"Crazy Pat's" Revenge

  • Patrick Henry Sherrill was a mediocre postman. After 16 months as a part-time letter carrier for the post office in Edmond, Okla. (pop. 47,000), Sherrill was still receiving complaints from his managers about misdirected mail and tardy performance. Last week, after two supervisors reprimanded him, Sherrill told a local steward for the American Postal Workers Union that he was being mistreated. "I gotta get out of here," he said.

    Instead, the angry mailman returned the next morning with a vengeance. At about 7 a.m. he strode into the post office in his blue uniform, toting three pistols and ammunition in a mailbag slung over his shoulder. Without a word, he gunned down Richard Esser, one of the supervisors who had criticized him, and fellow Postman Mike Rockne, grandson of the famous Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.

    The gunman then chased a group of fleeing employees through a side exit, shooting one man, who later died in the parking lot. Bolting several doors, he sought out workers cowering under tables and in cubicles, killing three people in one work station, five in another. Debbie Smith was sorting letters when the shooting started. "I froze. I couldn't run. He came to shoot the clerks in the box section next to mine. I just knew I was next." But as she hid, Sherrill passed her by and opened fire on the next section. As Smith ran for the front door, she said, "I could hear all the clerks screaming as they were shot." Another employee escaped by locking herself in a vault where stamps are kept. Two other survivors hid in a broom closet.

    Minutes after the shooting started, police arrived outside the post office. For 45 minutes they tried to communicate with the gunman by telephone and bullhorn. There was no response. When an Edmond SWAT team finally stormed the building at 8:30 a.m., they found Sherrill's body amid the carnage. After killing 14 people and wounding six, he had pumped a bullet into his own head.

    It was the third worst mass murder in U.S. history, and like its two more grisly predecessors, it took place in a setting as ordinary and familiar as any in American life. Twenty years ago this month, Charles Whitman climbed a tower on the University of Texas campus at Austin and gunned down 14 people. The bloodiest rampage by a lone gunman on a single day was waged by James Oliver Huberty, who murdered 21 victims, many of them children, in a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., in 1984. In the past two decades, random mass slayings have become increasingly common in the U.S. It is a phenomenon peculiar to the late 20th century: a single twisted soul / slaughtering near or total strangers, acting on a vague, incomprehensible motive. Like so many other mass murderers, serial killers and assassins, Sherrill, 44, was described as a quiet loner. He was unmarried and apparently had no close friends, although he was a ham-radio nut who made calls as far away as Australia. After his mother's death in 1978, he continued to live in the modest white frame house they had shared in Oklahoma City, 13 miles south of Edmond. An ex-Marine and expert marksman, he served in the Air National Guard as a handgun instructor; two of the weapons he used for his rampage were taken from the National Guard armory.

    Over the years Sherrill had worked as an electronics technician and radio- store salesman, but he had never held a job for very long. Around the neighborhood he was known as a Peeping Tom. "Everybody hated him," says Neighbor Gerald Cash. "He'd prowl around at night, looking in people's windows." Children taunted him with nicknames like "Crazy Pat," and Sherrill would often chase them in a rage.

    Last week citizens of Edmond, one of Oklahoma's most prosperous communities, tried to console one another in the aftermath of the senseless horror. Still shaken, postal employees returned to the office the morning after the tragedy. The brown linoleum floor had been freshly cleaned and waxed. Wreaths and baskets of flowers decorated the building and grounds. Along their routes, letter carriers found flowers and notes of condolence in mailboxes. Read one: "We cry with you, we pray for you, we care about you, our friends."