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Gunman Fires In Holocaust Museum, Kills Guard

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 12, 2009 at 11:44 AM EDT
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.
Dina Temple-Raston
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.