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Town, Gun Maker Wrestle With Link to Shootings

October 26, 2002|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

WINDHAM, Maine — Bookstore owner Barbara Ochse sounded half rueful, half relieved as she said that nothing of major consequence ever happens here. Well, she reconsidered, "maybe every once in a while, Stephen King might mention Windham in a book."

But this placid community north of Portland emerged from obscurity Friday with word that the weapon used to shoot 13 people in the Washington, D.C., area was manufactured at Bushmaster Firearms Inc. here. A hamlet that seemed safe and removed from urban apprehensions abruptly felt uncomfortably close to horrors that paralyzed a region and mesmerized a nation. Windham did not rush to welcome its inadvertent role in the tragedy.

"We're definitely on the map now, let's put it that way," said David Johnston, proprietor of a country store whose lawn was scattered with giant Halloween pumpkins.

To many in this town of 10,000, the sudden attention came as a surprise. Bushmaster, set back off the winding road leading to Maine's lake country, keeps such a low profile that some longtime residents said they did not know it existed.

"Windham is actually a fairly large town," said retired chemistry teacher Dick Brown, using the standards of a state with barely 1 million inhabitants. "And I never knew there was a gun manufacturer here."

But with annual sales of $36 million, Bushmaster is one of the area's largest employers and one of the most lucrative enterprises in a relatively poor state. The privately held company is the country's largest maker of the civilian version of the M-16 military assault rifle. Authorities said a Bushmaster XM-15 was seized when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were taken into custody early Thursday as suspects in a three-week shooting spree that left 10 dead and three wounded.

Thursday afternoon, after the company learned from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that its gun was probably used in the attacks, Bushmaster chief executive Richard Dyke addressed the 100 men and women who assemble, package and distribute 50,000 rifles each year.

"I told my employees to hold their heads up high. There's nothing we should be ashamed of," said Dyke, whose prosperity has allowed him to be a local philanthropist and a generous donor to Republican candidates. His tie tack was a miniature of the Bushmaster XM-15A3, the company's signature product.

The $900 gun also made headlines three years ago when one was found in a vehicle belonging to Buford Furrow, who shot four children and an adult at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles using a different weapon. After that incident, Dyke resigned as finance director of Maine's state campaign for George W. Bush.

Twenty-five years ago, Dyke paid $280,000 for the company at a bankruptcy sale. Bushmaster joined a stable of almost 50 companies Dyke has rescued, ranging from a small hotel in the West Indies to a firm that bottles after-shave and cologne to one that makes bathroom vanity tops.

His rifles are sold in 38 countries, as well as to law enforcement agencies throughout this country.

"I can't say this for sure, but I bet if you opened the trunk of an LAPD squad car, you'd find a Bushmaster along with a shotgun," Dyke said.

He described the Bushmaster rifle as "very reliable," and so accurate that it is used widely by competitive sport shooters and hunters.

He confirmed that company records showed that a gun matching specifications provided by the ATF was shipped to a wholesaler in Washington state in June.

Dyke also said that when law enforcement officials announced that .223-caliber slugs had been removed from the first victims, it put his company among only about 10 probable manufacturers of the sniper's weapon. "Then you further balance that with the fact that we are the largest," he said. "So we always had the feeling that it may have been our weapon -- and if it was, we had to think about how we were going to feel about that."

Dyke said he did not feel good. "Does anyone want anything they own to get in the hands of a serial killer?" he asked. "The answer is no."

Most of all, he said, he felt badly that "a deranged serial killer was able to obtain one of our weapons illegally, I am sure, and commit these heinous crimes."

Dyke said he understood that some people might feel as a result that such guns should be banned. "Our Constitution gives them the right to say that," he said. "But there are those of us who believe that is not a good course of action."

Nearby, at a health spa called the Heaven and Earth Wellness Center, Leanna Herrick, 24, all but echoed that philosophy.

"It's not who makes the gun. It's who uses it," Herrick said. "I don't think people should be so focused on who made the gun, rather than who is out there harming the public."

At the Maine Flag and Banner store, co-owner Valerie Strout said any connection to the shootings in Washington was purely "a coincidence" for Windham.

"It was going to be a little town someplace," she shrugged.

Still, Strout said, the fact that the tendrils of the shooting spree stretched to Windham brought to mind "that everything is connected at some point."

"People should think about that more often. They need maybe to pay more attention to the fact that everything they do affects others," she said. "You know, the no-man-is-an-island type of thing."

Ochse, leaning against a stack of used mystery novels at Scrooge and Marley Discount Books, sounded a similar note.

"This whole thing -- everybody has taken it so personally," she said. "They didn't think it was going to happen in Washington, D.C. And we certainly didn't think that Windham, Maine, was going to be affected like this."

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