Martyr Without a Cause

Martin J. Smith is a senior editor at the magazine and the coauthor of "POPLORICA: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America."

The lifeless body of Marvin Heemeyer was still at the controls of his Jurassic bulldozer when the strange chatter began. For the preceding 90 minutes he'd behaved like an imperious child who didn't get his way, avenging his wounded pride by trying to raze 13 buildings in the rustic mountain town of Granby, Colo. But almost as soon as he'd ended the rampage by putting a bullet through his head, the former muffler shop magnate was attracting admirers.

Not in Granby, of course. Most of the locals were too angry, especially about Heemeyer's decision to demolish the home of a former mayor's 82-year-old widow, and his decision to fire a volley from a .50-caliber rifle in an attempt to explode massive propane tanks across the street from a dense cluster of senior housing. But outside of this ranching community--out there in the ideological abstract, where mythmaking continues apace and details don't much matter--52-year-old Marv Heemeyer was being celebrated in terms that suggest he'd pitched his bizarre fit at precisely the right time and in precisely the right place.

The antigovernment crowd that historically has flourished in the Western U.S. had been in slow retreat since true terrorism came to America in 1995. But last month, it suddenly resurfaced and exuberantly embraced Heemeyer as a fellow warrior against bureaucratic tyranny. That he'd managed to kill no one other than himself during his rampage was certainly a plus.

"Awe-inspiring," wrote one Web commentator, who characterized the targets of Heemeyer's rage--a neighboring businessman with whom he'd long feuded, Granby town officials, the local newspaper editor and others who'd prevailed against Heemeyer during a garden-variety zoning dispute--as "insatiable prostitutes on a Navy payday, whoring themselves for any and every dime that's not nailed down."

Opined another: "When a man has had it 'up to here' with all the bull that the corrupt officials dish out, he can do things others may find unreasonable yet are totally justifiable. This man will go down as a folk hero, not just in Granby but across the nation.... This is the beginning of a new revolution by those of us who are tired of 'taxation without representation.' Let the battle cry be, 'Remember Marvin Heemeyer!' "

A 17-year-old senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills immediately registered the domain name www.killdozer.us and began building a website to honor Heemeyer and his machine, complete with written and video tributes from "fans." He anchored its temporary home page with a photograph of Heemeyer's now-legendary armored bulldozer and the somber incantation: "Never forget."

If those and other efforts to embrace Heemeyer as a noble martyr for a righteous antigovernment cause seem, at best, a bit overeager, they are at worst misguided and unfair to the man himself, according to Heemeyer's family. But the reactions do tell a story that's no less interesting and complicated than what happened in Granby on June 4--a story that says a lot about the desperation of the disenfranchised in these early years of a troubled new millennium.

Don't-tread-on-me America was born of revolution, and the cry for freedom from government tyranny has been a vital and vibrant part of the culture since citizen militias fought the Revolutionary War. It continues today in everything from tax protest movements to ongoing rallies against the war in Iraq. But among those who monitor such things, the loose confederation of tax resistors, gun control opponents, privacy rights advocates, constitutionalists, secessionists and others--often called patriot groups--took modern form in 1994, when a group calling itself the Militia of Montana organized under the motto: "Here in our Homeland: God, Guts, & Guns."

"These groups are mainly animated by opposition to the federal government," says Mark Potok, who edits a quarterly magazine covering the "American radical right" for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Their common thread, he adds, is "the idea of an oppressive federal government and a new world order [that includes] secret plots to take over the U.S. There are thousands of variations on the theme, all animated by conspiracy theories."

Since 1995, Potok has tracked the ebb and flow of organized patriot groups, which apparently were galvanized by the deadly 1992 standoff between federal agents and the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Texas. Some proponents are more extreme than others, but Potok says the number of groups in that broad subset of modern American revolutionaries peaked at 858 in 1996, the year after Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, including 19 children. "The received wisdom is that they all went away after Oklahoma City," Potok says. "But in our opinion that's not what happened, because there was a widely accepted theory in the movement that the government actually blew up its own building. That added to the movement rather than detracted." Still, in 1997, the number of patriot groups began a steady fade to fewer than 175 by 2003.

Three things have happened to diminish the number and activity of patriot groups, Potok says. The apparently violent intentions of some groups--exposed in news reports about gun hoarding and bomb building--scared off some of the less committed. Also, the federal government began cracking down, sending a number of activists and plotters to prison. But the biggest blow came Jan. 1, 2001, when despite the dire predictions of the movement's Y2K doomsayers, nothing happened. No airplanes fell to earth as the result of a worldwide computer meltdown. Martial law was not declared. The much-loathed United Nations did not take over the world.

