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updated: 1/7/2010 11:13 AM

Accused Holocaust museum gunman dies in hospital

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  • James von Brunn

      James von Brunn

 

WASHINGTON -- The death of a white supremacist accused of opening fire at the Holocaust museum has left some conflicted -- not sorry he's gone, but frustrated that he won't stand trial.

The 89-year-old James von Brunn, who faced charges that could have earned him the death penalty, died Wednesday at a North Carolina federal prison while awaiting trial.

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Authorities say von Brunn walked up to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on June 10 carrying a vintage rifle and shot Stephen T. Johns, who was black, as the guard was opening the door for him. Von Brunn was shot in the face by return fire.

One of the two guards who fired back said he had mixed feelings about von Brunn's death.

"I'm shocked. I'm glad he's gone. I wish he had his day in court but it'll never come," said Harry Weeks of White Plains, Md.

Von Brunn had a long history of poor health which included chronic congestive heart failure and sepsis, said Denise Simmons, a spokeswoman at the federal prison in Butner, N.C. He had been treated for months at the prison complex, which is known for its medical facilities to house aging and sick inmates.

Von Brunn's lawyer, A.J. Kramer, called the death "a sad end to a tragic situation," but declined further comment.

Weeks returned to work in August and said he thinks often about his slain colleague Johns, 39, of Temple Hills, Md.

Johns "was a good man. There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss him... It's been very hard, there's not a day that I don't think about him when I'm on post."

The museum was crowded with school groups and other tourists during the shooting, but they all escaped injury. That evening, a play about racial tolerance was to debut.

The museum, which says it teaches people about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide, said its thoughts and prayers are still with Johns' family.

"Officer Johns died heroically defending the museum, visitors and staff," the museum said in a statement. "This tragedy is a powerful reminder that our cause of fighting hatred remains more urgent than ever."

Officials at the prison hospital had previously said chronic medical problems had complicated a psychiatric evaluation for von Brunn, who prior to the shooting had written racist and anti-Semitic screeds on the Internet. The D.C. Department of Corrections said in November it had spent $55,050 for von Brunn's medical care.

A seven-count indictment against von Brunn charged him with first-degree murder, killing in a federal building, and bias-motivated crime. The indictment also accused him of seeking to intimidate Jewish people at the museum.

Von Brunn had a racist Web site and wrote a book titled "Kill the Best Gentiles," alleging a Jewish conspiracy "to destroy the white gene pool." He also claimed the Holocaust was a hoax.

John de Nugent, 55, of Sarver, Pa., a fellow white supremacist, said von Brunn was "miserable" last year living with his son and invited von Brunn to stay with him.

De Nugent, who said he knew von Brunn through telephone conversations, called von Brunn a "brilliant" man who was not targeting blacks, but instead had anger was against "the Jewish takeover of the United States."

"If he shot that security guard, which we will never know now, I condemn what he did. But in his own mind he lived and died for the survival of white Americans," de Nugent said. "I have questions any time such a sensitive political case ends up with the prisoner dying in federal custody."

Prosecutors have said von Brunn arranged his finances and funeral plans before his "suicide mission" at the museum, and that he wanted to kill as many people as possible.

Von Brunn once tried to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve board. He was caught outside a board meeting carrying a bag stuffed with weapons. He was sentenced in 1983 to more than four years in prison for attempted armed kidnapping and other charges in his Fed assault. He was released in 1989.

The St. Louis native was a World War II veteran who served in the Navy for about 14 years. He also 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.

Public records show that in 2004 and 2005 he lived briefly in Hayden, Idaho, for years home to the Aryan Nations, a racist group run by neo-Nazi Richard Butler.

His son, Erik von Brunn, said last June that he and his father didn't like each other and that his father had long burdened their family with his white supremacist views and should have died in the attack.

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