Texas man with IRS grudge flies plane into office in suicide attack; wife plans to speak out

By Jim Vertuno, AP
Friday, February 19, 2010

Texas man angry with IRS crashes plane into office

AUSTIN, Texas — A software engineer who crashed his plane into an office building with nearly 200 Internal Revenue Service employees inside left behind a rambling anti-government manifesto but otherwise offered little indication that he was planning such an attack.

A. Joseph Stack III posted his angry screed on a Web site registered to him before he flew a single engine plane into the hulking black-glass Echelon 1 building on Thursday, killing himself and at least one worker. Stack, 53, apparently targeted the building’s lower floors, which housed the IRS offices.

On Friday, police and fire investigators picked through the wreckage at the office building and at Stack’s red brick home about six miles away — which Stack apparently set fire to before taking off in his plane. The home’s roof had caved in and its windows had blown out.

U.S. law enforcement officials also said they were trying to determine if Stack put anything in the plane to worsen the damage caused by the impact and fire.

His wife, Sheryl Stack, was expected to address the news media on Friday although it was unclear when or how, the Red Cross said. One law enforcement official said investigators were trying to find out if a marital dispute precipitated Stack’s angry suicide mission. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

In his self-described “rant,” Stack railed against “big brother,” the Catholic Church, the “unthinkable atrocities” committed by big business and the governments bailouts that followed.

In the note, signed “Joe Stack (1956-2010)” and dated Thursday, he said he slowly came to the conclusion that “violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

Law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on, said Stack apparently posted the screed and set fire to his house before leaving for the airport.

Some who knew Stack said he offered little hint of his anger.

“He didn’t rant about anything,” said Pam Parker, an Austin attorney whose husband played in a band with Stack. “He wasn’t obsessed with the government or any of that. … Not a loner, not off in a corner. He had friends and conversation and ordinary stuff.”

But in his posting, Stack fumed about the IRS and wrote, “Nothing changes unless there is a body count.”

“I have had all I can stand,” he wrote, adding: “I choose not to keep looking over my shoulder at ‘big brother’ while he strips my carcass.”

Stack took off from an airport in Georgetown, about 30 miles from Austin, and flew low over the Austin skyline before plowing into the side of the building just before 10 a.m. Flames shot from the building, windows exploded and terrified workers rushed to get out.

The Pentagon scrambled two F-16 fighter jets to patrol the skies over the burning building before it became clear it was the act of a lone pilot, and President Barack Obama was briefed.

“It felt like a bomb blew off,” said Peggy Walker, an IRS revenue officer who was sitting at her desk. “The ceiling caved in and windows blew in. We got up and ran.”

The outside of the second floor was gone on the side of the building where the plane hit. Support beams were bent inward. Venetian blinds dangled from blown-out windows, and large sections of the exterior were blackened with soot. It was not immediately clear if tax records were destroyed.

Emergency crews originally said people were missing inside the building, but later recovered two bodies. Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck declined to discuss the identities of those found, but said authorities had now “accounted for everybody.”

Thirteen people were injured, authorities said. One man remained hospitalized Friday at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio with burns and was in stable condition, the hospital said.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said “heroic actions” by federal employees may explain why the death toll was so low.

Andrew Jacobson, an IRS revenue officer who was on the second floor when the plane hit with a “big whoomp” and then a second explosion, said about six people couldn’t use the stairwell because of smoke and debris. He found a metal bar to break a window so the group could crawl out onto a concrete ledge, where they were rescued by firefighters. His bloody hands were bandaged.

The FBI launched an investigation and Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Austin on the Homeland Security Committee, said the panel will take up the issue of how to better protect buildings from attacks with planes.

Stack’s Web tirade begins: “If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, ‘Why did this have to happen?’”

He recounts his financial reverses, his difficulty finding work in Austin, and at least two clashes with the IRS, one of them after he filed no return because, he said, he had no income, the other after he failed to report his wife’s income.

According to California state records, Stack had a troubled business history, twice starting software companies in California that ultimately were suspended by the state’s tax board, one in 2000, the other in 2004. Also, his first wife filed for bankruptcy in 1999, listing a debt to the IRS of nearly $126,000.

Stack’s father-in-law, Jack Cook, told The New York Times that he knew Stack had a “hang-up” with the IRS and his marriage had been strained. His wife had taken her daughter to a hotel to get away from Stack on Wednesday night, the newspaper said.

The blaze at Stack’s home, a red-brick house on a tree-lined street in a middle-class neighborhood six miles from the crash site, caved in the roof and blew out the windows. Arson crews were at the home Friday investigating.

Elbert Hutchins, who lives one house away, said the house caught fire about 9:15 a.m. He said a woman and her daughter drove up to the house before firefighters arrived.

“They both were very, very distraught,” said Hutchins, a retiree who said he didn’t know the family well. “‘That’s our house!’ they cried. ‘That’s our house!’”

Thursday was not the first time a tax protester went after an Austin IRS building. In 1995, Charles Ray Polk plotted to bomb the IRS Austin Service Center. He was released from prison in October of last year.

The tax protest movement has a long history in the U.S. and was a strong component of anti-government sentiments that surged during the 1990s. That wave culminated in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. Several domestic extremists were later convicted in the plot.

Associated Press writers April Castro and Jim Vertuno in Austin; Michelle Roberts in Georgetown; Linda Stewart Ball, Danny Robbins, Jeff Carlton and John McFarland in Dallas; Devlin Barrett, Lolita C. Baldor, Eileen Sullivan and Joan Lowy in Washington; and Melanie Coffee and Barbara Rodriguez in Chicago contributed to this report, along with the AP News Research Center.

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