Man accused of being part of Nazi death squad dies before his trial

Feb 1 2011 - 6:01pm

SEATTLE -- A Bellevue, Wash., man who was facing possible deportation and loss of his U.S. citizenship because he was allegedly a member of a Nazi death squad during World War II has died.

Peter Egner, 88, died Jan. 19 of natural causes, according to James Apa, spokesman for the Department of Health, Seattle & King County.

Egner was set to go to trial Feb. 22 in U.S. District Court in Seattle to defend himself against a lawsuit filed by the government seeking to strip him of his citizenship for allegedly lying about his activities during World War II.

Serbian officials had also sought to extradite Egner to prosecute him as a war criminal.

Egner came to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1960. He won his citizenship in 1966 and lived quietly in Portland for more than 40 years before U.S. Department of Justice investigators tracked him down. He moved to Bellevue in 2005.

Egner was allegedly a member of the notorious Einsatzgruppe, whose troops acted as the spearhead of Hitler's "Final Solution," the effort to rid Europe of Jews, Gypsies and others Hitler deemed undesirable. The brutal police force rounded up tens of thousands of Serbian men, women and children, sending many to their deaths in prison camps and interrogating, torturing and executing others.

The government alleged that in 1941 and 1942, Egner was a guard and interpreter for a unit that gassed prisoners, including as many as 6,200 women and children who were suffocated in the back of a specially equipped truck on trips from the Semlin concentration camp to Avala, a mountain south of Belgrade where the Nazis executed more than 80,000 prisoners.

When he entered the U.S., he told immigration examiners he had served in the German Air Force.

In documents filed late last year, Egner admitted he was a twice promoted as a noncommissioned officer in the Nazi-run Serbian security police, and acknowledged serving as a transport guard on a train bound for Auschwitz, where he guarded a boxcar filled with Gypsy men, women and children targeted for extermination by the Nazis.

Egner also told the Department of Justice in sworn depositions and a statement that he served as an armed guard on three other transports: Two involved groups taken to the Semlin concentration camp. Another was to the Avala site outside Belgrade, where the Nazis shot and buried thousands of prisoners, many in reprisal for partisan attacks on German and SS units.

Egner was shot and seriously wounded in a partisan attack in 1943, according to the documents.

Egner, however, insisted he never saw or participated in any atrocities and did not know what went on inside the camps.

In a ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge James Robart found that evidence, "at a minimum" required the case go to trial, and he denied Egner's effort to have the case dismissed.

After his wife of 30 years died, Egner moved Bellevue in 2005 to be closer to his nephew, an orphan whom he and his wife had adopted shortly after the war, according to friends and his attorney.

His lawyer, Robert Gibbs, would not confirm or deny Tuesday that Egner was dead. He said only that there would be "additional court filings next week."

Alisa Finelli, a spokeswoman for the Human Rights Special Prosecutions Division in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., which is overseeing the case, said prosecutors would have no comment.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter and the Israeli director for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, "We feel cheated" by Egner's death.

"This was a complex case, but one where there was going to be a good resolution. Serbia had agreed to take (Egner) and prosecute him for his crimes," he said.

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