Two months before Omar J. Gonzalez allegedly hopped a White House fence, dashed across the North Lawn and entered the executive mansion, he was arrested in rural Virginia, heavily armed and carrying a map of Washington tucked inside a Bible – with a circle drawn around the White House.
The 42-year-old Army veteran from Copperas Cove, Texas, had been arrested July 19 in rural southwestern Virginia after a state trooper received a call about a man in a Ford Bronco driving erratically. He was taken into custody after a brief pursuit and a trooper found an illegal, sawed-off shotgun in the gray sport utility vehicle, according to Wythe County Deputy Commonwealth Attorney David Saliba.
After his arrest, troopers and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found weapons that included two semi-automatic, military-style rifles, including one with a bipod and flashlight and one with a bipod and scope; three .45-caliber handguns; and several loaded ammunition magazines. Saliba said Gonzalez also had a hatchet and camping equipment.
Gonzalez was released from jail in Virginia on $5,000 bond and last appeared in court Sept. 11. He did not enter a plea in that case.
Authorities ran into Gonzalez again on Aug. 25, when he was stopped while walking by the south fence of the White House, his car parked nearby. He had a hatchet in his waistband but no firearms, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Mudd said during a brief court hearing Monday.
When Gonzalez was arrested inside the White House on Friday he was armed with a knife, according to federal prosecutors. Officials said they later found 800 rounds of ammunition, a machete and two hatchets in his vehicle.
Mudd said Gonzalez was a danger to the president.
Gonzalez’s lawyer, David Bos, said Gonzalez fully understands the court proceedings.
The security breach prompted the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to schedule a rare recess hearing next Tuesday on the Secret Service and its practices. The committee has invited Secret Service Director Julia Pierson to testify.
The July traffic stop-turned-weapons arrest may well have averted a much larger, potentially deadly encounter at the front door of the White House shortly after President Barack Obama and his family had left for the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
Details about Gonzalez’s history, and whether he was armed Friday, were slow to trickle out in the aftermath of the embarrassing security breach.
The Secret Service initially said Gonzalez appeared unarmed as he sprinted across the lawn. Officials later acknowledged the small folding knife with a serrated blade in a criminal complaint. The government disclosed the news about the ammunition and other weapons in his car during his court appearance Monday.
While questions about Gonzalez’s past and his potential broader intentions linger, Pierson has ordered an investigation of the incident and stepped up security measures at the White House.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he would ultimately review the findings of the investigation and urged the public to not rush to judgment or second-guess security officers, whom he said “had only seconds to act.”
The Secret Service didn’t shoot at Gonzalez or send attack dogs after him.
Officers who spotted Gonzalez scaling the fence determined he didn’t have any weapons in his hands and wasn’t wearing clothing that could conceal substantial quantities of explosives, a primary reason agents did not fire their weapons, according to a U.S. official briefed on the investigation.
Another consideration was whether bystanders behind the fence could have been injured by errant gunfire, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
A White House spokesman said Monday that Obama was “obviously concerned” about the security breach. The president later told reporters the Secret Service does “a great job” and he is grateful for the sacrifices on his behalf and on behalf of his family.