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Gunman, security officer killed in Las Vegas courthouse shooting

A deputy U.S. marshal is wounded. The shooter, who moved to Nevada from California, was upset about losing a lawsuit over Social Security benefits, authorities say.

January 05, 2010|By Ashley Powers and Richard A. Serrano

Reporting from Washington and Las Vegas — A 66-year-old retiree apparently upset over losing a lawsuit related to his Social Security benefits opened fire in a federal courthouse lobby Monday morning, killing one person and wounding another in a chaotic shootout.

The gunman, identified by law enforcement sources as Johnny Lee Wicks, died from gunshot wounds after fleeing across the street as court officers returned fire.

Stanley W. Cooper, a 72-year-old court security officer, was killed in the minutes-long gun battle. Cooper, a policeman for more than a quarter-century, had been a federal security officer since 1994, said Jeff Carter, a U.S. Marshals Service spokesman.

A wounded deputy U.S. marshal, 48, was in stable condition at a hospital. His name was not released.

Law enforcement sources said Wicks' failed federal lawsuit -- an erratic document riddled with spelling and grammatical errors -- was a likely motive.

In 2008, Wicks, who had moved from California to a local retirement home, filed a complaint against a regional Social Security Administration commissioner, contending that his monthly benefits had been reduced by $317 because he was black.

"It's all about race," he wrote in the complaint, although he cited no evidence. "I am no fool."

A lawyer for the Social Security Administration responded in court documents that Wicks' payments had been cut because, as a Nevada resident, he was no longer entitled to a supplement he had received while living in California.

The lawyer also said that Wicks had not taken advantage of Social Security'ssystem of appeals.

A judge threw out Wicks' case in September.

Authorities said Wicks' apartment caught fire about 5 a.m. Monday. Then, about 8 a.m., he entered the building where his lawsuit had been heard, the Lloyd D. George Federal Courthouse, just south of the aging casinos on downtown's Fremont Street.

Wicks, who had a stroke several years ago and said in his lawsuit that he sometimes struggled to walk, was sheathed in black.

The retiree pulled a shotgun from his jacket and opened fire in the entryway, a few steps from two metal detectors, said Joseph Dickey, an FBI special agent.

Seven court officers returned fire, and the shooter darted out of the building and across Las Vegas Boulevard. He was struck in the head and died in the shrubbery near historic Fifth Street School, a white stucco office building.

A video posted on YouTube captured the sounds of 50-plus shots snapping like firecrackers.

"The first shot that I heard was a shotgun blast. I knew it wasn't fireworks," Ray Freres, 59, a sandwich shop manager and Vietnam veteran, told the Associated Press. He said he was behind the federal building at the time.

"I heard an exchange of gunfire. I was watching the street," Freres said. "If they were coming my way, I was going the other way."

On the building's eighth floor, Ida Gaines, 55, a regional representative for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- who, along with Republican Sen. John Ensign, has an office in the building -- had made coffee and was checking her computer. Most staffers hadn't heard the gunfire and gasped when a Reid aide shouted, "Somebody's been shot downstairs!"

Told to stay in the office, Gaines peered out the window. "We saw someone lying on the ground that was dead," she said.

The employees were unsure whether the gunman was in the building or if there was more than one. They turned on CNN.

When someone pounded on the door, Gaines said, "I didn't know if it was the gunman or not."

Authorities were at the door. They ushered the employees out of the building, telling them to leave their purses and cellphones behind. When employees returned several hours later, the building's entrance was pocked with bullet holes.

Ensign told reporters that the gunfight brought to mind an incident in 1996, when a man, in an apparent suicide attempt, shot himself in the chest outside Reid's Las Vegas office. The man was convicted of stalking.

After the incident, Reid moved his office from south of downtown to a federal building, he has said, because it had security guards.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

rick.serrano@gmail.com

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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