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Police Shot And Killed An Armed Man Allegedly Attempting To Set Fire To An ICE Detention Facility

An official said a fire could have resulted in "mass murder" of detainees and staff at the center.

Last updated on July 14, 2019, at 10:16 a.m. ET

Posted on July 13, 2019, at 2:54 p.m. ET

Ted S. Warren / AP

Protest signs hang outside the Northwest Detention Center on July 9.

A man armed with a rifle died after being shot by police officers at an ICE detention center in Washington state that he had attempted to set on fire, authorities said.

An employee at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Northwest Detention Center called Tacoma police around 4 a.m. Saturday, reporting a man outside with a rifle who was throwing incendiary devices.

A car in the parking lot was set on fire, and the man also threw the lit devices at buildings and attempted to ignite a propane tank, police said.

He was identified as 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen, and ICE praised police in preventing any harm to staff or detainees.

"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," Shawn Fallah of ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility said in a statement. "These are the kinds of incidents that keep you up at night."

When officers arrived at the scene early Saturday, they found the armed man and reported shots fired, according to a Tacoma Police Department press release.

The department said four officers were involved in the shooting and, per procedure, have since been placed on paid administrative duty.

After shots were fired, the officers retreated, then approached the man using cover, police said. He was found with at least one gunshot wound and pronounced dead at the scene, police said.

Investigation into the shooting is ongoing.

La Resistencia, a group that organizes protests of the detention center, said it believed that Van Spronsen was not targeting people at the facility but, rather, a fleet of buses that transport immigrants during deportation.

"His actions sadly reflect the level of desperation people across this country feel about the government’s outrageous violence against immigrants, which includes the use of detention centers to cage migrants both currently living in the U.S. and those seeking asylum," the group said in a statement.

A friend told the Seattle Times that Van Spronsen, whom she described as an anarchist and anti-fascist, sent a letter before the incident saying goodbye. She added she believed his actions were a form of suicide.

In 2018, Van Spronsen was one of 10 people arrested at a protest outside the detention center, the New Tribune reported. According to the newspaper, Van Spronsen was accused of jumping on a police officer as the officer was attempting to detain a 17-year-old; Van Spronsen later pleaded guilty to obstructing police.

A peaceful protest rally took place at the facility hours before the shooting. Another protest event planned for Saturday was canceled.

A spokesperson for the GEO Group, the private company that runs the facility under a contract, pushed back Saturday against criticism of its operations. No unaccompanied minors have ever been housed at the center, the spokesperson said, and detainees are provided with beds, air conditioning, health care, and legal services.

"Like all Americans, we are concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our Southern border; we acknowledge the challenge, but we are appalled by the historically and factually inaccurate portrayal of our facilities," a statement said. "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. Violence of any kind against our employees and property will not be tolerated."

The apparent vandalism and shooting comes a day before ICE is scheduled to conduct raids in cities around the country, targeting undocumented families with final removal orders. At least one detention center in South Texas has cleared space to hold families picked up in the raids.

Raids are not expected in the Seattle area, according to the city's Twitter account.

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