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Martyr Without a Cause

The Antigovernment Crowd Declared Marvin Heemeyer a Hero After He Died Trying to Level a Colorado Town With an Armored Bulldozer. Never Mind That the 'Patriots' Got It All Wrong.

July 25, 2004|Martin J. Smith | Martin J. Smith is a senior editor at the magazine and the coauthor of "POPLORICA: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America."

"We were publishing stories about the terrible effects of gambling on local communities," recalls Krewson, now 82 and living in Pennsylvania. "I accused him of being a hired gun for the gambling interests. He accused me of being a liar." Krewson eventually blinked, ending their standoff. "I could probably have outrun him, but he had me by 30 years and 40 or 50 pounds."

Heemeyer again took a public role in 2000 when Granby began to debate whether to allow a concrete batch plant to relocate next to Heemeyer's muffler shop on the west end of town. There was, for those who later lionized him, something grandly symbolic about the facility. Along the ragged edge of the Western frontier, some people see a concrete plant as a sign that change is coming. Concrete means construction, and construction means building permits and zoning disputes and endless opportunities for government meddling. It also means someone is trying to cash in on the unspoiled areas that often attract rugged independents.

But Heemeyer's interests seemed personal and financial, not philosophical or environmental. He wasn't alone in opposing the batch plant, but he took a lead role, objecting to proposed zoning adjustments that would allow it to relocate and arguing that the dust, noise and added truck traffic generated by the plant would diminish the value of his adjacent property. By then, though, he already was nursing a grudge against the plant operator, Cody Docheff, because of a failed deal in which Heemeyer would have sold his property to Docheff.

That back story was mostly lost in the energetic mythmaking that followed Heemeyer's rampage. In truth, this was not a one-man crusade against government tyranny, as some people saw it; instead, it was a nasty personality clash between two rough-edged men with a fair amount of money at stake. And so the Granby town board became the referee in an apparent public policy dispute that masked a history of personal animosity.

Small-town government officials often play the mediator's role and are supposed to apply local rules, regulations and laws in a way that balances the welfare of the community and the needs of local business and property owners. In Granby, for example, one restaurant owner has long objected to the aspen trees the city planted to beautify Agate Avenue, its main street, because the trees, if allowed to grow, would block the bright yellow sign that promotes his catchall menu of American, Mexican, German and Italian cuisines. Although other trees along the street have flourished in the nearly 20 years since they were planted, the trees in front of that restaurant stand only about 5 feet tall--the height of the replacement trees the accommodating restaurateur agreed to plant after taking a chainsaw to the taller ones a while back.

But in the dispute between Heemeyer and Docheff, accommodation wasn't an option. Either Docheff had the right to relocate his concrete plant next to the muffler shop, or he didn't. When the final decision came down in 2001 after much public debate, Heemeyer lost. So did Sharon Brenner, executive director of the Greater Granby Chamber of Commerce, who along with her husband owns the Homestead Motel on Agate Avenue, which backs up to Docheff's Mountain Park Concrete.

"We were very much opposed to the plant during the debate," Brenner says. "We felt it would put our motel in a bad light. We felt it would hurt our business greatly." Ultimately, she adds, Docheff's plant turned out to be a pretty good neighbor. Local officials say Docheff even puts up decorative lights during the Christmas season. "The truck noise was minimal and, with the [batching operation] being mostly indoors, the dust was not much more than what the wind would normally blow around the area," Brenner says.

According to town manager Tom Hale and others, the concrete plant opponents gradually accepted the town's decision and moved on. But most locals agree that Heemeyer couldn't let it go even after his subsequent lawsuit against the town failed. And when the town board and Heemeyer clashed again last year about whether Heemeyer's shop was required to hook into the sewer system, his alienation was complete. "In my mind's eye, we treated him fairly," Hale says. "We produced documents for him when he asked for them. We were polite whenever he came to town hall. Some people just see themselves as victims of government rather than participants in government. But in a democracy, you don't win all the time."

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