Incident may have been suicide attempt

By Maria Koklanarls and Jim Keary

Leland William Modjeski, a 37-year-old former graduate student unemployed since November when he quit his job delivering pizzas, had a history of mental problems and may have been trying to commit suicide when he scaled a fence at the White House late Tuesday, law enforcement authorities and sources said yesterday.

Federal prosecutor Eric Dubelier said there was "some indication of a mental history." He did not elaborate, but an investigator speaking on the condition of anonymity said Mr. Modjeski's wife had been concerned about his mental stability.

Two law enforcement officials said investigators suspect that Mr. Modjeski, armed with an empty revolver when he was shot once in the arm near the south entrance to the White House, wanted to draw police fire. Others said Mr. Modjeski, who faces felony charges for assault and firearms violations, was deeply depressed.

Sources said Mr. Modjeski's actions -- trying to get to the White House when he knew he would be caught, bringing an unloaded gun that could only attract attention suggest a depressed man's attempt to commit suicide.

Ivy Modjeski, Mr. Modjeski's stepmother, said she and her husband didn't know anything about the charges facing her stepson.

"We're just as shocked as everyone else," Mrs. Modjeski said. "We don't have anything else to say. Details began to emerge yesterday about Mr. Modjeski, who lives in the Falls Church area of Fairfax County. He graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1976 and took courses on and off for the next 10 years at the Northern Virginia Community College, where he majored in general studies, a loosely structured discipline for students who have not decided on an area of concentration. In 1986, he transferred to George Mason University, a spokeswoman for the community college said. Mr. Modjeski received a bachelor's degree in psychology, with distinction, in 1989, George Mason spokeswoman Michelle Braithwaite said. She said the honors were based on both his good grades and letters of recommendation.

Mr. Modjeski then enrolled In the university's doctoral program in psychology, Ms. Braithwaite said. The university allows doctoral candidates to obtain a master's degree at the same time they are pursuing their doctorates, she said.

Mr. Modjeski earned a master's degree in psychology in 1992. He stayed at the university doing research for a doctorate until six months ago, when he abruptly stopped. His field was industrial organizational psychology, which includes the study of what motivates people in the work force. "My experience was that he was a strong student, did well, turned things in on time," said Louis Buffardi, Mr. Modjeski's adviser. "There were no academic problems that surfaced -- and no nonacademic ones."

Professors in the psychology department described Mr. Modjeski as a stellar student who worked hard. When he entered the graduate program, h'e was given a teaching assistant's job, something generally reserved for high achieving students.

Mr. Modjeski apparently never worked as a psychologist. His last job was delivering Pizzas for the Pizza Hut in the 7600 block of Lee Highway, near his home. He began the part-time job June 30, 1994, earning between $4.25 and $4.75 an hour, and was fired on Nov. 11,1994.

The manager and several employees at the Lee Highway Pizza Hut refused comment yesterday. Rob Doughty, spokesman for Pizza Hut's national headquarters in Wichita, Kan., declined to say yesterday why the chain fired Mr. Modjeski but said it was not for carrying a gun.

Mr. Buffardi was surprised to hear that Mr. Modjeski wound up delivering pizzas in the summer.

The job market is good for those with such degrees, he said. "They usually do not take very long to get professional-level jobs" as researchers or with government contractors or training programs.

Mr. Modjeski's neighbors in Great Oak Square, a complex of 64 two-story town houses just south of Falls Church, said they frequently saw him and his wife, Rosemary, around the 2800 block of Prince Albert Court, where they live. They called him quiet serious, almost somber.

The Modjeskis had no children, the neighbors said. and kept to themselves. Mr. Modjeski's wife once took care of children and for a while seemed to be working outside their home.

"The only thing I saw that was unusual was that she was always driving the car and he [always] was sitting in the passenger seat," said neighbor Ernestine Jones, 47.

Ms. Jones said she has lived in the neighborhood since 1982, moving in just before the Modjeskis bought their two-story brick town house.

The Pizza Hut is a block from where Stephen Needles, a Fairfax County police officer, was doused with homemade napalm and set afire, but there does not appear to be a link, the Secret Service said yesterday.

Officer Needles, who was burned May 1, was released from Washington Hospital Center yesterday and is recuperating from his injuries.

Brian Blomquist, J. Jennings Moss, Brian Reilly and Cesar G. Soriuno contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park