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On September 14, 1989, Joseph Wesbecker, known as "Rocky" by his co-workers, inadvertently helped spark a bloody rebellion.
At just around 8:30 am, he pulled up to the Standard Gravure building in downtown Louisville, a 1920s-era printing press attached to the Louisville Courier-Journal. The severe rectangular building took up an entire block of Sixth Street between Broadway and Chestnut in the rundown city center. Wesbecker parked his red Chevy Monza hatchback at a meter just in front of Standard Gravure's main entrance. He wore jeans and a tan jacket and his trademark tinted steel-framed glasses.
One witness who saw Wesbecker emerge from his car said that he was "acting weird," in part because parking on that block of Sixth Street is prohibited until 9 am. She also said she saw him handle what looked like a package under a blanket in the back of his hatchback.
"I was going to hold the elevator for him," she told the Courier-Journal, but Wesbecker stayed at his car so she rode up alone.
The street-level entrance that Wesbecker parked in front of led to the third floor executiveoffices of Standard Gravure. The main door to the elevator was left unlocked during work hours-only the stairwell door remained locked. The entrance at one time had a mounted security camera above the door, but it was removed over the summer after having been repeatedly vandalized. In many of America's midsized cities, downtowns have become like South Vietnamese hamlets: "ours" during the day, "theirs" at night.
The elevator went straight up to the executive reception area on the third floor. The other entrance, around the block on Broadway, led straight to the printing presses. That was the blue-collar entrance, the one "Rocky" would normally take. But on this day he didn't plan to work the printing press folder.
Wesbecker rode the elevator up, brandishing a Chinese-made AK-47 semiautomatic at his hip and packing a German-made SIG-Sauer 9mm pistol in his pants. Strapped around his shoulder was a gym bag (within a few years, the gym/duffel bag would be recognized as a standard-issue rage murder accessory), packed with two MAC-11 semiautomatic pistols, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, and several rounds of ammunition, including five loaded clips for the AK.
The elevator door opened and Wesbecker immediately opened fire. His first two victims were receptionists Sharon Needy, who later died, and Angela Bowman, who was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. Needy usually reported to work at 9 am, but on this day she showed up a half hour early so that she could take an extended lunch break. Bowman had given birth a few months earlier and had just returned to Standard Gravure from maternity leave. Wesbecker rounded the corner to the hallway of offices where the executive and managerial staff worked. Payroll administrator JoAnne Self, whose office was near the reception, heard the first two shots and stuck her head out the door. There she saw Wesbecker standing outside the office of Mike Shea, Standard Gravure's new owner and president. Shea just happened to be away that day.
Wesbecker fired; Self didn't see where. She fled.
"[Wesbecker] wasn't running," Self told the Courier-Journal. "He was walking very slowly. But I ran. I ran and fell and crawled the rest of the way."
Self and three other employees hid at the end of the hallway in the office of data processing manager Mike Delph, who had managed to call 911.
Wesbecker walked slowly, firing deliberately. Police major Ed Mercer told reporters that day that Wesbecker showed "extreme shooting discipline," firing directly at his human targets and taking few random shots.
Systems operator Kathy Johnson was at work in the computer room, around the corner from the reception area, when she heard a "loud bang." She poked her head out to see what was happening when a co-worker sprinted by in a panic. Johnson closed her door and stayed in the computer room.
"I was going to get in the closet, but it was locked," Johnson said. "So I stooped behind the computer." She heard four shots-then silence. Johnson quietly called the other offices in the hallway. One person answered, Paula Warman, the assistant to the vice president of human resources (the VP was gone that day along with Shea and the company's number-two man).
Warman, who had been shot in the legs, answered, "Some of us have been shot. Some of us have been shot." As it turns out, Warman figured as one of the key players in a management-worker dispute that helped push Wesbecker over the edge.
Wesbecker moved from the white-collar office area down a long narrow hallway and into the third floor bindery. He opened the door and shot John Stein, a maintenance supervisor, in the head and abdomen. Two other maintenance workers in the bindery were also shot, Forrest Conrad, shot in the legs, and James G. "Buck" Husband, who was killed. When two female employees happened into the bindery a few minutes later, not realizing what was happening, they saw Stein bleeding from the head, leaning against the door.
