PHILADELPHIA – An 89-year-old Nazi war crimes suspect died in custody hours before a U.S. ruling Wednesday that he should be extradited to Germany to face trial.
Johann Breyer died Tuesday night at a Philadelphia hospital, where he had been transferred Saturday after a month in jail, his lawyer and the U.S. Marshals Service said. His death was disclosed Wednesday just as U.S. Magistrate Timothy Rice approved the extradition request, which would still have needed final U.S. government review.
Rice found probable cause that Breyer was the person being sought by German authorities over his suspected service as an SS guard at Auschwitz during World War II.
“No statute of limitations offers a safe haven for murder,” he wrote in his ruling.
U.S. marshals had arrested Breyer in June outside his longtime home in Philadelphia. He was facing charges of aiding in the killing of 216,000 Jewish men, women and children at a Nazi death camp.
“As outlined by Germany, a death camp guard such as Breyer could not have served at Auschwitz during the peak of the Nazi reign of terror in 1944 without knowing that hundreds of thousands of human beings were being brutally slaughtered in gas chambers and then burned on site,” Rice wrote.
“A daily parade of freight trains delivered hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, most of whom simply vanished overnight. Yet, the screams, the smells, and the pall of death permeated the air. The allegations establish that Breyer can no longer deceive himself and others of his complicity in such horror,” the judge said.
Breyer claimed he was unaware of the massive slaughter at Auschwitz and then that he did not participate in it, but “the German allegations belie his claims,” the judge wrote.
Breyer died at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, according to his lawyer, Dennis Boyle, and the Marshals Service. The lawyer said Breyer’s health had deteriorated in jail but he didn’t know the cause of death.
German authorities in the Bavarian town of Weiden issued a 2013 warrant charging Breyer with accessory to murder under the theory that the death camp’s sole function was to kill people.
The same legal strategy had been used to charge and convict former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on charges he served as a death camp guard at Sobibor in occupied Poland. Demjanjuk died in a Bavarian nursing home in 2012 while appealing his 2011 conviction.
The 2013 warrant accused Breyer of 158 counts of accessory to murder – one count for each trainload of victims brought to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland from May to October 1944, when he was allegedly a guard there.
“It is particularly unfortunate that Breyer could not be brought to justice in view of the significant efforts that were invested in trying to hold him accountable for his service at the Auschwitz death camp,” said Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. “This setback should in no way discourage or hamper the efforts to bring other perpetrators to justice at this time.”
Breyer told The Associated Press in a 2012 interview that while he was a guard at Auschwitz, he was assigned to a part of the camp that was not involved in the slaughter of Jews and others.
“I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t rape anybody – and I don’t even have a traffic ticket here,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Breyer moved to Philadelphia after World War II and for decades lived a quiet, middle-class life with his wife, children and grandchildren. He had American citizenship because his mother was born in the U.S.; she later moved to Europe, where Breyer was born.
In 1992, the U.S. government tried to revoke Breyer’s citizenship after discovering his wartime background. The effort became a yearslong legal saga and appeared to end with a 2003 decision that found Breyer had joined the SS as a minor and could therefore not be held legally responsible for participating in it.
Then he was arrested last month outside his home in northeast Philadelphia based on the German warrant. Officials say the arrest was delayed for a year because of the complexity of the extradition request.
His lawyers had unsuccessfully argued that Breyer should remain at home pending the extradition hearing because of his frail health. They said he has mild dementia, heart conditions and has suffered strokes in recent years.
Rice initially ruled that the federal prison system was capable of caring for Breyer, although he reversed himself Monday after what he called the “emergency hospitalization” and granted bail.
Breyer’s wife and survivors could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. Messages left at his home were not immediately returned.
“This hurts. This hurts the families of the victims. This hurts anyone who is interested in justice,” Zuroff said.