TACOMA, Wash. — Authorities say an armed man who threw incendiary devices at an immigration detention center in Washington state died of multiple gunshot wounds after four police officers opened fire.
The Pierce County medical examiner’s office said Monday that Willem Van Spronsen, 69, of Vashon Island was killed Saturday morning outside the privately run Tacoma Northwest Detention Center.
The shooting happened hours after a protest outside the facility, which is used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to hold 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.
Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said the department’s investigation continues and further updates will be provided once the officers have been interviewed. She also said patrols will continue as usual at that location, including rallies and demonstrations at the site.
A day after Van Spronsen was killed, about 100 people gathered outside the center as demonstrators returned Sunday to protest the facility and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement roundups that were supposed to begin Sunday, KOMO-TV reported.
Van Spronsen’s friend, Deb Bartley, told The Seattle Times she thinks he wanted to provoke a fatal conflict. She described him as an anarchist and anti-fascist.
“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.”
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 he was given a deferred sentence in October, The News Tribune reported.
Van Spronsen had worked as a self-employed carpenter and contractor, according to court documents. He was also a folk singer, playing shows on Vashon Island and around the Seattle area, The Times reported.
The center’s operator, GEO Group, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday but previously said it wouldn’t tolerate any violence against its employees or property.
“The outrageous and baseless accusations that have been leveled against our facilities have led to misplaced aggression and a dangerous environment for our employees, whose safety is our top priority,” according to the statement.
At another GEO Group detention site in suburban Denver, police say hundreds of people at a demonstration that drew an estimated 2,000 people to an immigration detention center on Friday crossed onto the center’s property, with some of them pulling down the American flag and two other flags flying there.
The American flag was replaced with the Mexican flag. The action at the GEO Group center in Aurora was condemned by immigration rights activists as well as Republicans.
But it was defended by some demonstration participants. The Boulder Democratic Socialists of America, for example, questioned why an American flag should be flown over what it called a “concentration camp.”
Associated Press reporter Colleen Slevin contributed to this report from Denver.