Museum gunman faces murder charges

June 11, 2009 4:43:44 PM PDT
James von Brunn carried a lifetime of hatred and an aging rifle to the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, authorities say, and was met with a simple act of kindness: a security guard opening the door for him. Critically injured in a hospital bed Thursday, the 88-year-old white supremacist was charged with murdering Steven T. Johns, the black guard. According to interviews with family, friends and civil rights groups, von Brunn spent decades spewing hate toward Jews and blacks - a hatred that was nearing a crescendo in the weeks before the shooting.

SLIDESHOW: Photos from the scene of the shooting
ARTICLE: Guard remembered as hero
ARTICLE: More about the suspect
ARTICLE: Hate trend raises worries

At least one acquaintance said he suspected that von Brunn was preparing for a violent end.

Von Brunn had talked about giving up "precious things" - even the computer from which he spread his angry diatribes against Jews, interracial dating and the government, said fellow white supremacist John de Nugent.

"He said he had gone offline," said de Nugent, who last spoke to von Brunn on the phone a few weeks ago.

De Nugent said von Brunn complained that his Social Security benefits had been reduced, and he suspected that his white supremacist views were the reason.

"He was unhappy with his living situation," de Nugent said.

Von Brunn lived in a condo in Annapolis with his 32-year-old son, Erik von Brunn, and his son's fiancee, according to charging documents. The couple charged him $400 a month and when he moved in two years ago, he brought two rifles with him, the fiancee, Brandy Teel, told FBI agents. No one answered the door Thursday at their condo.

When next-door neighbor Harold Olynnger, 82, invited von Brunn over for a drink about three months ago, it didn't go well.

Von Brunn sipped on a vodka tonic and talked about how he believed the media paid too much attention to the Holocaust, Olynnger said.

On his Web site, von Brunn said he is a descendant of German immigrants who became convinced Jews controlled the government. He boasted of having spent a year in jail for fighting a sheriff's deputy in Maryland in 1968 and, a quarter-century later, of serving prison time for trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve board.

After he got out, he became a regular in white supremacist circles and soon had his own file with watch groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. He wrote an anti-Semitic text and maintained his conspiracy theories on the Web site.

The St. Louis native worked in advertising in New York City and moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore in the late 1960s, where he stayed in advertising and tried to make a mark as an artist.

Public records show that in 2004 and 2005 he lived briefly in Hayden, Idaho, for years home to the Aryan Nations, a racist group run by neo-Nazi Richard Butler.

When he lived in Easton, Md., von Brunn had a series of run-ins with local residents. He hired Robert E. Denney to create a Web site, then sued him when Denney realized the sort of material von Brunn wanted to publish and balked, said Harry M. Walsh Jr., Denney's former attorney.

In 1994, von Brunn was upset that The Star Democrat of Easton wouldn't run an advertisement for an anti-Semitic program on a public-access channel, recalled executive editor Denise Riley. Von Brunn spouted a series of racist and anti-semitic comments before he was asked to leave the newsroom, Riley said.

"I was stunned to have met anyone who acted like that. I don't remember encountering anyone that bigoted before in my life," Riley said. "He was right out there for all to know and see and he was just so angry, it was kind of alarming to be around him."

Despite his tirades, his ex-wife was surprised by the charges against him. "He was a fine man and very much of an American," said Pat Sadowski, who lives in Florida and said van Brunn hasn't been a part of her life since their divorce more than 30 years ago. "He was like a John Wayne type."

On Wednesday, von Brunn parked his 2002 red Hyundai in the middle of traffic outside the museum, according to an FBI affidavit. He grabbed a .22-caliber rifle and walked toward the building.

The gun was a vintage Winchester rifle manufactured between 1908 and 1928, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case. The gun is too old to be traced to a purchaser, the official said.

Johns, the security guard, opened the door for von Brunn. Before von Brunn even got into the building, he pointed his gun at Jones' heart and pulled the trigger. Johns later died at a hospital.

As von Brunn walked into the doorway and raised his rifle again, two security guards fired at him at least eight times. He was shot in the face and fell backwards outside the door.

Investigators found 10 rounds in von Brunn's rifle and a signed, handwritten screed in his car. "You wanted my weapons - this is how you'll get them," von Brunn wrote.

"It was a desperate move," said de Nugent's girlfriend, Margaret Huffstickler, "by a man who thought he couldn't do any more."

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Holocaust Museum www.ushmm.org


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