The Seattle Times
TACOMA — 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.