In a recent interview about our economic meltdown moment, economist James Galbraith spoke of widespread fraud in the financial system, pointing out that, in response to the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980s, “there were 1,000 felony convictions for S&L insiders and about 700 or so went to jail. This is a bigger crisis, so you could easily be talking about a larger number of convictions.”
Here’s what’s strange, though, at least for now: The only significant person to be brought up on charges, tried, and sent to jail, as far as I know, has been Ponzi-schemer par excellence Bernie Madoff. A few smaller-scale Ponzi-schemers are lined up behind him, possibly on their way to jail as well. As for the rest of the looters at the top of our semi-collapsed financial system, all of them, as far as I can tell, have either been allowed to go about their business or, at least, take their booty, including bonuses, and head for home to await better times.
Mind you, we live in a nation where the smallest things can land you in jail, and the prison population has “skyrocketed over the past quarter century.” According to a report by the Pew Center on the States, the U.S. now has “5% of the world’s population, but 25% percent of the world’s prison inmates.” One out of every 31 adult Americans, 7.3 million of us, is now in prison, on parole, or on probation. Moreover, in these truly bad times, as the New York Times reports, “As states face huge budget shortfalls, prisons… are driving the spending increases.” And yet this is the moment when, it seems, the government and the justice system have suddenly discovered the merits of mercy?
Nick Turse has, in these last months, focused on Americans who were shown no mercy. They lost jobs, pensions, homes, you name it. And some of them cracked under the strain. The economic body count is building, even if largely at the bottom of our society, not the top. In the third of his “rising body count” pieces, part of his Tough Times series for TomDispatch, he focuses on a world of extreme acts that are only intermittently recorded and noticed, and the desperate people who commit them. Think of his pieces as modest walls of both honor and shame for those broken by this crisis. Tom
Body Count 3
By Nick Turse
After David B. Kellermann, the chief financial officer of beleaguered mortgage giant Freddie Mac, tied a noose and hanged himself in the basement of his Vienna, Virginia, home, the New York Times made it a front-page story. The stresses of the job in economic tough times, its reporters implied, had driven him to this extreme act.
“Binghamton Shooter” Jiverly Wong also garnered front-page headlines nationwide and set off a cable news frenzy when, “bitter over job loss,” he massacred 13 people at an immigration center in upstate New York. Similarly, coverage was brisk after Pittsburgh resident Richard Poplawski, “upset about recently losing a job,” shot four local police officers, killing three of them.
But where was the front-page treatment when, in January, Betty Lipply, a 72-year-old resident of East Palestine, Ohio, “who feared she’d lose her home to foreclosure hanged herself to death” shortly after “receiving her second summons and foreclosure complaint from her mortgage lender”? And where was the up-to-the-minute cable news reporting on the two California dairy farmers who “killed themselves… out of despair over finances, according to associates”?
Mass Murder, Mass Media, and Missing Stories
Last summer, in the pages of the Nation magazine, Barbara Ehrenreich called attention to people turning to “the suicide solution” in response to the burgeoning financial crisis. Months later, major news outlets started to examine the same phenomenon. Last fall, a TomDispatch report on suicides and a range of other extreme acts — including self-inflicted injury, murder, arson, and armed self-defense — in response to foreclosures, evictions, bankruptcies, and layoffs, was followed, months later, by mainstream media attention to the notion of “econo-cide” — prompted, in large part, by a spate of familicides (murder/suicides in which both parents and their children die).
While it’s impossible to know the myriad factors, including deeply personal ones, that contribute to people resorting to drastic measures, violent or otherwise, many press reports suggest that the global economic crisis has played no small part in a range of extreme acts.
An analysis by TomDispatch of national, regional, and local news reports in 2008 and early 2009 indicates that a silent, nationwide epidemic of drastic measures may be underway. News of such acts linked to economic woes — from armed robberies to pay the rent to financially-motivated suicides — has filtered out of cities and towns in no less than 30 states, many of which have seen multiple incidents. And since only a fraction of such acts ever receives media coverage, what is being reported, even if mostly in local newspapers, qualifies as startling.
For every Jiverly Wong, who garners days of cable-news coverage, there are untold despondent and desperate dairy farmers and retirees battered by the economy and at wits’ end who respond by subjecting themselves, others, or property to violence and are hardly noticed. What follows is a sampling of such incidents, most reported locally, and organized by month — no month lacked such reports — since the beginning of this year.
