"Criminals are made, not born." - Andrew Kehoe's last message, stenciled on a board at his farm.
(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)
These days, I'm thinking of Andrew Kehoe of Bath Township, Michigan and after a bit, I'll tell you why.
It was May 18th, 1927. The Wall Street crash was still two and a half years away and many people were well off. The Yankees were in Detroit, where the day before Babe Ruth had just hit his 9th home run of the year off the Tigers' Harry Collins, well on his way to the major league's first 60 home run season. In two days, Charles Lindbergh was about to begin the first solo transatlantic flight.
Bath Township had just built a new consolidated school and, to pay for it, the town government had decided to raise property taxes a little. This enraged school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe, a true right winger who would get angry and insult people who disagreed with him. Kehoe was such a mean man, he once beat a horse to death. Still, no one had realized there was a monster in their midst.
After unsuccessfully lobbying the township's governing body to not implement the tax increase, things settled into an eerie calm. Kehoe, who was known to be something of a handyman who regularly worked with electrical systems on his farm, volunteered to do all the wiring in the new school free of charge. Their old foe suddenly turned into a good guy and they accepted. And since Kehoe was the school board's treasurer, no one ever questioned his presence at the new school that was still being built. Two days before the 18th, a school teacher asked Kehoe if she could use his property for a school picnic and Kehoe answered ominously that if she wanted to have a picnic, she'd better have it immediately. To a school bus driver to whom he'd handed a paycheck just days before, he said, "My boy, you want to take good care of that check as it is probably the last check you will ever get." And still, no one had realized there was a monster in their midst.
Over the next year, investigators found, Kehoe had been quietly stockpiling dynamite and a new explosive introduced during WWI called pyrotol. In all, well over a ton of munitions was purchased a bit at a time but no one thought it strange because farmers such as Kehoe had frequently used pyrotol and dynamite for excavation, stump removal and so forth. In fact, Kehoe's answer when people asked about the occasional blasts on his farm was that he was removing stumps. And still, no one had realized there was a monster in their midst.
During the school's construction, Kehoe was in and out of the basement, squeezing between walls and so forth but he wasn't only wiring the school for electricity. He was strategically placing much of the two boxes of dynamite and ton of pyrotol he'd bought since the summer of 1926 throughout the building.
Kehoe had flown into a towering rage over the township's council to raise property taxes. Throughout his years as a minor official in Bath Township, Kehoe had ceaselessly advocated for lower taxes like a pint-sized Grover Norquist. When the council couldn't be budged on the property tax hike, Kehoe blamed his farm's failure on the additional taxes.
So on the morning of the 18th, he murdered his wife who had for years been battling tuberculosis and burned her body in a wheelbarrow. He then immolated his own home and farm buildings, burning alive all the horses inside that he'd bound in place with wire. When neighbors called the local volunteer hook and ladder, they arrived at the scene to see Kehoe about to leave for the school. He told the firemen, "Boys, you're my friends. You better get out of here. You better head down to the school." And, believe it or not, no one still had realized there was a monster in their midst.
No, no one still had realized there was a monster in their midst even after an alarm clock detonator went off, setting off the first explosion that collapsed part of the north side of the school at 8:45, right after children had arrived and gathered for their morning classes. Lacking the manpower or heavy equipment to lift the roof off the bodies of dozens of children, one farmer drove to his slaughterhouse to get the heavy rope he'd need and passed Kehoe, who waved and grinned so broadly the witness could see both rows of teeth. And no one still had realized there was a monster in their midst.
Andrew then swerved to the right and pulled his pickup truck right in front of the partially collapsed building, his actions indistinguishable from the dozens of frantic parents who'd had children registered at the township's only school. He called over the school superintendent whom Kehoe had constantly accused of financial mismanagement and said, "I'm taking you with me." Still, no one had realized there was a monster in their midst.
