What It's Like When Your Town Is Attacked By A 'Killdozer'
On June 4, 2004 one man in a home-built tank exploded through the wall of his small-town muffler shop and went on a rampage. This "tank" was a monstrosity built from metal, concrete, and one gigantic bulldozer. In the days and months after, that man became something of a folk hero, as you'd expect, considering he had singlehandedly built an unstoppable Killdozer. Plus, as it came out, he'd sought revenge on powerful local interests who'd wronged him.
The real tale is, as usual, a bit more complicated.
This Isn't The Sort Of Thing You See Coming
There once was a charming fellow named Marvin Heemeyer. He was a welder and businessman who ran a muffler shop in Granby, Colorado. And then one fine June day, he drove a heavily armored Komatsu D355A bulldozer through the wall of his shop and started obliterating buildings around Granby.
By the end of that rampage, 13 buildings had been destroyed, $7-10 million in damage had been done, and Heemeyer had committed suicide. Leo Piechocki, investigator sergeant of the Grand County Sheriff's office, was there.
"I was off-duty that day, in my driveway working on a car. I heard gunshots and sirens and I heard radio traffic about someone destroying buildings." He would soon realize that he was going to have to spend his relaxing day off in a much less relaxing supervillain tank battle. After arriving on the scene, he started recording video, because handcuffs and mace are notably ineffective against 50-ton armored vehicles. This is not the sort of thing local police train for.
Patrick Brower was also there that day. He was at work at a local newspaper when the Killdozer came to killdoze his office. Most of the staff evacuated, which is the smart call when someone is barreling toward you in a massive artisanal tank. But Brower and one of his co-workers stayed to cover the rampage. "Suddenly the bulldozer goes in front of our office, makes a sharp right turn, and I watch the front wall of our office crumble only ten feet away from my very body at that time. So I was inside the building when he hit it. I like to tell people if I had tripped, I might have died, but luckily I didn't trip and we quickly ran out the back ... "
This office wasn't a random target. Brower and his paper had beef with Heemeyer going back years. But we'll get to that. Brower next heard gunshots, the sound of local cops ineffectually trying to shoot the thing, figuring they might as well try. They hit it 200 times without so much as annoying the tank or the man inside. There were no windows, only a series of video cameras hooked to monitors in the cockpit, the cameras themselves shielded by three inches of bulletproof glass. Heemeyer had spent months, maybe more than a year, building this rumbling juggernaut of vengeance.
The Killdozer Was Truly Unstoppable
Piechocki says that they attempted, and failed, to knock the Killdozer over with other bulldozers. But it "just knocked them out of the way like they were nothing ... There is nothing you can pull out of your back pocket at such an event. So you have to improvise." One officer tried throwing a flashbang into the vehicle's exhaust. Another climbed onto it, looking for a place to shoot in (this was not successful).
Grant Whitus is a veteran SWAT officer and SWAT trainer who, along with his team, was called into action that day. Side note: He was one of the first officers on the scene during the Columbine shooting five years earlier. "[I] was just coming onto shift and they said they needed a team with ballistic explosive capabilities, so I said we'd be right there."
It's not clear whether Whitus considers that kind of request a great or terrible way to start a work day. Either way, he and his team drove out to Granby while Heemeyer rampaged through the town. Whatever plan they had for stopping the Killdozer (perhaps some kind of homemade Pacific Rim-style robot?) quickly became moot. The radiator on Heemeyer's vehicle blew and the mighty machine got stuck as it destroyed one last building ...
At that point, Heemeyer pulled out a .357 caliber handgun and shot himself in the head.
Whitus does not consider Marvin Heemeyer a hero (though some do -- we'll get to that too), but there was obvious admiration in his voice when he talked about the Killdozer itself, saying that one guy building such a thing was "nothing short of phenomenal." He knows, because it was his job to crack it open. After consulting with an expert on what exactly kind of charge it would take to open up a tank, they rigged one up and detonated it.
It made a small dent. That's it.
Heemeyer had armored his dozer in layers of steel sheets and concrete slabs. The concrete absorbed the blast and rendered the Killdozer immune to an explosive that would've probably opened up an actual tank like a screen door. It would survive two more blasts before crews simply settled in to cut their way through with blowtorches (a process which took hours).
The point is, if the tank hadn't broken down, the rampage could have continued until Heemeyer ran out of either gas or structures to flatten. There would have been no stopping it. According to Whitus, the Killdozer was one of those rare cases of an insane rampage that didn't inspire any calls for new police equipment or training reforms. After studying the vehicle, it was concluded that there wasn't a whole hell of a lot they could do. "There was probably a handful of people in the world who could've come up with something like this," says Whitus. "Will we see it again in our lifetime? Probably not."
Then The Internet Turned Him Into A Hero
Predictably, Heemeyer and the rampage became a meme. Here's a video of the event set to Hulk Hogan's theme song:
Here's some fan art he inspired:
This one has a Confederate flag added to the front:
Oh, Heemeyer never expressed any sympathies for the cause of the Confederacy (that we know of), but he hardly needed to. The thing about vigilantes is that we tend to turn them into mythological figures, standing up for whatever cause we project onto them. The guy built a goddamned tank; he must have had a good reason.
