The Origins of Discovery Channel Gunman James J. Lee

How the radical environmentalist came across the book that shaped his beliefs and the cash he used to finance his protest groups

James J. Lee, the 43-year-old gunman who was killed by police Wednesday after a hostage standoff at the Discovery Channel's headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, was a radical environmentalist obsessed with the Daniel Quinn novel "Ishmael."  In 2008, Lee staged a protest where he threw thousands of dollars in cash into the air outside at the Discovery Channel building.

TheWrap uncovered a series of postings on an "Ishmael" messageboard that reveal when Lee discovered the book that shaped his radical ideology and the source of the funds that financed his obsessions.

"Ishmael," which was written in 1992, features a telepathic ape that discusses solutions for humanity's problems. Lee's interpretation of the book led him believe that humans must cease breeding to stop overpopulation.

In the list of demands to the Discovery Channel that he published just prior to the Sept. 1 standoff in Silver Spring, Lee wrote:   

"The Discovery Channel and it's affiliate channels MUST have daily television programs at prime time slots based on Daniel Quinn's 'My Ishmael' pages 207-212 … Focus must be given on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution."

Before going to Maryland, Lee lived in California. On December 6, 2006 he sent an email to a man named Mike Thayer about a "new group" he was organizing "focusing on the works of Daniel Quinn and his books." The group met weekly at a Borders Bookstore on G Street in San Diego's Gaslamp district.

"Active discussions, lectures, topics of interest, readings, debates, science, and leadership training will be discussed … Let's do it. Let's do this now," Lee wrote.

Lee had discovered "Ishmael" the very same week he wrote the enthusiastic message to Thayer.  

Thayer was a member of a local messageboard called "SDIshmael." He posted Lee's note to the forum.

"I received this email and thought i'd forward it to the group. I probabaly [sic] won't be there this saturday but maybe next time," Thayer wrote.

Colin Leath, another member of the SDIshmael forum, met Lee on Dec. 16, 2006.

"Shannon, who introduced herself to the list a while back, works in the Borders Bookstore where I met Lee and where Lee has his headquarters. Apparently, Shannon told Lee about 'Ishmael' about two weeks ago and now, Lee is wholly on board and working to save the world," he wrote. 

Though he was impressed with Lee's devotion to "saving humanity," Leath initially thought his new friend was too intense. 

"I do think Lee could be more loving and encouraging of fun, but he is (mostly) very serious, and that is understandable," Leath wrote. 

Neither Leath or Thayer responded to phone calls requesting comment on this story. 

Lee eventually joined the "SDIshmael" forum. He posted there regularly in the three months between Dec. 2006 and Feb. 2007 and discussed a major project he was planning. Lee seemed to take on somewhat of a leadership role within the SDIshmael group. 

"Finishing up phase 3 and should be ready for the next move," Lee wrote. 

Many of the "SDIshmael" members wrote in support of Lee's work and filled out questionnaires he distributed that evaluated their ability to help with his initiative. Lee's questionnaire asked group members to describe their "behavioral essence, skills, hobbies" and "plan to save the world."

Although there was some discussion of building a Walden Two-style experimental community in some of the posts about Lee's efforts, he and the other SDIshmael members weren't explicitly clear about exactly what type of project they were planning. Despite this veil of secrecy, Lee did reveal the source of the money he would use to finance the venture. 

"I am financing the whole idea with my own money from my inheritance," he wrote. 

That inheritance is probably what enabled Lee to throw $20,000 into the air and offer a $210,000 cash prize for "Ishmael"-based TV ideas when he protested the Discovery Channel in 2008. Just two years after he first read the book, Discovery's rejection of his "Ishmael" TV ideas sent Lee into a violent rage against the channel.  

 Lee developed his militant environmentalist philosophy less than four years ago, but in that short span of time, he evidently felt strongly enough that he was willing to die for those beliefs.