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 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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The Texas Tower Sniper

In previous blogs, I discussed the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre and the Killeen Luby’s massacre.  The murders by the Texas Tower Sniper predates both these. Like them, was the deadliest mass shooting at the time but it was also America’s first random mass shooting in a public place.

The Shootings

Charles Whitman was an engineering student and former Marine. On Monday, August 1, 1966, he took weapons, ammunition, and food to the main building of the University of Texas at Austin. He used a dolly to haul a footlocker and a duffel back filled with weapons, ammunition, and food to the observation level at the top of the building’s clock tower. After killing the receptionist and two tourists (and injuring two others), Whitman positioned himself on the observation deck. At 11:48 a.m., he opened fire on people walking around the campus and a section of nearby Guadalupe Street.

The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas (© 1980 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the next 93 minutes, rifle fire from the 231-foot high observation deck wreaked devastation on people below. Some people decided the gunshots were the sounds of a nail gun from a nearby construction site. Others thought the shots and falling people were part of bizarre anti-war protest (it was 1960s). Still others thought it was a theater group or psychology experiment. Soon, however, they realized what was happening and took cover as best they could.

The Police Respond

Four minutes after the first shot, a history professor placed the first call to police. Officer Billy Speed was one of the first to arrive. Despite taking cover behind a decorative concrete baluster, Whitman managed to shoot him; he died in the hospital.

Approaching the tower was difficult and dangerous. Officer Houston McCoy, along with a small group of police began to work their way toward the tower through underground maintenance tunnels. Meanwhile, both police and civilians began shooting back at the tower. Also, a police sniper approached in a small airplane, but Whitman’s rifle fire drove the plane back. It remained in the area, though, circling at a discrete distance. The airplane, coupled with the return fire from below, did not stop the shooting. But they did limit the Whitman’s ability to select targets freely.

As the shooting continued, officers Ramiro Martinez, McCoy, and Jerry Day, along with civilian Allen Crum, made their way to the 27th floor of the tower. The four then climbed the switchback stairs to the observation level. Martinez and McCoy rounded a corner and confronted the sniper. Martinez fired his service revolver at Whitman but missed. McCoy next hit Whitman with two shotgun blasts of .00 buckshot. Martinez then flung his empty pistol to the ground, grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, and shot Whitman once more at point-blank range. Fifteen people were dead, including the Texas Tower sniper himself.

The Sniper

Charles Joseph Whitman was an Eagle Scout and former Marine, married, and studying architectural engineering at the University of Texas.  He held several different jobs to support himself and his wife (she also worked).  Although outwardly appearing normal, he grappled with violent impulses and consulted several doctors, including a psychiatrist.  He documented his feelings and struggles in a journal he began keeping during his stint in the Marine Corps.  He even told friends that on two occasions he hit his wife, an act that left him disgusted with himself.

Charles Joseph Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.
Charles Joseph Whitman (Public Domain)

Investigators soon discovered that the night before he ascended the tower, Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife. He had stabbed them both through the heart as they slept.

An autopsy performed after Whitman’s death revealed he had a pecan-sized brain tumor. Neither the pathologist who performed the autopsy nor a commission formed by Texas governor John Connally were able to find concrete evidence that the tumor caused Whitman to commit the killings.

Charles Whitman
Charles Whitman


The University of Texas closed the tower observation deck after the shootings. It reopened two years later with the bullet damage repaired. But it closed again in 1975 after four suicides and remained closed for more than two decades. After installing several security measures, the University reopened the observation deck again in 1999 but only for guided tours by appointment.

South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower
South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower

In 2006, the City of Austin dedicated a memorial garden dedicated to the dead and otherwise affected victims. In 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings, a memorial stone was added, and the tower clock was stopped for 24 hours.

Memorial to those killed by the Texas Tower sniper in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966.
Memorial to those killed at the University of Texas Tower shooting in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966. (© 2019 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Journalist William Helmer was a graduate student and an eyewitness and wrote about the Texas Tower sniper for Texas Monthly in 1986, twenty years after the event.

