American Gulag – The Violent Death of Budd Dwyer

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American politician R. Budd Dwyer had one of the most visible deaths of all time, committing suicide during a press conference that was being filmed (though not, as some have said, broadcast live). The footage of his death was subsequently shown, sometimes uncut, by news broadcasters around the world and screen capped in newspapers. Later, it made its way into the ghoulish VHS underworld and then into Mondo style documentaries like Traces of Death. Samples of the audio have been used by Marilyn Manson and Cabaret Voltaire, and images of the suicide have been used by bands, artists and filmmakers with varying levels of sincerity. You can even get Dwyer T-shirts. The video footage itself is, of course, widely available online. It’s likely that Dwyer’s death is the most widely viewed suicide of all time. It’s probably not the legacy that he’d hoped for, though it was a sense of regard for his own reputation – not to mention a fear of imprisonment – that prompted him to take his own life in the first place.

Dwyer, born in 1939, had been a minor level politician, serving as a Republican member of the Pennsylvania State Senate between 1971 and 1981, before moving on to become the 30th Treasurer of Pennsylvania in January 1981, a position he held until his death.

His downfall came as a result of an overpayment of tax by state workers in Pennsylvania. When the mistake was discovered, compensation needed to be paid to each employee, and this required the services of an outside accountancy firm. Several firms put in bids for the contract and Dwyer was in charge of the process. One accountancy firm, Computer Technology Associates, was so keen to secure the $4.6 million contract that they offered Dwyer a bride of $300,000. Dwyer accepted. This was not, in retrospect, a good idea.

As a result of an anonymous tip-off, federal prosecutors began an investigation, and soon charged Dwyer, Computer Technology Associates head John Torquato, Jr, Troquato’s attorney William T. Smith, Smith’s wife, and Bob Asher, the former Republican Party Chairman for the State of Pennsylvania with corruption. Torquato and the Smiths quickly agreed to plead guilty and testify against Dwyer and Asher, in exchange for lighter sentences.

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It was an open-and-shut case. Independent witnesses confirmed the story, computer files seized showed that Dwyer was to be paid the $300,000 and it was clear that CTA was not the best or cheapest accountancy firm available – a long-established local firm with more staff and a better reputation had put in a bid at half the cost of the CTA offer. Nevertheless, Dwyer maintained his innocence. He tried to cut a deal that charges would be dropped if he resigned as treasurer, but the case was too serious for that to be an option. Dwyer then refused a chance to plead guilty to a single count of bribery, which would have led to a maximum of five years imprisonment – a not insignificant length of time, but far less than he was facing if found guilty on all charges. Dwyer refused the deal, and instead chose to go to trial, pleading Not Guilty. His defence was pretty weak – he didn’t take the stand and called no witnesses, and the unindicted conspirators could not be named in court, putting all the blame on Dwyer and Asher (who was found guilty and subsequently served one year in prison). Unsurprisingly, with the evidence against him, Dwyer was found guilty of eleven counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering on December 18th 1986, and was facing up to 55 years in prison. Merry Christmas!

Dwyer intended to appeal, and because state law said that he could not be removed from office until he was sentenced in January, he agreed to take an unpaid leave of absence. He wrote to President Ronald Reagan, asking for a Presidential pardon – this appeal was not successful, in part because all legal avenues such as appeal had yet to be explored. Dwyer was scheduled to be sentenced on January 23rd, 1987, and everyone expected him to be going to prison for a long time.

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Dwyer and President Gerald Ford

Dwyer called a press conference for January 22nd. The expectation amongst journalists was that he would use the opportunity to once again claim innocence, and then resign from office prior to sentence. Dwyer indeed did want to emphasise his innocence, and was resentful about journalists who he thought had written biased news stories about him, trying (unsuccessfully) to have them banned from attending the news conference. Given subsequent events, I suspect many were quietly relieved that he chose not to take out any perceived enemies with him.

The night before the news conference, Dwyer wrote “I enjoy being with Jo so much, the next 20 years or so would have been wonderful. Tomorrow is going to be so difficult and I hope I can go through with it.” He then packed a .357 Magnum in his bag and prepared for what was to come.

At 10.30am the next morning, a twitchy-looking Dwyer arrived to a talk to a room full of journalists and camera crews. He took out a 21-page statement, which had not been shown to anyone in advance, and began to read. It was a rambling statement, in which he criticised those involved in the investigation and trial that he believed had unfairly ruined his career, and condemned the death penalty, expressing regret for his previous support of it. As press statememts go, it was all over the place and full of wild accusations. Dwyer’s press secretary, James Horshack, was so alarmed at the allegations being made that he considered putting a stop to proceedings, before finally deciding to allow Dwyer to finish, planning to then brief the press to make it clear that he was not responsible for the possibly libellous content of the speech. The statement went on for half an hour, and the assembled journalists, suspecting that the expected resignation might never actually come, began to lose patience. Some even started to pack up to leave. Seeing this, Dwyer said “Those of you who are putting your cameras away, I think you ought to stay because we’re not, we’re not finished yet.”

