A 69-year-old man armed with a rifle threw incendiary devices at an immigration jail in Washington state early Saturday morning, then was found dead after four police officers arrived and opened fire, authorities said.
The Tacoma Police Department said the officers responded about 4 a.m. to the privately run Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security detention facility that holds migrants pending deportation proceedings. The detention center has also held immigration-seeking parents separated from their children under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, an effort meant to deter illegal immigration.
The shooting took place about six hours after a peaceful rally in front of the detention center, police spokesman Loretta Cool said.
On Saturday night, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the man as Willem Van Spronsen of Vashon Island, the Tacoma News-Tribune and the Seattle Times reported.
Police said Van Spronsen caused a vehicle to catch fire and that he attempted to ignite a large propane tank and set buildings on fire. Police said that besides the rifle, he had a satchel and flares.
Police said officers called out to Van Spronsen, and shots were fired.
Cool said all four officers fired their weapons, but she didn’t have specific details of what took place. She said the officers weren’t wearing body cameras, but the area is covered by surveillance cameras from the detention center. She said she didn’t know if the man fired at the officers.
After the gunfire, officers took cover, contained the area and set up medical aid a short distance away, police said.
Officers then located Van Spronsen and determined he had been shot and was dead at the scene.
Authorities say investigators are processing the scene and police are continuing to investigate. No law enforcement officers were injured. The four Tacoma police officers who fired their weapons have been placed on paid administrative leave as is standard in officer-involved shootings.
A friend of Van Spronsen said that she thinks he wanted to provoke a fatal conflict, the Seattle Times reported.
Deb Bartley, who told the Times she has been a friend of Willem Van Spronsen’s for about 20 years, described him as an anarchist and anti-fascist, and believes his attack on the detention center intending to provoke a fatal conflict.
“He was ready to end it,” Bartley said. “I think this was a suicide. But then he was able to kind of do it in a way that spoke to his political beliefs . I know he went down there knowing he was going to die.”
She said that she and other friends of Van Spronsen got letters in the mail “just saying goodbye.” He also wrote what she referred to as a manifesto, which she declined to discuss in detail, the Times reported.
Van Spronsen was accused of assaulting a police officer during a protest outside the detention center in 2018, The News-Tribune reported. According to court documents, he lunged at the officer and wrapped his arms around the officer’s neck and shoulders, as the officer was trying to detain a 17-year-old protester June 26, 2018, the newspaper reported.
According to court documents, police handcuffed Van Spronsen and found that he had a collapsible baton and a folding knife in his pocket. Van Spronsen pleaded guilty to the charge of obstructing police, and was given a deferred sentence in October, the News-Tribune reported.
GEO Group, which runs the 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Center, in an email to The Associated Press said baseless accusations about how detainees are treated at its facilities “have led to misplaced aggression and a dangerous environment for our employees, whose safety is our top priority. Violence of any kind against our employees and property will not be tolerated. We are thankful for the quick and brave action by the Tacoma Police Department, which prevented innocent lives from being endangered.”
GEO Group said the detention center in Tacoma has modern amenities with air conditioning, recreational activities, a bed for every individual and medical care available at all hours.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that Washington state could pursue its lawsuit seeking to force GEO Group to pay minimum wage for work done by detainees at the detention center.
In November, a Russian asylum-seeker who conducted a hunger strike to protest the conditions at the detention center died by suicide, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled.
Mergensana Amar, 40, was taken off life support after attempting to kill himself while in voluntary protective custody at the detention center on Nov. 15, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.