Museum suspect’s hatred spun out of control

APTOPIX Holocaust Museum Shooting
Washington police investigator George Klein Jr. examines bullet strikes at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on Thursday.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

Unhappy with living situation
"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.

This undated photograph provided by the Talbot County, Md.,Sheriff Office on Thursday, June 11, 2009 shows James von Brunn. Law enforcement officials said von Brunn,who opened fire inside the crowded U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington on Wednesday, June 10, killing a guard, will be charged with murder. (AP Photo/Talbot County Sheriff Office )

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 took his rants on May 29 to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis to complain about increased minority enrollment — which will be about 35 percent for the Class of 2013. He walked into the administration building and wanted a meeting with academy officials, said spokesman Cmdr. Joe Carpenter.

He never got the meeting and was not considered a safety threat, Carpenter said. However, staff quickly notified Navy investigators because of "the extreme views he expressed regarding minorities," Carpenter said.

"He made no threats," Carpenter said.

Von Brunn 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.

Tracked by watch groups
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.

Run-ins with locals
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.

Vintage Winchester rifle
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.

Johns' mother described her 6-foot-6 son as a "my teddy bear." Jacqueline Carter said her only child was a thoughtful man who remembered special dates like anniversaries and birthdays.

"He was kind, he was gentle, he was loving," she said. "He loved people and he loved his job."

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 backward 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."