"The sun came up, just like the day before," Potok says. "And the people who had 4,000 pounds of lentils in their basements wanted to know what had happened. Since that day the movement has been pretty anemic."

A theory advanced by Idaho State University sociologist James A. Aho holds that antigovernment fervor flares in the U.S. on a 30-year cycle, with peaks in 1890, 1920, 1950 and 1980. The author of "This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy" does not expect the movement to fully ignite again until 2010.

"They're definitely in a down cycle," agrees David Neiwert, author of "In God's Country: The Patriot Movement in the Pacific Northwest." Still, he says, "the people who remain behind in these movements become ... increasingly desperate to recruit. They're looking for headline-grabbing stuff that will [resonate] with the mainstream."

So, at the start of summer, the patriot movement's faithful apparently were hungry for something, anything--another galvanizing government fiasco, perhaps, or a particularly compelling David versus Goliath story around which to rally and regroup.

At 6 feet tall and about 230 pounds, Marvin Heemeyer was, in many ways, ill-suited for the role of David. And Granby, with its roughly 1,500 working-class residents and town board made of up elected volunteers with day jobs, could not be considered a Goliath by even the most ardent antigovernment conspiracist. Such subtleties were overlooked by those who began trumpeting Heemeyer's martyrdom even as his bloodied remains were being hoisted from the cab of his homemade tank.

The roots of his 90-minute rampage went back more than a decade. The guy who described himself in notes found after his suicide as a "self-made single man" had moved from South Dakota to Colorado after having been stationed there while in the Air Force in the early 1970s. By the early 1990s, he'd parlayed a chain of muffler shops into a mountain lifestyle built around snowmobiling with a tight circle of friends. He moved to Grand Lake, a small resort community about 16 miles from Granby, and apparently restructured his business so he could live among the peaks and perks of a community in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park. He began leasing his four muffler shops in Boulder to other operators, and, according to his brother Ken, he opened Mountain View Muffler in Granby about 1992.

Heemeyer plunged into civic activity in his adopted hometown, focusing his early efforts on passage of a 1994 measure that would have legalized gambling in Grand Lake. "Marv had definite opinions about that," recalls Grand Lake Mayor Judy Burke, who was a member of the Grand Lake town board back then and a regular among those, including Heemeyer, who gathered most mornings for breakfast at the Chuck Hole Cafe or another restaurant along the town's main street. Heemeyer wanted to bring legalized gambling to town, and he wanted it so badly that he published two issues of a newspaper to promote his views. At one point during the campaign, Heemeyer became so passionate that he nearly came to blows with Cece Krewson, a reporter and editor for the Grand Lake paper, which was editorially opposed to gambling.

"We were publishing stories about the terrible effects of gambling on local communities," recalls Krewson, now 82 and living in Pennsylvania. "I accused him of being a hired gun for the gambling interests. He accused me of being a liar." Krewson eventually blinked, ending their standoff. "I could probably have outrun him, but he had me by 30 years and 40 or 50 pounds."

Heemeyer again took a public role in 2000 when Granby began to debate whether to allow a concrete batch plant to relocate next to Heemeyer's muffler shop on the west end of town. There was, for those who later lionized him, something grandly symbolic about the facility. Along the ragged edge of the Western frontier, some people see a concrete plant as a sign that change is coming. Concrete means construction, and construction means building permits and zoning disputes and endless opportunities for government meddling. It also means someone is trying to cash in on the unspoiled areas that often attract rugged independents.

But Heemeyer's interests seemed personal and financial, not philosophical or environmental. He wasn't alone in opposing the batch plant, but he took a lead role, objecting to proposed zoning adjustments that would allow it to relocate and arguing that the dust, noise and added truck traffic generated by the plant would diminish the value of his adjacent property. By then, though, he already was nursing a grudge against the plant operator, Cody Docheff, because of a failed deal in which Heemeyer would have sold his property to Docheff.

That back story was mostly lost in the energetic mythmaking that followed Heemeyer's rampage. In truth, this was not a one-man crusade against government tyranny, as some people saw it; instead, it was a nasty personality clash between two rough-edged men with a fair amount of money at stake. And so the Granby town board became the referee in an apparent public policy dispute that masked a history of personal animosity.

