WASHINGTON (NNPA) - As the nation comes to grips with the horrifying tragedy that struck the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the District of Columbia this week, its lone victim, 39-year-old security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, is being remembered as a gentle giant.
Johns lived in Temple Hills, Md., and was a graduate of Crossland High School. He had worked at the museum for six years and was also described as a caring family man.
"He was a pretty great guy,'' said his 11-year-old son, Stephen Jr., who lauded his father as a hero. The boy added that his dad was someone who always there for him.
Johns' grief-stricken co-workers also voiced similar sentiments.
''He was a warm man who loved all of us and he greeted us every day with a wonderful smile,'' said Museum Director Sara Bloomfield. "We express great shock at the events that took place and have great sadness at the loss of our dear friend and colleague.''
The museum is dedicated to honoring victims of the holocaust and Bloomfield said Johns' murder should serve as a reminder of the fact that it needs to be in existence.
In honor of Johns, its flags were lowered to half staff and the facility was closed on Thursday, June 11.
President Obama, who, only a week before, visited a memorial for holocaust victims at the site of a concentration camp in Germany, also expressed his regret, adding the attack should serve as a reminder to remain vigilant against prejudice.
''We have lost a courageous security guard who stood watch at this place of solemn remembrance,'' Obama said in a statement. ''My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends in this painful time.''
Johns was on duty June 10 when an old man wearing a brown coat, entered the main entrance.
Police said Johns opened the door for the man, but had no time to react before 88-year-old James W. Von Brunn, a notorious racist and anti-Semitic, whipped out a rifle from under his coat and shot him.
Johns was taken to a Washington hospital where he subsequently succumbed to his injuries.
The incident occurred just before 1 p.m. while the museum, located at 14th St. and Independence Ave., was crowded with thousands of visitors.
Moti Shair, who was in the building seconds before, said he received a call on his cell phone and went outside. "Seconds later, I could hear up to six gunshots 10 feet away," Shair told the AFRO.
A World War II veteran, von Brunn was critically injured after two other security officers at the museum returned fire.
"The gunman was lying motionless on the ground," Florida natives, Susie and Charles Towater, who were also visiting the museum at the time, told the AFRO.
A SWAT team was deployed along with U.S. Park officers after the shooting, but a spokesman for the Washington field office of the FBI said there was no evidence of a conspiracy and that they believe von Brunn was a lone gunman.
Shortly after the shooting, police found von Brunn's car parked about a block away and tested it for explosives. They found various documents and scribblings inside that allegedly contained the names of hundreds of other targets – none of which police said was in any imminent danger.
Von Brunn remains hospitalized, having been officially charged with murder and possession of a firearm during a killing at a federal facility.
Meanwhile, the FBI continues to investigate the matter as a possible hate crime in conjunction with the District of Columbia Police Department.
Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the incident served as a tragic reminder that both local law enforcement and private security play a critical role in the nation's security. She said that the heroism displayed by Johns should not go unnoticed by the rest of the country.
"Since the incident occurred, multiple police agencies and law enforcement along with the FBI have worked around the clock conducting dozens and dozens of interviews, following up on hundreds of pieces of information that we've received," said Lanier. "The teams worked jointly throughout the night [Wednesday] and this investigation will continue as we move forward."
Von Brunn, who has residences in Annapolis and Eastern Maryland, holds a degree in journalism from a mid-western university. During the war, he served as a PT-boat captain and as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve and received a commendation and four battle stars. For 20 years he was an advertising executive and film producer in New York City. He was a member of Mensa, the high IQ society.
But the war veteran had another side.
As a White supremacist, von Brunn spewed hatred for Blacks and Jews. FBI officials admit he was on their radar but could do nothing since acting on his views alone would violate his civil rights.
The gunman's former wife, in an interview with The Washington Post, described von Bunn as an abusive alcoholic whose hatred of Jews and Blacks ''ate him alive like a cancer.''
Von Brunn's Website, www.holywesternempire.org was an outlet for that hate. Among countless other rants, he claimed Hitler's biggest mistake was in not gassing Jews. And, in a book he authored, "Kill the Best Gentiles," he said there was a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the White race.
Officials say they are unsure how Von Brunn, a convicted felon with an extensive criminal background that spans to the early 1980s, obtained the weapon used in Johns' murder.
According to his records, Von Bunn was sentenced to 11 years in prison after an attack on the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington. In that incident, he had expressed his disdain for Jews, claiming that the Federal Reserve — which he claimed was unconstitutional — had given them control of American money.
He also expressed hate for the African American jury that found him guilty in 1983 of trying to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board.
Ironically, the shooting forced cancellation of a play in the District about anti-Semitism and racism. It was written by Janet Langhorne Cohen, wife of former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Among those invited to attend was Attorney General Eric Holder.
During a Jan. 11 press conference, District Mayor Adrian Fenty expressed assurance that the District would get past this and that it remains an open, safe city for visitors and tourists. He also praised all the officers who participated in efforts to bring the gunman down so quickly.
"I am deeply saddened that this senseless act of violence threatened the safety of our community,'' Fenty said, adding, "One loss is a tragedy, but this could have been much, much worse."
By Dorothy Rowley and Miriam Thoss, NNPA, Afro-American Newspapers