Connecting state and local government leaders
Marvin Heemeyer told four people that he was “just going to bulldoze the town.” They dismissed his threats as pure bluster.
EDWARDS, Colo. — In a little over two hours on the afternoon of Friday, June 4, 2004, Marvin Heemeyer drove an 85-ton, steel-plated, concrete-reinforced bulldozer bristling with guns through 13 structures in the Colorado mountain town of Granby, leveling city hall, the electric company and the local newspaper. And it all started with a squabble over a sewer hookup.
“My guess is that when Marv shot himself in that dozer that day, he didn’t really understand the full nature of public policy relating to his sewer hookup,” former Granby Sky-Hi News editor and publisher Patrick Brower told a recent meeting of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments—a voluntary association of five counties and 23 towns.
Brower fled his office as the bulldozer-turned-tank rumbled toward him that day, and now his recently published book, Killdozer: The True Story of the Colorado Bulldozer Rampage, stands as a cautionary tale for elected officials and local government staffers coping with an increasingly angry electorate emboldened by current events to “fight the man” at every level—from property owner’s boards on up to Congress.
Historically, there have been infamous cases of murderous attacks on elected city officials. In 2003, New York City Council member James Davis was shot and killed by a political rival in city hall, and in 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed in San Francisco City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White.
Smaller governments aren’t immune to these types of violent acts. In recent years, that’s included an asphalt company owner who felt he didn’t get enough work out of a city redevelopment project in suburban St. Louis and killed five council members and city officials in 2008 before police shot and killed him. In 2013, a man evicted from his property in a dispute over sewage shot and killed three people at a municipal meeting in rural Monroe County, Pennsylvania.
“People out there in the world today are inclined to believe the anti-government narrative without questioning the facts, without questioning the reality, and consequently we have a frame of mind where most everything government does is suspect,” Brower said, describing a second ideological rampage in the past 14 years mythologizing Heemeyer as an anti-government hero.
While Heemeyer didn’t kill anyone except himself that day, he shot at police, business owners and propane tanks, and he leveled buildings where in some cases people got out just in the nick of time. Overall, he did $7 million in damage—mostly to businesses owned by town trustees and a former mayor who was deceased by then. And he forever made Granby “that bulldozer place.”
In his book, Brower breaks down the anti-hero myth and shows that Heemeyer allowed mundane government interactions to consume him with unjustified rage at an entrenched establishment he was convinced was out to get him.
“Marv showed up in town with a preconceived belief that small-town business communities and governments in general conspire against the diligent best efforts of the common man because the common man isn’t the ‘establishment,’” Brower said in an email follow-up. “Many people show up before government and town social entities with a skeptical if not cynical preconception about the motives of government and society in general.”
The question that faces town and county officials all over the nation: How to best counteract that mistrust and often outright animosity as they go about the mundane and often thankless task of enforcing town codes, covenants and zoning regulations?
“These are very personal decisions you’re making about people’s property, and they’re sensitive,” said NWCCOG executive director Jon Stavney, former mayor of the town of Eagle and also a former Eagle County commissioner. “Scrupulous fairness, looking people in the eye and giving them their day—even the angry people. You need to let them vent and speak their piece, but you also need to be the keeper of the civility in the process.”
Stavney invited Brower to speak to the assembled town managers and county officials, and he also blogged about the book.
Brower, who covered many of the public hearings concerning Heemeyer’s grievances— including his legal challenge of a zoning change that allowed a concrete batch plant next to his property—thinks town officials may have actually been too lenient.
After Heemeyer bought two acres in town for $42,000 in the early 1990s and started a successful muffler repair business, Brower says the town allowed Heemeyer to go nearly 12 years without properly hooking up to Granby’s sewer system.
“The town was actually a little afraid of Marv and thought, ‘Why should we push this conflict so early on? Let’s see if he’ll just fix it on his own so we don’t have to get to a point where a judge issues a ruling against him,’” Brower said. When he was finally ruled against and essentially fined, Heemeyer wrote a check with “Cowards and Liars Department” on the memo line.
That’s a sign, Brower said, that someone may be planning an act of vengeance. There were other indications, he added, such as overly emotional demands for town services, including recordings of public meetings. And Heemeyer told at least four people around Granby that he was “just going to bulldoze the town.” They dismissed his threats as pure bluster.
For the most part, Heemeyer seemed like an average guy with a circle friends in nearby Grand Lake who snowmobiled with him in the winter months. Brower said there were few outward signs he was so angered by his interactions with town officials that he was planning an attack.
His lawsuit to stop the neighboring batch plant was one of those signs.
“If someone sues you, that’s a warning sign,” Brower said. “Do I really need to say that?”
Heemeyer incurred legal fees and argued bitterly that the concrete plant, which was the first place he attacked, would have an adverse impact on his property values. But as he secretly constructed his bulldozer over seven months on the property, he had already sold it for $400,000—nearly 10 times what he paid for it.
Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll suggests getting to know everyone who takes the time to come before town officials and engage in the public process, especially those with an axe to grind. He even goes as far as meeting regularly with the “worst of the worst” anti-government gadflies and giving them a one-on-one audience to vent their grievances.
“Don’t be afraid,” Shroll said. “Gypsum is no different than any other community. We have avoided zoning issues and code-enforcement issues because I’d rather go get three root canals than tackle that one. It hovers over the back of my head for two decades that one of these days I’ve got to go deal with that guy. We have to get to the place where we find mechanisms by which we can do that fearlessly.”
Even if the sheriff suspected what Heemeyer was up to, Brower said, the most they would have been able to do is what’s called a “knock and ask” to check out any suspicious activity. However, there’s no law against armor-plating a bulldozer.
“The bad news is we didn’t really know and didn’t really suspect Marv, despite all these obvious signs,” Brower told the gathering of officials. “The good news is that you can listen to what I’m saying and think twice about people who are in that position.”
David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.