A protest outside the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma last year drew headlines when a 68-year-old man wrapped his arms around a police officer’s throat and shoulders in an apparent attempt to free another protester.
When police got the man into handcuffs, they found a collapsible baton and knife in his pocket, leading to criminal charges.
Early Saturday morning, that man, Willem Van Spronsen of Vashon Island, returned to the Northwest Detention Center, the holding facility for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, this time armed with a rifle and incendiary devices, according to Tacoma police.
Police said Van Spronsen tossed lit objects at vehicles and buildings, causing one car fire, and unsuccessfully tried to ignite a propane tank.
Officers were called by an ICE employee who saw the rifle. Soon after they arrived, officers reported “shots fired,” said Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, although it is unclear who fired first or if Van Spronsen fired at all. The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office classified his death as a homicide.
The four responding officers all opened fire and then took cover, uninjured. After medical aid arrived, officers found Van Spronsen dead. He had multiple gunshot wounds, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s office.
Immigration is increasingly a flashpoint American politics, and Van Spronsen’s death came on the eve of Sunday’s planned national raid by ICE targeting thousands of undocumented immigrant families who the government said missed court hearings or who had received removal notices. Seattle is not among the 10 cities being targeted in the raids.
Deb Bartley, a friend of Van Spronsen’s for about 20 years, described him as an anarchist and anti-fascist, and she believes his attack on the detention center was intended to provoke a fatal conflict.
“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.”
She and other friends of Van Spronsen got letters in the mail “just saying goodbye.” He also wrote what she referred to as a manifesto, which she declined to discuss in detail but predicted would be taken by authorities.
Maru Mora-Villalpando, an activist with the group La Resistencia, which has frequently protested the conditions at the detention center and broader immigration policy, said she did not know Van Spronsen. Nor was La Resistencia involved with the June 2018 protest at which he was arrested, she said.
However, the group believes, based on information provided to them, that Van Spronsen was targeting the detention center’s parking lot, which includes a fleet of buses that transports immigrants to the Yakima airport, where they are deported.
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 2018 protest involved about 160 people outside the detention center. About 40 people blocked a police car that had arrived, prompting the officer to call in backup; about 25 officers responded.
In court documents, Van Spronsen was accused of lunging at a police officer’s neck to help free a 17-year-old protester who was being detained. Van Spronsen refused to comply with officers’ orders, and as he was led through a crowd of protesters, police said he tried to pass the baton to another protester. Van Spronsen was punched in the face at least once during the altercation. Nine other people were arrested as well.
He ultimately pleaded guilty in Pierce County Superior Court to one count of obstructing an officer, a gross misdemeanor, and received a one-year deferred sentence in October, according to court documents, which labeled him indigent.
The four male officers involved in Saturday’s fatal shooting — whose tenure with Tacoma police ranged from 20 years to 9 months — were placed on paid administrative leave per department policy. Their names won’t be released until further along in the investigation, according to Cool.
ICE spokeswoman Tanya Roman confirmed the shooting incident and said no ICE employees were hurt nor involved. She referred questions to Tacoma police. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Seattle division said it will be supporting the investigation.
La Resistencia had initially planned a protest of the facility for Saturday afternoon, but postponed the event by a day after reporting road closures around the center.