The Rising Body Count on Main Street :
The Human Fallout from the Financial Crisis
Nick Turse, Tom Dispatch (extracts)
On Oct 4 2008, in the Porter Ranch section of LA, Karthik Rajaram, beset by financial troubles, shot his wife, mother-in-law, and three sons before turning the gun on himself. In one of his two suicide notes, Rajaram wrote that he was “broke,” having incurred massive financial losses in the economic meltdown. “I understand he was unemployed, his dealings in the stock market had taken a disastrous turn for the worse,” said LA Deputy Police Chief Michel R. Moore. In recent days, AP, ABC News, and others have begun to address the burgeoning body count, especially suicides attributed to the financial crisis. (Note that, months ago, Barbara Ehrenreich raised the issue in the Nation.) In February, when a sheriff’s deputy went to serve an eviction notice on a home owner in Greeley, Colorado, he found the man had slashed his wrists and was lying in a pool of blood. Rushed to a nearby hospital, the man survived, while the Sheriff’s office tried to downplay economic reasons for the incident, saying, according to the Denver Post, that “it wasn’t linking the suicide attempt to the eviction because the man had known for a week that he was to be kicked out.”
In March, Ocala, Florida resident Roland Gore killed his dog and his wife, set fire to his home which was in foreclosure, and then killed himself. In April, Robert McGuinness, a 24-year-old process server, arrived at the Marion County, Florida doorstep of Frank W. Conrad. According to an article in the local Star Banner, the 82-year-old Conrad was reportedly “cordial” at first. When McGuinness produced the foreclosure notice, however, Conrad got angry and left the room. He returned with a .38 caliber pistol and announced, “You have two seconds to get off my property or you will go to the hospital.” Marion County sheriff’s deputies later arrested Conrad. On Jun 3, agents of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set out to inform New Orleans resident Eric Minshew that he would be evicted from his “Katrina” trailer. After Minshew threatened them, the FEMA employees called the police. When they arrived, Minshew allegedly threatened them as well and “locked himself in his partially-gutted home, adjacent to his trailer.” A SWAT team was called in and tear-gassed the man. Interviewed by the Times-Picayune, local resident Tiffany Flores said, “Some SWAT members told my husband they had never seen anyone withstand that much tear gas.” The standoff went on for hours before “an assault team of tactical officers” invaded the home. Though Minshew opened fire, they eventually cornered him on the upper floor. When — they claimed — he refused to drop his weapon, they gunned him down.
That same day, in Multnomah County, Oregon, sheriff’s deputies served an eviction notice on a desperate tenant. According to Deputy Travis Gullberg, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer, the evictee promptly pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at his head before being disarmed by the deputies. In July, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Habecker told the Sacramento Bee that twice this year “homeowners about to be evicted have committed suicide as he approached to do a lockout.” In another case, he said, “a fellow Sacramento deputy found a note in the home that told him where to find the foreclosed homeowner’s body.” The Bee reported that such cases “received no publicity when they happened,” which raises the question of just how many similar suicides have gone unreported nationwide. In July, when police delivered an eviction notice at the Middleburg, Florida home of George and Bonnie Mangum, the couple barricaded themselves inside. Eventually, George Mangum was talked into surrendering and was arrested. “He did the only thing he knew to do, protect his family, all he did was sit on the other side of the door and say I have a gun, I have a gun and that’s why he’s going to jail because he threatened the police,” said Bonnie. The couple’s daughter Robin added, “This is my home, this is all our home and I don’t think it’s right. My dad was a Green Beret, he’s sick, how are you going to kick him out?”
Pinellas Park, Florida resident Dallas Dwayne Carter was a 44-year-old disabled, single dad who lost his job, fell into debt, and was faced with eviction. “He always talked about needing help — financially and help with the kids,” neighbor Kevin Luster told the St. Petersburg Times. On Jul 19, Carter apparently called the police to say he was armed and disturbed. When they arrived, Carter fired his pistol and rifle inside the apartment, before emerging and pointing his weapons at the officers on the scene. Police say they ordered him to drop them. When he didn’t, they killed him in a 10-round fusillade. On Jul 23, about 90 minutes before her foreclosed Taunton, Massachusetts home was scheduled to be sold at auction, Carlene Balderrama faxed a letter to her mortgage company, letting them know that “by the time they foreclosed on the house today she’d be dead.” She continued, “I hope you’re more compassionate with my husband and son than you were with me.” After that, she took a high-powered rifle and, according to the Boston Globe, shot herself. In an interview with the Associated Press, Balderrama’s husband John said, “I had no clue.” His wife handled the finances and had been intercepting letters from the mortgage company for months. “She put in her suicide note that it got overwhelming for her,” he said. In the letter, she wrote, “take the [life] insurance money and pay for the house.”
The day after Balderrama took her life, 50 miles away in Worcester, Massachusetts, a 64-year-old man, who had already been evicted, barricaded himself inside his former home. Police were called to the scene to find him reportedly prepared to ignite four propane tanks. “His intention was to burn the house down with him in it,” Sgt. Christopher J. George told the Telegram & Gazette. With the man becoming “even more despondent” as “a moving van arrived on the street,” police stormed the house to find him “holding a foot-long knife to his own chest” as a piece of paper burned near the propane. The man was disarmed and the fire extinguished. That very same day, in Visalia, California, a Tulare County sheriff’s deputy tried to serve an eviction notice to Melvin Nicks, 50. Nicks responded by stabbing the deputy with a knife and barricading himself in the house for several hours. He later surrendered.