One woman lifted Stein's head and tried to put a shirt under it to comfort him. "He grabbed the shirt out of my hand," the woman later told reporters before breaking down in tears.
From the third floor Wesbecker headed down a metal stairwell into the pounding dissonance of the pressroom. It was more crowded with workers than usual because of the shift change at 9 am. Wesbecker shot and wounded two men in the bindery basement and killed another, Paul Sallee, who was found on the floor with a bullet wound in his chest.
Wesbecker crossed a tunnel to the basement of the pressroom. It was a large room cluttered with giant paper rolls, which look like huge rolling pins without the handles. Large aluminum ducts, ladders, and other printing equipment were cluttered together to form a kind of mid-twentieth-century industrial labyrinth. The bottom halves of the three printing press machines, which operated on the ground floor above, extended down into the basement.
Wesbecker entered the basement room just as John Tingle, a pressman who'd heard a "loud noise that sounded like a steel plate hitting the floor," rounded the corner to see what was happening.
Tingle knew Wesbecker and greeted him as if it was just another day, despite the smoking AK and the ominous duffel bag packed with guns and ordinance. "Hey, Rock, what's happening?" Tingle asked, using the friendly shortened version of Wesbecker's menacing-sounding nickname.
Wesbecker, who had always been on friendly terms with Tingle, replied, "Hi John ... I told them I'd be back. Get away from me."
"I said, 'What are you doing, Rocky?'" Tingle later told reporters. "I started to walk toward him, and he said, 'Get away.'" Wesbecker repeated himself, this time telling Tingle to get the fuck away. Tingle obeyed and motioned to the others nearby to move away.
Rocky headed toward a stairwell between two presses, firing as he approached. The body of Richard O. Barger, who was shot in the back, lay at the bottom of the stairwell-head cocked back onto a conveyor belt, arms splayed on the rubber belt as if crucified, and with blood splattered on the floor around him. That image-a now famous page one Courier-Journal photo-led to a lawsuit filed by Barger's family and a Supreme Court ruling on press freedoms versus the privacy of the bereaved. It seems that Wesbecker didn't intend to kill Barger. He was coming down the metal stairwell, and Wesbecker probably didn't see who it was before he fired. According to witnesses, after killing him, Wesbecker walked over to Barger's body, apologized, then turned around and continued his rampage.
Wesbecker fired three times as he walked up the stairwell and about another dozen times when he reached the top. He walked down the long row between press one and press two, shooting at anyone who hadn't scrambled out of his way-Lloyd White and James Wible Sr. were both murdered on the press floor. The shots and screams were drowned out by the din of the printing presses.
At the far end of the pressroom was the break room, with vending machines, an eating area, and an adjacent locker room. Wesbecker pushed open the door with his shoulder and sprayed the seven workers inside, emptying his clip. All seven were shot; one, William Ganote, was killed immediately with a bullet to the head. Wesbecker popped out the empty clip, loaded a fresh one, lifted the AK, and fired into the group a second time. A second man also died, while the other five all received multiple bullet wounds.
The presses churned, moans and cries were muffled. Bodies lay strewn from the white-collar elevator entrance on one end of the building all the way to the opposite end, the break room. The company was destroyed. His mission accomplished, Wesbecker stepped out of the press room, pulled out his German SIGSauer 9mm semiautomatic, put it up to his face, and pulled the trigger. After nearly thirty minutes, the first modern private workplace massacre in American history, the rage murder that would spawn so many, had ended. Seven were killed, twenty wounded.
And everyone was left asking why. The same question they still ask today after each workplace rage massacre.
Michael Campbell is a squat, vigorous, always-smiling retiree with tinted steel-framed glasses and a thick black mustache. He walks with a sinking limp. One of his stubby arms is so disfigured at the elbow from gunshot wounds that it looks as though he got stuck while trying to demonstrate a double-jointed quirk, and never was able to pop the bones back in. He was shot six times by Wesbecker.
Campbell struck me as almost pathologically cheerful, laughing while he recounted the most horrible details of the murder spree, not because he found them funny, but because he wanted to make sure that the listener was at ease by demonstrating his own ability to laugh at his pain.