Patrick Brower -- the journalist who was almost killdozed in his own office -- tracked the story as it spread. "[I]t was on front pages all across the country, all around the world ... the phrase 'Killdozer' started popping up. Because Killdozer is actually a movie that came out in the 1970s, a very campy low-quality B-budget movie, and it was about a bulldozer that got possessed by an alien spirit." When he said "campy," we're pretty sure he meant "groundbreaking" and "transcendent," but his statement is otherwise accurate.
The internet thus immediately decided Heemeyer was a hero. Here he is on Badass of the Week, a popular Imgur gallery, and a viral Facebook post. Most of the positive coverage of the "Killdozer" quotes selections of Heemeyer's audio manifesto:
"You meddled in my business, and took what I deserve away. You took advantage of my good nature. And another thing you should learn is that when you visit evil upon someone, be assured it will revisit you, and that is what is happening."
Brower thinks this started with a local radio host who took calls from townsfolk who were sympathetic to Heemeyer, spreading the "Good man pushed too far" narrative. "People said that he'd welded himself inside the bulldozer. He knew it was a suicide mission, so he welded shut his own coffin." That, he says, gave Heemeyer a "crazy, magical aura."
Part of that narrative was that there were no guns in the Killdozer, which would imply it was a tool of property destruction only. There were in fact three rifles, two of them positioned in gun ports ...
... including a goddamned .50 caliber sniper rifle that fires a cartridge as long as your hand.
Most importantly, the early coverage painted Heemeyer as a victim of corrupt local authorities who'd ruined his life. It's an image that stuck with millions of people around the world. It's easy to see why. If you take out the suicide part, the guy is basically Iron Man with less ambition and bigger balls.
In Real Life, Vigilantes Tend To Not Care About Collateral Damage
Most popular recitations of the story make Marvin Heemeyer sound like a hard-working salt of the earth type who was badly mistreated by the System and given no option but to go on a rampage. His origin story on Badass of the Week said he was just trying to make a living for himself running a small muffler repair shop. Unfortunately, he was also in the business of getting royally fucked over by everyone in town, ranging from the paperboy to the asshats in City Hall who wouldn't compromise with him on some crazy fucking wacky zoning issues he was trying to work out.
That's the myth. The reality is that Heemeyer had previously owned a string of repair shops around Colorado. He had enough cash to buy a massive bulldozer and attach Killdozer upgrades.
In the early '90s, Heemeyer got involved in a campaign to bring legalized gambling to the city, even launching his own newspaper to promote it. Patrick Brower's paper had come out against the measure, which was eventually voted down. That's the first time the local press and government wound up on Heemeyer's bad side.
Around that time, Heemeyer bought a patch of land for $42,000 and opened another muffler shop there. Several years later, a group looking to open a concrete batch plant offered to buy the land for $250,000. Heemeyer reportedly agreed, then later bumped the price up to $375,000, and maybe went as high as $1 million. Instead, the buyers went to the city to rezone the land around the shop and build there instead.
Heemeyer attempted to start a grassroots campaign to fight the plant. The problem was that the new plant would cut off customer access to his shop completely -- he apparently bought the bulldozer to create a new road, but permission for that was denied too. He lost his battle and was forced to sell the shop, at which point he immediately started building a Killdozer. The rampage would come a year and a half later; it was hardly done on impulse.
Did the zoning dispute go badly for him? No doubt. Did he have multiple chances to avoid that outcome? It seems like it. Did the city leave him no choice but to do what he did? Well, most schools of morality posit that even in the most bitter business disputes, there are always non-Killdozer options.
It's Sheer Dumb Luck That No One Died
Heemeyer's bad temper and general cantankerousness were well-known enough that when his rampage started, Piechocki immediately knew that the man in the homemade tank destroying the town had to be him. "I don't think there was any question at the time who it was while it was still going down." He added, "I felt his purpose was to destroy as much property as he could in as short a time as he could." Specifically the property of those who had wronged him. In addition to the newspaper, Heemeyer tore through the concrete plant, the town hall, a hardware store owned by another man he had a dispute with -- he'd made a list. That's where the noble vigilante story comes into play. He wasn't out to hurt anybody, they say, just to do to others what they'd done to him.
But as Piechocki points out, the lack of a body count was down to pure luck. "When he attacked the town hall, the library is in there, and my son was in that library at that time. Gambles, the store he got stuck in, what happened if somebody was stuck in there?" In fact, most of the buildings were occupied right up until the inhabitants ran away screaming that a Killdozer was coming their way.
Oh, and those gun ports weren't for decoration. Heemeyer at one point stopped to shoot at some huge propane tanks with that .50 caliber. We're not experts, but "firing high-caliber rifles at gigantic explosive tanks" does not seem like the sort of thing you do if you're super concerned with avoiding civilian casualties (the police say that if they'd ruptured, anyone within half a mile would have been in danger). Or maybe he was concerned, but figured the possible death of a random child or two was part of the cost of getting justice for the death of his muffler shop.
The fact that the public was so eager to turn Heemeyer into a hero probably says less about him and more about our hilariously low standards for heroism.
Bulldozers and all such derivatives are best experienced in Hot Wheels form.
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