Bay City, Michigan residents David and Sharron Hetzel, both 56, “lost their home to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy protection. But they did not follow through with the Chapter 13 proceedings.” On August 1st, say police reports, David Hetzel mailed a letter of apology to his family members. Later that night, according to the local police, he attacked his sleeping wife, striking her in the head with a golf club and repeatedly stabbing her with a kitchen knife. After that, he began setting fires throughout the house before crawling into bed beside his wife and killing himself with “a single, fatal wound to his torso.” On Aug 12, sheriff’s deputies arrived at the Saddlebrook, New Jersey home of 88-year-old Beatrice Brennan, another victim of the mortgage crisis, who had refinanced her home and fallen behind on payments. Refusing to stand idly by while his mother was put out on the street, her 60-year-old son John pulled a .22 caliber handgun on the lawmen. That sent the movers, waiting for a court-imposed 10 a.m. deadline, scurrying for their van. Brennan was able to delay the eviction briefly before a SWAT team arrested him and his mother lost her home. “I’m heartbroken over this,” Vincent Carabello, a longtime neighbor, told the local paper, the Record. “How could this happen?” Roseville, Minnesota resident Sylvia Sieferman was under a great deal of stress and beset by financial difficulties. She worried about how she would care for her two 11-year-old daughters. On August 21st, according to police reports, Sieferman “repeatedly stabbed the girls and herself.” “She reached her limit,” her friend Carrie Micko told the Star Tribune. “She couldn’t cope anymore… she felt that her daughters were suffering because she was failing to provide for them.” As Micko further explained, “After a series of financial mishaps, she just couldn’t see her way through. She was under extreme financial, emotional and spiritual distress and didn’t want to fail them.”
The Boston Globe reported that, on September 5th, “[f]our protesters trying to prevent the eviction of a Roxbury woman from her home were arrested… after they chained themselves to the steps of her back porch.” As 40 protesters chanted in the street, officials from Bank of America ordered Paula Taylor out of her house. “This is our eighth blockade and the first time there have been arrests,” said Soledad Lawrence, an organizer with City Life, a non-profit organization seeking to halt the large numbers of foreclosures and evictions in Boston neighborhoods. “They can be more aggressive and we’ll be more aggressive,” she added. On Sep 25, six Boston police officers confronted about 40 City Life activists in front of the home of Ana Esquivel, a public school employee, and her husband Raul, a construction worker, both in their fifties. The Globe reported that four protesters were arrested as police shoved their way through in order to allow a locksmith into the house to bar the Esquivels from their home. “We’ve been destroyed by the bank,” Ana Esquivel said, sobbing. “The bank is too big for us.” While the Esquivel blockade failed, Steven Meacham, a City Life organizer, told a Globe reporter that “the protests have helped to stop about nine evictions. In the successful blockades, the homeowners were given additional time by their mortgage holders to negotiate alternatives to foreclosure.”
Two days earlier, LA County sheriff’s deputies came to the Monrovia home of 53-year-old Joanne Carter and her 67-year-old husband John to serve an eviction notice. Joanne Carter refused to accept it. According to “Monrovia spokesman” Dick Singer, as reported in the Pasadena Star-News, she “told deputies she had guns in the house and showed them a shotgun.” The next day, Monrovia police officers showed up at the home after being informed that the woman “may have made threats to a workers compensation agency.” Police Lieutenant Michael Lee said that Carter told them if they “tried to come in, she would defend her house at any means necessary.” She and her husband then reportedly barricaded themselves inside, after which a shotgun was fired. Police from other local departments were called in. Following an hours-long standoff, the Carters surrendered and were arrested. That same day, in northern California, Cliff Kendall, Petaluma’s chief building official, shot himself with a rifle. A week earlier, Kendall had learned that he was being laid off. “He was afraid we’d lose our home, and we probably will because I can’t afford to keep it,” his wife Patricia, who is on disability with a back injury, told the Press Democrat. “He was extremely upset about it and hurt.”
On Oct 3, the day before Karthik Rajaram’s mass murder/suicide in Los Angeles, 90-year-old Addie Polk was driven to extremes by the financial crisis. With sheriff’s deputies at the door, Polk evidently took the only measure she felt was left to her to avoid eviction from her foreclosed home. She tried to kill herself. Her neighbor Robert Dillon, hearing loud noises from her home, used a ladder to enter the second floor window. He found Polk lying on her bed. “Then she kind of moved toward me a little and I saw that blood, and I said, ‘Oh, no. Miss Polk musta done shot herself.'” While she was in the hospital recovering from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds, Fannie Mae spokesman Brian Faith announced the mortgage association had decided to forgive her outstanding debt and give her the house “outright.” On Oct 6, in Sevier County, Tennessee, sheriff’s deputies, with police in tow, arrived to evict Jimmy and Pamela Ross from their home. They heard a shot and entered the home to find 57-year-old Pamela dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Neighbor Ruth Blakey told WVLT-TV, “I know she really hated to leave that house. She did not want to leave that house.” Wanda Dunn told neighbors she would rather die than leave her home. On Oct 13, the day she was to be evicted, the 53-year-old Pasadena, California native apparently set fire to the home “where her family had lived for generations” before shooting herself in the head. “We knew it was going to happen,” neighbor Steve Brooks told the LA Times. “It was nobody’s fault; it was everybody’s fault.”