Suicidology Online 2010; 1:19-27.
A Case Study: Joseph Wesbecker
On September 14th, 1989, Joe Wesbecker went to the printing plant where he worked (although he was on disability leave at the time) and, firing his semi-automatic assault weapon, killed eight co- workers and wounded many more. He then shot himself in the head with a pistol and died (Cornwell, 1996).
At the time of the massacre, Wesbecker lived alone and had been on disability for about a year. Occasionally he visited and slept with his second ex-wife, Brenda. He was seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Lee Coleman, who had given Wesbecker lithium for his manic-depressive disorder and Prozac for his depression, but Coleman was beginning to think that Wesbecker had a schizoaffective disorder, a psychosis that is a mix of schizophrenia and depression. Wesbecker had been in and out of treatment before, attempting suicide in 1984 with an overdose and with car exhaust. Over the years, all kinds of psychotropic medications had been tried, but the current medications did not seem to be helping Wesbecker, and they seemed to be making him agitated. Coleman had tried to persuade Wesbecker to go into the hospital on September 11th, but Wesbecker refused.
On September 13th, Wesbecker drove his son James to his college classes and picked him up after class. He insisted on buying a textbook James needed for class. He spent that night with Brenda, his ex-wife. On September 14th, Wesbecker failed to pick James up. He was already on his way to the Standard Gravure printing plant to get revenge.
Wesbecker was born on April 27th, 1942, in Louisville to Martha Wesbecker who had married the previous year at the age of fifteen. Wesbecker’s father fell to his death while mending a church roof the next year, and Wesbecker’s grandfather (who had become his surrogate father) died when Wesbecker was almost two. The next few years were filled with moves as Wesbecker’s mother moved to different sets of relatives and then back to Louisville. He was even placed in an orphanage for a year when he was ten. Although he was back with his mother the next year, life was still unstable – for example, Martha attempted suicide by drinking rat poison soon after Wesbecker arrived back with her.
As a teenager, Wesbecker was rather wild. He dropped out of high school and was arrested several times for disorderly conduct and fighting. He spent a night in jail for siphoning gas out of someone else’s truck. He often carried a starter gun which he fired just to scare people.
At the age of eighteen, Wesbecker went to work as a printer and married Sue White. For the next twelve years, Wesbecker settled down. He worked hard and moved to Standard Gravure in 1971, bought better and better houses for his family, and had two sons, Kevin who developed curvature of the spine and James who later became a compulsive exhibitionist, causing Wesbecker a great deal of stress.
Wesbecker had some strange traits. He was a perfectionist and seemed to have an unusual desire to be clean. He frequently quarrelled with his neighbors. His mother lived with him for a time, and the problems with the two boys began to get worse when they became teenagers. The stress in the marriage grew, and it ended for good in 1980.
Meanwhile the stress at Standard Gravure had become overwhelming. The printing plant had once belonged to the local newspaper, the Courier- Journal, but the paper was sold to Gannett (who published USA Today). The plant was then sold to Brian Shea who ran it independently. Faced with rising costs and a demand for increased productivity, the plant installed high-speed machines, and the men were forced to work sixteen-hour shifts. The noise was tremendous, and the fumes from the toluene used in the ink made the men pass out. The men were made to work night and weekend shifts, and there were pay cuts and erosion of job security as men were laid off. Strangely, rather than banding together against the foremen, the men started taking out their frustration on one another, such as pouring water on the printing paper and fouling up the machines that others were trying to run. In the mid-1980s, the men began bringing guns to work.
Wesbecker attended Parents without Partners and met Brenda Beasley who had two teenage girls. They married in 1981. Wesbecker wanted Kevin to have surgery for his spinal problem, but Kevin refused and the relationship between the two grew distant. James continued to expose himself, and Brenda’s ex-husband was concerned about the safety of his daughter, eventually getting custody of them. Wesbecker paid for residential psychiatric care for James, but James continued his exhibitionism. Wesbecker and his ex-wife continued to fight, and Wesbecker won a lawsuit against Sue for slander and had her placed on two-years probation for threatening him.
Wesbecker thought that the foremen at Standard Gravure were deliberately assigning him the most stressful jobs, and he talked to the plant’s social worker about it. (Eventually, his psychiatrists wrote to the plant to insist that Wesbecker get less stressful tasks.) It was at this time that Wesbecker attempted suicide and was committed to a psychiatric hospital (on April 16th, 1984) where he was diagnosed as Major Affective Illness, Depressed, Recurrent Type. The hospital’s psychologist also thought that Wesbecker had a borderline personality disorder. After his discharge, Wesbecker was put on an antidepressant (one of the many medications that he tried), but Brenda moved out and divorced him in 1984. Despite this separation, they remained good friends and lovers.
Wesbecker continued to press for easier working conditions, even going to the Human Relations Commission in Louisville in May 1987. But his case worker there made little progress in his negotiations with the plant.
Wesbecker began to buy weapons in 1988 and to read magazines such as Full Auto Firearms and