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Austin pilot 'was always even-keeled'

Joe Stack, who flew his plane into a building in the Texas capital housing IRS offices, wasn't an angry guy, family and friends say. They can't recall a hint of rage or anti-government sentiment.

February 20, 2010|By Richard Fausset
  • Federal investigators photograph Joe Stack's home, which officials believe he burned down Thursday before crashing his plane.
Federal investigators photograph Joe Stack's home, which officials… (Laura Skelding / Austin…)

Reporting from Austin, Texas — Where did all of Joe Stack's anger come from?

That was the question Texas singer-songwriter Billy Eli has been turning over in his head in Birmingham, Ala., this week, where he has been recording songs and following the sad and vexing news about his old bass player and friend.

Authorities believe that A. Joseph Stack, 53, burned down his house Thursday morning and then flew a plane into a building in Austin, Texas, in what an FBI official described Friday as an assault against the IRS.

A person calling himself "Joe Stack" left an apparent suicide note on the Web. The anti-tax manifesto was replete with a sense of anguish and frustration at his financial setbacks, tax woes and difficulty finding work in Austin.

Investigators have not confirmed that Stack wrote the treatise, calling it the pilot's "supposed writings." By Friday, the 3,000-word note had spawned Facebook pages both lauding him as a crusading hero and condemning him as a terrorist.

But in three years of hanging out, drinking beer and playing music around the holes-in-the-wall and honky tonks of central Texas, Eli had never heard a hint of anti-government cant from Stack. And never a hint of rage.

"Anger was not even 1% of what that man was," Eli said. As for politics and policy, "he wasn't passionately married to any of that stuff."

Two bodies recovered from the building are presumed to be those of Stack and possibly an IRS worker, but they have not yet been identified.

An IRS worker listed as missing since the plane crash has been identified as Vernon Hunter, 68. A man who answered the phone at Hunter's home Friday would not give his name, but said the family was preparing for the worst. "We don't know definitively at this point," he said. The Hunter family planned to make a public statement Saturday.

Aside from the shock and grief, a defining reaction here among Stack's family and friends has been the disconnect between Thursday's monstrous act and the man they remember.

Family members, including Stack's ex-wife in California, have said that he had long-standing issues with the federal tax system. The Web posting described how he had once drained his retirement account, didn't file a return and then was assessed $10,000 by "the sleazy government."

His current wife, Sheryl Stack, has not spoken publicly, but family spokesman Rayford Walker read a statement from her Friday to reporters.

"Words cannot adequately express my sorrow or the sympathy I feel for everyone affected by this unimaginable tragedy," the statement said.

Pam Parker, Eli's wife, said she last heard from Sheryl Stack on Valentine's Day. A graduate student in music, Stack's wife had sent an e-mail message notifying friends that she would be using her University of Texas e-mail account and dropping the one affiliated with her husband's computer company, Embedded Art.

At the time, the change didn't mean much to Parker. But she has since learned that Sheryl Stack and her daughter had left the house because Joe Stack had been exhibiting troubling behavior in the last couple of weeks.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Friday that Stack's wife had stayed at a hotel the night before the house fire. Apart from the fire, police had no record of visits to the Stack home except for a barking dog complaint a few years back.

Parker remembers Stack talking over beers about the money problems that followed his divorce. But it was a matter-of-fact recounting, devoid of much passion or drama.

"He didn't, like, take the floor," she said. "He was very general about it."

Stack grew up in Pennsylvania, where he spent 10 years at the Milton Hershey School, a residential school for orphan boys. Spokeswoman Connie McNamara said Stark graduated from high school in 1974. He studied engineering at Harrisburg Area Community College from 1975 to 1977, said school spokesman Patrick Early, but did not graduate.

Eli, one of Austin's many notable country-rock troubadours, met Stack in 2005 when he auditioned to be the bass player in Eli's band. Eli was impressed with Stack's precision.

"His ear was good enough that he didn't have to work hard at it," Eli said.

For three years, Stack played with the Billy Eli Band. "He was a personable guy. He didn't have an ego," he said. "When you're playing gigs a lot of stuff can go wrong, but he was always even-keeled."

Stack was serious when he played music, but he was also funny, in a low-key way. Eli had written a song called "Cheese Enchiladas." Stack called it "that song about the entrees." He told Eli about how he'd grown up in an orphanage that demanded hard work of its charges, but he kept his bandmates laughing with a recollection of how much he'd hated milking the cows.

Sometimes he talked politics, but not with any particular verve. His other great passion, besides music, was flying. Sometimes he combined the two, telling Eli he mastered the penny whistle while flying his plane to and from work when he was living in California.

One day he took Eli on a flight around central Texas for kicks. Eli walked away impressed with Stack's piloting skills: "He was a very competent, conscientious pilot," he said. "He kept that plane neat as a pin."

Soon after Stack joined the band, he began telling Eli about a woman he'd been playing with at a Sunday jam session. She was a classically trained pianist; he was trying to loosen her up and get her to boogie a bit. When Stack eventually married Sheryl Housh, he stopped gigging so much. But the two men and their families stayed in touch. They last spoke in December. Eli said nothing seemed odd.

"He was just Joe, you know?"

richard.fausset@

latimes.com

Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.

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