WASHINGTON — A rifle-toting 88-year-old man with a history of anti-Semitism allegedly entered the crowded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday and opened fire, fatally wounding a security officer before he was shot and severely wounded as terrified tourists scurried for cover.
Law enforcement officials identified the gunman as James von Brunn, who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He describes himself as a World War II PT boat captain and trumpets his ties to hate groups on his Web site.
Von Brunn was jailed for scheming in 1981 to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board to retaliate for high interest rates. He was caught on that institution's second floor with a hunting knife, a revolver and a sawed-off shotgun.
Von Brunn has a racist, anti-Semitic Web site and wrote a book titled Kill the Best Gentiles, alleging a Jewish conspiracy "to destroy the white gene pool." Writings attributed to Von Brunn on the Internet 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," one says.
The wounded suspect and guard Stephen T. Johns, 39, were rushed to nearby George Washington University Hospital, where Johns died. Another person was taken to the hospital with less serious injuries. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said that Von Brunn was in critical condition.
At the White House, chief spokesman Robert Gibbs said that President Barack Obama was saddened by the shootings.
The museum said in a statement that the slain officer, who had worked at the museum for Wackenhut for six years, "died heroically in the line of duty today. There are no words to express our grief and shock over these events. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Johns' family."
The museum said it would close today and fly flags at half-staff in Johns' memory.
The attack came during Washington's peak tourist season at the museum, a memorial to 6 million Jews exterminated during the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. The museum, which opened in 1993 at the edge of Washington's National Mall, was teeming at its capacity of about 2,000 visitors when the gunman strode into the main entrance at about 12:50 p.m.
Washington police Chief Cathy Lanier said, "It appears that the gunman entered alone," carrying "a long rifle that was visible." He "engaged immediately," she said.
Lanier said that an off-duty police officer who was within a block of the museum heard the gunfire and rushed to assist the U.S. Park Police.
Sgt. David Schlosser, a spokesman for the Park Police, said that at least two security guards returned fire, including Johns.
Tourists, including small children, witnessed the security guard lying in a pool of blood on the main floor.
Washington police immediately evacuated the building and cordoned off streets.
Joseph Persichini, the chief of the FBI's Washington Field Office, said the bureau had no warning of any attack.
"We have a lot of work to do right now," Persichini said.
Attorney General Eric Holder and members of Congress were due to attend an event at the museum Wednesday night, but there was no indication that the attack was linked to that event.