Disgruntled Workers: “Going Postal” and Other Human Tragedies from Connecticut to California….
v On average, 584 million pieces of mail were processed on any given day in 2009;
v The USPS had 596,000 “career employees” according to 2009 data;
v There were 15 incidences of homicide within the US Postal Service between 1986 and 1989;
v This was “the high profile time period” spawning the maligned term, Going Postal…..
v Most likely to be slain… includes occupations such as chauffeurs and taxi drivers – 121 times that of postal workers and 5 times greater than police officers…
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics kept track of workplace homicides in general, reporting that:
v For the years of 1997 to 2008, 7,606 people died in workplace homicides, an average of nearly 700 per year;
v Workplace homicides numbered 586 in 2008 alone.
A few years ago, I recall sitting in my agency’s cafeteria to participate in a three hour workplace violence presentation. Prior to my arrival in year 2000, our small state agency, had suffered much more than most. Just prior to my career as a state employee, other employees were subjected to a long term real life Peyton Place scenario that is still whispered about today. It undermined the agency’s operation and mission, sworn to serve the disabled and emotionally held people hostage.
Since that time, other unsavory elements have visited our institution in the form of predatory behavior and domestic violence incidents among others.
Our agency was bruised and battered….. Hence, the need for a full time security guard. However, the real reason for this workplace violence presentation, (besides government protocol) was an incident that rocked our state, etched in the minds of Connecticut residents; forever known as “the Lottery shootings” which occurred in March, 1998.
At the time, this blogger was 2,582 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona pursuing an alternate career and residence. Those who bore witness to this event, encountered a “disgruntled accountant”, age 35, named Matthew Beck who bitterly complained in writing that the Connecticut State Lottery Corporation, “created an environment that does not hold any long term growth or promotional opportunities.” Government, being government, is steeped in bureaucracy. This man was politely told by an HR official that once his initial grievance was settled, “I will be happy to meet with you to answer any additional questions.” Beck felt cheated that his job involving computer skills was re-classified, and denied an upgrade that every other accountant received.
Unfortunately, in his warped perception of reality, he chose not to wait…. but to return to work eight days early from his stress-related leave of absence and fatally shoot four of his bosses, prior to ending his own life. Beck’s boss, lottery president, Otho “Ott” Brown reportedly was chased by Beck, who led the gunman away from other employees, saving their lives.
Matthew Beck had no previous such episodes and had received positive work reviews. However, a psychiatric history of suicide attempts was in his past.
The human toll and emotional scars are immeasurable….
Fast forward to August 2010 in Manchester, Connecticut, in which another disgruntled employee of Hartford Distributors went on a deadly rampage killing nine people. Racism was the charge, ending in a cowardly suicide once again… This guy was given a break and promoted to a truck driver and eventually got caught twice on video stealing cases of beer.
According to union officials, Thornton had poor work habits and a lack of understanding that it takes years to rise through the ranks as a senior driver in a union shop. His employer made the fatal mistake of allowing him to walk free among his employees on the day he was fired.
A recently completed investigation says that a forensic examination of perpetrator Omar Thornton’s cell phone revealed no evidence of racism. He never filed a formal grievance. Instead he formulated a plan that spelled justice to him.
Few Studies, Lack of Answers:
This topic cries out for more focused study, particularly in a depressed economy like no other in history…. The most conclusive study found to date on postal homicides was completed in 2000. The “Report of the United States Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace” provides detailed statistics. During the 1990’s, postal workers were only a third as likely to be murdered at work as compared to “the average worker.”
Question by this author… What does it mean to be a third less dead???
The Center for Disease Control disagrees and states that previous rates in the 1980s were roughly equal.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health reported in 2008 that 30 workplace occurrences included multiple deaths and that 12% the perpetrator was a co-worker or former co-worker.
Fred Blosser of NIOSH reports that the risk factors most likely to result in workplace homicide include: handling money, working late at night, risk of robbery and working alone.
