Tacoma police kill man who was allegedly trying to set fire to detention center

Jul 14, 2019, 9:55 PM

detention center, tacoma, Northwest Detention Center...

(KIRO 7 image)

(KIRO 7 image)

An armed man was killed, stopped by police while allegedly trying to burn down Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center.

The violence forced people to cancel a planned immigrants’ rights rally ahead of expected roundups of illegal immigrants across the country.

The man who was killed has been identified as 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen, of Vashon Island.

Law enforcement also went to a home on Vashon Island they believe Spronsen was connected with, and they spent hours going in and out of it. People nearby say they also noticed the big police presence.

Records show Van Spronsen has or had ties to the home.

One neighbor said, “We just saw sheriff’s vehicle after sheriff’s vehicle.”

Another person said, “A whole cavalcade of vehicles, so it was alarming to see this much activity.”

Tacoma police took great pains to say that Van Spronsen is not affiliated with the activists who were planning to protest on Sunday.

But the protesters weren’t as quick to disown him, saying his death here is more evidence that this facility should be shut down.

Even now, more than 12 hours later, local and federal agents were still at the Northwest Detention Center. They say they have been there since just after 4 a.m. Saturday, when an employee called 911 to report a man armed with a rifle was outside.

“He was throwing incendiary devices at the detention center, trying to get it to start a fire,” said Tacoma police Officer Loretta Cool.

She says when the building wouldn’t catch fire, the man crossed the street and started throwing the devices on parked cars.

“One of the cars caught on fire and was fully engulfed in flames when officers arrived,” Cool said.

At some point, four officers opened fire on the man. But they lost sight of him.

“So the officers retreated, took up cover and when they saw him, not only did he have the rifle, he had a satchel, um, and then he had some road flares on him,” said Cool. “So the officers weren’t sure what he had in the satchel.”

When they finally approached, he was dead.

Van Spronsen has a lengthy criminal history, much of it involving direct run-ins with police. A 2011 letter to the editor of the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber might provide some insight.

“Are we really willing to submit to laws regulating every little detail of our existence on this planet? It would behoove us to take note and learn the skills … to cope with the radically different world bearing down upon us. Regardless of silly laws and regulations.” It was signed “Willem Van Spronsen.”

Members of the immigrants rights group planning a rally here said they did not know what happened here overnight. But their sympathies lie with Van Spronsen, not police. After all, they are fighting to have this detention center shut down.

Activist Maru Mora Villalpando, who herself faces deportation as an undocumented immigrant, was asked if she agrees with someone setting the center on fire.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. I will have to look beyond what that person, the police says they were trying to do.”

The four officers have been placed on paid leave, as is standard. All that is known at the moment is that they are male, They range in age from 24 to 45 years old and they have a combined 25-plus years of experience with the Tacoma Police Department.

The GEO Group, which runs the Northwest Detention Center Sent KIRO 7 a statement, and it reads in part:

Violence of any kind against our employees and property will not be tolerated. We are thankful for the quick and brave action by the Tacoma Police Department, which prevented innocent lives from being endangered.

Gov. Jay Inslee also issued a statement about the shooting:

Along with many Americans, I object with every fiber of my being to Donald Trump’s inhumane treatment of immigrants in America. But if today’s attack was motivated by opposition to the federal government’s actions, it was totally unacceptable. Violence is not acceptable. Our democracy is strong and we are a resilient people. But it is, again, unacceptable to turn to violence. Hate crimes are on the rise, as is divisive and incendiary rhetoric. We must be better than that and find non-violent ways of pursuing the better world we want, as many groups are doing.

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Tacoma police kill man who was allegedly trying to set fire to detention center