Patricia Sadowski, née Taylor, could never have foreseen that some 30 years after their divorce, her ex-husband would murder a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum before being shot himself. But some hints came early.
Patricia Sadowski, née Taylor, had no idea what she was getting into when she agreed to a date with the copywriter who responded to an ad she placed in the paper saying she was looking to do secretarial work and typing from her home. Tall, handsome and 20 years her senior, James von Brunn in the late 1960s “seemed like a very nice man.” He reminded her of John Wayne. “He had that air about him — strong, distinctive,” she said in an interview with the Intelligence Report.
What she could never have foreseen is that in 2009, some 30 years after their eventual divorce, von Brunn would murder a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum before being shot himself. But some hints came early.
While they were dating, “he was really the Romeo,” and when, after a year of courtship, he asked her to marry him, she happily said yes. Sadowski knew her husband, a World War II veteran, was conservative, a supporter the John Birch Society who had had difficulty finding work as a graphic artist when he came back from the war. But there was more.
Within a year, she says, it became clear that conservative wasn’t the word for it. Von Brunn was “eaten up” by rage, “addicted to this hateful resentment he had toward the Jewish people,” Sadowski said. He told about seeing his “friends” die during the war, and “the friends would be Germans,” she recalls. “And he always said that he was sorry that he had to see that, that these wonderful white German people were dying.”
The couple moved around a lot, living in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. They never had any real friends — von Brunn alienated everyone with his anti-Semitic vitriol, which he rarely took care to hide. While living in California in 1977, they had a son who they named Erik. Soon after that, they moved to New Hampshire, where von Brunn became even more consumed. He traveled often to visit his contacts in the neo-Nazi underworld, and sometimes he had guests. Once, a young Klan leader named David Duke came to visit their New Hampshire home, but the two men told her to leave the room and Sadowski never learned what they discussed. At turns silent and abusive, von Brunn read about the Holocaust and the Jews constantly, Sadowski says. “Erik would toddle up to him at the chair and he’d say, ‘Go away, I don’t have time for you now.’”
It was just as bad when he did talk. He would drink and rant about the Jews and how they were destroying the country and about how the Klan had the right idea. Or, she said, he’d brag about how, back in the 1950s, he used to be drinking buddies with actor Robert Mitchum (who apparently flirted with Holocaust denial, telling Esquire in 1983, that “Hitler needed lebensraum” [living room, a reference to the Nazis’ attempt to enlarge Germany with the theft of lands from other nations], and shocking his interviewer by offering that “people dispute” the official account of the Holocaust).
One night, Sadowski couldn’t bear to listen her husband anymore. She got up to walk away, but he came after her and struck her in the head, rupturing her right eardrum.
Soon after that, she visited a psychiatrist and an attorney to ask what she should do. “I was advised to get out of there as soon as possible, before something drastic happened to the family,” she says. But she “deeply loved” von Brunn, and they had a son, so she tried to stick it out.
The couple moved once more, this time to Maryland, where Sadowski would be close to her family.
That Halloween, von Brunn lost it. “He decided to go out on the street with a gun and shoot it in the air,” she remembers. “And he put this book he helped publish, Zionist Rape of the Holy Land, he put it in everybody’s mailbox.”
That was the last straw. The next time her husband went out of town, Sadowski moved out, taking Erik with her. About a year later, von Brunn was arrested for bringing a sawed-off shotgun, a pistol and a hunting knife into the Federal Reserve, where he planned to take the Board of Governors hostage and read on television a 12-page manifesto about the central bank’s supposed skullduggery.
Sadowski was stunned. Though she knew all too well that that his hatred of the Jews “was like a cancer” that he could not shake, “I didn’t think he’d go to that extreme.” But when Erik was old enough, she decided to allow him to speak with his father on the phone from prison.
“I always kept the illusion that it would be better for me not to tell Erik, ‘Your father’s a mean man’ … like people who are divorced usually do,” she told the Report. “But none of his ideas or anything went to Erik. Erik never agreed with his ideas, but he was always pushing them, even when he was living with Erik. It was really quite traumatic for Erik to go through.”
Sadowski remarried and today lives in Florida senior housing with her husband. She’ll turn 72 this March, and seems relatively satisfied with her life — but she wishes she could do more for Erik. His father’s obsession “was a long and ongoing situation that he could never escape from,” she says. And “the worst part is how it’s affecting my son.”