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Holocaust Museum closed in memory of slain guard Stephen Tyrone Johns

June 11, 2009 |  8:25 am

Bullet holes rifle the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum June 10, 2009

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is closed today in honor of Stephen Tyrone Johns, a 39-year-old guard who died taking a bullet from an assailant Wednesday. Johns' bravery stopped a rifle attack just before 1 p.m. on a June day when the museum was filled with tourists, many children.

Flags were lowered to half-staff in his honor. Guards on duty at the museum wore black bands.

Described as a warm man with a wonderful smile, Johns was in the line of attack when an assailant, whom authorities have identified as white supremacist James W. von Brunn, opened fire on the building.

Well over 6 feet tall, he was known as 'Big John' to his colleagues, who remembered his kindness. "A soft-spoken, gentle giant," former employee Milton Talley told the Washington Post.

Slain Holocaust Museum guard Stephen Tyrone Johns "He was a great friend who greeted us every day with a wonderful smile, and he will be missed," said Sara Bloomfield, director of the museum. "We at the museum are devastated."

In fact, Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier said Johns, on seeing an elderly man approach the front door, " was kind enough to open the door to allow him to enter."

Allen Burcky, another former employee, said staff and volunteers at the museum considered each other "like family" and that Johns was "very courteous, very helpful." As for his own family, Johns had recently remarried and had a son.

In a statement on its website, the museum said:

There are no words to express our grief and shock over today’s events at the Museum, which took the life of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns. Officer Johns, who died heroically in the line of duty, served on the Museum’s security staff for six years. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Officer Johns’s family.

Johns was a 1988 graduate of Crossland High School in Maryland and worked for Wackenhut Services Inc., the Florida security firm that provides protection for the museum on Raoul Wallenberg Place SW near the Mall. According to the company, Johns was one of about 70 officers and supervisors on the force. Assane Faye, the Washington district director of the Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America, said she pressed for bulletproof vests for the guards two years ago after one guard was verbally assaulted by a pedestrian walking by, spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In an interview on the "Today" show this morning, Bloomfield said the incident would prompt a review of security. But she praised Johns and the other guards for saving the lives of many others who were potentially at risk. "Hate is still with us," she said. "This is why this museum exists."

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photos (from top): Alex Brandon / Associated Press; Holocaust Memorial Museum