Man killed in Tacoma after throwing ‘incendiary devices’ at detention center

Death comes amidst nationwide concerns about ICE raids aimed at migrants.

A 69-year-old man was killed after attacking a migrant jail in Tacoma this weekend. CREDIT: JOHN MCANULTY / GETTY
A 69-year-old man was killed after attacking a migrant jail in Tacoma this weekend. CREDIT: JOHN MCANULTY / GETTY

After police opened fire on a man throwing “incendiary devices” at a migrant jail in Tacoma, Wash., 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen was found dead early Saturday morning.

According to police, Van Spronsen arrived early Saturday morning at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, which holds migrants awaiting deportation proceedings, as well as migrant parents who have been separated from their children.

Van Spronsen “was throwing incendiary devices at the detention center, trying to get it to start a fire,” said Tacoma police Officer Loretta Cool, according to local affiliate KIRO. Cool said that Van Spronsen, who also carried a rifle, was unable to set the building on fire, and proceeded to throw the devices at numerous parked cars, one of which went up in flames. He also attempted to light a nearby propane tank. 

Officers then arrived at the scene, and proceeded to open fire. Police said they then lost sight of Van Spronsen. His body was later found nearby, although it remains unclear whether he was killed by police.


The facility saw a peaceful rally late Friday night against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, as well as against the Department of Homeland Security, which funnels migrants through the facility. There’s no indication Van Spronsen’s activities were connected with Friday’s protests.

It’s also unclear why Van Spronsen targeted the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, although his previous actions may point to a potential motive.

Local media noted that Van Spronsen, who lived on nearby Vashon Island, had previous run-ins with police, and once wrote a letter to a local newspaper complaining of “laws regulating every little detail of our existence[.]” Last year, Van Spronsen was arrested for assaulting an officer at the same detention facility while the officer was in the process of detaining a protester. Van Spronsen later pleaded guilty.

The Seattle Times also contacted one of Van Spronsen’s longtime friends, Deb Bartley, who described him as an “anarchist and anti-fascist” intent on dying in the aftermath of his attack. As the Times wrote:

“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.

Van Spronsen’s attack comes amidst rising tensions surrounding Trump’s immigration policy — most especially as it pertains to planned raids on undocumented migrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The planned raids will take place in at least nine major cities, including Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and New York. They will target approximately 2,000 families.


In a lengthy statement posted on Facebook, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who is currently running in the Democratic primary, linked Van Spronsen’s attack to Trump’s policies, while also calling for opponents to avoid using violence moving forward.

“Along with many Americans, I object with every fiber of my being to Donald Trump’s inhumane treatment of immigrants in America,” Inslee wrote. “But if today’s attack was motivated by opposition to the federal government’s actions, it was totally unacceptable. Violence is not acceptable. Our democracy is strong and we are a resilient people. But it is, again, unacceptable to turn to violence… We must be better than that and find non-violent ways of pursuing the better world we want, as many groups are doing.”