(This article was first published in British magazine Real Crime)
The phrase “going postal” has become established in the English language as a term for a disgruntled employee who expresses their rage and extreme frustration in bloody acts of violence in the workplace.
The incident widely believed to have spawned the term took place on the morning of August 20, 1986 by Patrick Henry Sherrill, 44 who was on the verge of being fired from his postman job. He had worked at the post office at Edmond, Oklahoma as a mail carrier since April 1985.
The day prior - a Tuesday - post office supervisors had met with Sherrill in what was the first step of a disciplinary process.
His work performance was not satisfactory and supervisors had told him so. Later, a union representative Gene Bradshaw from the Oklahoma City branch of the postal workers union revealed Sherrill had called the organisation after his meeting and requested a transfer to another post office. “He was very, very mad. He was cussing and he said he wanted that transfer,” Mr Bradshaw said.
However this morning – the day after he was told to pick up his performance - no one had an inkling of what would unfold.
Armed with three guns concealed in his mailbag, including a .45 calibre revolver, Sherrill walked calmly into the post office via the back door. There were already around 80 of his colleagues sorting mail for their morning delivery routes.
Without warning, he started shooting in the main mail sorting room. Sherrill was proficient in the use of firearms from his training in the Marine Corp during the early 1960s and as a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard.
Ron Blackwell, a letter carrier, was one of those getting ready for his morning deliveries. He survived. He said at first the shots sounded like someone had dropped a postal tray on the ground. “Then somebody said ‘he’s got a gun’ and everyone started running out,” Mr Blackwell told the media.
No one had ever encountered a scene like it. Bodies were scattered across the floor. Most of the people killed were close to their workstations, indicating that they never had a chance to run. Sherrill coldly executed them. Then, he put a gun to his head and killed himself. The exact reasons why he committed such a shocking, desperate act would die with him.
Newspapers reports in the aftermath of the mass killing described people in Oklahoma “hungry for information” on what happened at the post office. The news made national and international headlines. An Associated Press report detailed the fact that people were snapping up copies of the Daily Oklahoman from paper boys shouting “extra, extra” on street corners in Edmond – the first special edition the newspaper had done in over 20 years.
The town’s acting mayor Randel Shadid told the media: “this kind of insanity, you read about this kind of thing happening elsewhere, but there are nuts running around everywhere. We’re just sorry it happened here”.
Survivor and fellow postal worker Diane Mason told Associated Press that after she heard the first few shots she crouched down on the floor and made her body into the “littlest ball” she could manage.
“He kept getting closer and closer…he stopped then the footsteps started moving away,”
Ms Mason said. “It’s just a miracle he didn’t get me.” Ms Mason said between the shots the post office was “absolutely quiet” and the air smelt of gunpowder.
Just 24 hours after the massacre, the post office reopened. Mail had to be delivered and employees wanted to pay tribute to their slain and injured colleagues by carrying on their duties.
A regional director of the UPS, Earl Artis said while workers from the Edmond Post Office were told they could take some time off all but one of them stayed away.
Another worker, Ron Blackwell, said returning to work was “pretty scary”.
“There were empty chairs…a lonely feeling,” Mr Blackwell said.
“The whole day was real long and awful quiet…none of the chatter that we usually have around here.”
It was reported too that people stopped in to the post office to check on the welfare of the men and women who delivered their mail. Many residents of Edmond tiled yellow ribbons around their letterboxes in remembrance of the slain workers.
In the days after the bloodshed, America (and the world) began to find out about the gunman who coldly blasted away 14 lives.
His neighbours dubbed Patrick Sherrill “crazy Pat”. He was a strong, sturdy man and some of the taunts included “fat Pat” from the neighbourhood children and teens. He went about the area dressed in camouflage gear and riding alone on a tandem bicycle. Sherrill had lived in a modest house with his elderly mother for 20 years and when she died in 1978, his world became even more insular.
When he was in high school, Sherrill played American football and old teammates and coaches remembered him as a hard working athlete who was quiet and shy. Don Roberts, who played with Sherrill on the football team at Harding High School told The New York Times he was shocked by what Sherrill had done.
