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Two killed in Las Vegas courthouse shootout
Question of the Day
Two people, including a court officer, were killed in a gunfight at a Las Vegas federal court building on Monday, the same day the Justice Department in Washington issued a report saying threats to federal judges and prosecutors had more than doubled in the past six years.
A 66-year-old shotgun-wielding man dressed in black opened fire at the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building shortly after 8 a.m., igniting a gunfight that lasted several minutes and ended with one court officer being killed and a second wounded before the gunman was fatally shot.
Federal law enforcement officials identified the shooter as Johnny Lee Wicks, who they said was upset over cuts in his Social Security benefits. The officials, who asked not to be identified, said Wicks recently retired and had brought a lawsuit against the government over benefits that were reduced. He lived in a Las Vegas retirement home.
An Associated Press reporter on the eighth floor of a high-rise building within sight of the courthouse, about a mile north of the famed Las Vegas Strip, heard a sustained barrage of gunfire, and a passer-by reported counting at least 40 shots.
“The first shot that I heard was a shotgun blast. I knew it wasn’t fireworks,” Ray Freres, 59, a sandwich shop manager and Vietnam veteran, told the AP. “I heard an exchange of gunfire. I was watching the street. If they were coming my way, I was going the other way.”
The U.S. Marshals Service in Washington identified the dead man as Stanley Cooper, a 65-year-old retired Las Vegas police officer employed by Akal Security.
The Marshals Service identified the other victim as a 48-year-old deputy U.S. marshal. His name was not immediately made public.
The shooting began in front of a set of security metal detectors just inside the courthouse’s main rotunda, said FBI Special Agent Joseph Dickey in Las Vegas.
“From what witness accounts have said, he walked in with a shotgun underneath his jacket and opened fire when he opened the doors,” Mr. Dickey said. “At this point, we believe it was a lone gunman in a criminal act, not a terrorist act.
“We are conducting an investigation to follow up on this to determine why this person did what he did today. Seven officers responded and returned fire,” he said.
Las Vegas police spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said the shooter had been shot in the head.
The shooter’s body remained for several hours in front of a restored historic school across from the courthouse. The AP reported that bullet holes marked the entrance of the eight-story modern federal building, which was locked down after the shootout.
A helicopter view showed heavily armed officers in flak jackets scouring the federal building’s roof. Shortly afterward, employees in small groups were escorted by armed officers to the auditorium of the Las Vegas Academy, a school three blocks away.
Marshals Service Director John F. Clark called the two officers heroes.
“Words cannot express our concern and sorrow for all those impacted by this tragedy,” he said. “Rest assured, the brave and immediate actions of these two individuals saved lives by stopping the threat of a reckless and callous gunman who had no regard for who or how many victims were struck down by his senseless actions. They are heroes.”
Although the investigation is continuing, the officials said evidence points to Wick’s anger over his benefits case as the motive for the shooting.
Court records show that Wicks sued the Social Security Administration in March 2008, complaining that his Social Security benefits were cut after his move from California to Nevada in January of that year and accusing federal workers of discrimination because he is black, according to the AP.
“This case from the start was about race,” Wicks wrote in the seven-page complaint, which has occasional spelling and grammatical errors, the AP reported.
“Lots of state worker* and agencies have took part in this scam mainly for old blacks who are not well educated,” he wrote.
Wicks claimed the benefits reduction actually began in the state of California, after he had a stroke and wasn’t able to go to government offices to protest an earlier benefit reduction.
He also claimed that Social Security staff called his new landlord in Las Vegas and told her not to help him.
“I didn’t see it or hear it but I know it happen[ed],” Mr. Wicks wrote.
The case was formally dismissed Sept. 9 by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro in Las Vegas after a hearing Aug. 17 before federal Magistrate Judge George Foley Jr., the AP reported.
In a report released Monday morning, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine was critical of the protection afforded federal judges and prosecutors.
He said his office found “deficiencies in several critical areas,” including the fact that when threats were reported the Marshals Service did not consistently coordinate a response with local police — and in many cases did not record ever having notified the FBI of the threats.
Mr. Fine said as many as 25 percent of the threats were not reported and, according to the Marshals Service’s own threat database, there was no record of the FBI having been notified in 40 percent of the threats. He also said that prosecutors and judges did not “consistently and promptly report threats” they had received.
The federal court system has more than 2,000 judges and more than 5,000 prosecutors.
Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, told reporters that it appeared the gunman had acted alone and the shooting was not a terrorist act.
“Bottom line is, he didn’t get past security,” Mr. Ensign said.
According to the IG’s report, between 2003 and 2008, the number of threats and inappropriate communications jumped from 592 to 1,278. The government defines “inappropriate communications” as messages that aren’t explicitly threatening but worrisome enough to require further investigation.
The Marshals Service agreed with recommendations made by the IG’s office to improve coordination with local and FBI officials, and to more thoroughly analyze each threat and take necessary protective measures.
Marshals spokesman Jeff Carter said the agency has “made great strides over the past few years in our judicial security mission, and as the U.S. Marshals Service believes there is always room to perfect the process, we will carry out the report’s recommendations with that goal in mind.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the agency is carefully examining the findings and “will take appropriate action to ensure the safety of all employees in the United States attorneys’ offices.”
The report noted that no federal judges or prosecutors have been killed in the six-year period. The security of judges and their families has been a growing concern since the 2005 slaying of Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow’s mother and husband. Investigators determined that the killer was angry that the judge had dismissed his medical malpractice lawsuit.
The Las Vegas courthouse opened in 2002. It also houses offices for federal officials, including Mr. Ensign and Nevada’s other U.S. senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid. Neither man was in the building at the time, authorities said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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