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The Luby’s Massacre

Last week, I told you about the 1984 McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, California.  Today I talk about an eerily similar crime, the Luby’s massacre, which occurred in 1991 in Killeen, Texas.  Killeen would also be the site of two more mass shootings in 2009 and 2014, both at the nearby Fort Hood military base.

The Site

Luby’s is a popular cafeteria chain, located mostly throughout Texas, but there are also Luby’s restaurants in Arkansas and Mississippi.  About 140 lunchtime diners filled the Luby’s location at 1705 East Central Texas Expressway in Killeen.  It was National Boss’s Day, Wednesday, October 16, 1991.

The Luby's massacre began when George Hennard crashed his blue Ford pickup truck through the front window of the restaurant.
The Luby’s massacre began when George Hennard crashed his blue Ford pickup truck through the front window of the restaurant.

The Massacre

The Luby’s massacre began at 12:39 p.m. when one George Hennard drove his blue 1987 Ford pickup truck through the restaurant’s plate glass front window.  At first, diners naturally thought the crash was an accident.  But Hennard emerged from the truck, shouting “All women of Killeen and Belton are Vipers!  This is what you’ve done to me and my family! … This is payback day!”  With that, the shooting started. Armed with two semi-automatic pistols, a Glock 17 and a Ruger P89, he then began stalking and shooting both customers and employees.  His attack killed 23 people and wounded 17 others.

After police arrived, Hennard engaged in a brief shootout with officers.  Wounded twice in the abdomen by police bullets and running low on ammunition, he shot and killed himself.

The Luby's massacre shooter, George Hennard, mugshot for an unrelated pot bust.
George Hennard, the shooter in the Luby’s massacre. This mugshot was for an unrelated pot bust.

The Shooter

George Hennard was a native of Pennsylvania, the son of a Swiss surgeon.  His family later moved to New Mexico, where his father worked at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces.  He served in the U.S. Navy for three years and earned an honorable discharge.  After that, he worked as a sailor in the Merchant Marine but was fired for possessing marijuana and racial incidents.  He was unemployed at the time of the Luby’s massacre.

People who knew him described Hennard as reclusive and belligerent.  He also had an explosive temper.  A former roommate said that he hated blacks, Hispanics, and gays. He also hated women, often calling them “snakes.”  Survivors of the attack at Luby’s reported him passing over men to shoot women, calling at least two of them “bitch” before pulling the trigger.

One customer survived by crashing through a back window. He injured himself in the process but he also creating an escape route for others. Otherwise, the number of victims likely would have been higher.


The Texas Rifle Association tried to use the Luby’s massacre as a lever to pass legislation allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons.  Governor Ann Richards vetoed two such bills.  But her successor, George W. Bush, signed a similar bill into law.

Memorial to the victims of the Luby's massacre in Killeen, Texas.
Memorial to the victims of the Luby’s massacre in Killeen, Texas.

Luby’s reopened on the site five months after the shootings but it closed permanently on September 9, 2000.  Today, the location is home to a Chinese-American buffet.

A red granite memorial to the massacre victims sits behind the Killeen Community Center.

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The McDonald’s Massacre

I took a break for vacation last week but I’m back with a new post about a truly horrifying crime.  On July 18, 1984, a man named James Huberty launched what we know simply as the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, California.  His attack on unsuspecting diners and employees lasted over an hour.

James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people and wounded 19 at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California
James Oliver Huberty, the San Ysidro McDonald’s slayer

The Shooter

James Oliver Huberty was a native of Canton, Ohio.  Outwardly normal in many respects, he struggled with inner demons. He was introverted and often sullen and a dedicated collector of grudges.  He believed in government conspiracy theories. Huberty also expected that US-Soviet relations would deteriorate into a doomsday scenario.  To prepare for the anticipated apocalypse, he collected non-perishable food—and guns and ammo.  There is also evidence that he was occasionally violent to his wife and daughters.

