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WASHINGTON — An elderly white supremacist who nursed a lifelong hatred of Jews and blacks is suspected of bursting into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on Wednesday, and gunning down a security guard, before being shot himself on a terror-filled afternoon at one of the most revered sites in the American capital.
The wounded guard, Steven Tyrone Johns, 39, died of his injuries in hospital.
The shooter was seriously wounded and in critical condition, according to Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Police said the assailant is James von Brunn, 88, a Maryland man who operated a racist website called the Holy Western Empire, where he describes himself as a decorated Second World War veteran and author of a book called Kill the Best Gentile. In chapters of the book posted online, von Brunn denies the Holocaust and accuses Jews of seeking world domination.
In 1981, he entered the headquarters of the U.S. Federal Reserve carrying several weapons — including a sawed-off shotgun, knife and .38-calibre pistol — and threatening to take its members hostage because of high interest rates and inflation.
He was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to several years in prison for attempted kidnapping, and was released in 1989. Von Brunn has been living recently as an artist on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
According to Washington police, a gunman opened fire without warning inside the Holocaust Museum just before 1 p.m. local time, with hundreds of tourists inside the building and dozens more in line awaiting entry.
Charles and Susie Towater, of Tampa, Fla., told Canwest News Service they heard half a dozen shots as they approached the museum's entrance, just steps from the National Mall and the Washington Monument. Moments later, they saw the shooter lying in a pool of blood just outside the building.
"I'm angry. I think that place should not be disturbed," Charles Towater, 73, said of the museum, which contains hundreds of personal artifacts from victims of the Holocaust.
Dianne Romano, visiting from Methuen, Mass., watched the tragedy unfold from a third-floor window overlooking the atrium of the museum.
"We saw people diving under chairs and benches," Romano told reporters. "Someone said, 'Get away from the windows, there's a shooting going on right there.' "
Tourists were hustled out the back stairwell of the museum and sent running across the lawn of the National Mall, many of them not stopping until they reached the Washington Monument.
"It was very scary. People kept running. They kept pushing us to get away," said Romano. "We knew there was a shooting, but I didn't know if there was a lot of shooters. I was afraid someone was going to come around and shoot us."
David Unruh, of Wichita, Kan., heard several shots ring out as he was standing in line to get into the museum.
"Things happened very rapidly. Somebody said, 'Hit the floor, hit the floor,' " Unruh said.
"We didn't know if we were next, if the shooter was up or down."
Unruh reacted with disgust when told the suspect held anti-Semitic views.
"It's ridiculous. It's obscene. This is a place of dignity and respect. For anything like this to happen, it's sub-intelligent," he said.
The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993 as a "living memorial" to the six million victims of the Holocaust, with additional focus on fighting racism and promoting human rights. At its opening, then-president Bill Clinton called it "a place of deep sadness and a sanctuary of bright hope."
Former U.S. defence secretary William Cohen was at the museum at the time of Wednesday's shooting, in advance of the planned opening of a play his wife had written about Anne Frank and Emmitt Till, a black teenager lynched in 1955 by white supremacists in Money, Miss.
"I just heard the shots ring out and ducked," Cohen told CNN. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was to have attended the play's opening.
In a statement, the Holocaust Museum said, "There are no words to express our grief and shock over these events." It identified the slain guard as a member of the museum's security staff for six years.
The shooting comes less than a week after President Barack Obama paid tribute to Holocaust victims at a former Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald, Germany.
While at Buchenwald, Obama said those who dispute the Holocaust are engaging in "a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful."
On Wednesday, Obama released a statement saying that he was "shocked and saddened" by the shooting.
"This outrageous act reminds us that we must remain vigilant against anti-Semitism and prejudice in all its forms. No American institution is more important to this effort than the Holocaust Museum, and no act of violence will diminish our determination to honour those who were lost by building a more peaceful and tolerant world," the news release said.
Police on Wednesday were searching the suspect's home for evidence of a potential motive for the shooting. On his website, von Brunn said of his earlier crime that he was tried "by a Negro jury, Jew/Negro attorneys, and sentenced to prison for 11 years by a Jew judge."
In an interview with the New York Daily News, a woman identified as von Brunn's ex-wife said the man's hatred of Jews and blacks "ate him alive like a cancer."
The woman, who was not identified, said von Brunn "used to make the statement that he was going out with his boots on."