Murder in the Mailroom: The “Going Postal” Phenomenon

“Going postal”: we’ve all heard the saying. But do you know where it came from? Well, today you will. Americans more or less know that going postal means to lose it – go crazy – usually to the point of being homicidal, typically in response to workplace stress, and specifically in a postal office.

Thomas McIlvane / The Royal Oak Post Office / Charlie Withers / The Edmond Post Office.
Source: YouTube

The truth is, most people use the saying rather sarcastically, as a joke, as in, “Man, if I keep having to do this, I’m gonna go postal on this place.” The saying may have been used mockingly, at least for a while, but the events that sparked the term “going postal” are anything but funny…

The Event That Inspired the Term “Going Postal”

The post office shooting that inspired the phrase “going postal” occurred on August 20, 1986, in Edmond, Oklahoma, and it was the first, and deadliest (14 were killed), of its kind. It was only after 45-year-old Patrick Henry Sherrill did what he did that we understood just how much he fit the mass murderer profile.

A portrait of Patrick Henry Sherrill.
Patrick Henry Sherrill. Source: Pinterest

A former Marine and sharpshooter who said he was in Vietnam (his records prove he never was), he served on the National Guard’s rifle team and was known as a weapons expert. He was also a stereotypical loner with no close friends or family. For years, he lived with his mother in Oklahoma City.

The “Eccentric” Creep Who Made Women Especially Uncomfortable

He held many jobs and was usually seen as “eccentric” and “bull-headed.” But he never engaged with his co-workers; he ignored them or made nasty comments. His female coworkers were especially creeped out by him. One employee at the Oklahoma Air National Guard refused to be alone with him.

A picture of female members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

She said he would stare at her, making her feel “nude.” Other female co-workers complained about him staring at them constantly and rubbing up against them. One last incident, where he cornered a woman in the elevator, finally got him fired.

They Called Him “Crazy Pat”

He was also known to creep around his neighborhood at night, looking into windows of people’s homes. The police were told about his peeping tom behavior, but Sherrill was never arrested. The neighborhood came to know him – hate him – and kids would taunt him, calling him names like “Crazy Pat.”

A nighttime view through the window of a suburban house.
Photo by Kevin Cooley/Getty Images

Sherrill would angrily chase after them, too. Eventually, his mother died, and he started hoarding radio equipment, pornography, gun magazines, and all kind of junk. In the year and a half leading up to the shooting, Sherrill was working at the Edmond Post Office as a part-time relief carrier.

He Starts Working at the Post Office

He had to fill in for other mail carriers, which meant he didn’t have a dedicated route. His position wasn’t as secure as the other workers, who had salaries and benefits. Sherrill was getting paid by the hour, according to his coworkers, it was something that really bothered him.

An indoors photo of a post office.
Photo by Comstock/Getty Images

There’s also the fact that he was constantly being reprimanded by his supervisors for his poor work – misdirected mail, rudeness to customers, and tardiness. There was a time when he was caught spraying a dog with mace (the dog wasn’t even a threat as it was behind a fence).

The Last Straw

His coworkers later said that Sherrill believed his supervisors were out to get him, targeting him for harassment. He threatened to take revenge on them. on August 19, a day before he went postal, he was disciplined again. It was, evidently, the last straw.

An image of mail inside a mailbox.
Photo by Image Source/Getty Images

At 7 a.m. the following morning, Sherrill reported to work as usual in his blue uniform. But this time, he had with him two government-issued .45 Colt semi-automatics, a .22 caliber pistol, and ammo for all three guns stashed in his mail bag. He walked into the post office and locked the doors.

Two Down, Twelve to Go

No one else was going to enter after him. He then walked directly over to his supervisor, Rick Esser, and shot him point blank in the chest. A full-time carrier by the name of Mike Rockne was in Esser’s office at the time. Sherrill shot him, too.

An image of ambulances assisting the wounded.
Source: Oklahoma Highway Patrol Collection

Workers in the office heard pop-pop sounds, but they admittedly thought the sounds were firecrackers or party favors. Others thought it might just be a prank. Nobody could have ever expected that the part-time mail guy – as strange as he was – was about to shoot up the place.

Bolted Doors, Nowhere to Run

Sherrill proceeded to walk through the building, shooting anyone who tried to run. He then started bolting the doors shut. One man whom he shot managed to get out one of the doors but died in the parking lot. Sherrill succeeded in locking all the exits after that.

An image of police officers leaving the building after the killings.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He then went looking for all those hiding under tables and in cubicles. He shot them, too. It took minutes for the police to arrive and find the post office parking lot filled with bloody victims. For the next 45 minutes, authorities tried communicating with Sherrill by phone and loudhailer, but got no response.

