumed him, and in doing so, not only destroyed his life, but destroyed our family and ruined our lives as well," he said.