WASHINGTON—-- An elderly Maryland man with a long history of ties to neo-Nazi organizations allegedly walked into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday and opened fire, killing a security guard, according to law enforcement officials and civil rights experts.
An FBI official said the shooter has been preliminarily identified as James W. von Brunn, 88, described by the Anti-Defamation League and others who track hate groups as a longtime white supremacist and anti-Semite who wrote and self-published a book titled "Kill the Best Gentiles."
Police said the security guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, died after being taken to nearby George Washington University Hospital.
Pat Sadowski, 69, von Brunn's ex-wife, said she was contacted Wednesday by the FBI and told not to discuss the case. She said in an interview with Tribune Newspapers that the couple had a son and then 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," Sadowski said. "We detest it."
Von Brunn has been linked for decades to some of the most prominent white supremacist groups, especially Holocaust deniers, who contend the Nazis' systematic extermination of millions of Jews in World War II never happened.
In April 1983, von Brunn was sentenced to at least four years in prison for attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve board in 1981. Records show that he was arrested after entering the board headquarters in Washington with a bag that was found to contain a revolver, a hunting knife and a sawed-off shotgun.
Von Brunn told police he wanted to hold board members hostage because he considered them responsible for high interest rates and other economic difficulties.
Hate-group watchers said 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.
On Wednesday, the shooter entered the museum through the main entrance about 12:50 p.m. EDT with a rifle in full view, according to Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier and other authorities.
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 National Monument. He was in critical condition at a local hospital, Lanier said.
Joe Wierzbicki, 18, of Western Springs, Ill., was visiting the museum when he heard loud bangs from the floor below.
"It's kind of an ironic place," said Wierzbicki. "I'm here learning about a really tragic event, about people being oppressed. It's such a sad exhibit. I would never expect anyone to run and commit something so terrible."
Following the shooting, police patrols were increased around the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.