On January 15, 1987, R. Budd Dwyer held a meeting in his suburban Pennsylvania home. Dwyer, the acting Pennsylvania State Treasurer, sat with his press secretary James Horshock and Deputy Treasurer Don Johnson to discuss setting up a press conference related to his recent legal issues.
The 47-year-old was a week away from his sentencing on convictions connected to bribery but had nevertheless been adamant about his innocence throughout the investigation and trial.
Both Horshock and Johnson left Dwyer’s home that evening assuming that their boss would resign at the press conference but that he’d make one last statement of innocence and plead for mercy in front of the local media.
Dwyer had other plans.
Who Was R. Budd Dwyer?
Robert Budd Dwyer graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania and quickly became active in local politics. In 1964, running as a Republican, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and served until 1970.
That year, while still a sitting State Representative, Dwyer ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate and won. After winning reelection twice, Dwyer set his sights on the state office and ran for Pennsylvania Treasurer in 1980. He won reelection to the seat four years later.
Around the same time, Pennsylvania officials discovered that some of its state workers had overpaid millions of dollars in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes taxes due to errors in state withholding. Several top accounting firms across the country competed for the multimillion-dollar contract to determine the compensation to be paid to each employee.
The contract was eventually awarded to a California-based firm, Computer Technology Associates (CTA), owned by a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Months after the contract was awarded, Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh received an anonymous memo detailing allegations of bribery that took place during the bidding process for the contract and named R. Budd Dwyer as one of the people receiving a kickback in the deal.
Enraged by the allegations, Dwyer denied any wrongdoing and maintained his innocence. Nevertheless, Dwyer and several others were eventually charged.
In a show of leniency, Federal prosecutors were willing to cut the treasurer a deal — he’d plead guilty to a single charge of bribe receiving, resign from office, and fully cooperate with the rest of the investigation. The single charge carried a five-year prison sentence.
Dwyer turned down the deal, believing his innocence would be proven in a trial.
However, on December 18, 1986, Dwyer was found guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering, and faced a sentence of up to 55 years’ imprisonment and a $300,000 fine.
His sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987.
The Press Conference
After meeting with two staffers on January 22 in order to weigh his options, alone in his home with his thoughts, R. Budd Dwyer contemplated his future. He scribbled his thoughts on a piece of paper, found later 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.”
At the press conference in the state capitol of Harrisburg the next morning, Dwyer began by reading from a prepared statement. As he 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.”
Fredrick Cusack, a journalist and friend of Dwyer’s sitting 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.”
As people frantically yelled for him to stop, and others approached the podium to disarm him, R. Budd Dwyer quickly inserted the gun into his mouth, pulled the trigger, and fell to the floor. He died instantly.