LAS VEGAS — Nearly four months after a judge dismissed his lawsuit over Social Security benefits, 66-year-old Johnny Lee Wicks opened fire with a shotgun in a Las Vegas federal building, killing one security guard and wounding a U.S. marshal before being shot to death, authorities said.
Preliminary evidence pointed to Wicks' anger over his benefits case as the motive for the shooting, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press Monday, though authorities are continuing to investigate. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
FBI Special Agent Joseph Dickey said the gunman opened fire Monday morning in front of a set of security metal detectors just inside a two-story atrium rotunda. He said he didn't know if any words were spoken before the shooting began.
"From what witness accounts have said, he walked in with a shotgun underneath his jacket and opened fire when he opened the doors," Dickey said. "Seven officers responded and returned fire."
The gunfire erupted at about 8 a.m. and lasted several minutes as shots echoed around tall buildings in the area more than a mile north of the Las Vegas Strip.
The U.S. Marshals Service said the victims of the shooting Monday include a 48-year-old deputy U.S. marshal who was hospitalized and Stanley Cooper, a 65-year-old contract court security officer.
Cooper was a retired Las Vegas police officer employed by Akal Security, said Jeff Carter, spokesman for the Marshals Service in Washington. He was a police officer for 26 years and became a federal court security officer in Las Vegas in 1994, Carter said. Authorities didn't immediately release the name of the wounded marshal.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was in Las Vegas but not at his local office in the building, said one of his aides bent down to pick up some newspapers in the atrium when the shooting began.
"She believes her life was saved as a result of picking up those papers," Reid said. "She then crouched behind a pillar when this 'war,' as she said, took place."
Authorities also were investigating a fire that damaged Wicks' one-bedroom apartment in a 90-unit seniors complex three miles northwest of the scene of the federal building, FBI Special Agent Dickey said as investigators pieced together a motive for the shooting and retraced Wicks' steps.
A neighbor, Johnetta Watkins, said she didn't see Wicks after firefighters doused the fire.
Watkins, 56, used to drive Wicks to the grocery store. She described him as a quiet man who walked with a limp, lived alone and sometimes complained that Las Vegas was a "prejudiced" place to live. He also complained about what he called an unfair cut in his Social Security benefits, she said.
"He hated living in Las Vegas and he had spoken about moving back to California," Watkins said, recalling that Wicks moved in about mid-2007. "He said that he had had several strokes ... and that he was distraught because the government was taking most of his money. They had cut his funds and he was very upset about that."
In a handwritten lawsuit filed in March 2008, Wicks complained that his Social Security benefits were cut following his move to Las Vegas, and he accused federal workers of discrimination because of his race.
"Lots of state worker(s) and agencies have took part in this scam mainly for old blacks who are not well educated," Wicks wrote in the seven-page complaint.
Wicks claimed the problem began in California, after he had a stroke and was unable to go to government offices to protest an earlier benefits reduction. He alleged Social Security staff called his new landlord in Las Vegas and told her not to help him.
The case was dismissed Sept. 9 by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Pro in Las Vegas following a hearing before federal Magistrate Judge George Foley Jr. Both judges have courtrooms in the federal building.
U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., told reporters it appeared the gunman acted alone and the shooting was not a terrorist act. Ensign also has an office in the building but wasn't there at the time. The senator said the guard who died was shot in the chest.
A video posted on YouTube recorded the sound of the running firefight as the man retreated across Las Vegas Boulevard toward another federal building and a historic school.
"I could see guards and everything coming out, and then all of a sudden I just started hearing pop, pop, pop. I mean, just like 30 or 40 shots," said Troy Saccal, a tax services manager who was arriving for work at the time.
Saccal said he thought he saw one guard slump to the ground and another move to help him.
The gunman died moments later in the bushes outside the restored Fifth Street School, where his body remained for several hours.
John Clark, director of the U.S. Marshals Service in Washington, called the security officers heroes.
"The brave and immediate actions of these two individuals saved lives by stopping the threat of a reckless and callous gunman," Clark said in a statement.
Bullet holes marked the entrance of the eight-story modern federal building, which was locked down after the shootout and closed for the day.
A helicopter view showed heavily armed officers in flak jackets scouring the building's roof. Shortly afterward, armed officers escorted employees to the auditorium of a school three blocks away. Dickey called the evacuation "standard procedure."
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The Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building opened in 2002 and is named for a longtime senior federal judge who still hears cases. It was touted as the first federal building built to comply with blast resistance requirements following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.