Lee, who railed against the Discovery Channel's environmental programming for years, burst into the company's headquarters Wednesday with at least one explosive device strapped to his body and took three people hostage at gunpoint before he was killed by police, officials said.
Mission Valley resident Sarah Jennings knew Lee when he lived at the Cole Block Hotel, just a block away from the downtown Borders store in 2007. The pair met at the bookstore where Jennings worked and Lee was a customer. She said he came in frequently and was always on a laptop while he was there.
"Your average person would probably call him socially awkward," said Jennings. "Once you start talking to him, he was really nice, he was very knowledgeable, he was very intelligent."
Jennings said Lee was always very vocal about protecting the environment and would frequently talk about saving the earth. She said it was Lee's passion and that, in fact, he moved to Washington, D.C., to have a bigger platform for his protests.
She also said she was surprised by what happened in Silver Springs, Md., on Wednesday.
"It was a shock," Jennings said. "I completely teared up, because we knew that he was passionate about the environment and, you know, his message, but I honestly did not think he would ever go that far. And I know for a fact that he would not hurt anybody -- I want to put that out there: I think he was just trying to go for shock value and get people to listen, because that was one of his big frustrations when he was here, that people didn't listen to him, they didn't take him seriously, they thought he was crazy, and, I know, that's probably why he did what he did."
Jennings said she thought he was not a violent person.
"He was not mean ... he was the nicest guy," she said. "My son was about 6-months-old when he was here. He would always say, you now, 'If you need anything, just let me know, I will help you out.' He never wanted anything, he just wanted people to get his message."
Jennings said Lee worked at some type of factory in San Diego, but around 2007, he was laid off from his job. She also said he apparently came from a very wealthy family in Hawaii and that they helped him financially.
According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which researched property records, Lee was given part-ownership of a residence in 2003 in Hawaii and sold his stake four years later for $90,000.
Lee was arrested in 2008 during a protest he organized, in which, according to court records, he paid homeless people to carry signs outside the Discovery Channel building. He also threw money into the air, calling it "just trash" and causing a scramble in the street. He was later convicted of disorderly conduct.
"The Discovery Channel produces many so-called 'Environmental Programs' supposedly there to save the planet," Lee said in an ad he took out in a Washington newspaper to promote the protest. "But the truth is things are getting WORSE! Their programs are causing more harm than good."
In court and online, Lee faulted the Discovery Channel for shows as varied as "Future Weapons," "It Takes a Thief" and "Planet Green."
In court for the case in March 2008, Lee said he had been working to save the planet after losing his job in San Diego. However, the address he gave at the time turned out to be a homeless shelter in San Diego.
At one point, Lee wrote a lengthy manifesto that was posted online in which he criticized the Discovery Channel and claimed to be doing research and writing the text at San Diego State University.
The lengthy posting that could be seen Wednesday on a website registered to Lee said Discovery and its affiliates should stop "encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants," a possible reference to shows like "Kate Plus 8" and "19 Kids and Counting." Instead, he said, the network should air "programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility."
Lee served two weeks in jail after that 2008 arrest, and was ordered to stay 500 feet away from Discovery headquarters as part of his probation.
The hostages that were taken on Wednesday -- two Discovery Communications employees and a security guard -- were unhurt after the four-hour standoff. Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger said tactical officers moved in after officers monitoring Lee on building security cameras saw him pull out a handgun and point it at a hostage.
An explosive device on the gunman's body detonated when police shot him, Manger said. Police were trying to determine whether two boxes and two backpacks the gunman had also contained explosives.
NBC News reported that when its producers called Discovery's general number earlier in the day, a man identifying himself as James J. Lee answered and said he had a gun and several bombs.
"I have several bombs strapped to my body ready to go off. I have a device that if I drop it, if I drop it, it will f------ explode," the man told NBC.
The man on the phone said he built the bombs in about three weeks.
"I did a lot of research. I had to experiment," he said.
Manger said the suspect held the hostages in the lobby area of the first floor. Authorities said they would methodically go through the building and identify any suspicious items. The chief also said police spent several hours negotiating with the armed man after he entered the suburban Washington building about 1 p.m. None of the 1,900 people who work in the building were hurt, and most made it out before the standoff ended.
According to San Diegan Sarah Jennings, in some way Lee got what he always wanted.
"People will remember that he died and why he died so ultimately he got his message out there and that's what he was trying to do," Jennings said.
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