VASHON ISLAND — Talk to the people who knew Will Van Spronsen, the 69-year-old Vashon Island man who was fatally shot last Saturday by police outside the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma, and a picture emerges of a conflicted and troubled man seen in drastically different ways.

To Sheli Story, of Bremerton, a friend who had known him for 32 years, Spronsen was  “one of the gentlest and sweetest men I have ever known. He never raised his voice. He was never violent.”

David Giusti, who rents a home on the same seven acres in which Van Spronsen lived in a bus converted into a house, says, “Was your neighbor a terrorist? No, he was a carpenter and a folk singer.”

And then there was his former wife, Shelley, 45, also of Vashon, who since 2013 had obtained four domestic-violence protection orders against Van Spronsen as they tangled over their son, who’s now 14. In the most recent court order, on Feb. 27, after Van Spronsen had previously been granted limited visitation rights with the boy, he was ordered to have no contact with him for one year.

As part of a court order, Van Spronsen was barred from owning firearms.

“His friends never lived with him. They didn’t see that side of him,” Shelley says.

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In one statement provided to the court, Van Spronsen’s son described his dad as “scary,” a man who “gets angry all the time.”

“My dad talks about his militia group he is in that has guns, and he has sent me pics on the phone of them at the shooting range … ,” he wrote. “My dad talks about ‘when his time comes’ he will rob a bank or do something so he will do a death-by-cop.”

Among the documentation presented to the court by his ex-wife were text messages she said were sent by Van Spronsen to his son. In one of the texts, the sender being “Dad” typed between two red hearts, was a photo of a pile of some 50 bullets, with the message, “I’m good. Worked on the barn. Loading mags.”

Will Van Spronsen fixed up this school bus to make it into a home for himself. He rented a spot on a large property on the west side of Vashon Island. (Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times)
Will Van Spronsen fixed up this school bus to make it into a home for himself. He rented a spot on a large property on the west side of Vashon Island. (Erik Lacitis / The Seattle Times)

A rambling manifesto and a final stand

Van Spronsen was killed “from multiple gunshot wounds” in a confrontation with four Tacoma police officers around 4 a.m. last Saturday.

Tacoma police say video surveillance shows Van Spronsen was starting a fire at the detention center and was placing flares in “strategic locations,”   including underneath a 500-gallon propane tank. Van Spronsen also ignited his own car, causing an explosion.

Police say he was throwing what appeared to be Molotov cocktails at surrounding buildings.

Arriving officers were confronted by Van Spronsen, “who had a rifle pointed at them” that appeared to be an AR-15 style, police said in a statement. When told to “drop the weapon,” says the statement, “the suspect failed to comply and the officers fired at him.”

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Police say the rifle Van Spronsen used “appeared to have sustained some type of malfunction during the incident.” The four officers involved in the shooting were not injured.

It made news around the world — the self-proclaimed anarchist whose final manifesto read, “it’s time to take action against the forces of evil.”

In the emotional, rambling document sent to friends before the deadly confrontation, Van Spronsen wrote, “i am antifa,” and declared “detention camps are an abomination.” 

Antifa, short for “antifascist,” is a loose collection of individuals who have confronted those they believe are right-wing extremists.

How to find help

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone else who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

“Always venting” about government, injustice

Vashon Island, with a population of 11,000 living a 20-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, is the kind of place where someone like Van Spronsen can still find a home. Along with the dot-com types and others buying expensive properties, there are locals who’ve lived here for decades and hang out at Sporty’s tavern, as well as the off-the-grid types like Van Spronsen who find the island a place that won’t judge them.

Brent Millett knew something was wrong last Saturday as he stood outside the large yurt he shares with his wife and daughter and heard the loud rotor noise of an ominous-looking black helicopter. Not long after, police cars, unmarked vehicles and SWAT teams arrived, the latter in helmets, bulletproof vests and carrying rifles, says Millett.

Millett, who rents space near the bus where Van Spronsen lived, didn’t know at the time that the cops were coming because of Van Spronsen. To Millett, Van Spronsen was the guy who did carpentry, played the guitar, and, yes, the guy “who was always venting” about government and injustice.

 Van Spronsen’s brother, daughter and others who knew him believe his personal and deep beliefs converged into the fatal scenario that early Saturday morning.

“It’s shocking and, at the same time, there’s a part of me that’s just not surprised he did it,” says Chris Pugh, of Seattle, who had known Van Spronsen for 30 years, meeting him in the 1980s music and art scene of Belltown.

Says his brother, Cor vanSpronsen (who spells his last name differently), 72, of Canton, Mich.: “He was absolutely an anarchist. That doesn’t necessarily mean violence. It’s a mischaracterization to call him a leftist terrorist. If there was anything that Will was, it was nonviolent.”

The night before, he was protesting

Christina Lorella-Kuzu, of Tacoma, believes she was the last person to talk to Van Spronsen.

