Wednesday, July 9, 2003
SS guard's capture ends secret life in Metro suburb
For Nazi in hiding, the tables were turned
By Tony Manolatos and Edward L. Cardenas / The Detroit News
CLINTON TOWNSHIP -- Johann Leprich endured 16 years as a fugitive
-- evading capture for a period many times greater than most
of the hunted Jews he watched over as a Nazi concentration camp
Like those few who successfully escaped the Nazis, Leprich
survived by craftiness.
When he went outside -- usually at night -- he was careful to
pay attention to his surroundings. He looked closely at the people
he passed and reacted nervously to unusual sounds and quick movements.
Leprich, who turned 78 Monday and entered the United States
illegally in 1952, worked hard at blending in with his neighbors.
But the fear of discovery never allowed a normal life. Among
other things, he built a secret hideout in the basement of his
Clinton Township house. He was there last week when federal authorities
finally caught him.
After serving at one of the most brutal Nazi concentration
camps in World War II, lying about his past, fooling dozens of
government officials, ducking investigators, sneaking between
the United States and Canada and blending into middle America,
it all came crashing down for Leprich on July 1. "It is
ironic that thousands of people hid in their homes (during World
War II) and would be dragged out of the house by the Nazis --
and now he is one of those people 55 years later," said
Robert Kowalkowski, a Farmington Hills private investigator who
tracked Leprich for years with a team of investigators.
Neighbors said they last saw Leprich in 1987 after he fled
from federal authorities, who discovered he had lied about his
Nazi past to gain entry into the United States.
The man they remember was soft-spoken, gentle and neighborly.
Leprich would stop over unannounced, neighbors said. He chatted
easily about the weather or his children, never leaving without
saying goodbye in his faint German accent. At home, he spent
hours in the back yard of his tidy ranch in Clinton Township
tending to his vegetable garden.
"He grew everything in that garden and he shared his vegetables
with everyone -- that's just the way he was," neighbor Clarence
Sonntag, 73, said Monday across the street from the home where
Leprich's wife and son still live.
Leprich's care-free life took an unexpected turn in 1987 when
U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Hackett revoked Leprich's United
States citizenship because he lied about his past.
But Leprich refused to give up the life he made for himself.
The former Nazi soldier skipped a deportation hearing in Detroit.
Instead, he moved to Windsor.
Authorities suspect Leprich used fake identification to sneak
across the U.S.-Canadian border.
He may have had help and he may have used illegal entry points
to cross. In either case, it worked for 16 years.
"If we would have had the answer to how he eluded us, we
would have had him a long time ago," said Greg Palmore,
spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Holocaust survivors can't say if they crossed paths with Leprich,
but they know of him and loathe the ex-Nazi guard.
"His neighbors were not there -- other prisoners and I can
attest to the fact that guards like Mr. Leprich performed brutal
tasks," said Sam Offen, 81, of West Bloomfield, who was
at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in the mid-1940s, when Leprich
was stationed there.
Leprich, charged with illegally entering the United States, is
tentatively scheduled to appear Friday in U.S. Immigration Court
A judge will decide whether to keep him in custody pending a
deportation hearing. Federal officials won't say where he is
William Dance, Leprich's attorney, said Tuesday he has yet to
speak to his client.
"I know very little about it because (the Bureau of of Immigration
and Customs Enforcement) has not discussed it with me,"
Admits he was a guard
The U.S. government has no evidence linking Leprich to killings
in Nazi death camps, Palmore said. Offen, a fur shop owner who
was at Mauthausen from August 1944 to May 1945 when the U.S.
Army liberated the camp, said all of the Mauthausen guards killed
prisoners. If they didn't, Offen said, the guards were sent to
front lines for combat.
Leprich acknowledged he was a guard at the Mauthausen Concentration
Camp in his 1986 denaturalization hearing. In his deposition,
he said he was forced to leave the Hungarian army and coerced
into becoming a Nazi death camp guard, when he was 18.
American prosecutors said Leprich voluntarily joined Germany's
Waffen SS unit and guarded the Mauthausen camp for about a year
as a member of the elite Nazi group Death's Head Battalion.
"Nobody was forced to be an SS guard; they volunteered because
they didn't have to go to the front lines," said Rabbi Charles
Rosenzveig, director of the Holocaust Memorial Center in West
The Mauthausen camp was in northern Austria, less than 100 miles
from Germany. Records at the Holocaust Memorial Center indicate
nearly 200,000 Jews and other ethnic, religious and political
prisoners of the Holocaust passed through Mauthausen. Of them,
119,000 were killed, including 38,120 Jews.
"Prisoners were not intended to leave the camp alive,"
Leprich's court records say. "From his post, he could see
into the camp and see the barracks where the prisoners lived.
... He could smell the odor of bodies being cremated."
Average U.S. lifestyle
Leprich apparently was able to leave the foreboding corner of
his existance behind and ease into an average American life.
In 1976, Leprich and his wife Maria moved from Detroit to Clinton
Township, Macomb County deed records show. The couple paid $10,500
for their brown brick suburban ranch, where they brought up two
Neatly maintained flower beds and Leprich's garden grow in the
back of the house, which is now valued at $211,800, Clinton Township
records show. Leprich wasn't registered to vote, but his wife
was. He last renewed his Michigan driver's license 10 years ago
when he was a fugitive, records show. His license expired in
Leprich, who became a U.S. citizen in 1958, was stripped of his
citizenship because it's a federal crime to lie about Nazi membership.
Before he became a fugitive, Leprich told some of his neighbors
about his past.
"He told me he was ... in the SS and was a ... guard in
a concentration camp," said Sonntag, a retired postal worker.
"Everybody based their knowledge of John on the present
and not his past."
Neighbor Patricia Sebastian agrees.
"You couldn't have asked for better people," Sebastian,
68, said from the front door of her home. "This happened
a long time ago. He was a kid. Let's get over it."
Canada joined search
Canadian authorities acknowledged they searched for Leprich more
Canada flagged Leprich, meaning if he used his real identification
and was stopped at the border he would have been arrested for
illegally entering the country, said Jean Dube, head of the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police War Crimes division. "That leads
me to believe he was operating under an assumed name."
Palmore said Leprich might have sneaked across the U.S.-Canadian
"If he would have used conventional means to go through
(the border) he would have been apprehended," Palmore said.
In 1997, Leprich was profiled on "America's Most Wanted."
Steven Rambam of New York, who leads a team of investigators
who locate and build cases against Nazi war criminals, tracked
down Leprich and provided the TV show with information about
"He has been able to successfully thumb his nose at the
U.S. government and America for the past 55 years," said
Rambam, who discovered Leprich collected Social Security for
10 years after he was deported in 1987, and even was able to
renew his driver's license in person.
Rambam said Leprich worked at a small tool-and-die shop in Fraser,
retiring before fleeing the country in 1987.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Macomb County was approached
by the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization
Service in January of this year to investigate Leprich.
Rob Casey, supervisory agent of the Macomb County FBI, would
not discuss specific details of the investigation but he said
his agency used "every sophisticated investigative technique
available to ascertain (Leprich's) location."
(Original article at: http://www.detnews.com/2003/metro/0307/09/a01-213382.htm.)