WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum was shuttered Thursday with its flags at half-staff as it mourned a guard who died stopping a rifle attack by a gunman authorities identified as an 88-year-old white supremacist.
James von Brunn, a Holocaust denier who once tried to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board, is the suspect in Wednesday’s assault at the museum. Guard Stephen T. Johns was killed.
Security engaged the gunman as soon as he stepped inside the crowded museum and began shooting, authorities said. Johns, 39, who is black, “died heroically in the line of duty,” museum director Sara Bloomfield said.
Bouquets of roses, lillies and other flowers were lined up outside the museum walls Thursday morning. The entrance where the shooting occurred was still cordoned off by police tape.
Bloomfield told NBC’s “Today” show that Johns was both a terrific professional and “a very warm and friendly individual, and we at the museum are devastated by his loss.”
Bloomfield said the museum takes security very seriously and that training had prepared guards to respond to the attack.
“So we feel that this actually worked extremely well in terms of how many people’s lives were saved in this incident,” she told NBC.
Sara Bloomfield, director of the museum, described Johns as “a great friend who greeted us every day with a wonderful smile – and he will be missed.”
“Obviously, there are no words to express our grief and shock,” she said.
Johns, a 1988 graduate of Crossland High School in Maryland, worked for Wackenhut Services Inc., based in Palm Beach Gardens, that has contracted security services at the museum since 2002, according to a company statement. Johns had been posted at the museum since joining the firm in 2003. The museum has about 70 officers and supervisors on the force.
Guards are armed with .38-caliber revolvers and dress in police-type uniforms, the company said. It said preliminary details indicate the officers responded appropriately when facing the gunman, who opened fire with a rifle.
The president and others commended the work of Johns and the other guards.
“We have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends in this painful time.”
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty also had words of praise.
“The men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line to ensure our safety are truly heroes, and I am deeply saddened that this senseless act of violence threatened the safety of our community,” Fenty said in a statement.
Bill Parsons, chief of staff at the museum, said Johns and other guards “did exactly what they were supposed to do to protect people at the museum.”
“Never take your guard force and security people for granted,” he said.
One guard shot and critically wounded the assailant, who was being treated at a Washington hospital.
A self-described artist, advertising man and author living in Annapolis, Md., von Brunn wrote an anti-Semitic treatise, “Kill the Best Gentiles,” decried “the browning of America” and claimed to expose a Jewish conspiracy “to destroy the White gene-pool.” He also wrote of a lifetime of seething anger.
“It’s better to be strong than right,” he said in one of his dark screeds online, “unless you like dying. Crowds hate good guys.”
When von Brunn was captured after the shooting, he had a list he had made of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to a law enforcement official. The purpose of the list was not immediately clear, said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Investigators are trying to determine how von Brunn acquired the .22-caliber rifle used in the attack, said two other law enforcement officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israeli officials and U.S. Muslim and Hispanic groups all expressed shock at the attack, which unfolded in a public space filled with records, photographs and exhibits standing as stark testament to the Nazis’ killing more than 6 million Jews in the Holocaust of more than a half-century ago.
The museum was crowded with schoolchildren and other tourists, but all escaped injury.
Ashley Camp, 14, of Forsyth, Ill., on a field trip with more than 40 other students, said she heard two or three gunshots. Soon after, a security guard ordered the group to run to the exit.
“We had to sprint as fast as we could out the door,” she said. “I thought it was the movie (part of a museum exhibit), but then everyone started screaming and running.”
Law enforcement officials said von Brunn’s car was found near the museum and was tested for explosives. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.
Von Brunn was sentenced in 1983 for attempted armed kidnapping and other charges in his 1981 bid to seize Fed board members. A guard captured him outside the room where the board was meeting. He had a revolver, sawed-off shotgun and knife in a bag with him. He served more than six years in prison.
“The subject resides in my memory like old road-kill,” he wrote of the capture. “What could have been a slam-bang victory turned into ignoble failure. Recalling all of this presents an onerous task. I am getting near the end of the diving board.”
Von Brunn is a native of St. Louis, a World War II veteran who served in the Navy for about 14 years, 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. He was living in New Hampshire the year of his arrest at the Fed headquarters.
Public records show that in 2004 and 2005 he lived briefly in Hayden, Idaho, which for years was home to the Aryan Nations, a racist group run by neo-Nazi Richard Butler.
Civil rights groups were familiar with his virulent history.
“We’ve been tracking this guy for decades,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate crimes. “He thinks the Jews control the Federal Reserve, the banking system, that basically all Jews are evil,” she said. “He’s an extreme anti-Semite.”
His Internet writings say the Holocaust was a hoax. “At Auschwitz the ‘Holocaust’ myth became Reality, and Germany, cultural gem of the West, became a pariah among world nations,” he wrote.
The attack is “further proof that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial have not passed from the world,” said Israel’s information and Diaspora minister, Yuli Edelstein.
At the White House, just blocks away from the museum, Obama said: “This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honor those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world.”
Associated Press writers Desiree Hunter in Montgomery, Ala., Sarah Brumfield and Aaron Morrison in Baltimore, Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md., and Eileen Sullivan, Lolita C. Baldor, Devlin Barrett, Ted Bridis, Eileen Sullivan, Barry Schweid and Brett Zongker in Washington contributed to this report.
Photo: Stephen T. Johns