LAS VEGAS — Investigators say Johnny Lee Wicks was on a suicide mission the day he torched his apartment, hid a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun under his black trench coat and walked three miles to the federal building in downtown Las Vegas.
The 66-year-old ex-convict was leaving behind a “lengthy” criminal history, including prison time for killing his brother in Tennessee and jail time for domestic violence in California, authorities said Tuesday.
He believed he was discriminated against because he was black, court records show, and he harbored a grudge against the government for cutting his $974 monthly Social Security benefits to $688 after he moved from California to Las Vegas.
It was just after 8 a.m. Monday when Wicks returned to the courthouse where his lawsuit over his benefits had been dismissed in September. He opened the door, pulled the shotgun from under his coat and fired.
“Acts such as this cannot be predicted,” Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said as FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, police and U.S. attorney’s officials returned to the plaza in front of the Lloyd D. George U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building.
“A lone gunman on a suicide mission is nearly impossible to prevent,” Gillespie said.
Flags flew at half-staff as the officials described the furious gunbattle on the site a day earlier.
Wicks paused to reload after the first three blasts inside the courthouse entryway and fired twice outside with federal marshals and court security officers in pursuit.
Seven court officers and U.S. marshals fired 81 shots, said Kevin Favreau, special agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI office.
Stanley Cooper, a courthouse security guard, was shot by Wicks in the chest and mortally wounded. He wasn’t wearing a bullet proof vest, officials said. But he was able to fire one shot as he confronted Wicks at a security screening station in the entryway.
Wicks also wounded a 48-year-old deputy U.S. marshal as he retreated across Las Vegas Boulevard. Wicks died in desert landscaping next to the bullet-pocked stucco walls of a historic school house.
He had been wounded in the stomach, and died from a gunshot wound to the head fired by one of his pursuers, officials said.
Wicks still had one shell in the shotgun, FBI Special Agent Joseph Dickey said.
Cooper, a 72-year-old retired Las Vegas police sergeant who became a court security officer in 1994, was praised as a hero.
“All he ever did was serve,” his employer, Daya Singh Khalsa, president of Akal Security Inc., said from Espanola, N.M. “He was the senior CSO in Las Vegas, and part of the law enforcement community for 41 years.”
Gary Orton, U.S. Marshal for Nevada, said the 48-year-old deputy marshal who was wounded was treated overnight and released from University Medical Center in Las Vegas. The 24-year veteran of the service was not identified.
Officials said they didn’t know what set Wicks off. Favreau said investigators don’t believe he threatened violence before starting a fire in a closet in his apartment a few minutes after 5 a.m. Monday. Dickey said Wicks said nothing as he entered the courthouse.
“The security officers and law enforcement officers did their job well yesterday,” Gillespie said. “They kept everyone inside and outside that courthouse safe. The gunman was not able to access the courtrooms or the judges.”
Authorities said it wasn’t the first violence in Wicks’ life.
Wicks killed his brother, Leo Wicks, with a shotgun in Memphis in 1974, and was sentenced in 1976 to 12 to 15 years for second-degree murder, authorities said. He was paroled in 1981, said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
He was accused of assault to commit rape in Sacramento in 1989, according to the FBI. But prosecutors rejected that case for insufficient evidence, said Albert Locher, assistant Sacramento County district attorney.
Wicks served jail time after pleading no contest to domestic battery in Sacramento in 1995, court records show.
Wicks also feuded with managers of a downtown apartment building for seniors and people with disabilities in Fresno, where his handwritten protest of his eviction and a small claims court filing in 1998 included an allegation that he was ousted “Because I am Black.”
“It’s all about race. I am no fool,” he said in the handwritten federal lawsuit he filed against the Social Security Administration in March 2008 after declaring himself indigent. In it he said he’d suffered a stroke years ago.
“This action by this office will make it very hard for me to pay my rent and energy bill,” he said.