Kehoe then aimed his bolt action .30 caliber rifle at the back seat of his truck where prior to the 18th he'd stashed a large cache of dynamite. In the flat bed of his truck he'd loaded scrap metal, anything that would make for shrapnel and he killed himself and four other people. An eight year-old boy who'd survived the building's collapse was wandering around and was pierced in the abdomen by a bolt that had shot from Kehoe's truck and he died hours later. Kehoe's own body was almost completely shredded and a large chunk of his torso was found in someone's front yard.
Finally, only after so many dozens were killed, did they realize they'd had a monster in their midst. And all because some right winger didn't want to pay his taxes. Prior to his killing spree, Kehoe had stopped paying his mortgage and homeowner's insurance and the lender had begun foreclosure proceedings against his farm.
Appraisers sifting through the remainders of Kehoe's estate estimated that if he'd sold off his remaining equipment, he could've easily paid off the remainder of his mortgage. No one knows how much money he'd spent on the explosives.
While the Michigan state police were sweeping through the building, they'd found an additional 504 pounds of munitions in the basement beneath the south side of the school that had thankfully not gone off. Otherwise, the death toll would've surely been higher than it was.
In all, not counting himself and his wife, Kehoe had inflicted 101 casualties. He'd taken 43 lives and wound up injuring 58, exactly the number James Eagan Holmes had wounded at Theater 19 in Aurora, Colorado last Friday morning. Like Kehoe, who had left dynamite in a corner of his farmhouse, Holmes had also booby-trapped his own home with explosive and incendiary devices. Maybe he'd even read of Kehoe's exploits on the last day of his life and was inspired by them.
In spite of having been treated for years to Kehoe's arrogance and ill-tempered behavior, the people of Bath had no way of knowing how dangerous he truly was, let alone knowing he was capable of murdering so many children. At the coroner's inquest that was held to see if anyone in the Bath school system could be held accountable for Kehoe's actions, they found that he
...conducted himself sanely and so concealed his operations that there was no cause to suspect any of his actions; and we further find that the school board, and Frank Smith, janitor of the school building, were not negligent in and about their duties, and were not guilty of any negligence in not discovering Kehoe's plan.
That's very important to remember. It's vitally important to remember because James Holmes, another odd bird, nevertheless hardly had given anyone to suspect he could kill men, women and children in a murder spree of his own. Which is why David Brooks' latest opus, More Treatment Programs, is such an ignorant pile of horseshit. In the final paragraph of what was obviously a typically well-meaning article, Brooks states,
The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships — when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control.
The problem with human nature is that whether a person suddenly snaps or spends a year deliberating and planning a mass murder, often they do not present symptoms, especially to the almost always untrained eye of those in their circle. But even if one were perspicacious enough to spot said symptoms and see them for what they are, Brooks is careful not to mention his beloved Republican Party's ceaseless efforts to undermine health care, to privatize it all with no government oversight and to the point of repealing the Affordable Care Act without any thought as to what to replace it with (it's easy to speculate they just want to return to the same bloated, dysfunctional status quo it was before the ACA).
Mr. Brooks is also careful to not mention the Republicans who march practically in uniform lockstep to the tune of the NRA that spent $2.9 million on lobbying last year to continue thwarting bans on assault weapons such as the kind Holmes used in that theater.
We don't know what Holmes's political ideology is or even if he has one and, besides, that's not the issue. The issues are this: Much more often than not, we'll unfortunately not even come close to spotting a human mind about to snap and to effectively intervene before tragedy runs its course. But we'll have an even worse time thwarting disaster without the social safety net that's far from perfect but still far better than nothing. And as long as Republicans keep demanding the cutting of funds for Mr. Brooks' "treatment programs" and pulling out from under us the ACA that would make these services available, as long as the GOP and Blue Dog Democrats keep giving the NRA what they want and for what they so handsomely pay, we'll never be able to get a realistic handle on what is becoming an epidemic and an almost uniquely American one: The spree killing and mass murder.
And we will be no closer to spotting the monsters in our midst as those poor people 85 years ago in Bath Township, Michigan.