Police describe Discovery standoff

As hostages appeared ready to make run for it, SWAT team acted, officials 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 03, 2010|By Dan Morse, The Washington Post

From the early stages of Wednesday's hostage standoff in Silver Spring, tactical officers had positioned themselves to shoot James J. Lee. The big fear: Doing so would set off explosives attached to his body and kill his three hostages.

"It looks like he's got a dead-man's switch," a bomb-squad member said into his radio, part of the stream of information being sent into a command bus 800 feet away.

"Frazier, he's got a dead-man's switch," Assistant Montgomery Police Chief Drew Tracy said inside the bus. "What do you think about this pin?"

"That must be a positive safety," responded Battalion Chief Kevin Frazier, a bomb squad commander. "He's using it as a safety."

The snippet of conversation, recalled by both men Thursday, was part of the intense, split-second decisions made during nearly four hours Wednesday. Commanders, snipers and bomb experts had had to account for a children's nursery on the floors above the suspect, had to evacuate the building through an opposite corner, had to figure out Lee's explosives — all while trying to learn who he was and see into this mind, according to interviews with seven law enforcement officials who were inside the bus.

"We had quick information on the person, quick intel," Tracy said Thursday. "His value of life was very low. He didn't value his life or others' lives."

On Thursday, Lee's body was removed from the building and taken to Baltimore, where an autopsy was performed. Medical examiner spokeswoman Cindy Feldstein said she couldn't comment on the findings of the autopsy.

Also Thursday, new details emerged about the continuing investigation and Lee's bizarre past.

Police searched Lee's home in Wheaton and found four additional explosive devices. Police also announced that Lee's gun, found inside the Discovery Communications headquarters building, was a starter pistol.

In 2003, according to court records, Lee was sentenced to 18 months in prison for trying to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States. In recent years, however, Lee had taken to calling immigrants "disgusting filth."

By 2008, he had moved to the Washington area. That year, he launched a protest outside the Discovery building, earning him a short jail stay for disorderly conduct.

He returned about 1 p.m. Wednesday, walking into the building's large lobby, a room with glass on three sides that looks out onto sidewalks bustling with lunchtime pedestrians. He was armed with what looked like a real gun and wore a backpack. He took three men hostage, including a security guard positioned at a welcome desk.

Federal, state and local law enforcement converged quickly on the building. Montgomery police parked their command bus on a quiet side street one block to the south. They began taking reports from officers who got close to the lobby or watched the building's surveillance camera feeds.

One of their first decisions: Evacuate a day care center of about 100 children, ranging from infants to 5-year-olds. The children were taken out a door on the far side of the building and shooed into a McDonald's. More than 1,000 workers also were evacuated from the building.

Tactical teams, composed of SWAT officers and a bomb expert, moved in.

Some of them got inside the Discovery building without Lee's knowledge. Others positioned themselves just outside the lobby's glass walls, taking cover behind landscaping structures.

There were compelling reasons to move on Lee, authorities say. He repeatedly said he was willing to kill himself and the hostages. There were boxes near him that the bomb technicians worried were something he brought in.

The shooting experts relied heavily on the advice of bomb experts trying to figure out what he had. At times, Lee removed a pin from a hand-held device, which looked like a detonator, and held it in what one officer described as a "death grip." Then he'd put the pin back and move the device to his other hand.

"He was making gestures as if he was attempting to set off bombs," recalled Montgomery County state's attorney John McCarthy. "A lot of really tough tactical decisions were being made."

All the while, three hostages were lying on the ground nearby.

Taking in reports over the radio, Frazier — the bomb squad commander — drew sketches while inside command bus. "If he lets go," he remembered telling others. "Yes, potentially, the device could go off."

As it turned out, the backpack's contents were later determined to be lethal: Four propane tanks, a fuse and pipe bombs containing shotgun pellets that could have acted like shrapnel.

From the lobby, Lee told negotiators that he wanted to air grievances during a Discovery channel program. The negotiators told him they'd talk to the people at Discovery. They tried to humanize the hostages, who Lee referred to as "parasites" at one point.

As much as they tried to control the operation, though, it was the actions inside the lobby that prompted them to move just before 5 p.m. According to McCarthy and others, two of the hostages appeared to try to make a run for the door. Tactical officers on the other side of a wall heard a "pop," ran around the wall and saw Lee with a gun in his hand. At least two of them fired.

"Had they simply wanted to shoot him and kill him, they could have done it hours earlier," McCarthy said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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