A white supremacist pensioner strode into the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington yesterday and shot dead a security guard before he was felled by return fire from two other security staff.
The man, identified by media outlets as James Von Brunn, an 88-year-old resident of Maryland with apparent ties to assorted racist hate and anti-government groups, was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. The security guard, Stephen Tyrone Johns, died at George Washington University Hospital.
Witnesses say that the suspect, who 25 years ago tried to kidnap the entire Federal Reserve Board, walked through the main entrance of the crowded museum, which is just four blocks from the White House, bearing a gun later identified as a rifle. The incident turned the Washington Mall, which is lined by museums and federal institutions, into a cacophony of sirens as police and emergency services converged on the museum. Some of those inside said the first they knew of the incident was hearing a security guard yelling at the man to put the gun down. The order was quickly followed, however, by the sound of five gunshots. Some were shots being returned by two security guards.
The Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, told reporters that the gunman was in a "critical condition" in hospital. Mr Fenty insisted that the shooting, which took place shortly before 1pm local time, should be seen as an "extremely isolated incident".
Members of a Swat team were briefly deployed to sweep the building after its evacuation to ensure that a second gunman did not remain inside. But Cathey Lanier, the Washington police chief, said that preliminary reports suggested that the suspect had acted alone. "The second he stepped into the building he began firing," she said.
Neither the Mayor nor the DC Police would confirm the gunman's identity last night, but several media outlets continued to report he was indeed Mr Von Brunn. Law enforcement sources confirmed off the record that an investigation into Mr Von Brunn had already started and that his car had been found near the museum.
While his advanced age was a surprise in itself, there was emerging evidence last night of his past involvement in anti-government activities. A website that appeared to contain his own writings said he was a veteran of the US Navy and had served in the Second World War. Identified by CNN as a white supremacist, Mr Von Brunn chose one of the most sensitive sites in Washington to carry out his attack. A spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Heidi Beirich, confirmed that they had been aware of his activities over the years and considered him to be a neo-Nazi. "This guy's really scary," she said.
Convicted in 1983 for his attempt to take the members of the Reserve Board hostage, Mr Von Brunn has a racist, anti-Semitic website and wrote a book titled Kill the Best Gentile. The 1983 conviction came two years after he was arrested outside a room where the Board was meeting carrying revolver, a knife and a sawn-off shotgun. Prosecutors said the hostage-taking was meant as a protest against high rates of interest and other general economic difficulties at that time.
Opened in 1993, just off the Washington Mall, the Museum is arguably the most important site for the Jewish population in the US and a successful tourist attraction.
As an alleged anti-Semite and man who apparently bore multiple grudges against the government, it is possible that Mr Von Brunn had been infuriated by last week's visit by Barack Obama to the former concentration camp in Buchenwald in Germany. There the President berated Holocaust deniers, saying: "This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."
Yesterday, Mr Obama said: "This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms."