Officials: Gunman in Las Vegas federal building shootout lost Social Security benefits suit

By Ken Ritter, AP
Monday, January 4, 2010

2 dead in Las Vegas federal building shootout

LAS VEGAS — A gunman who opened fire with a shotgun at a federal building Monday, killing one security guard and wounding a U.S. marshal before he was shot to death, was upset over losing a lawsuit over his Social Security benefits, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.

The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case, said 66-year-old Johnny Lee Wicks opened fire with a shotgun at a security checkpoint, touching off a gunbattle with deputy U.S. marshals.

Although the investigation is continuing, the officials said preliminary evidence pointed to Wicks’ anger over his benefits case as the motive for the shooting.

Authorities also were investigating the cause of a fire that damaged Wicks’ modest one-bedroom apartment in a 90-unit seniors complex three miles northwest of the scene of the shooting.

“There was a fire at his apartment this morning,” FBI Special Agent Joseph Dickey said as investigators pieced together a motive for the shooting and retraced Wicks’ steps.

A neighbor, Johnetta Watkins, said she didn’t see Wicks after firefighters doused the fire.

Watkins, 56, used to drive Wicks to the grocery store. She described him as a quiet man who walked with a limp, lived alone and sometimes complained that Las Vegas was a “prejudiced” place to live. He also complained about what he called an unfair cut in his Social Security benefits, she said.

The gunman opened fire at the courthouse at about 8 a.m. Gunfire lasted several minutes, with shots echoing around tall buildings in the area more than a mile north of the Las Vegas Strip.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was in Las Vegas but not at his local office in the building, said one of his aides bent down to pick up some newspapers in the atrium when the shooting began.

“She believes her life was saved as a result of picking up those papers,” Reid said. “She then crouched behind a pillar when this ‘war,’ as she said, took place.”

The U.S. Marshals Service said the victims included a 48-year-old deputy U.S. marshal who was hospitalized and Stanley Cooper, a 65-year-old contract court security officer.

Cooper was a retired Las Vegas police officer employed by Akal Security, said Jeff Carter, spokesman for the Marshals Service in Washington. He was a police officer for 26 years and became a federal court security officer in Las Vegas in 1994, Carter said.

Authorities didn’t immediately release the name of the wounded marshal.

U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., told reporters it appeared the gunman acted alone and the shooting was not a terrorist act. Ensign also has an office in the building but wasn’t there at the time.

In a handwritten lawsuit filed in March 2008, Wicks complained that his Social Security benefits were cut following his move to Las Vegas, and accused federal workers of discriminating against him because he is black.

“This case from the start was about race,” Wicks wrote. “Lots of state worker(s) and agencies have took part in this scam mainly for old blacks who are not well educated.”

Wicks claimed the problem began in California, after he had a stroke and was unable to go to government offices to protest an earlier benefits reduction. He alleged Social Security staff called his new landlord in Las Vegas and told her not to help him.

The case was dismissed Sept. 9 by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro in Las Vegas following a hearing before federal Magistrate Judge George Foley Jr. Both judges have courtrooms in the federal building.

FBI Special Agent Dickey said the gunman opened fire in front of a set of security metal detectors just inside a two-story atrium rotunda. He said he didn’t know if any words were spoken before the shooting began.

“From what witness accounts have said, he walked in with a shotgun underneath his jacket and opened fire when he opened the doors,” Dickey said. “Seven officers responded and returned fire.”

Ensign said the guard who died was shot in the chest.

A YouTube video recorded the sound of the running firefight as the man retreated across Las Vegas Boulevard toward another federal building and a historic school.

“I could see guards and everything coming out, and then all of a sudden I just started hearing pop, pop, pop. I mean, just like 30 or 40 shots,” said Troy Saccal, a tax services manager who was arriving for work at the time.

Saccal said he thought he saw one guard slump to the ground and another move to help him.

The gunman died moments later in the bushes outside the Fifth Street School, which was built in 1936 and restored for use as an art and architecture school and city cultural affairs offices.

John Clark, director of the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington, called the security officers heroes.

“The brave and immediate actions of these two individuals saved lives by stopping the threat of a reckless and callous gunman,” Clark said in a statement.

Bullet holes marked the entrance of the eight-story modern federal building, which was locked down after the shootout and closed for the day.

A helicopter view showed heavily armed officers in flak jackets scouring the building’s roof. Shortly afterward, armed officers escorted employees to the auditorium of a school three blocks away. Dickey called the evacuation “standard procedure.”

The gunfire erupted as downtown was busy with office workers and jurors reporting for duty, both at the federal building and the Regional Justice Center, which houses state and local courts two blocks away.

The state courthouse was evacuated as a precaution and closed for the day, court spokesman Michael Sommermeyer said. Sommermeyer said later he could find no criminal or civil court filings under Wicks’ name.

The Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building opened in 2002 and is named for a longtime senior federal judge who still hears cases. It was touted as the first federal building built to comply with blast resistance requirements following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.

Barrett reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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