WASHINGTON >> A man jumped over the fence of the White House on Friday and made it through the front door before officers managed to apprehend him, the Secret Service said. President Barack Obama had departed the White House just minutes earlier.
The rare security breach was likely to renew intense scrutiny of the Secret Service, an agency whose storied history has been marred in recent years by multiple allegations of misconduct by officers. It was unclear whether a fence-jumper has ever made it into the White House before.
After scaling the fence on the north side of the White House, the intruder darted toward the presidential residence, ignoring commands from officers to stop, said Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan. He was ultimately apprehended just inside the North Portico doors — the grand, columned entrance that looks out over Pennsylvania Avenue.
Donovan said the man appeared to be unarmed to officers who spotted him climbing the fence, and a search of the suspect turned up no weapons. The suspect was transported to a nearby hospital for examination after complaining of chest pain. He was charged with unlawful entry into the White House complex.
The Secret Service identified the suspect as Omar J. Gonzalez, 42, of Copperas Cove, Texas. Attempts to reach Gonzales or his relatives by phone Friday evening were unsuccessful.
The incident prompted a rare evacuation of much of the White House. Inside the West Wing, White House staffers and Associated Press journalists were rushed into the basement and out a side exit to a nearby street by Secret Service agents — some with their weapons drawn.
Although it’s not uncommon for people to make it over the White House fence, they’re typically stopped almost immediately and rarely get very far. Video from the scene showed the suspect, in jeans and a dark shirt, sprinting across the lawn as Secret Service agents shouted at nearby pedestrians to clear the area.
“This situation was a little different than other incidents we have at the White House,” Donovan said. “There will be a thorough investigation into the incident.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs the House Oversight Committee’s subpanel on national security, said it was “totally unacceptable” that the fence-jumper made it inside the White House. Chaffetz said he’s been investigating the Secret Service for more than a year and that there have been many security breaches that were never publicly reported.
“Unfortunately, they are failing to do their job,” Chaffetz said in an email to the AP. “There are good men and women, but the Secret Service leadership has a lot of questions to answer.”
The incident occurred shortly after 7 p.m., only minutes after Obama and his daughters, along with a guest of one of the girls, left the White House aboard Marine One on their way to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland where Obama and his family were to spend the weekend. First lady Michelle Obama had traveled separately to Camp David and was not at home.
The Secret Service’s elite reputation has suffered a succession of blows in recent years, and Friday’s breach marked yet another setback in the agency’s efforts to rehabilitate its image.
In 2012, 13 agents and officers were implicated in a prostitution scandal during preparations for Obama’s trip Cartagena, Colombia. The next year, two officers were removed from Obama’s detail after another alleged incident of sexually-related misconduct. And in March, an agent was found drunk by staff at a Dutch hotel the day before Obama was set to arrive in the Netherlands.
Obama appointed the agency’s first female director last year as a sign he wanted to change the culture and restore public confidence in its operations. An inspector general’s report in December found no evidence of widespread misconduct.
The Secret Service has struggled in recent years to strike the appropriate balance between ensuring the first family’s security and preserving the public’s access to the White House grounds. Once open to vehicles, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was confined to pedestrians after the Oklahoma City bombing, but officials have been reluctant to restrict access to the area further.
Evacuations at the White House are extremely rare. Typically, when someone jumps the White House fence, the compound is put on lockdown and those inside remain in place while officers respond to the situation. Last week, the Secret Service apprehended a man who jumped over the same stretch of fence on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, prompting officers to draw their firearms and deploy service dogs as they took the man into custody.