WASHINGTON, D.C.—Local and federal investigators continued to search for clues as to why an 88-year-old avowed anti-Semite allegedly opened fire at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday. The popular tourist attraction in Washington was closed today in remembrance of the security guard who was fatally shot there.
"The investigation continues. Investigators are working around the clock on this," said Traci Hughes, a spokeswoman for Washington's Metropolitan Police Department.
She said a news conference was planned for 11 a.m. EDT so that police, the FBI and the U.S. Park Police could provide updates on what had now become a homicide and hate-crime investigation. Hughes said in an interview that no significant details had emerged overnight as to what might have led to the shooting that killed security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns.
Legal experts said that alleged shooter James W. von Brunn could face first-degree murder charges that could bring the death penalty if he is ultimately charged and convicted, given the apparently premeditated nature of the shooting. Von Brunn is a Holocaust denier who was imprisoned for trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board 25 years ago.
Von Brunn remained in critical condition at George Washington University Hospital, to which he was rushed after the 12:50 p.m. shooting. Authorities said he opened fired, striking Johns, after entering the museum through the main entrance with a rifle in plain view. Other security guards immediately returned fire, as panicked tourists in the crowded museum sought cover.
Johns, 39, "died heroically in the line of duty," museum Director Sara Bloomfield said this morning on NBC's "Today" show. Johns was "a very warm and friendly individual, and we at the museum are devastated by his loss," she said, according to the Associated Press.
The flag at the museum was flown at half-staff again today to mark Johns' death. The museum entrance where the shooting occurred remained cordoned off by yellow police tape, and bouquets of flowers surrounded the crime scene.
By nightfall on Wednesday, authorities -- the FBI in particular -- had expanded their investigation to include a search of Von Brunn's past, in an effort to determine what might have set him off.
"What the feds are doing now is scouring his phone records, Internet traffic and searching his residence to find out is there something more, some trigger they missed, or other individuals that he may be affiliated with," said Frances Townsend, President Bush's homeland security and counter-terrorism advisor from 2004 to 2008.
FBI officials said that all indications suggested that Von Brunn had acted alone, but they continued to investigate that question.
"The preliminary indication is that this incident involved a lone suspect," said Joseph Persichini Jr., head of the FBI's Washington field office. Other authorities said that they had no indications in advance that the museum, which is affiliated with the U.S. government, might be targeted.
Townsend said that "if it does turn out that [Von Brunn] is a lone wolf, those are the most difficult to pick up because there is no indication or warning that they will go from saying hateful things to doing hateful things."
On Wednesday, hate-crime watchers said Von Brunn, a Maryland resident, had been on their radar screen for decades due to a long-standing affiliation with neo-Nazi organizations and white supremacist groups and, more recently, due to Internet rantings about Jews and blacks.
"We've been tracking this guy since the late 1970s," said Heidi Beirich, research director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "He has an extremely long history with neo-Nazis and white supremacists and is extremely hard-core."
Other organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, that monitor hate groups said they also had been keeping tabs on Von Brunn.
A federal law enforcement official confirmed that Von Brunn has been on the FBI's radar screen as well. "He was known by the FBI, but they weren't doing anything current on him," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing and in its early stages.
Townsend said that Von Brunn's Internet postings had not "crossed the line" from hate rhetoric protected by the 1st Amendment right to free speech into the kind of advocacy of violence that can bring criminal charges.
Von Brunn was described as a close associate of neo-Nazi organizations who has railed against Jews and blacks for decades. He has also been linked to Holocaust-denial groups, which contend that the Nazis' systematic extermination of millions of Jews in Europe beginning in the late 1930s never happened.
He has had other brushes with the law and in 1983 was sentenced to at least four years in prison for attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board. Records show that he was arrested after entering the board headquarters in Washington in 1981 with a bag that contained a revolver, a hunting knife and a sawed-off shotgun. Von Brunn told investigators that he wanted to hold board members hostage because he considered them responsible for high interest rates and other economic difficulties.
Hate-group watchers said that after his release from prison he went to work for a Southern California bookstore connected to the Institute for Historical Review, a top Holocaust-denial group in the U.S.
He dropped out of sight for part of the 1990s but raised alarm bells in recent years with his creation of a virulently anti-Semitic website called Holy Western Empire.
A call to Von Brunn's house near Annapolis, Md., was not answered.
Pat Sadowski, 69, Von Brunn's ex-wife, said in an interview that the couple divorced 30 years ago because of his extremist beliefs.
"I am shocked by it. None of my family agreed with or were involved with his doings," said Sadowski, who was contacted by the FBI on Wednesday. "We detest it."
The museum, which draws about 1.7 million visitors each year, typically has guards inside and outside and other security measures in place because of its focus on the genocide of Jews committed in World War II in Europe and other more recent atrocities. Visitors must pass through metal detectors, and their bags are screened.