When my friend Allie, my Louisville connection, called him to help arrange an interview about Wesbecker, she told him that my angle would be unusual: I was trying to figure out if Wesbecker was in any way "justified." That is to say, did former employees and victims think that he simply snapped, as the popular conception tells us, or did they think he was driven to desperation by circumstances within the company. I'd expected that Campbell, as a disfigured victim who barely escaped with his life, would have recoiled at the very suggestion. But according to Allie, his first response was, "Hell, everybody supported him, everybody understood where he was coming from. His only problem was that he shot the wrong people."
Campbell was a little more guarded with me than he was over the phone with Allie. He spoke of how Wesbecker suffered from manic depression, emphasizing that he was on antidepressants in the years leading up to the massacre. Campbell and other victims had sued the drug company Eli Lilly and settled out of court, alleging that Prozac had led Wesbecker to violence. He wouldn't say much more about the lawsuit, but the results were clear: Campbell and his wife lived in a spacious split-level home in a gated community, with its own golf course, in the lush rolling hills just southwest of Louisville. Not exactly your typical blue-collar pensioner's fate, at least not in post-Reagan America.
Michael Campbell was one of the seven men in the break room-Wesbecker's last stop on his rampage spree. Here is how he described the experience to me:
"There were two presses running, and evidently, the workers were all in between the units working and didn't see him. There's three presses in a row. He walked this way [between press two and press three] saw a guy here and shot him. At this point a bunch of them, when they heard the shots, took off. Now this is a room where you can rub your foot and the static from the electricity will set this thing off. The fumes in there are so strong, you know. A lot of times we'd pull paper through and the little thing would arc off and the ink would catch fire. He's firing a gun in there and it's not doing anything! We found out later he put a fire suppressor on there. So he kills one guy-he's looking for the foreman, there's two offices at the end of the hall."
"Was it Wesbecker's foreman?" I asked.
"Yes. Well, it wasn't his regular foreman. His regular foreman was on a different shift ... but Wesbecker knew that the superintendent would be there. And he knew that the people who were part of his problem were there."
That was an interesting line I didn't catch until I played the tape back afterward: "He knew that the people who were part of his problem were there."
"So just as he was coming up, the foreman was just walking out his door. Luckiest man alive. He walked right past Wesbecker and said, 'I saw him.' And all of a sudden somebody said something to [Wesbecker] and he shot him. Another guy went past him and slammed against the wall and he was banging on the door [to the locker room], like a garage door, asking people to let him.... There were some two dozen workers in the locker room. They scattered through another door to the other side when the one they let in yelled, 'Wesbecker's shootin' everybody!' Some were in the showers; they hid against the wall and waited.
"We're sitting inside the break room, right by the door to the pressroom, and I heard the pop! pop! pop! And I thought, 'Oh God, that sounded like a gun.'" In an earlier interview, Campbell had described it as sounding "like a balloon popping, not like a gun."
"... I was readin' the paper, and the door's back behind me. And I'm thinking, 'Damn, that's soundin' like a gun, doesn't sound like anything that I've ever heard here.' And before I could do anything I look around and here he comes through this door, pushing the door open. And I just went, 'Oh boy!' And it went Pow! Pow! Pow! and hit me three times. All three times."
Campbell's scars were conspicuous, like deep, long flesh dents. He wore shorts and a polo shirt on the day of our interview, so he could show me his scars, which he did obligingly, even enthusiastically. It was as if Campbell was describing what had happened to someone else, as if he'd researched some other victim's story so well he could recite it by heart without feeling the victim's fear or pain.
"Right through the knee. And these, you can't even believe. It went right through here and through the bone." He showed me his right arm, the dent now smooth, like erosion on stone. "It shattered my elbow. And then he went on around the room. We were sitting around a round table. So the guy at this table dunked the table over and hit the ground. The only bullet that they ever found in anybody went into his head and stayed in his head. He only got shot once, and he died. The rest of us in the room got shot many times.
"One guy stood up. I thought he said, 'Oh no,' but he said, 'Oh, Joe,' and he just shot him-pow! pow! pow!"
