‘Maybe it was his last stand.’ Man killed at Tacoma detention center felt strongly about ICE

Editors note: This story has been updated to include additional information released by police Thursday.

The converted school bus on Vashon Island where Willem Van Spronsen lived was quiet Tuesday.

That stood in contrast to July 13 when law enforcement descended on the property after police fatally shot the 69-year-old outside the federal immigration detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats — where he was allegedly carrying a rifle and using flares and Molotov cocktails.

Police said four officers fired at him after he pointed a rifle at them and ignored commands to drop the gun. He was hit twice and died at the scene. Investigators found a rifle near him that they said appeared to have malfunctioned during the incident.

Police on Thursday described Van Spronsen as a “known anarchist” who claimed association with Antifa and sent a manifesto to several people prior to his death.

About a dozen police vehicles arrived on the island after the shooting, including a couple of armored ones, neighbor David Giusti said.

“They came in very heavy” and searched the property where Van Spronsen lived and the nearby woods, the 64-year-old told The News Tribune on Tuesday.

The police response seemed exaggerated, Giusti said, given that Van Spronsen was a folk singer and carpenter.

But, the neighbor acknowledged, “I guess they didn’t know if he’s part of a bigger group or something.”

Law enforcement was looking for evidence connecting Van Spronsen to the Northwest Detention Center attack and a possible motive, court records show.

“The motive for this incident has not been established, but the incident appears to be a planned event,” detective J. Buchanan wrote in an affidavit seeking a search warrant. “Van Spronsen was in possession of a large amount of ammunition, flares, and Molotov cocktails.”

Police said they were called to the detention center early July 13, following a report that someone with a rifle was throwing incendiary devices at nearby buildings and propane tanks.

Search warrant documents filed Wednesday said, “Officers noticed several fires in the area to include a vehicle that was fully engulfed. Officers were confronted by a subject armed with an assault rifle and applied deadly force.”

The four officers who fired their weapons were put on leave, per Police Department procedure, and police will conduct an internal review.

Van Spronsen was carrying an AR-15-style rifle and a cellphone that had some surveillance-type videos of the detention facility, the search warrant documents state.

When officers arrived at the detention center, they “observed a car on fire and which at some point an explosion occurred inside the vehicle,” detective J. Brooks wrote in an affidavit seeking a separate search warrant. “The vehicle continued to burn as it was unknown if other subjects/suspects were in the area.”

Video surveillance from the detention center allegedly shows Van Spronsen handling what appeared to be an AR-15 style rifle, setting fire to a building and placing flares in “strategic locations,” including beneath a 500-gallon propane tank, Tacoma police said in a news release Thursday.

The video also allegedly shows Van Spronsen blowing up a vehicle and throwing Molotov cocktails at nearby buildings.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement also made a statement after the shooting, which called Van Spronsen an, “Anti-immigration enforcement protester” and said he attempted to ignite a commercial-size propane tank attached to the facility.

“This could have resulted in the mass murder of staff and detainees housed at the facility had he been successful at setting the tank ablaze,” said Shawn Fallah, an ICE resident agent in charge.

Disturbed about ICE

Giusti said he’d lived next to Van Spronsen for about three years and that Van Spronsen had lived there for many years prior to that.

He described Van Spronsen as a gentle soul, friendly, soft-spoken and a deep thinker.

“It’s Vashon,” he said. “Everybody kind of keeps to themselves a little bit.”

Every now and then Van Spronsen would talk about his concerns with the detention center and deportations.

“I know he was very disturbed about the whole ICE situation,” Giusti said.

He said he doesn’t think Van Spronsen intended to hurt the people detained inside the center or that he was trying to burn down the building.

“He wasn’t a terrorist,” Giusti said. “I think he was a good person who was trying to live his conscience.”

He said the photos he’s seen indicate the burned car was Van Spronsen’s own vehicle.

“Certainly ... he was making mischief and making a stand, and maybe it was his last stand,” Giusti said. “... He was trying to make a statement that this was inappropriate for our government to be doing.”

Van Spronsen himself immigrated to the United States from Holland — where he was born and raised.

Giusti wasn’t sure when his neighbor came to the United States but thought it might have been as a teenager.

Van Spronsen lived in the converted bus on Vashon by himself, Giusti said, and had been working on a bathhouse that opened onto a pasture behind the property.

He was a skilled carpenter and was mechanically inclined, the neighbor said.