The USPS employed more than 750,000 part-time and full time workers in the year 2000 and hired 40,000 workers a year. Is it a stretch to say that “going postal” no longer lives up to its reputation?
Let’s take a closer look …
A standard in the Human Resources industry for Workplace Violence presentations includes the showing or partial showing of a training film entitled “Murder 9 to 5: Violence in the Workplace, a 1994 HBO Production.
This author was recently told by a Department of Administrative Services official that the three day training provided to HR officials for the State of Connecticut after the lottery shooting, was ordered to “be condensed to three hours” for state employees. Thus, only a 10 minute showing of excerpts of this film was available for our viewing.
Although somewhat dated, it remains very relevant film and prominently features:
1) The 1986 story of postal worker and killer Patrick Sherrill “Crazy Pat” who committed homicide on 14 workers in Edmond, Oklahoma prior to his suicide. Dr. Park Diez, a forensic psychiatrist and FBI consultant also appeared in the film. Much has been written about this event.
2) August 10, 1989, Escondido California mailman, John Merlin Taylor shot his wife to death, then drove to a nearby post office in Escondido and opened fire on fellow employees, killing two and wounding a third before putting the gun to his head and shooting himself. U.S. Postal Service spokesman Ken Boyd said Taylor had been a letter carrier for 25 years and was nearing retirement.
The rampage, which began at 7:30 a.m. on East Valley Parkway on the eastern edge of the northern San Diego County city, left postal workers scrambling for safety. When the gunfire subsided, survivors were seen exchanging hugs and crying quietly.
“He fired well over a dozen rounds, and there are expended cases all over the floor there,” Escondido Police Lt. Earl Callander said.
“There is also a box of about 100 rounds that apparently was going to be used for re-loading.
Police said they knew of no motive for the shootings and believed that the victims were shot randomly, but co-workers said Taylor had succumbed to increasing pressure at work.
Author’s note: Perhaps this was really a domestic violence issue that spilled over into the workplace……
3) Ridgeway, New Jersey, 1991 was the date and location of the next in a series of postal homicides by clerk Joseph Harris.
Writing a two page note, he referred to the Edmond, Oklahoma deaths and explained his own unfair treatment by the Postal Service. Carol Ott, a supervisor at the Ridgewood, New Jersey post office. A personality conflict existed….
She ordered him to take a “fitness for duty” psychological exam with a doctor chosen and paid by the Postal Service. Insulted, he refused to cooperate with the request and Ms. Ott instituted proceedings that resulted in Harris’ dismissal in April 1990.Armed with guns, grenades, homemade bombs, and a samurai sword, he booby trapped the front door of his apartment and drove to the suburban home of Ms. Ott. After forcing entry, swinging his sword in a great arc, he deeply slashed her left shoulder and continued to thrust as she staggered backwards. After killing her, he crept down the stairs and shot her live-in boyfriend, Cornelius Kasten, Jr. behind the right ear as he sat watching television in the basement.
October 10th, 2 am, Harris entered the rear of the Ridgewood post office where he shot and killed two mail handlers, Joseph Vander Pauw and Donald Mc Naught. Barricading himself in the basement, he shot at truck driver Marcello Collado who had become suspicious when he arrived at the back dock and found nobody to help him unload his truck.
Collado escaped unscathed and drove to the nearest police station.
Police attempted to enter the post office but were forced to retreat and await assistance when Harris lobbed an explosive device at them.The Bergen County SWAT team surrounded the building and attempted to telephone Harris. Refusing to answer, he kept the SWAT team at bay until 6:30 AM when he surrendered to a police negotiator
Joseph Harris was subsequently convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. He died on death row in 1996.
4) Thomas McIlvan, Royal Oak , Michigan, November 14, 1991.
A former postal clerk, 31, furious that he had been dismissed from his job, for “getting into altercations with postal customers on his route,” walked into a regional postal center opened fire with a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle, killing three workers and wounding six, before fatally wounding himself.
Three other workers were injured while trying to escape by jumping out windows of the two-story building during the shooting spree, which the police estimated lasted five or six minutes.
