Police shoot suspect in Discovery building standoff; 3 hostages escape

Gunman had metallic, canister-like items strapped to body, authorities say

  • A police officer looks through binoculars on the street in front of the headquarters of the Discovery Channel networks building in Silver Spring.
A police officer looks through binoculars on the street in front… (Jose Luis Magana, Associated…)
September 02, 2010|By Jessica Anderson, Andrea Siegel and Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

SILVER SPRING — — Police shot and killed a gunman wearing what appeared to be explosives after he took three people hostage at the Discovery Channel's headquarters Wednesday afternoon, officials said.

The building was to reopen briefly Thursday for employees to return, although the lobby remained closed as police investigate.

Authorities identified the gunman as James J. Lee. Lee, 43, who was upset with the channel over its programming and had a history of protesting the company, entered the building at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road about 1 p.m., wielding a gun and wearing silver canisters later described as "explosive devices," and "told everyone to stop moving," according to police. Most of the 1,900 employees were able to escape, but Lee managed to grab three male hostages — an unarmed security guard and two Discovery employees.

Tactical officers were able to watch Lee's movements via cameras. After several hours of telephone negotiations, Lee pulled out his gun and pointed it at one of the hostages, police said. Officers who had been tracking him then took aim at Lee, killing him. Police said there was an explosion at the time of the shooting, but it was unclear whether Lee was shot first or if the device detonated first.

All three captives escaped safely. Police said they don't know what precipitated Lee at that moment. Saying only that the hostages "appeared to be moving" and that might have agitated him.

Lee had staged a protest outside Discovery headquarters in 2008 and had a website that ranted against the channel's programming.

"I know that he had some history with folks at Discovery Channel," Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said at a news conference after the shooting.

David Leavy, a spokesman for Discovery Communications, said, "He didn't think we were environmentally sound," adding, "there had not been any communication from him in the last couple of years."

According to electronic court records, Lee was charged with disorderly conduct in 2008 and sentenced to 46 days in jail for a protest he staged in front of the channel's headquarters. County State's Attorney John McCarthy said Lee was ordered to stay 500 feet away from Discovery headquarters as part of his probation, which ended two weeks ago. Lee was found not guilty of the lesser charge of littering during the same incident when he threw thousands of dollars in the air.

"It was a very odd case; he had large sums of cash on him," McCarthy said Wednesday.

McCarthy said that District Administrative Judge Eugene Wolfe order a psychiatric evaluation for Lee, but the results did not affect his probation. He said it was unclear where Lee got the money for the protest.

Lee said he protested to show that ''money means nothing. Money is trash," according to a report by The Gazette newspaper at the time of the incident. Lee also said he was protesting that Discovery's programming had little to do with saving the planet.

"The Discovery Channel produces many so-called 'Environmental Programs' supposedly there to save the planet," Lee said in an ad he took out in a Washington newspaper to promote the protest. "But the truth is things are getting WORSE! Their programs are causing more harm than good."

"He was steadfast, he was adamant about what he was doing. It was illogical," said Felix Contreras, a Silver Spring resident who met Lee in 2008.

He said Lee was trying to recruit people to picket out in front of the company's headquarters when he met him. Contreras said Lee offered him $100 to walk around with a sign.

Leavy, the Discovery spokesman, said Wednesday that the company's priority is "responding to employees' needs in the coming days." Catherine Frymark, a company spokeswoman, said counselors were offering assistance to Discovery Channel employees Thursday.

Police and officers with the Montgomery County bomb squad remained on the scene Wednesday night, checking for more explosive devices. Battalion Chief Kevin Frazier of the bomb squad said Lee had two boxes and two backpacks that they believe contained explosive devices.

Annie Frank, a web content publisher at Discovery, said by phone that she was at her desk when the incident unfolded.

"I was actually out where the gunman was, 40 minutes before this all went down, talking to my sister," she said. "I went back up to floor 5, my cubicle. I look out the window, and there's all these cops."

Frank said her boss received a phone call warning that there was a gunman in the building and telling them to get into an office. She said they went into the nearest office, closed the door and shut off the lights.

Protesters had tampered with phones in their building a few weeks before, Frank said, so the threat initially wasn't taken too seriously.

"We didn't really grasp what was going on," she said. "We thought someone was coming in with a toy gun, protesting or something. And then we realized it wasn't being contained."

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