James von Brunn, the 89 year old white supremacist who carried out the Wednesday shooting attack at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was a well known figure in the back alleys of American antisemitic and racist hate groups.
His mid-day attack left one security guard, 39-year-old Stephen Tyrone Jones, dead and sent shockwaves throughout the nation’s capital and the Jewish community.
The brazen attack, which ended quickly thanks to immediate response by the museum’s security officers, brought to the spotlight the widely ignored violent antisemitic activity of the extreme right. While the FBI has been calling the event an isolated incident, Jewish communal officials are warning that this is the fourth attack or attempted attack against Jewish targets within two months.
The event took place at 12:50 pm. von Brunn parked his car in front of the main entrance to the Holocaust Museum and walked in carrying an unconcealed shotgun. He was immediately confronted by security guards and shot directly at one of them – Stephen Tyrone Jones who was fatally wounded and later died at the George Washington University Hospital. Other security guards shot back at von Brunn. He was taken to the hospital and is in critical condition. According to eyewitnesses, the shooter did not call out and did not state any demands or grievances before opening fire at the guard.
Shortly after the shooting, visitors to the Holocaust Museum were still at the scene, some visibly shaken by the event, others retelling the event to reporters. “We heard shooting and then everyone dropped to the ground,” said Charles Towater who stood close to museum’s entrance when the shooting took place. “I didn’t hear him say anything, I just saw him on the ground, bleeding.”
According to museum officials, there were an estimated 1,700 visitors in the museum at the time, many of them students. Although the shooting incident ended within less than a minute, visitors were kept in the museum until police and FBI completed a thorough sweep of the perimeter and concluded there is no further danger. Among them was former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who came to the museum to watch the dress rehearsal for a play written by his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen. The play, “Anne and Emmett,” a fictional dialogue between Anne Frank and Emmet Till, was supposed to be presented Wednesday evening in front of an invitation-only audience, but was cancelled due to the shooting.
The Holocaust Museum is closed Thursday, June 11, in honor of the slain officer, and is expected to reopen to the public Friday morning, June 12. Groups monitoring activity of racist extremists, including the Anti Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, have long put James von Brunn on their watch lists. A Maryland resident and World War II veteran, von Brunn has a long record of antisemitic statements and publications. His website, The Holy Western Empire, put forward anti-Jewish propaganda and according to the ADL, von Brunn also published a book, called “Tob Shebbe Goyim Harog,” Hebrew for “kill the best of gentiles,” in which he promotes hatred of Jews and blacks.
The Secure Community Network (SCN), which is the Jewish community’s system for coordinating security activities, issued an alert to all Jewish groups and institutes, providing details on the killer and his activity against Jewish targets.
In 1981, von Brunn was arrested outside the Federal Reserve Headquarters carrying a shotgun and trying to perform what he called a “citizen arrest,” after claiming the Jews control America’s banking system. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
The police recovered a notebook from von Brunn’s belongings that reportedly included a list of over 100 possible targets, some of them Jewish. Although the shooter was well known among white supremacist circles, investigators believe he acted alone and was not part of terror network. In the SCN alert, however, Jewish groups were reminded that in recent months there were several attempts to target Jewish institutions and individuals, including the Riverdale New York synagogue and community center, and while there is no apparent connection between the events, they may seem to indicate a rise in antisemitic violence. “SCN encourages our members to continue to be vigilant and maintain appropriate levels of security at your institutions,” the alert concluded.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.