Later, I thought about this as further proof of Wesbecker's clearheaded resolve. Tingle said, "Hey Rock, what's happening?" and Wesbecker responded amicably at first, and spared him; in the last target area, the break room where the supervisor should have been, a friendly, "Oh, Joe," was answered with bullets.
"[Wesbecker] turned to me and shot me. Went around the room and shot everybody. And stepped outside-we didn't know this but he stepped outside, pulled the banana clip out, turned it over, popped it back in, went back in and went Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Going around the room. And he got me six more times.
"I fell over on the table trying to act like I was dead, like this-" Campbell excitedly demonstrates for me: slumped forward, arms limply outstretched, eyes closed; then he lifts his head up, beaming with a smile, and continues recounting: "I was tryin' not to breathe, cuz I didn't know where he was. You know, all these things are runnin' through your mind when you're sittin' there and seconds, milliseconds, and I thought, 'God, so he's just gonna walk up behind me and just shoot me!' And you know, why would you shoot somebody in the room if you didn't kill them, you know. And I was tryin' not to breathe, and I was thinkin', 'What in the hell is goin' on?' There was this long pause where he stepped outside and changed the clip.
"One guy got up and ran out of the room. 'Course, I couldn't see him, I could hear somebody rustlin' around. And all of a sudden-POW! ... POW! POW! I can feel my body jerk, but I couldn't feel anything at that point. The first [bullet] just numbed me completely. I didn't feel anything after that, but I could feel my body jerking around. He hit me six times, in the legs, arms.
Excerpted from GOING POSTAL by Mark Ames Copyright © 2005 by Mark Ames. Excerpted by permission.
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|Pt. I||If he'd just got the right people|
|1||"I told them I'd be back"||7|
|2||Pow! Pow! Pow!||10|
|4||Just tough it out||19|
|5||"Your request is ... irrelevant"||22|
|6||Rocky's best friends||24|
|Pt. II||The banality of slavery|
|1||The heart of submissiveness||29|
|2||Inanimate African cargo||35|
|4||A normal and inevitable aspect of their affairs||41|
|5||Realists and madmen||44|
|6||A Roman Catholic plot||48|
|7||The Battle of Negro Fort||50|
|8||A talent for concerted action||52|
|9||"Without any cause or provocation"||56|
|10||His soul is marching on!||59|
|11||Our founding fleecers||61|
|1||Rage against the Gipper||68|
|2||"This has put a damper on our day"||72|
|4||It permeates the entire culture||84|
|5||Let them eat Prozac||87|
|6||Making an Empire State Building out of an anthill||95|
|7||What human flesh tastes like||99|
|8||Putting their heads on pikes||105|
|9||Workers complain, but they don't quit||108|
|10||The cost of stress||112|
|Pt. IV||Wage rage|
|1||Hire one bourgeois to alienate the other||117|
|3||Secrets to company hunting||120|
|4||A mom and pop operation||121|
|6||A mellow guy||130|
|7||Tuan & song||130|
|8||"I'm not gay!"||132|
|9||A nondescript warren of an office||133|
|10||The summer of rage||139|
|11||"Evil, not rage"||147|
|12||A rebellion of one||154|
|Pt. V||More rage : more rage|
|1||I don't like Mondays||157|
|2||This place is the pits!||159|
|3||"It's only me"||163|
|5||Frog-marching across the quad||173|
|6||Copycats on copycats||177|
|7||An entirely new phenomenon||179|
|8||Culturally normal behavior||184|
|10||I would have done it too||191|
|11||A problem overlooked||195|
|12||No profile possible||197|
|13||Kids 4 snitching||201|
|14||St. Eric and St. Dylan||205|
|Pt. VI||Welcome to the dollhouse|
|3||A 4.0 failure||218|
|4||A kind and caring stranger||221|
|5||The post-diaper rat race & testing for Caldwell Brokers||222|
|7||The groaning horde||227|
|8||Every child left behind||229|
|9||Peggy Sue got buried||231|
|10||From Columbine to Bin Laden||232|
|11||Move on or get over it!||235|
Posted April 30, 2009
No text was provided for this review.