Police: Discovery Channel hostages were ready to make a break for it when gunman was shot

Police had been negotiating with James Jae Lee for several hours and intended to keep him talking for as long as it took to safely resolve the standoff at the Discovery Channel's headquarters. Inside the lobby, Lee's three hostages had no intention of waiting.

As the two Discovery employees and a security guard got ready to make a break for it, officers moving in on Lee heard him shout and then a "pop" that they thought might have been gunfire or a homemade bomb detonating. So they stepped out from behind a wall and shot him dead, ending the drama that unfolded Wednesday at the cable network's complex just north of Washington.

It turned out that Lee was armed with starter pistols, police said Thursday as they revealed new details about the culmination of Lee's yearslong crusade against the Discovery networks, which he faulted in fanatical Web posts for offering programming that promoted overpopulation.

But Lee, 43, was also carrying homemade pipe bombs, one of which went off when he was shot. Capt. Paul Starks of the Montgomery County Police department described the devices as canisters of propane with pipes around them. He said inside the pipes were shotgun shells or pellets.

Authorities found and detonated four more devices Thursday at a home about 3 miles north of the Discovery building. The owner of the house called police and said Lee had stayed there, according to Montgomery County Police Lt. Robert Bolesta.

Investigators were trying to determine whether Lee had a car or a truck.

Authorities had been negotiating for roughly four hours Wednesday afternoon when the tactical team opened fire.

"For most of the time, the hostages were laying on the ground, and he didn't engage them much other than saying on the phone, 'I don't care about these people,'" Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger said Thursday. "I believe he was not intending to come out of there alive. ... He told us many times over the course of hours that he was ready to die."

None of the hostages or any of the 1,900 other people who work at Discovery Communications Inc.'s building was hurt.

"Those hostages were tremendously courageous," Manger said, adding that he understood why they were preparing an escape.

"I think they probably figured that was their best chance. I don't know who came up with a plan or who gave a signal, but they were there for four hours and had the presence of mind to maintain themselves and ultimately get out of there safely."

Discovery Communications officials said a security guard who was taken hostage served as a calming influence and helped police throughout the ordeal. Montgomery County Police Capt. Darryl McSwain said the guard couldn't speak with police during the standoff but may have done some motioning.

David Leavy, a Discovery spokesman, said the guard is a former military officer who served in Iraq. The guard and the two other male hostages were at home Thursday with friends and family, according to Leavy, who added that the company plans to seriously review security measures around the building.

Security firm Whelan SFI, which is headquartered in St. Louis and has offices in Washington and in Landover, Md., said the guard works for the company, but they declined to identify him.

Lee, who was periodically homeless, was charged with disorderly conduct in February 2008 after he staged a "Save the Planet" protest outside the Discovery building. He threw fistfuls of cash in the air and paid homeless people to carry signs condemning the network. Police found him with a duffel bag stuffed with more than $20,000, according to court records.

Acting as his own lawyer during the trial, he described himself as a peace activist who wanted "to save the planet, of course."

He served two weeks in jail and was ordered to stay 500 feet away from Discovery headquarters as part of his probation, which ended two weeks ago.

Twice since then, including the day of the fatal confrontation, Silver Spring resident Christopher Ekakoro came across Lee by chance. The first time, Ekakoro said, Lee took offense to some evangelizing Ekakoro was doing on a bus and ripped up an image of Jesus that Ekakoro had been handing out.

"I set him off. He said there is no God and why would I be collecting money for something that doesn't exist," Ekakoro said.

Ekakoro saw Lee again Wednesday near a mall a few miles from the Discovery headquarters. Lee was again dressed in a green military-style uniform and was pushing boxes on a stroller. Ekakoro wanted to try to engage Lee again, but Ekakoro's wife talked him out of it.

"He was focused. He knew what he was doing," Ekakoro said.

Lee's first known run-in with the law came in 2003 in San Diego, where he was convicted in federal court of smuggling aliens into the U.S.

He wrote a forlorn letter to the judge expressing his unhappiness.

"After 36 years of my life I have absolutely nothing to show for it," Lee wrote. "As for family, all I can say is that I avoid them to preserve my sanity. I think that they are better off without me in their lives."

He went on to write: "I don't know if my life will end with a happy ending, but all I ask is for an ending that is not in prison."

In court and on his website, he had demanded an end to Discovery Communications' shows such as TLC's "Kate Plus 8" and "19 Kids and Counting." He said the network should air "programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility."

Lee also objected to Discovery's environmental programming.

The Discovery building reopened for a short time Thursday. Employees were then given the afternoon off, and the building will be closed Friday.


Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Rockville, Md.; David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md.; Ben Nuckols in Baltimore; and Nafeesa Syeed in Washington contributed to this report.



Discovery Communications Inc.: http://corporate.discovery.com