Two people shot at Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington

An elderly Maryland man with a long history of ties to neo-Nazi organizations walked into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday and opened fire, killing a security guard and sending visitors scrambling for cover, law enforcement officials said.

An FBI official said the shooter had been preliminarily identified as James W. von Brunn, 88, who was described by the Anti-Defamation League and other watchers of hate groups as a longtime white supremacist and anti-Semite.

"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."

The gunman, who was shot by museum security officers, was in critical condition at nearby George Washington University Hospital, police said.

The security guard wounded in the attack, 39-year-old Stephen Tyrone Johns of Temple Hills, Md., an African American, died after being taken to the same trauma center.

Joseph Persichini Jr., head of the FBI's Washington Field Office, and other authorities said that they had no indications in advance that the prominent federal-government-affiliated museum might be targeted.

He said they would be intensively investigating the suspect's recent movements.

"The preliminary indication is that this incident involved a lone suspect," Persichini said.

Von Brunn is "certainly the guy we're looking at, but we have to do fingerprints and do other work. We have to make sure and be absolutely positive," said another FBI official, who was briefed on the shootings but spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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.

In a lengthy autobiography on the site, Von Brunn described himself as an artist, author and former advertising executive who served as a PT boat captain in the Navy during World War II. He blames many of his life's misfortunes on encounters with minorities.

The site links to chapters from Von Brunn's raging anti-Semitic treatise "Kill the Best Gentiles," a self-published book in which he mourns the "browning of America" and claims to expose secret Jewish attempts to "destroy the white gene pool."

Von Brunn also penned a blog post on another website in which he said: "Hitler's worst mistake: He didn't gas the Jews."

A call to Von Brunn's house near Annapolis 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 shooting began about 12:50 p.m. Eastern time, when the gunman entered the museum through the main entrance with a rifle in plain view and immediately started shooting, according to Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier and other authorities.

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.

Lanier said security guards immediately engaged the shooter, injuring him and sending tourists fleeing for cover in the crowded museum, which is just blocks from the White House and the Washington Monument.

Witnesses described a scene of quiet, then pandemonium once the shooting started. They said the shooter said nothing as he brandished the weapon.

Jessica Goley, 19, of St. Louis was on the first floor and heard five loud pops and security guards telling everyone to escape. "Guards said, 'Stay back!' Then everyone ran out of the back of the building," Goley said.

Charles Towater, 73, of Tampa, Fla., said that he and his wife, Susie, were outside, 50 feet from the entrance, when they heard six loud shots, and that after the shootings they saw an older man lying on his back, not moving, outside the doors.

Authorities in Washington were on edge about the shooting, which came on the heels of several other racially or religiously motivated shootings around the country, including the slaying of an abortion doctor in Kansas, the fatal shooting of three police officers in Pittsburgh, and the killing of one soldier and wounding of another in Little Rock, Ark.

Frances Townsend, President Bush's homeland security and counter-terrorism advisor from 2004 to 2008, said the key question of the investigation now was whether the alleged gunman was working alone.

"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," Townsend said.

"But if it does turn out that he 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."

There were no reports of precautionary closures of other Jewish museums on Wednesday, but museum officials across the country said they had beefed up security.

"We have tight security regularly," said Carolyn Bass, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. "Today we're making sure it's even tighter."

President Obama, who recently condemned Holocaust deniers in a speech, issued a statement saying he was "shocked and saddened by today's shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms."

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, called Wednesday's shooting a wake-up call.

"It just reminds us that even in America, perhaps the greatest democracy of the world, we have haters among us," he said. "It shows that there is a lot of work to be done in America to rid ourselves of bigotry and anti-Semitism."

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

azajac@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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