A local lawyer Janet Cox, who first met Sherrill when she handled his mother’s will in the late 1970s, told the New York Times he would drop by her office to see how she was going. Ms Cox told reporter William Robbins she thought Sherrill was emotionally damaged.
“I do a lot of work with juveniles, and he had that look in his eyes, the kind I have seen in a lonely, abandoned child who has been left by its parents,” Ms Cox said.
But others who had dealings with Sherrill told stories of a man who would prowl the streets at night in his camouflage clothing and stand in their backyards, peering into windows. He sometimes mowed his lawns at midnight. There was also Sherrill’s alleged cruelty to animals with some townspeople saying he would steal pets and used them as bait for his Dalmatian, called Freckles, to rip apart.
Vince Furlong, a mail clerk who survived the shooting said Sherrill was a poor worker.
"He'd screw up and then make the same mistake again," Mr Furlong told Los Angeles Times. "He carried my route once. He didn't know how to be a mailman. He was discourteous to people on the street. I had people mad at me the next day because he carried the mail.”
Sensationally, Britain’s The Sunday Times revealed Sherrill had served two weeks at RAF Mildenhall, Bury St Edmunds with the Oklahoma Air National Guard for its annual training course the month before the mass shooting.
RAF Mildenhall was by the US Air Force since the 1950s as a transport hub and the base for air refuelling tankers and special operations forces. In early 2015 it was announced by The Pentagon that the air force would leave Mildenhall, as well as several other locations in England.
The Sunday Times spoke to some people at Mildenhall who had spent time with Sherrill. Quoted in the article was Sgt Christine Dort, then 24, who was a firearms instructor and therefore, spent a lot of time in close contact with Sherrill. Sherrill’s role during the two-week stint was to do some classroom demonstrations and then spend time on the firing range. According to the air force’s official statement in response to The Sunday Times article, Sherrill “conducted weapons training, principally on the M-16, the standard rifle of the US armed forces. The course he taught consisted of an hour of classroom instruction plus about half an hour on the firing range, firing about 50 rounds of ammunition…”. Sgt Dort said Sherrill was “a very nice and happy man who was always joking around with the other instructors”.
Another person who shared a glimpse into the mind of Pat Sherrill was a maid at the hotel where he stayed during his time in England.
She told The Sunday Times Sherrill was “a quiet man who didn’t really say a lot but who certainly didn’t seem neurotic”.
“Most of them put up pictures of their wives or families but he didn’t have anything,” she said.
The Oklahoma Air National Guard were quick to respond to the tragedy amid questions about whether they had any inkling of Sherrill’s frame of mind.
Major General Bob Morgan, adjutant general of the Oklahoma National Guard told a news conference two days after the tragedy there had been no red flags to indicate Sherrill was unfit in his duties.
“He had performed his military service with the Oklahoma Air National Guard well,” Major Gen Morgan said.
“He had been awarded the Oklahoma good conduct ribbon and the Oklahoma National Guard 100 per cent drill attendance badge.”
"There had been no reports, including medical, that would have precluded him from serving in the guard or from being a member of the marksmanship program," he said.
Two of the pistols Sherrill used to kill and maim his postal worker colleagues were issued to him by the National Guard for him to use in a target competition.
So what type of person commits such a crime? In the days after, journalists scrambled to piece together stories that could try and make sense for their readers about why the tragedy occurred.
The Dallas Times Herald spoke to Psychiatrist Dr Harley Stock who had taught classes at the FBI Behavioural Science Center in Quantico, Virginia and was a professor at the forensic psychiatry centre of a large state hospital in Ypsilanti, Ohio. (Closed in 2008, there is now a Toyota Research Facility on the old hospital site.) Dr Stock theorised that Sherrill would have been a loner, had poor interactions with people and a bad work history where he would not stay in jobs for very long. “He was out of control. These types of people are often helpless and hopeless,” Dr Stock told the newspaper. “They are trying to get control of their own life by exerting control over others. Obviously if you have a weapon, you can control other people,” he said.
Dr Stock was also spot-on about Sherrill having a military background, which has proved to be a common marker of mass killers.
And Sherrill’s final act – his suicide – was also a hallmark of mass killers.
“I think this guy is going out in a blaze of glory,” Dr Stock said.
