The Day R. Budd Dwyer Killed Himself On TV.
On January 15, 1987, R. Budd Dwyer, the acting Pennsylvania State Treasurer, convened a meeting at his suburban Pennsylvania residence. Accompanied by his press secretary James Horshock and Deputy Treasurer Don Johnson, the purpose was to discuss arrangements for a forthcoming press conference addressing his recent legal challenges.
Despite being just a week away from sentencing on bribery-related convictions, the 47-year-old remained steadfast in proclaiming his innocence, a stance he had maintained throughout the entire investigation and trial.
After the meeting, both Horshock and Johnson departed Dwyer’s home with the expectation that their boss would announce his resignation at the scheduled press conference on January 22, delivering a final statement asserting his innocence and seeking mercy from the local media.
But Dwyer was intent on doing something far more final.
Dwyer's early days and legal troubles
After graduating from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Robert Budd Dwyer swiftly immersed himself in local politics. In 1964, running under the Republican banner, he secured a position in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, serving until 1970.
While still an incumbent State Representative, Dwyer sought and won a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate in 1970. Re-elected twice, he then aimed for a state office, running for Pennsylvania Treasurer in 1980 and successfully securing re-election four years later.
Simultaneously, Pennsylvania officials uncovered errors in state withholding, leading to state workers overpaying millions in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. A competitive bidding process ensued among top accounting firms nationwide vying for the lucrative contract to ascertain proper compensation for each affected employee.
The contract was ultimately granted to Computer Technology Associates (CTA), a California-based firm owned by a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native.
Several months following the contract award, an anonymous memo detailing bribery allegations during the bidding process reached Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh. The memo implicated R. Budd Dwyer as one of the individuals receiving kickbacks in the deal.
Incensed by the accusations, Dwyer vehemently denied any wrongdoing and steadfastly asserted his innocence. Despite his protests, charges were eventually filed against Dwyer and several others involved in the matter.
Displaying a gesture of leniency, federal prosecutors extended an offer to the treasurer — he could plead guilty to a lone charge of receiving a bribe, tender his resignation from office, and wholeheartedly collaborate with the ongoing investigation. The prescribed penalty for the singular charge amounted to a five-year prison sentence.
Believing his innocence would be proven at trial, Dwyer turned down the deal.
Nevertheless, on December 18, 1986, Dwyer was convicted on 11 counts, including conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. The potential repercussions included a sentence of up to 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine.
The sentencing was slated for January 23, 1987.
Following a discussion with two staffers on January 22 to assess his choices, R. Budd Dwyer, in solitude within his residence, pondered his future. He jotted down his reflections on a piece of paper, later discovered by his family.
“I enjoy being with Jo so much, the next 20 years or so would have been wonderful. Tomorrow is going to be so difficult and I hope I can go through with it.”
The press conference in Harrisburg the next morning began with a prepared statement that left no one with any idea they were about to watch R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide.
But as Dwyer reached the final page, he went off script, telling the audience:
“I’ve repeatedly said that I’m not going to resign as State Treasurer. After many hours of thought and meditation I’ve made a decision that should not be an example to anyone because it is unique to my situation. Last May I told you that after the trial, I would give you the story of the decade. To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story. But to those of you with depth and concern the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning–in the coming months and years[,] the development of a true Justice System here in the United States.
I am going to die in office in an effort to ‘…see if the shame[-ful] facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.’ Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S.. Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, DeeDee [sic] – I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Goodbye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”
In front of the gathered reporters and television cameras, he removed an envelope from under the podium. Inside was a .357 Magnum revolver. The crowd immediately began to panic as the former treasurer announced, “Please leave the room if this will affect you.”
Frederick L. Cusick, a journalist and friend of Dwyer’s who was sitting in the front row to cover the story, told the Los Angeles Times years later that he “should have run and grabbed him when he pulled out the envelope. I knew that was it.”
Amidst frantic shouts urging him to cease and others moving towards the podium to intervene, R. Budd Dwyer swiftly placed the gun in his mouth, discharged the trigger, and collapsed to the floor.
His death was instant.
Below is unedited footage of Dwyer's suicide. Think carefully before you view it, it's as disturbing as you'd expect.
Several Pennsylvania television stations aired edited footage of the press conference and R. Budd Dwyer's suicide, although, contrary to urban legends, the press conference was never broadcast live. Some stations froze the footage before the gunshot, with the audio continuing under the static image.
WPVI, a Philadelphia station, rebroadcast the suicide footage without warning during their 5 and 6 p.m. broadcasts, contributing to numerous copies available online today. WHTM-TV in Harrisburg chose to broadcast the uncut video of the suicide twice, justifying the decision by emphasizing the story's importance. Many individuals, including children and adults affected by a significant snowstorm, witnessed the video in the surrounding area.
“I saw the raw footage of it,” explained Richard Patrick, frontman of the band Filter, in a 2012 interview about the song he penned in the aftermath of the public suicide:
“I’m from the suburbs and I don’t remember seeing a lot of things like that growing up. When you’re 22 and you see that, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ There was no Internet to watch death on … you can see anything on the Internet now. Back then, we were watching it out of fascination of like, ‘Wow. We’re all gonna die. There was a morbid curiosity. I was watching it and I was all, ‘Hey man, nice shot.'”
In 2010, Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, a feature documentary about R. Budd Dwyer’s life and the tragedy of his suicide, premiered at the Carmel Art and Film Festival in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the Dwyer family in attendance.
In the documentary, William T. Smith, a former chairman of the Dauphin County Republican Committee and a crucial witness in Dwyer’s trial, confesses to perjury during his own trial. He admits to falsely denying offering Dwyer a bribe, driven by a desire to lessen his own sentence and shield his wife from prosecution in the conspiracy.
Expressing remorse for his dishonesty and acknowledging its impact on R. Budd Dwyer's public suicide, Smith's revelations raise questions about the justice Dwyer received. Nevertheless, it is evident that Dwyer, at the very least, secured his family's future.
As Dwyer passed away while still holding office, his widow, Joanne, became eligible to receive complete survivor benefits exceeding $1.28 million. Some close to Dwyer speculate that his suicide might have been an effort to safeguard the state-provided pension for his family, whose financial stability had suffered due to legal defence expenses.
However, even following R. Budd Dwyer’s suicide, Pennsylvania's financial landscape remained opaque. According to Frederick Cusick, the reporter and friend who witnessed Dwyer's tragic act, little changed in Harrisburg in the aftermath. He remarked to an editor shortly after the incident, "You can see the fins breaking the water. You see the feeding frenzies when it comes to payoffs and bribes."