David Kelley lost his job in September 2008. As values plummeted on his Clairemont, California, home as well as the rental properties he owned, he reportedly became “overwhelmed by debt and depression.” On January 5th, he shot himself. “He saw his good life and successful career slipping away,” said his stepmother. “He couldn’t see beyond the struggles he was having.”
According to a police report, Manchester, Missouri, resident Frank Kavano, 66, who killed his wife and then himself, left a suicide note that mentioned “financial issues and difficulty in the marriage.”
After losing a bet on a college football bowl game — on top of losing his home to foreclosure — Dante Vinci, age 48, reportedly stabbed a man to death outside a Reno, Nevada, sports bar.
According to a news report, Gregory and Randolph Graham, third-generation car dealers from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, “watched helplessly over the past year as their business collapsed under the weight of the recession.” One night, Gregory, 61, set fire to some of the cars at his dealership and “died of a heart attack next to the burning wreckage.” Days later, Randolph, 51, “was found dead, slumped over the wheel of his car in what may have been a suicide.”
When Otero County, New Mexico, sheriff’s deputies tried to serve foreclosure papers on Miguel and Inga Gutierrez, the couple armed themselves and opened fire. After a 16-hour standoff, Miguel was found dead and Inga was taken into custody.
“Unemployed, awash in debt and hiding an October foreclosure from loved ones,” 55-year-old Wayne “Mike” Anderson of Stratmoor Valley, Colorado, shot himself to death as a sheriff’s deputy, ready to evict him, stood at his doorstep.
In Glyndon, Maryland, advertising executive Howard “Jack” Marks Jr., 63, killed himself after, his wife told the police, financial woes left him in danger of losing his business.
According to news reports, 53-year-old Jeffrey P. McKnight of Pataskala, Ohio, was “struggling financially and overwhelmed with caring for his elderly father” when he set his house ablaze and then killed his dad and himself.
Reportedly “upset over being unemployed and his financial status,” George Vincent, 49, of Fort Meyers, Florida, drank copious amounts of beer, after which his wife called the police, telling them her husband was drunk, armed, and suicidal. When Vincent pulled a gun on responding officers, they opened fire, killing him, in what the state attorney’s office deemed to be a case of suicide-by-cop.
Lonnie Glasco walked into the San Diego, California, bus-maintenance depot where he worked as a mechanic and shot two fellow employees, one fatally, before police gunned him down. A friend said Glasco, 47, was “despondent over losing his wife and his home.”
Michael McLendon, age 28 and “despondent over his inability to hold a job,” fatally shot nine people in Samson, Alabama, and killed a 10th in a neighboring county.
After 46-year-old Springfield Township, Ohio, resident Michael Swiergosz’s home went into “foreclosure and had been set for sheriff’s sale,” he barricaded himself inside “during a standoff with authorities that lasted three hours,” before being arrested.
In Warrenton, Virginia, police said that “domestic issues,” likely compounded by “job-related stress,” lay behind 39-year-old Bruce Curtin’s decision to kill his wife and then himself.
Distraught in the face of eviction for failing to pay rent, Ginette Denize, 48, of Canarsie, Brooklyn, New York, turned on the gas burners of her stove, started banging on her landlord’s door, and returned to her apartment. Police soon arrived and, when one of them reportedly tripped and fell in her kitchen, she allegedly “hovered with a knife over” him. The two other officers then opened fire, killing her. It was conjectured that the shooting might have been a case of suicide-by-cop.
Angered that someone else was living in the home he had lost to foreclosure, Derek C. Hightower, 24, of Bristol, Wisconsin, reportedly set a fire that “destroyed the garage, the house and three vehicles.”
Michael Knudson’s former girlfriend wondered whether he “somehow thought he was saving his mom and brother from the pain and loss of the foreclosure [of the family home] in some misguided way.” Eviction was scheduled for April 7th. Days before, say authorities, the 39-year-old killed his mother and brother, buried them in “a shallow grave” nearby, and burned down their Hudson, Ohio, home.
Police reported that Mark I. Levy, a 59-year-old Bethesda, Maryland, resident, who had been a deputy assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration and “was about to lose his job because of the economy,” died of “an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
Under investigation by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for possibly “scamm[ing] clients out of millions in a side investment business he ran,” Garden City, New York, resident William Parente, 59, “beat and asphyxiated his wife and daughters in a Maryland hotel room” before killing himself.
With talk of layoffs in the air and reportedly fearful of losing his job at California’s Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Mario Ramirez entered his workplace and shot two immediate supervisors before killing himself.