“He would say: ‘What a place to live. I’m here overlooking the forest and pasture. It doesn’t get any better than this,’” Giusti remembered.

He’d often hear Van Spronsen’s guitar.

“He would play all the time,” Giusti said. “Almost every day.”

Van Spronsen performed publicly as well, the neighbor said, including at the island’s annual Strawberry Festival.

Giusti said he’s noticed songs Van Spronsen posted online recently. Some appeared to be about his political concerns and some about his family, he said.

He has an adult daughter and a younger son, the neighbor said.

Giusti said he’d see him playing catch with his son and riding bikes but that the child hadn’t been around recently.

‘Dying for a cause’

Court records show Van Spronsen was involved in a contentious and difficult divorce and custody battle for the past six years, which included a number of domestic violence protection orders granted against him.

His now ex-wife wrote in a petition seeking one of the protection orders in January that Van Spronsen talked of dying at the hands of police or of an intentional heroin overdose and that he took their school-age son to what she called militia meetings.

“He would also talk about dying for a cause and anarchist actions,” she wrote, among other concerns. “This was near the end of our marriage. I found it very scary and upsetting because I believed he would do it, even if it hurt someone and even if he died as a result.”

The protection order that followed in February made it illegal for him to have firearms.

Van Spronsen denied in his own court filings mistreating or threatening his family.

Giusti said he brought Van Spronsen his mail recently, and that the man seemed quiet and thoughtful, maybe more so than usual.

The neighbor said he wasn’t directly sent a copy of the manifesto allegedly written by Van Spronsen that’s been widely circulated online but that he’s read it.

“It seems, at least most of it anyway, pretty in keeping with his thoughts,” Giusti said.

The online version talks about a “father’s broken heart” and growing up in post-war Europe.

“My head was filled with stories of the rise of fascism in the ‘30s,” it says. “I promised myself that I would not be one of those who stands by as neighbors are torn from their homes and imprisoned for somehow being perceived as lesser.”

Giusti said Van Spronsen was concerned about how protesters were being treated, such as in 2017 when someone drove into a crowd in Charlottesville.

“He talked about the need for protesters to be safe, and that police weren’t necessarily providing that,” Giusti said.

Previous arrest

Van Spronsen was arrested outside the detention center last year and accused of wrapping his arms around a police officer who was trying to detain a 17-year-old protester during a disturbance at the facility.

He was charged with third-degree assault, obstructing an officer and resisting arrest.

Prosecutors said he had no other criminal history, and he eventually pleaded guilty to obstructing an officer and was given a deferred sentence.

Giusti said Van Spronsen’s account was that he was trying to separate a younger protester from law enforcement.

“He got in the middle,” Giusti said. “He felt that they were being overly aggressive to this teenager.”

Giusti also said that Van Spronsen provided security for protesters as a member of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club.

The club has been around for about two years, and Van Spronsen was one of its longest serving members until he resigned recently, member Duke Aaron told The News Tribune.

The group’s website describes it as an “anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-worker community defense organization committed to accountable, community-led defense in the Puget Sound.”

“We are definitely not a militia,” Aaron said. “We are a community defense organization. We teach and educate. We defend and protect, and we do outreach into impacted communities.”

He described Van Spronsen as “a deeply caring person who was impacted by other people’s suffering” and who expressed concerns about detention facilities.

“He talked about that, maybe not as exclusively as people would think,” Aaron said. “He talked about a lot of things that could be better in the world. ... He definitely had a special piece of his heart dedicated to stopping the rounding up of our neighbors.”

As for what happened July 13, Aaron said, “He didn’t hurt anybody, and he didn’t try to hurt anybody.”

Asked if the club could verify that the so-called manifesto being circulated online is from Van Spronsen, the club’s attorney said one member got a letter after Van Spronsen’s death.

That letter was delivered to law enforcement unopened, attorney Shannon McMinimee said.

She said, from what was visible through the envelope without opening the letter, that it appeared to be consistent with what’s been widely publicized.

Asked about Van Spronsen, McMinimee noted his music, and that he had been active in the recovery community.

“He was a longtime AA sponsor and gave of himself deeply to those he was a sponsor for,” she said. “... He listened, he cared, he was available, he was transparent and was willing to meet people where they were in order to help them get to where they wanted to be.”

Staff writer Stacia Glenn contributed to this report.
Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.