Haywire Marvin Heemeyer

Despite pulling off one of the most bizarre acts of revenge in modern history, and having a name custom made for a folk song, Marvin Heemeyer never became widely known or much of a legend.  He's known among the radical anti-government aficionados, but that's about it. Maybe he was too crazy, or just a victim of bad timing, but here’s his story:

After college but prior to getting a “real job”, I ski bummed with my brothers and various friends in the mountains of Colorado at Winter Park, a major ski resort.  I left the mountains three years later for business school for a variety of reasons, including being sick of snow and -30 temperatures, but my one brother stayed and eventually bought a ranch in nearby Granby, CO. Granby is just fifteen miles from Winter Park and the home, at the time, of Marvin Heemeyer. I learned about Marvin’s story initially from my brother, who witnessed the events first hand from a grassy hill above town.

The real reason I left the mountains was that for me life up there was too far outside society’s mainstream—idealistic young people went up there to get away from society and live off the land, almost like mountain men and women, and oftentimes they succeeded too well. After 20-30 years up there at 10,000+ feet, many really were mountain people—not just unwilling but unable to adapt to society’s rules and left behind by our culture as it evolved. It’s sort of like being Amish without the religion. This is where Marvin Heemeyer lived, a man who went ‘wild west’ a hundred years too late. Had he done what he did in 1870 there’d be songs about him and a Clint Eastwood movie, but now he’s just dead and nearly forgotten. Some events are lost to history, while others become legends. Even though this event was a whopper, timing is still everything.

This whole thing started as a property and zoning dispute. Who was at fault is irrelevant, but Heemeyer obviously thought he was right, despite no one in authority agreeing with him. The basic problem was that Heemeyer owned a piece of property on Main Street in Granby, where he ran a welding and muffler repair shop. He semi-sold off part of this property to a concrete company, and the dispute was initially over the price agreed to as well as that this concrete factory blocked access to his muffler shop. From Marvin Heemeyer’s viewpoint customers couldn’t see his shop, and he’d been swindled out a few hundred thousand dollars.

Heemeyer's armor-plated bulldozer

Now most people in this situation would do something like give up, hire a lawyer, reach a deal, or in an extreme case go nuts right away, but not Heemeyer. He stewed on this and getting revenge for years. First he bought a huge, powerful bulldozer (Komatsu D355A), and then spent about 1.5 years welding nearly impenetrable armor onto every vulnerable area. This bulldozer, when completed, was a virtually unstoppable tank. It had concrete and metal armor over a foot thick in places, three gun slots, and two video cams and monitors protected by bullet proof, thick plastic. What it didn’t have was a way back out. Heemeyer apparently somehow lowered the final  armor onto the bulldozer and welded himself in, with no intention of ever getting back out alive. Then he smashed though his garage doors, and headed out on a one way trip for vengeance in downtown Grandby.

The concrete heavy equipment was no match for the dozer

News descriptions of what happened are online, but I got the play by play from my brother, plus my memory has no doubt elaborated the story, making it more interesting. That’s how legends are born.

Heemeyer headed first for the offending concrete factory and began plowing it down. The owner of that establishment, no friend to Heemeyer, took a few rifle shots at him to zero effect, then drove out to fight the bulldozer with the best weapon he had, a piece of heavy equipment. It must have looked like a scene from The Transformers, but the earth-scraper was no match for this bulldozer. The concrete factory fell and its owner fled the scene in his  earth-scraper. Since the bulldozer, loaded down as it was with armor, had a top speed of about three mph, the concrete owner escaped, which was more than can be said for his concrete company.

In the meantime a reverse 911 call went out alerting all Granby residents to abandon the town center and “shelter in place” elsewhere. Advice like this is treated much differently in the mountains of Colorado than it is in Cambridge and Somerville. Here it was a call to come out and watch because something was happening, which is what everyone did, even arriving back home early from jobs outside of town to sit on a knoll overlooking Granby and watch the action. Blankets were spread, wine bottles opened, no doubt some pot smoked (this being in the Colorado mountains), and a good time was had by all. Everyone figured, rightly, that they could outrun or even outwalk the bulldozer if it actually headed up the hill in their direction.

The action was nonstop but slow motion: the bulldozer, despite its lack of speed, was unstoppable. It was like a sluggish Terminator robot. For the next 2+ hours the bulldozer destroyed or heavily damaged 13 buildings owned or associated with his enemies in the property dispute, despite SWAT teams and police from everywhere trying to stop him.

Granby's library and town hall didn't fare well in the rampage

There was also collateral damage. For instance, the town library was heavily damaged by police cars belonging to a swat team, because they were plowed through the library walls and windows into the racks of books. At one point a policeman was riding on the bulldozer itself, trying to find a weakness to take out Heemeyer. He couldn’t, and finally had to abandon his perch due to falling debris as the bulldozer hit another target.

No one was killed or even injured in this rampage except for Marvin, but looking back this appears more luck than caution on Heemeyer’s part. For instance, he took some shots at a large propane facility outside of town. Had that gone up there could have been casualties, but it didn’t because the bullets couldn’t penetrate the tanks. In the end the only casualty was Marvin. He drove into the hardware store in town, owned by one of his arch enemies, intending to finish destroying it. He plowed the whole side of the building down, but the bulldozer, already sporting a damaged radiator, partially fell into a hole of some sort and became stuck. At this point, when it was clear the party was over, Heemeyer ended his mission by shooting himself in the head. It took authorities another ten hours or so to extricate his body from inside his homemade tank. The armor plating had to be cut off.

This bulldozer was so unstoppable that if it hadn’t ground to a stop on its own, there were actually plans afoot to hit it with an air to ground missile from an Apache Helicopter. That would have cleared the spectators from the hillside!

Like I noted in the beginning, Heemeyer was born too late. There are songs, stories and movies about Billy the Kid, who was really nothing more than a psychopathic killer who even shot a man for snoring. So what about Heemeyer?…..he certainly made his point, but he’s just faded into the past. There’s no Marvin Heemeyer museum in Granby. In fact, people are probably still mad at him. He inconvenienced a whole lot of people for quite a while as the town was rebuilt. Maybe in a few more years they'll start selling Heemeyer souvenirs, like little tanks covered in concrete, but not yet.

This all happened in 2004, so why did it just spring to mind? Certainly it had to do with a family visit to my brother's ranch this past summer, but I really think it’s also because it’s 2018, and that Heemeyer's bulldozer reminds me of the Trump getting elected. His voters are mad and were looking to send someone to Washington to symbolically plow the place down. Apparently the timing was right since he's President for an "interesting" four years. I personally didn't vote for him (or Hillary either). Both Billy the Kid (crazy psychopath) and John Henry (working class hero) are legends today. We’ll see how the Trump years work out. May you live in interesting times.....allegedly an ancient Chinese curse.

Here's a video of a newscast showing the rampage. It's quite interesting, particularly since much of it is in fast motion, to compensate for the bulldozer moving at a snail's pace.