Huberty initially worked toward a sociology degree at Malone College in Canton (where he met his future wife). Later studied at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  After graduating, he worked as an embalmer for two years.  He then decided to become a welder, a craft he practiced in Louisville, Kentucky for two years before securing a more lucrative welding job with Babcock & Wilcox in Akron.

Successful as a welder, Huberty and his wife bought a house in Massillon, Ohio.  When a fire destroyed that house, they bought a second house on the same street and built a six-unit apartment building on the site of their first home.  All was well until Babcock & Wilcox closed the unit where he worked and laid him off.

The Hubertys Move

After selling the apartment building and the house in Massillon, Huberty moved his family to Tijuana, Mexico, assuming that his money would go further there than in the United States.  Although his wife and girls embraced their new life in Mexico, Huberty did not.  After only three months, the family moved to San Ysidro, a largely poor district of San Diego just north of the US-Mexico border.

Life on the American side of the border was not significantly better for Huberty.  He signed up for and attended a federally funded program to train as a security guard. After finishing the training, he landed a job with a security firm in Chula Vista in April 1984.  But this job lasted only three months.  On July 10, 1984, his employer dismissed him, citing poor work performance and general physical instability.

For the next few days, Huberty drifted until, on July 17, he placed a call to San Diego mental health clinic requesting an appointment.  Since he was calm and gave no indication of urgency, and because the receptionist who took the call misspelled his name, he did not receive the immediate callback he expected.

The next day, July 18, Huberty took his family to the San Diego zoo.  They lunched—ironically—at McDonald’s and later returned home.

The McDonald’s Massacre

Shortly after the Hubertys returned from the Zoo, Huberty donned a maroon T-shirt and green camo pants.  He kissed his wife goodbye and left, remarking that he was “going hunting…hunting for humans.”  This odd statement did not alarm Mrs. Huberty as he was apparently in the habit of making similar remarks.

Huberty drove his black Mercury Marquis to the parking lot of the McDonald’s at 460 West San Ysidro Boulevard.  There were 45 customers in the restaurant when Huberty walked in at approximately 3:56 p.m.  He carried with him a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm handgun, an Uzi 9mm carbine, and a Winchester 1200 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, along with a box and a cloth bag with hundreds of rounds of ammunition for each weapon.

For the next 77 minutes, terror reigned.  Huberty shot employees and customers indiscriminately regardless of age or gender.  Emergency services received the first of many calls at 4:00 p.m. but dispatched police to the wrong McDonald’s, which was two miles away.  It was another ten minutes before the first officer arrived on the scene.  Huberty fired at his patrol car.  Police quickly established a command post and locked down a six-block area around the scene.

Bullet holes in the windows after the McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, California
Bullet holes in the windows are a grim reminder of James Huberty’s deadly attack at McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California (ABC News)

Taking Down a Killer

Because Huberty was firing rapidly and switching between his three guns, police were unsure how many shooters were in the restaurant.  It was also difficult to see through the windows, now spider-webbed by bullet holes.  One person who escaped the melee told police that there was only one shooter and no hostages.

Finally, at 5:17 p.m., Huberty stepped toward a door near the drive-through window.  A SWAT officer posted on the roof of the nearby post office fired a single shot that ruptured his aorta, killing him instantly.  The horror was finally over.  The McDonald’s massacre left 21 people dead and 19 others wounded.

After the Attack

Astonishingly, within two days, McDonald’s had repaired and refurbished the restaurant and was ready to reopen it. But after discussions with community leaders, the company decided not to do so.  The renovated restaurant was quietly demolished on September 26.

At the time, the San Ysidro massacre at McDonald’s was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman.  A shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas would shatter this unenviable record only seven years later.

Memorial to the victims of the  McDonald's massacre at the former site of the restaurant in San Ysidro, California
Memorial to the San Ysidro McDonald’s victims at the former site of the restaurant

McDonald’s constructed a new restaurant nearby and eventually sold the land where the attack occurred to Southwestern College. The college set aside a 300-square-foot area for a memorial to the victims.  Southwestern unveiled the memorial designed by one of its former students on December 13, 1990.

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