“If you look at his life, he didn’t amount to much. He was going to get even with people and it didn’t matter much to him (whether he lived).”
When police searched Sherrill’s home they found things that helped to build the picture of the man and his mind in the lead-up to the terrible crime. Officers found guns, ammunition and literature about the Soviet Union, weapons (Guns and Ammo magazine) and technology for amateur radio - one of hobbies.
The piles of magazines and newspapers were stacked to the ceiling. The investigators had no idea the exact motives of Pat Sherrill because he was now dead but they set about to interview many people who had known him or had cause to be involved with him, no matter how loosely. The authorities needed to build a posthumous profile of Sherrill, not that it would have been any comfort to his victims but rather serve as a way to identify future people who could be a risk to commit extreme violence at their workplaces.
No workplace, let alone the United States Postal Service, could have been adequately equipped to deal with such a tragedy. The tragedy exposed the glaring deficiencies in the way the organisation handled its employees who survived the horror.
In 1987 it was reported the General Accounting Office had launched a nationwide investigation into the postal service and allegations that the organisation’s top management were insensitive to the traumatised survivors of the Edmond post office massacre.
A government house panel, tasked with investigating the administrative and personnel response to the massacre’s victims, heard stories of bungled death and funeral payments. Associated Press reported on 19 March 1987 stories from survivors, family of the slain victims and the American Postal Workers about the abysmal personnel management of the US Postal Service.
Sadly, the blood shed in Edmond has not been a rare occurrence. There were mass shooters before Pat Sherrill and since him there have been hundreds of similar incidents around the world.
The perpetrators all share similar psychological make-ups.
In a 2012 interview for National Public Radio (NPR) Jack Levin, sociologist and criminologist at Northeastern University, Boston spoke about the link between mass killers and depression.
“…most mass killers have suffered some kind of chronic depression and frustration,” Levin told host Audie Cornish who was interviewing him in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Over a long period of time, they externalize responsibility, blaming everybody but themselves for their failings. They have some kind of an acute strain, a catastrophic loss - the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship at home, maybe even a terminal illness…”
The Edmond Post Office shootings marked a change in the perception that an American workplace was safe for its workers…from their fellow workers. Edmond was a quiet, middle-class suburb. It had always been considered safe. What became clear to the United States Postal Service, and thousands of other workplaces in the country was that they were unprepared for threats of violence from within their ranks. The Edmond Post Office massacre represented the first of several devastating incidents for the United States Postal Service.
In 1991 another postal employee made reference to Sherrill when he murdered four people in Ridgewood, New Jersey as revenge for being dismissed from his job as a mail sorter. Joseph Harris, dressed in black military fatigues, combat boots and a black silk Ninja-style hood, went to the home of his former supervisor Carol Ott. Harris stabbed Ms Ott to death with a samurai sword, as well as shooting her boyfriend in the head from behind as he sat watching TV in the couple’s basement. Then Harris went to his former workplace and shot and killed two mail handlers. Ms Otto had gone to the police a few months before Harris’s dismissal to make a report about his conduct towards her but she never made a formal criminal complaint. Expecting to be killed during his standoff with police, Harris left a note at his apartment prior to going on his murderous spree. The exact contents of the note were not released but it was revealed Harris made specific mention of Patrick Sherrill and his workplace massacre.
Harris was an extremely dangerous man. Police linked him to another shocking crime two years earlier. In 1988 in a town called Montville, New Jersey, a man wearing ninja-style clothing killed a businessman, raped his wife, and assaulted his two young daughters. The offender was Joseph Harris. Harris was sentenced to death in 1993 and died of a stroke in 1996 while on death row.
Nowadays, it is not unusual for North American companies and government authorities on how to survive a workplace mass-shooting event. In 2012, a public safety video was made by the City of Houston that emphasised to people “run, hide, fight” during a workplace shooting. The video showed a man opening fire in an office and a narrator explaining how to manage the situation. “If you are ever to find yourself in the middle of an active shooter event your survival may depend on whether or not you have a plan,” the narrator says.
“First and foremost, if you can get out, do…encourage others to leave with you but don’t let them slow you down…” If escape is not an option “you need to find a place to hide.”