The Atlanta police bomb squad used a robot and and a bomb tech to remove contents from the suspect’s car parked on Washington Street in front of the Capitol building. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Air Force veteran sets self on fire to protest treatment under VA

An Air Force veteran set himself on fire outside the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday to call attention to problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs, authorities said.

A Capitol police officer extinguish the flames and the man was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital. He suffered burns over 85 to 90 percent of his body. Although his condition was unknown, Georgia State Patrol Capt. Mark Perry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the man was able to talk with officers immediately after the incident.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified the man as 58-year-old John Michael Watts. He has no current address, the agency said.

Out of fear that the vehicle the man arrived in might contain explosive devices, authorities closed several major streets around the Capitol and evacuated the building, along with the Judiciary for most of the day. Workers moved children from a day care associated with Central Presbyterian Church to a neighboring Catholic church as a precaution.

GBI agents used a robot to remove items from the man’s Nissan Sentra.

The man had scrawled a message on piece of cardboard with a phone number that he asked people to call. Perry requested that no one call the number, cautioning that it might set off an incendiary device.

In recent years, the Department of Veteran Affairs has become one of the most maligned federal agencies. The agency is charged with providing health care to veterans and their dependants, but multiple investigations have uncovered long wait times and substandard care.

Authorities did not identify any specific problems the Air Force veteran was protesting at the agency.

About 10:45 a.m., the man parked his Nissan Sentra on Washington Street, stepped out of the car and walked toward the Capitol.

“He was strapped with some homemade incendiary devices (and) firecrackers, and doused himself with some kind of flammable liquid” before lighting the fireworks, Perry said.

Two bursts of loud pops resembling gunfire can be heard on a video of an unrelated press conference in the area at the time. Several more bursts followed for about 30 seconds. Sirens blared.

State patrol officers ordered pedestrians away from the area, as multiple agencies converged on the scene.

GBI agents spent at least four hours investigating the car.

At 3:15 p.m., Chris Riley, chief of staff for Georgia Governor Nathan Deal escorted Capitol staff back into the building to retrieve their belongings before leaving for the day.

As rush hour approached, the streets remained locked down. All four doors of the Sentra were open and the hood had been popped open.

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