Small-town government officials often play the mediator's role and are supposed to apply local rules, regulations and laws in a way that balances the welfare of the community and the needs of local business and property owners. In Granby, for example, one restaurant owner has long objected to the aspen trees the city planted to beautify Agate Avenue, its main street, because the trees, if allowed to grow, would block the bright yellow sign that promotes his catchall menu of American, Mexican, German and Italian cuisines. Although other trees along the street have flourished in the nearly 20 years since they were planted, the trees in front of that restaurant stand only about 5 feet tall--the height of the replacement trees the accommodating restaurateur agreed to plant after taking a chainsaw to the taller ones a while back.

But in the dispute between Heemeyer and Docheff, accommodation wasn't an option. Either Docheff had the right to relocate his concrete plant next to the muffler shop, or he didn't. When the final decision came down in 2001 after much public debate, Heemeyer lost. So did Sharon Brenner, executive director of the Greater Granby Chamber of Commerce, who along with her husband owns the Homestead Motel on Agate Avenue, which backs up to Docheff's Mountain Park Concrete.

"We were very much opposed to the plant during the debate," Brenner says. "We felt it would put our motel in a bad light. We felt it would hurt our business greatly." Ultimately, she adds, Docheff's plant turned out to be a pretty good neighbor. Local officials say Docheff even puts up decorative lights during the Christmas season. "The truck noise was minimal and, with the [batching operation] being mostly indoors, the dust was not much more than what the wind would normally blow around the area," Brenner says.

According to town manager Tom Hale and others, the concrete plant opponents gradually accepted the town's decision and moved on. But most locals agree that Heemeyer couldn't let it go even after his subsequent lawsuit against the town failed. And when the town board and Heemeyer clashed again last year about whether Heemeyer's shop was required to hook into the sewer system, his alienation was complete. "In my mind's eye, we treated him fairly," Hale says. "We produced documents for him when he asked for them. We were polite whenever he came to town hall. Some people just see themselves as victims of government rather than participants in government. But in a democracy, you don't win all the time."

Now operating out of a makeshift office about a mile from the rubble that once was the town hall and public library, Hale wonders why one man nursed his defeat into a full-blown, self-destructive rage while other concrete plant opponents were able to accept the board's decision. What's clear is that, for those who celebrated Heemeyer after his rampage, the zoning defeat was the moment when the necessary ingredients for mythmaking began to crystallize, when he morphed into Charles Bronson with a welding torch, a man disappointed by the system who emerged from the fray unbowed and alone, one against many, a solitary figure with an avenging angel's self-righteousness and an elaborate plan.

Granby is the kind of place where the local produce farm relies on a drop-box honor system for locals who buy fresh asparagus and spinach from its around-the-clock stand. It's also the kind of place where a man can possess a 61.5-ton Komatsu bulldozer, for no apparent reason, without raising too many questions.

Heemeyer bought his several years ago, family members told reporters, perhaps intending to pick up occasional construction jobs and grade another entrance to his muffler shop. He was keeping it in a 6,000-square-foot metal building between his muffler shop and Docheff's now-flourishing concrete plant. On Dec. 2, 2003, he finalized the sale of both the muffler shop and the adjacent metal building. The terms of that sale included a lease-back agreement that allowed Heemeyer's use of a walled-off 2,000-square-foot section of the metal building until June 1. It became his bulldozer garage. Apparently without telling anyone what he was planning, Heemeyer deeded his Grand Lake house to a friend on March 22 and retreated to his Granby work space to begin customizing his revenge machine.

Heemeyer began his work in earnest, apparently at night, in a space stocked with everything from a portable cement mixer to peanut butter to movie videotapes. According to a Denver Post report, one of the movies was "A Man Apart," a Vin Diesel action thriller marketed with the tagline: "Nothing left to live for, everything to fight for." Using an electric hoist to do the heavy lifting, the expert welder fashioned steel plates into a two-ply armored shell that would protect the driver and the controls. He filled the gap between the steel plates with concrete. He installed video cameras on the bulldozer's exterior so he could see where he was going on the three monitors he had mounted in the cab. He protected some of those cameras with multiple layers of clear, shatter-resistant plastic and installed a system that used jets of air to blow dust and debris away from the lenses. He mounted three rifles in the cab with their barrels pointing to the front, rear and right side.