Dwyer finally reached the final page of his statement:

I thank the good Lord for giving me 47 years of exciting challenges, stimulating experiences, many happy occasions and most of all, the finest wife and children any man could ever desire.

Now my life has changed for no apparent reason. People who call and write are exasperated and feel helpless. They know I am innocent and want to help, but in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime they know I did not commit. Some who have called have said that I am a modern day Job.

Judge Muir is also noted for his medieval sentences. I face a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison and a $305,000 fine for being innocent. Judge Muir has already told the press that he felt “invigorated” when we were found guilty and that he plans to imprison me as a “deterrent” to other public officials. But it wouldn’t be a deterrent because every public official who knows me knows that I am innocent. It wouldn’t be legitimate punishment because I’ve done nothing wrong. Since I’m a victim of political persecution, my prison would simply be an American Gulag.

I ask those that believe in me to continue to extend friendship and prayer to my family, to work untiringly for the creation of a true justice system here in the United States, and to press on with the efforts to vindicate me, so that my family and their future families are not tainted by this injustice that has been perpetrated on me.

At this point, the assembled press expected him to finally resign – after all, had he not just admitted that, while still maintaining his innocence, his case was hopeless? There was, in fact, more of the speech left, but for some reason Dwyer decided not to continue. The missing part of the speech revealed what he intended to do; had he read it, it’s possible that someone could have intervened before it was too late:

I’ve repeatedly said that I’m not going to resign as State Treasurer. After many hours of thought and meditation I’ve made a decision that should not be an example to anyone because it is unique to my situation. Last May I told you that after the trial, I would give you the story of the decade. To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story. But to those of you with depth and concern the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning –in the coming months and years, the development of a true justice system here in the United States. I am going to die in office in an effort to ‘see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.’ Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S.. Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, DeeDee  – I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Good bye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.

Instead of reading this section, Dwyer handed out sealed envelopes to three of his staffers – the contents included an organ donor card, funeral plans and letters to his family. As this happened the press watched, bemused. Just what was gong on here?

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The answer came quickly. Dwyer took a final envelope out, and from it pulled the .357 Magnum – the gun that Clint Eastwood warned would “blow your head clean off.” At this point, panic ensued – no one quite knew what Dwyer was planning or who he might point the gun at. He backed against the way, holding it in the air, saying “Please, please leave the room if this will … if this will affect you”, at which point everyone realised exactly what was happening. As some ran for help, others screamed and a few tried to run towards Dwyer to stop him. A panicked Dwyer shouted “Don’t, don’t, don’t, this will hurt someone” and then hurriedly placed the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

Death in movies, no matter how good the special effects and how impressive the acting, can never quite capture the reality. One camera managed to close in on Dwyer as he slumped to the ground, blood pouring from the exit wound on the back of his head and, more distressingly, from his nose and mouth. His eyes were blank. Bud Dwyer would never go to prison, and would never be just another corrupt politician, quickly forgotten.

The footage was soon all over the news. Most broadcasters chose to cut the footage at the point when he took the gun out and placed it in his mouth. Astonishingly, several American news networks chose to broadcast the complete footage, some during the daytime and some without warning. There were hundreds of complaints, and Dwyer’s death might have been something of a watershed in terms of how exploitative news broadcasters could be.

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Meanwhile, the Dwyer footage quickly became the stuff of legend. It could be manipulated and twisted to be anything you wanted – a warning about persecution, a study of mental breakdown, or a grotesque entertainment. You could even rewrite Dwyer’s story – the Chinese edition of Traces of Death has an excited narrator telling us that Dwyer is the head of a bankrupt firm, handing out redundancy notices before killing himself out of shame – a story that obviously worked for the local audience.

If Dwyer thought that his death would lead to further investigation and exoneration, then he would be disappointed. His guilt was reaffirmed in 2010. Whether the punishment suited the crime is doubtful, and Dwyer paid a very high price – indeed, would have paid a very high price even if he hadn’t killed himself – for what would seem to be a single moment of greed and weakness in an otherwise unremarkable and unblemished career. He was an ambitious man who had risen to a middling level of political success, and who clearly worried deeply about what people thought of him. Whether his death was a deliberate attempt at achieving immortality or changing what he saw as a corrupt legal system is open to question, though I rather doubt that his ongoing fame was anything he would wanted. But he is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon, and maybe that is better than nothing.

DAVID FLINT

There is a documentary about Dwyer, Honest Man, available on Amazon Prime for anyone wanting to investigate the story further.
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