Joseph Harris Goes Postal in Ridgewood, New Jersey

This week’s subject is the workplace killings of Joseph Harris in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Harris was a former postal clerk angered over his dismissal.

Prelude to Murder

Joseph Harris had a rough start in life. His mother was in prison when she gave birth to him. Things didn’t get much easier after that since he had a lifetime history of psychiatric problems.

Harris began working at the Ridgewood, New Jersey post office in 1981. Former coworkers described him as quiet, intense, and sullen. He earned a reprimand in 1984 for harassing other employees. And in February 1990, his supervisor filed a complaint with police alleging that he had threatened her on the job. In April, the supervisor, Carol Ott fired Harris after he refused to submit to a “fitness for work” exam. She later decided not to press charges over the threats.

Joseph Harris
Joseph Harris

Joseph Harris did not take his dismissal lightly. Nursing a grudge against Ott and the Postal Service, he began collecting weapons and explosives. By October 1991 he had an arsenal that included grenades, an Uzi, a .22 caliber machine gun. He also had homemade explosives.

The Ridgewood Murders

On October 9, 1991, Joseph Harris donned a black ninja costume and went from his apartment in Paterson to nearby Wayne. There he entered the home of Carol Ott, his former supervisor, and killed her with a three-foot samurai sword. He also shot Ott’s live-in boyfriend, Cornelius Kasten, Jr. in the head, killing him.

Joseph Harris held police at bay for four hours while holed up in the Ridgewood, New Jersey post office
The New Deal-era post office in Ridgewood, New Jersey

From Ott’s home, Harris continued to his former workplace, the Ridgewood post office. A postal service truck driver arrived at the building at 2:15 a.m. to find it dark and the loading dock door closed. The driver went inside and saw Harris in the basement wearing a gas mask. Harris fired a shot at the driver but missed. The driver then managed to escape.

When police arrived, Harris lit what appeared to be a pipe bomb or stick of dynamite and threw it at them. Retreating from the building, officers heard a second explosion. A standoff ensued when police then surrounded the building. The standoff ended shortly before 7:00 a.am. when Harris surrendered to the Bergen County SWAT team. Although the explosions caused minimal damage, police found two dead postal workers. Joseph M. VanderPaauw and Donald McNaught.

Harris claimed that a “ninja spirit” drove him to commit the murders. His lawyers naturally argued that he was insane. But the jury in his 1992 trial didn’t buy it and convicted him of the Ridgewood murders. The judge sentenced him to death. However, just as the New Jersey Supreme Court was set to hear a case attempting to overturn the state’s death penalty law, Joseph Harris died in prison of natural causes.

Joseph Harris in court
Joseph Harris in court

An Earlier Murder

On November 15, 1988, a man forced his way into the Montville, New Jersey home of Roy Edwards. The intruder wore a ninja costume with a black mask and black gloves. He sexually assaulted Edwards’ wife and two young daughters. When Edwards tried to escape, the intruder shot and killed him. His wife broke a window and screamed for help. A neighbor then called police, but the intruder was gone.

The crime went unsolved until 1991. After the Ridgewood post office standoff, investigators learned that the 1988 ninja had been Joseph Harris. Harris, believing that an investment he made with Edwards had lost about $10,000, went to the Edwards home seeking revenge.

The 1992 jury also convicted Harris of the Edwards slaying.

Going Postal

Between 1970 and 1997, disgruntled postal workers killed more than 40 people in acts of workplace violence. The St. Petersburg Times and the Los Angeles Times introduced the term “going postal” into the American lexicon in 1993. It isn’t likely to go away soon.

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