Gunman Fires In Holocaust Museum, Kills Guard

Correction June 12, 2009

We said that the headquarters of Aryan Nations is located in Idaho. According to the Web site of Aryan Nations, the organization's mailing address is in South Carolina.

Investigations are under way into an 88-year-old suspected gunman. Washington, D.C.'s police chief says James von Brunn was critically wounded by security officers Wednesday after he stepped into the Holocaust museum and started shooting. A guard was killed. Von Brunn is a white supremacist and Holocaust denier.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We are learning more this morning about a man who sent people diving to the ground yesterday at a landmark in Washington, D.C.

Chief CATHY LANIER (Police Chief, Washington, D.C.): About 10 minutes to one this afternoon, there was what appears to be a lone gunman who approached and entered the main entrance of the Holocaust Museum. Immediately upon entering the museum, he was engaged by security guards and there was an exchange of gunfire.

INSKEEP: Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier spoke after a security guard was killed and the suspected gunman was critically wounded. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been learning about the suspect, James von Brunn. Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: This man's 88 years old, seems to have had the Holocaust on his mind for a while.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he's actually even more than that. He seemed to be on his own personal crusade against the government. This wasn't his first run-in with the law. Back in 1981, he was arrested outside the Federal Reserve Bank's boardroom with a revolver and a knife and a sawed-off shotgun. Apparently, he intended to take the Board of Governors hostage, and he stormed the place and guards were able to overpower him.

Now, the Board of Governors are the people who set interest rates, and apparently von Brunn was angry about high interest rates and the economy at the time. And a Washington jury ended up convicting him in 1983 of attempted kidnapping and assault, and he was sentenced to four years in prison. And he wrote about this incident and other things like it on Web sites he used to tell his story.

INSKEEP: You said other things like it. What kinds of things?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, in the beginning, his Web site, there's sort of this normal stuff you'd expect to have on a Web site about yourself. There were biographical details. You know, he said he was a MENSA member, which is this high IQ fraternity. He played varsity football at a Midwestern college, he says. He claims he was a P.T. boat captain in World War II and was highly decorated. But none of that has been confirmed, but that's on his Web site.

And then the Web site spins off into this really hateful direction. Von Brunn clearly had embraced conspiracy theories about Jews and blacks and other minority groups. He said that the jury that had convicted him in that Federal Reserve kidnapping - and these are his words - were a group of Negros and Jews. And he was a Holocaust denier.

Now, interestingly, this day he picked for this Holocaust Museum shooting happened to be the opening night for a play that addressed this question of the Holocaust and race relations. And this play was called "Anne and Emmett," and it was supposed to be a fictional meeting between Anne Frank, the young girl whose diary recounted her days during the Holocaust, and Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white racists in Mississippi in 1955.

Here's why it's especially interesting, is that Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to attend. And the play was written by Janet Cohen, who's the wife of the former Defense Secretary William Cohen. And William Cohen was actually at the museum when the shooting happened, and he was actually a witness to it.

INSKEEP: Wow. Now, we heard the Washington police chief describe him as a lone gunman. Do we know that he acted alone?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it looks like he was a lone shooter and this was an isolated incident. But law enforcement officials are trying to determine whether he had formal links to organized white supremacist groups or he merely harbored those feelings on his own.

At one point, he did live in Idaho, which is close where the Aryan Nations is headquartered. But law enforcement told us that they didn't know of any real formal ties he had with the group. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: According to the Web site of Aryan Nations, the organization's mailing address is in South Carolina.]

INSKEEP: And very briefly, are officials asking themselves how did he get into the Holocaust Museum with a rifle?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he basically - the shooting occurred right by the entrance of the museum, near the gift shop. And apparently, at the time, the museum was pretty full. But he literally just came in the door and started shooting. He had double-parked his car outside, walked in with the rifle in full view and just sort of opened fire.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reporting this morning from New York.

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Gunman Shoots, Kills Guard At Holocaust Museum

An 88-year-old man walked into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on Wednesday and opened fire, hitting a security guard before being shot, police and emergency workers said. The guard later died.

A law enforcement official familiar with the ongoing investigation told NPR that James W. von Brunn was under investigation for shooting the security guard. Von Brunn is being investigated for possible ties to white supremacist views, the official said.

Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters the suspect "was engaged by at least two of the security guards immediately upon entering the door" of the museum early Wednesday afternoon. She said the man appeared to have acted alone.

The suspect shot one of the guards with a rifle before being shot, she said.

Both the gunman and the security guard were brought to George Washington University Medical Center for treatment. The gunman was in critical condition, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty said. The security guard, identified by the museum as Stephen Tyrone Johns, died within hours of the shooting.

Von Brunn has a racist, anti-Semitic Web site and wrote a book titled Kill the Best Gentile. In 1983, he was convicted of attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board. He was arrested two years earlier outside the room where the board was meeting, carrying a revolver, knife and sawed-off shotgun. At the time, police said von Brunn wanted to take the members hostage because of high interest rates and the nation's economic difficulties.

A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that a vehicle belonging to von Brunn was found near the museum and was tested for explosives. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation has sent members of its National Capital Response Squad, including agents and team members on SWAT, Evidence Recovery, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, to provide on-scene support," said John Perren, the special agent in charge of the Washington Field Office's Counterterrorism Division. "The situation is fluid, and therefore no other statements will be made at this time."

President Obama called the shooting at the museum, which is a few blocks from the White House, an "outrageous act" and said it "reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms."

The episode unfolded inside the museum, which maintains a heavy security presence, with guards positioned inside and out. All visitors are required to pass through metal detectors at the entrance, and bags are screened.

The museum, across the street from the National Mall and within sight of the Washington Monument, was closed for the day after the shooting. Nearby streets were cordoned off by police.

In a statement, museum spokesman Andrew Hollinger said an assailant shot a museum security officer and "two museum security officers returned fire, hitting the assailant."

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said he informed President Obama of the events and said the chief executive was "obviously saddened by what has happened."

The museum houses exhibits and records relating to the Holocaust more than a half-century ago in which more than 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis.

Mark Lippert of LaSalle, Ill., who was in the museum, said he heard several loud pops and saw several schoolchildren running toward him, three with horrified looks on their faces.

Linda Elston, who was visiting the museum from Nevada City, Calif., said she was on the lower level watching a film when she and others were told to leave the building.

"It was totally full of people," Elston said. "It took us a while to get out."

She said she didn't hear any shots and didn't immediately know why there was an evacuation. The experience left her feeling "a little anxious," she said.

From NPR and Associated Press reports

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