The resulting machine is what most fascinated the Granada Hills student who created www.killdozer.us. "We all like explosions and destruction and all that, like monster trucks and NASCAR crashes," he says, asking to be identified only by his cybername, Radioactivelego. "I'm not saying what he did is a good thing. But sometimes reasonable people have to do unreasonable things. I think of it as the American West outlaw thing. Jesse James. Billy the Kid. He stood up against the people that were against him."

It's not clear how far along Heemeyer was on the modification when his ailing father died in South Dakota on March 26. But Heemeyer's sister-in-law, Cindy, recalls Marv's calm, compassion and easygoing manner while he was home for the funeral. She suspects Heemeyer already had made the choice that would lead to his own death, but he apparently was at peace with it.

"The only thing that was different this time was that he gave me a really big hug before he left," Cindy Heemeyer recalls. "He always gave me a hug, but this was a different kind of hug. He said he'd better take a last look at the place, and that he wasn't sure if he'd be back for the [June] auction of Dad's stuff." Ken Heemeyer, Cindy's husband, dismissed his older brother's odd comment, saying, "Oh yeah, sure, you'll be back." Then, Cindy recalls, Marv "turned and looked at us and drove real slow out of the driveway. It was a little different type of goodbye.... Obviously he'd made some decisions."

Sometime before 2 p.m. on June 4, Heemeyer put two handguns in his battledozer and climbed inside the cab. According to some reports, one of his last acts before doing so was to grease the surface of the armored shell to discourage attempts to climb aboard. He bolted shut the hatch door he'd cut into its top, and cranked the 410-horsepower engine. Just days after his lease on his garage expired--an apparent deadline against which Heemeyer had been working--he crashed the 'dozer through the side of the metal building and unleashed mayhem.

His first target was right next door, Docheff's Mountain Park concrete plant. He plowed the company's administrative building into rubble, then took down the entire rear of the nearby batch-plant building. At one point, Docheff climbed aboard one of his own pieces of heavy equipment and tried to stop the machine that was chewing away his livelihood, but without success. When Heemeyer was satisfied, he turned toward Granby's main street, crushing a local cop's Ford Expedition along the way as he led a surreal slow-motion parade of police and emergency vehicles that had responded to 911 calls about the unfolding havoc. He veered off road and headed across the parking lot of the local electric company, which once employed a former town board member and a member of the town planning commission, and took off much of the building's front. He plowed a pickup truck through the facade of a construction company because, according to one report, its owner refused to sign a petition that Heemeyer had circulated. Leaving Agate Avenue, Heemeyer worked his way toward Granby's town hall, which also housed the tiny town's library.

Anna Germany, who moved to Granby four years ago from Yucaipa in San Bernardino County, found herself speeding away from town in a panic. A "reverse 911" system had alerted residents to the trouble with a recorded telephone call, and Germany herded her three children into the car and headed east. Anyone who considers Heemeyer a hero "wasn't with me and my kids when we were speeding away [with] bullets flying," she says. "When I rolled down the window, you could hear the gunfire." Her kids got down on the floor of the car. "They were crying. They all know the librarians, and when they realized he was headed for the library, they all wanted to know if [the librarians] were going to be OK."

Heemeyer destroyed the playground, three town vehicles and several trees as he dismantled the town hall and library. Then he headed back to Agate Avenue, damaging a bank where a former town board member worked. He took out a few of the town's aspen trees for good measure as he moved down Agate, and when he reached the office and printing plant of the town newspaper, the Sky-Hi News, he veered right and hammered it until it collapsed--punishment for editorially opposing Heemeyer on the concrete plant and other issues.

Next stop: The home and adjacent family excavating business of a former Granby mayor, now three years dead. Heemeyer destroyed both, leaving widowed Thelma Thompson homeless. In the process he significantly damaged a small energy company next door that was housed in a Thompson-owned building. From there he proceeded across the street and down a hill to Independent Gas Co., where he began firing his powerful .50-caliber rifle at the company's massive propane storage tanks and a set of pole-mounted electrical transformers just behind them. A Colorado state trooper who watched the scene from a nearby bridge says Heemeyer apparently was trying to trigger an explosion--an event that could have added an apocalyptic and possibly deadly twist had a fire spread to the neighboring lumberyard and the Grand Living Solar Senior Homes across the street.