“Double Trouble” on May 6, 1993
Firty-five year old Larry Jaison, a postal mechanic with 24 years of service in Dearborn Michigan shot and killed another postal mechanic and wounded a supervisor and administrative clerk prior to killing himself. Reportedly the victims were targeted. This post office had the reputation as having “an authoritarian structure.”
Dana Point, California- May 6, 1993
A mere four hours later…. fired postal employee Mark Richard Hilburn killed his mother and her dog. And then… he proceeded to the Dana Point post office and fatally shot letter carrier Charles Barbagallo and injured clerk Peter Gates. Hilburn continued his mass murdering rampage wounding three others prior to being captured 36 hours later.
Hartford , CT Postal Worker Wounds Three Cops with Semi-automatic Rifle- September 4, 1998
After a neighbor accused Hartford postal worker, Edward Premo, 40 of vandalizing her car, police showed up to investigate. Premo was waiting in his yard and opened fire with two handguns. Officers returned fire. The wounded perpetrator continued to fire on backup officers. Premo was apprehended. His trailer contained several homemade explosives. No fatalities occurred.
The City of Industry, California, July 10, 1995
Postal clerk, Bruce Clark, with 22 years of service, apparently punched his postal supervisor, James Whooper III in the back of the head without provocation. Clark soon returned to the room with a brown paper bag containing a .38 caliber revolver and instantly pulled the trigger. Other workers were able to subdue Clark until his arrest by police.
And, finally……. the tragic case of Jennifer Sanmarco, Goleta, California, January 30, 2006
In the mid -1990’s Jennifer Sanmarco worked as a police dispatcher prior to becoming a postal employee. At that time, she was the recipient of a standard background check and psychological evaluation. After several months as a dispatcher, she left the job due to the high stress conditions (which is not unusual for such positions). Jennifer eventually pursued an entry level clerk job at the mail processing plant. However, in 2003, she had to be removed by police for “acting strangely” and was put on a psychological disability for her own protection.
On January 30, 2006, newspaper accounts reveal that Ms. Sanmarco shot and killed her one time neighbor and then proceeded to go to her former workplace.
US Postal Inspector Randy DeGarperin reported that Sanmarco apparently entered the massive facility by following others into the gate. She began her rampage by shooting two employees in the parking lot, and forced her way into the building with someone else’s key card. The shooter used a semi automatic pistol, shooting all in the head. Subsequently, she also fatally shot herself.
Before moving to the Goleta area, Ms. Sanmarco moved to a small town in New Mexico and attempted to start a publication called “The Racist Press.”
Former colleagues stated that Jennifer had a history of “making racially charged statements.”
Although a true motive was unclear, writings recovered in her home by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office indicated that she thought she was the target of a conspiracy centered at the Goleta postal facility.
“These incidents don’t occur because someone just snaps”, stated workplace violence Federal government expert and psychologist, Mary Tyler. She also expressed surprise that the shooter was a woman.
“I tried to think of another crime of this type perpetrated by a woman
and I couldn’t.”
Police and psychologists have offered theories as to her motive.
Paranoia and a history of mental illness, severe depression, anger and frustration and suicidal ideation are common.
There was no evidence she was mad at her boss and no supervisors were killed.
The Case of Jenifer Sanmarco remains a mystery….
Non profit experts in trauma offer that many victims relive the workplace violence event over and over again which is different from remembering. Victims have individual ways of coping with these horrible events, but they do recover…
Psychologists from the Traumatic Stress Institute in New Britain, CT offers an explanation versus an excuse, during their trainings… “Hurt people hurt people.”
Indeed….. and complacency breeds a false sense of security and the potential for more violence.
After chronicling all incidents from year 2000 to 2006, a 2006 letter carrier network publication closes with the following words:
“No one is innocent and everyone is a victim when any agency is allowed to police themselves”
This blogger thinks that a book needs to be written on this topic….
Maybe I will…. someday…….