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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."

Now operating out of a makeshift office about a mile from the rubble that once was the town hall and public library, Hale wonders why one man nursed his defeat into a full-blown, self-destructive rage while other concrete plant opponents were able to accept the board's decision. What's clear is that, for those who celebrated Heemeyer after his rampage, the zoning defeat was the moment when the necessary ingredients for mythmaking began to crystallize, when he morphed into Charles Bronson with a welding torch, a man disappointed by the system who emerged from the fray unbowed and alone, one against many, a solitary figure with an avenging angel's self-righteousness and an elaborate plan.

Granby is the kind of place where the local produce farm relies on a drop-box honor system for locals who buy fresh asparagus and spinach from its around-the-clock stand. It's also the kind of place where a man can possess a 61.5-ton Komatsu bulldozer, for no apparent reason, without raising too many questions.

Heemeyer bought his several years ago, family members told reporters, perhaps intending to pick up occasional construction jobs and grade another entrance to his muffler shop. He was keeping it in a 6,000-square-foot metal building between his muffler shop and Docheff's now-flourishing concrete plant. On Dec. 2, 2003, he finalized the sale of both the muffler shop and the adjacent metal building. The terms of that sale included a lease-back agreement that allowed Heemeyer's use of a walled-off 2,000-square-foot section of the metal building until June 1. It became his bulldozer garage. Apparently without telling anyone what he was planning, Heemeyer deeded his Grand Lake house to a friend on March 22 and retreated to his Granby work space to begin customizing his revenge machine.

Heemeyer began his work in earnest, apparently at night, in a space stocked with everything from a portable cement mixer to peanut butter to movie videotapes. According to a Denver Post report, one of the movies was "A Man Apart," a Vin Diesel action thriller marketed with the tagline: "Nothing left to live for, everything to fight for." Using an electric hoist to do the heavy lifting, the expert welder fashioned steel plates into a two-ply armored shell that would protect the driver and the controls. He filled the gap between the steel plates with concrete. He installed video cameras on the bulldozer's exterior so he could see where he was going on the three monitors he had mounted in the cab. He protected some of those cameras with multiple layers of clear, shatter-resistant plastic and installed a system that used jets of air to blow dust and debris away from the lenses. He mounted three rifles in the cab with their barrels pointing to the front, rear and right side.

The resulting machine is what most fascinated the Granada Hills student who created "We all like explosions and destruction and all that, like monster trucks and NASCAR crashes," he says, asking to be identified only by his cybername, Radioactivelego. "I'm not saying what he did is a good thing. But sometimes reasonable people have to do unreasonable things. I think of it as the American West outlaw thing. Jesse James. Billy the Kid. He stood up against the people that were against him."

It's not clear how far along Heemeyer was on the modification when his ailing father died in South Dakota on March 26. But Heemeyer's sister-in-law, Cindy, recalls Marv's calm, compassion and easygoing manner while he was home for the funeral. She suspects Heemeyer already had made the choice that would lead to his own death, but he apparently was at peace with it.

"The only thing that was different this time was that he gave me a really big hug before he left," Cindy Heemeyer recalls. "He always gave me a hug, but this was a different kind of hug. He said he'd better take a last look at the place, and that he wasn't sure if he'd be back for the [June] auction of Dad's stuff." Ken Heemeyer, Cindy's husband, dismissed his older brother's odd comment, saying, "Oh yeah, sure, you'll be back." Then, Cindy recalls, Marv "turned and looked at us and drove real slow out of the driveway. It was a little different type of goodbye.... Obviously he'd made some decisions."

Sometime before 2 p.m. on June 4, Heemeyer put two handguns in his battledozer and climbed inside the cab. According to some reports, one of his last acts before doing so was to grease the surface of the armored shell to discourage attempts to climb aboard. He bolted shut the hatch door he'd cut into its top, and cranked the 410-horsepower engine. Just days after his lease on his garage expired--an apparent deadline against which Heemeyer had been working--he crashed the 'dozer through the side of the metal building and unleashed mayhem.

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