That part of Heemeyer's plan failed, apparently because he was unable to properly aim the rifle. So he crawled the machine back up the slope and set his sights on Gambles hardware store, owned by another former town board member. Two things conspired against him as he reduced that building to rubble. His machine was belching smoke and leaking various fluids, and Gambles had a small basement. Either the 'dozer's engine failed, or Heemeyer dropped one tread into the basement and couldn't get out, or both. But the bulldozer stopped, and after an hour and a half the rampage was over as unexpectedly as it had begun. About a minute later, one of the SWAT team members who had swarmed around the machine reported hearing a single gunshot from inside the sealed cab. The coroner says Heemeyer used his .357-caliber handgun.

Investigators later found Heemeyer's handwritten list of targets. It was not just a list of buildings and businesses, police say. Those who consider Heemeyer a hero might note that his list contained the names of at least 10 individuals and a local Catholic Church.

"The people I hear who don't think of this as a criminal act or an act of terror, the ones pumping their fist and saying, 'Go Marv!', are trying to make the town out to be the bad guy in all this," says Ted Wang, who has been Granby's mayor for the last three years and who, in a less-restrained moment following the rampage, described Heemeyer as "having the emotional maturity of a 5-year-old.

"A lot of people, myself included, are frustrated with government, mostly state and federal. It's easy for people to transfer that frustration down to the local level. The tragedy is that local government is made up of people who have other jobs, but who [serve] because they're called to it by public spirit. They do the best they can. I've always looked at it as: 'Put up or shut up. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.' "

The rhythm of daily life eventually returned to Granby, just as it did to the small community of Alma, southwest of Denver, when a town native went on a similar bulldozer rampage in 1998 and killed a former mayor. The hordes of law enforcement officers and news reporters filtered away within days. The town's new--and only--traffic light, which Heemeyer had disabled, was working again. Money from insurance companies, private contributors and federal, state and regional government agencies flowed in to help demolish and rebuild the buildings that were beyond repair, including the widow's house, and fix the ones that were salvageable. Mountain Park Concrete, the primary target of Heemeyer's rage, was back in operation and within 10 days was shipping as much concrete as ever. Even Granby's frontier-forged sense of humor returned, with the damaged Liberty Savings Bank hoisting an amended banner bragging that its "walk-up ATM" was now open, and one local proposing a new town slogan: "Granby's not just a great town, it's Marvinless!"

Such talk upsets Heemeyer's family. But his sister, living in Oregon, and his sister-in-law in Castlewood, S.D., also consider it "unfair" that some people have tried to twist Heemeyer's rage at a few local enemies into something else. "Marv's father served in World War II," Cindy Heemeyer says. "And Marv was very proud of his service in the Air Force. Going through his keepsakes and stuff, those were some of the things he kept. He paid his taxes. He wasn't antigovernment at all. His problem was with just a few people."

In 2001, patriot groups also tried to adopt the McGuckin family of Sandpoint, Idaho, whose land seizure by county officials led to an armed standoff between law enforcement and mother JoAnn and her six children. Still, JoAnn McGuckin was so concerned about unwanted support from patriot groups that she later released a written statement from her jail cell: "You all are most welcome to make your own political ideas known, of course, as you wish. Please, not in my name. I cannot honor your cause[s]."

But out there in the ideological abstract, where details don't much matter, the hijacking of Marvin Heemeyer continues. Conspiracy theories multiply against all logic: One suggests that the five guns and boxes of ammo in Heemeyer's bulldozer were a figment of law enforcement imagination, and that all those bullet holes around town were the result of ricocheting police fire. (Some of them were, no doubt, as one undersheriff emptied 37 rounds into the greased rhino's few orifices, hoping to disable or kill the unknown driver). The chatter got so loud that, nearly two weeks after the rampage, the Grand County Sheriff's Department felt compelled to clarify that Heemeyer wasn't the harmless man with a gripe his supporters wished him to be. Its news release noted the "significant amount of information circulating regarding Mr. Heemeyer's lack of intent to hurt anyone during this incident" and said "statements of witnesses and physical evidence contradict that belief." It also noted that Heemeyer fired his guns at both Docheff and police officers.

No matter. The misguided mythmaking goes on. Responding to an e-mailed question for this story, John Trochmann of Noxon, Mont., cofounder of the seminal Militia of Montana, prefaced his reaction to the rampage by stressing that his organization does not "condone violence whether it comes from a private source or from public service (government)."

In signing off, though, Trochmann couldn't resist adding one last flourish. He noted that, among his compatriots, "there is suspicion that Mr. Heemeyer did not take his own life as has been alleged. We shall see."

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