Reportedly $450,000 in debt, 34-year-old Middletown, Maryland, resident Christopher Wood shot and killed his wife and children before taking his own life.
At a home north of Frederick, Maryland, a man threatened to kill workers from a company that clears out recently foreclosed homes, prompting SWAT team members to be called in. Not far away, outside Baltimore, a man attempted to commit suicide while being evicted from his home.
In Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, a 27-year-old man, upset about losing his job, killed himself. A week later, another area man, who had threatened to kill himself “after recently losing his job,” surrendered to authorities after a five-hour standoff.
In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reported 10 “suicide threats or attempts” over the weekend of April 18th and 19th. Bill Cook, the director of the Mecklenburg County Mobile Crisis Team, told the press that economic woes had contributed to the spike.
Faced with eviction, 33-year-old Motalekgose Mothuse Valela allegedly warned the property manager of his Dallas, Texas, apartment: “No one comes to my place without me being there, and I don’t care who it is: the constable, the police or the sheriff I will blow them all up and blow this place up,” according to court documents. He reportedly also affixed a note to his door reading, “Bomb set on door, don’t touch,” resulting in a standoff with the Dallas police bomb squad and SWAT team which lasted several hours, before he eventually surrendered.
According to Indianapolis, Indiana, Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Sgt. Paul Thompson, 27-year-old Candance Macy lured her landlord to her residence “with the intent to kill him” in order to avoid eviction. Reportedly, Macy claimed that “she had lost a ring behind a stove in the kitchen and she had asked him to retrieve it. When he stooped down to look for the ring, Macy allegedly stabbed him in the back at least four times and several more times on other parts of his body.” He was reported to be in serious condition.
In Rhode Island, during an eviction proceeding, a Pawtucket Housing Authority employee found a “man lying in a bed with a knife sticking out of his neck, and quickly phoned police, reporting either a stabbing victim or possible deceased person.” When police arrived and approached the man, he “suddenly sat up, with the knife hanging from his throat.” The knife fell from his neck and the man began threatening the officers with it. “You will have to shoot me. I have nothing to live for,” he told them. Eventually, they persuaded him to drop the knife.
After Allen Park, Michigan’s Mark David Fussner, 44, refused to obey an eviction order and threatened to shoot court officers, the police were called in. As one of the officers approached, Fussner reportedly fired birdshot from a shotgun, wounding him. Other police on the scene returned fire and for the next two hours, the sound of gun shots reverberated through the neighborhood. Fussner was later found dead in his basement. It was unclear whether he died of a self-inflicted wound or was killed by the police.
A Silent (and Violent) Epidemic
While news reports indicate that extreme acts precipitated by economic disaster have occurred in at least 30 states, similar incidents have undoubtedly occurred in most, if not all, of the remaining 20 states. Suicides are normally under-reported in the press, while murders linked to the economic crisis may never be reported as such. Many extreme acts, in any case, go unnoticed by those not intimately affected.
There is, of course, no way to know which of these and similar acts might have occurred even if there had been no global economic meltdown. One thing is certain however: there will never be a full accounting of the lives ruined or lost under the pressure of economic disaster, nor will anyone ever raise a monument to the victims of foreclosure, job loss, and business failure, of busted pensions and dynamited 401(k)s.
There will be no memorial wall in Washington with names etched into black granite — not for these people, neither the desperate who killed themselves, nor those who lashed out and murdered others. Who will remember the Knudsons in their shallow grave, or Christopher Wood’s dead children? No statue will be raised on Wall Street to solemnly remind the former masters of the universe of the Main Street consequences of their financial manipulations. No equivalent of the Arlington National Cemetery will ever be laid out for the dead of this crisis or filled with headstones reading: “Beloved Mother, Killed by Capitalism” or “Devoted Husband and Father, Sacrificed in the Name of Greed.”
Instead, the bodies will just continue to pile up. A daughter here. A father there. A family in a nearby neighborhood.
No one will ever know how many. And no one will record their names for posterity.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and the recent winner of a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. A paperback edition of his book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books), an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, has recently been published. His website is Nick Turse.com.
[Note for Readers: This is Nick Turse’s third report on the rising body count in America as part of his Tough Times series, analyzing the human fallout of the global economic crisis, at TomDispatch. The first two were: The Rising Body Count on Main Street (Oct 19, 2008) and Meltdown Madness (January 28, 2009).]
Copyright 2009 Nick Turse