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Last  Friday night, July 12, she and some friends had gone to protest outside the Northwest Detention Center. “For me, mostly because of the treatment of children at these camps.”

She remembers seeing Van Spronsen sitting quietly in his lawn chair, a cardboard sign leaning up against it that said, “Never again.”

He offered the women pistachios and juice that he took out of a bag.

“He told me how the Tacoma police weren’t too fond of him,” says Lorella-Kuzu. She says he talked about his arrest last year during another demonstration at the detention center. Van Spronsen had wrapped his arms around an officer’s neck and shoulders as the officer was trying to detain another protester.

Van Spronsen pleaded guilty to obstructing police, and he was given a deferred sentence.

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She says Van Spronsen also talked about once being a member of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, named after the 19th-century abolitionist who believed in the violent overthrow of slavery. In the modern version, its Facebook page says it is made up of “working class folks fighting white supremacy.”

Leaving him alone for the night, the women asked why he was planning to stay overnight. It was getting cold. “I don’t believe in concentration camps,” was the answer.

Work, music, divorces, custody fight

Van Spronsen was born in The Hague in the Netherlands. Besides his brother, he had four sisters.

Before he was born, during World War II, his father was imprisoned by the Japanese.  His father was in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, serving in Indonesia, when it was overrun by the Japanese. His mom, already with one daughter and pregnant with another, was taken to a civilian prison camp.

After the war, the family immigrated to the United States.

In the 1970s, the two brothers lived in Cleveland and worked setting up retail displays, showrooms and worked for trade shows — not the kind of profession you’d associate with an anarchist.

Will Van Spronsen eventually moved to Seattle and did the same kind of work in the 1980s. His Bremerton friend, Sheli Story, says they were part of  the ’80s Belltown music scene.

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“This was before grunge,” she says, remembering a rented space they called the K9Ranch.

“We played and recorded music, created and sold art,” she remembers. Then the years caught up. “At one point we all got sober,” says Story. “We’d do sober shows, everybody drinking iced tea at a rock show.”

There was something else affecting Van Spronsen.

Says his brother, “His body was painful and broken from all the physical labor. He was 69. I’m 72. He lived a harder life than I did.”

From his first marriage, Will Van Spronsen had a daughter, Ariel Van Spronsen, now 45, of Missoula, Montana. In 2001, he married again. That marriage produced a son and also ended in divorce.

After his second marriage ended, it would be the legal battles that focused on his former wife’s reports of threatening behavior by him, and the end of his visitation rights, that devastated Van Spronsen.

In a June 2013 letter to the editor of the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber, Van Spronsen wrote, “I feel compelled, with great discomfort, to air the unsavory side of the issue of domestic violence when used as a highly destructive tool … Without any history or proof whatsoever, a family can be ruined by false allegation … a blunt tool …”

The mother of his son says she wasn’t surprised at hearing the news about Van Spronsen’s death.

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“He had been planning ‘suicide by cop’ for a long time. He told lots of people that,” she says.

Van Spronsen’s daughter is an ardent defender of her dad. In 2013, Ariel Van Spronsen went on a crowdfunding website  to pay for legal help for his custody battle, writing, ” … Will has never, ever been threatening or violent in the entire time I’ve been alive.”

That effort raised $1,570.

Will Van Spronsen, center, is shown on an album cover for the band Jonestown in 1988. Van Spronsen was a member of the band. (Courtesy of Sheli Story)
Will Van Spronsen, center, is shown on an album cover for the band Jonestown in 1988. Van Spronsen was a member of the band. (Courtesy of Sheli Story)

In the days before last Saturday, Will Van Spronsen sent letters to friends. He also included his three-page manifesto that then ended up being posted on the internet.

The manifesto included:

“I have a father’s broken heart. I have a broken down body. And I have an unshakeable abhorrence for injustice. That is what brings me here. This is my clear opportunity to try to make a difference, I’d be an ingrate for a more obvious invitation.”

To some friends, such as Chris Pugh, and his wife, Deb Bartley, of Seattle, he also sent an additional letter.

The letter began, “I love you and I trust you know me well and will be able to translate the diverse social spheres of my life.”

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Reading that letter, the couple worried and began calling other mutual friends. From Van Spronsen’s daughter, they learned what had happened.

On Facebook, Ariel Van Spronsen wrote, “I believe he carefully planned his actions so as not to harm any innocents … where no one else would be around.”

Says Bartley about the couple’s friend, “He felt really deeply. He wanted his life to mean something.”

In the court file for his last battle over visitation rights, there is a printout of what are labeled documents Van Spronsen gave to his son.

One of the sentences says, “if you’re reading this, you know me well enough to realize that I’m friendly with death; that i don’t fear it and that i have grand plans and designs.”

It all ended in a hail of bullets.