That pride, perhaps mingled with psychopathy, boiled over in Burr last week when he went on a calculated shooting spree, killing his wife, a bank president and a fellow farmer before taking his own life. The grotesque tragedy reflected the agony of America's beleaguered farm belt, where in the past three years thousands of spreads have been foreclosed and dozens of banks have shut down in the worst economic crisis since the Depression. In the wake of the Iowa killings, Midwesterners wondered whether the frustration of the struggling agrarian class would lead to more violence. "A lot of our callers are on the edge," says Dan Levitas of Prairiefire, a Des Moines-based hot line for troubled farmers, "and it might not take much to push them over. Some say if they're going to go, they're going to take someone with them."
Burr went over the edge on a bitterly cold Monday morning last week. Before setting out in his aging pickup, the strapping 6-ft. 2-in. Burr strode into the kitchen of his farmhouse and shot his wife Emily dead; friends said he evidently could not bear her having to live with what he was about to do. He then drove six miles to Hills (pop. 550), Iowa, and entered the Hills Bank & Trust Co., where he owed more than $400,000. After a teller refused to cash a $500 check because his account was overdrawn, Burr fetched a loaded 12-gauge shotgun from his truck. Concealing the weapon in his overalls, he returned to the bank, pushed open the door to the office of Bank President John Hughes, 46, and fired a single blast, hitting Hughes in the head and killing him instantly. In an adjoining office, he aimed at two other bank officers but double-pumped the gun, ejecting a round that might otherwise have taken their lives.
Leaving the bank, Burr hunted down Richard Goody, 38, on a nearby farm. Goody had won a $6,000 judgment from Burr's son in a land dispute; there was a score to settle. Burr shot the younger man in the face, leaving his corpse in the snow between two hog feeders. Just then Goody's wife, returning from an errand, drove up in a truck with their six-year-old son. Horrified, she gunned the engine and fled; Burr fired but missed.
As Burr headed back to his farm, a Johnson County deputy sheriff drove up behind him, siren blaring. Burr pulled off the road, while the officer waited in his car for reinforcements. When other deputies and state police arrived, they found Burr slumped in his truck, dead of two self-inflicted gunshot wounds. At the farm, authorities found the body of Emily Burr, along with a one-sentence note Burr had scrawled. According to a sheriff's deputy, "He said he couldn't manage his problems any more."
The rampage left Iowa perplexed, as well as anguished. "Nobody thought Dale would do things like that," said a farmer who knew Burr. "He was quiet, didn't smoke or drink, didn't socialize much. His life was his wife and that farm of his." But Burr felt overwhelmed by his debts: in addition to the Hills Bank loans, he owed $139,900 to another bank and nearly $10,000 to his brother-in-law Forbes. Nevertheless, with his land alone worth about $2,000 an acre, his farm still had enough value to protect him from foreclosure. "Burr was not destitute," Neil Milner of the Iowa Bankers Association says. "There had to be other emotional considerations that led him to cold-blooded murder." A cruel irony was that Hills Bank President Hughes had a reputation throughout southeast Iowa as a farmer's friend. Ray Marner Jr. of Lone Tree's Farmers & Merchants Savings Bank recalled, "He realized how hard it is to turn down someone for a loan during the week, when you have to sit next to them in church on Sunday." Hughes, whose bank has more than $200 million in assets, had no intention of foreclosing on Burr's farm, even though the farmer could not make his interest payments. Said a farmer who admired Hughes: "Dale Burr had no right to shoot him, take him away from us."
But as farm foreclosures have increased, many farmers have come to view bankers as the enemy. In 1983 a Minnesota farmer and his son lured a bank president and a loan officer to their foreclosed ten-acre tract, ambushed and killed them. Last year a Nebraska farmer was killed in a shootout after firing at state troopers with a rifle. The conflict began earlier in the day when sheriff's deputies tried to serve him legal papers concerning $300,000 in overdue loans. This fall in Iowa two occasions were recorded in which farmers, carrying loaded guns in their trucks, thought about murdering bankers. "A year ago, I'd have said what happened at Hills this week was unthinkable," said one Johnson County bank president. "No more."
Relatives and friends who grieved for the victims could only pray that the violence in the heartland, and the despair that has incited it, would subside. In Iowa City, 1,500 mourners jammed a memorial service for Hughes, where the Rev. Henry Greiner called on elected officials to "heed the cries of those who till the soil and feed the nation." In Lone Tree, Dale and Emily Burr were buried side by side in a cemetery just a mile from their farm. The day ^ before, Richard Goody's widow turned down the offer of a military funeral for her husband even though, as a Viet Nam veteran, he was entitled to one. "No more guns," Marilyn Goody said softly.