The Surviving Workers Reported to Work the Next Day

By 8:30 a.m., a SWAT team burst into the post office. What they found was something seen only in horror movies. Sherrill had killed 14 people, wounding seven others. He then shot himself with one shot to the head. Traumatic would be an understatement.

Family members of the killed employees gather in a memorial service.
Source: The Norman Transcript

But believe it or not, the surviving postal workers at the Edmond Post Office returned to work the very next day. The floors were washed and waxed, and the building had flowers surrounding it in memory of the victims. But the workers didn’t show up out of free will.

The Day After

On the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Edmond massacre, witnesses from the event spoke about the tragic day. One of them, a woman named Tracy Sanchez, remembers not being able to pull into the parking lot on the morning of August 21, 1986, the day after the shooting.

An exterior shot of the post office.
Source: YouTube

It was the day that most of the workers, despite the tragic events, showed up to work. Sanchez, on the other hand, was having a hard time. She drove past the office numerous times in a daze before she found herself pulling into the lot.

The Nightmares Never Stopped

Sanchez and many other survivors were thrust back into the place of tragedy the very next day and made to work. 30 years on, as some of the eyewitnesses were interviewed for the 30th anniversary of the shooting, the feelings were still as powerful.

A portrait of Patrick Sherrill.
Patrick Sherrill. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“It’s always going to come back to you. It comes back to me all the time … I still have nightmares. And I guess I always will,” said Gene Bray, a worker who was shot in his side by Sherrill. He’s now in his mid-80s.

Five Months Pregnant and Afraid for Her Life

Sanchez had helped train Sherrill and remembers seeing him slip into a depression in the weeks leading up to shooting. She was 28 and five months pregnant when it happened. She hid in a storage closet, trying her best to stay quiet as she heard “pops” and screams from her coworkers.

A picture of Tracy Sanchez pictured with her daughter.
Tracy Sanchez. Source: Pinterest

Bray was one of the six who were wounded but survived. He was eventually taken to safety by fellow workers. The bullet hit the tip of one of his kidneys and has never stopped causing medical complications throughout his life.

The Devil Tried to “Grab Hold of Him”

Mike Bigler, now 67, was another survivor. He spent years working as an evangelist after the attack and recalled feeling “the devil try to grab hold” of him during the chaos. He survived a shot to his back after praying for his life.

A dated image of Mike Bigler reading a newspaper at home.
Mike Bigler. Source: YouTube

Luckily for him, there was no shrapnel in his body, and he was released that day from the hospital. He bears a 7-inch scar that looks he says looks like “squeezed-up dimples” between his shoulders. For Bigler, the psychological pain of hearing his coworkers scream was worse than the physical wound.

July 4th Was Too Much to Bear

If Bigler hears firecrackers or gunshots from his neighbors – putting cattle down – he will easily go back to that August day in 1986. Loud noises make him wonder, “Should I take action, should I hide? Where’s my granddaughter?”

An image of a sparkler with an American flag.
Photo by Photodisc/Getty Images

Sanchez can relate as she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1987. She quit the post office in the 1990s and eventually lived off disability retirement. For a long time, July 4th was one of the worst days of the year for her. The loud bangs of fireworks would send her to the toilet to vomit.

It Was Too Much

On August 21, as she kept circling the office, she said, “I couldn’t get out of my car. To me, my mind was saying ‘It’s too much, It’s too much.’” She finally walked in with a colleague who also hid in the storage closet during the shooting.

One of the survivors speaks during an interview.
Source: News 9

Sanchez had “blackouts” that first day back – her mind would drift off and she would find herself staring at the spot where she saw Bray lying on the ground the previous day. As for Bigler, who also showed up that day, he was allowed to go home. Perhaps because he was physically wounded…

Nothing Stops the Post Office

Back in the mid-‘80s, less was known about PTSD than today. The Edmond Post Office managers told their mail carriers to come back to work. This was one indication (of many) that the post office in general had an unhealthy concept of work.

A video still of the police officers arriving at the scene.
Source: News 9

The service’s unofficial motto was spread on its Eighth Avenue, New York City building: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Sanchez remembers one of her managers telling her, on the night of the shooting, “We need all the working bodies we can get.”

The Post Office Wasn’t Sorry

As different as the times were in the ‘80s, there were raised eyebrows. People questioned the post office’s insensitivity in the matter. But Vincent Sombrotto, the long-time president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said people shouldn’t be shocked.

An exterior shot of the post office.
Source: News 9

He praised the postal workers and their “dedication to the mission.” He said, “That is one of the benefits that the American public gets from all Postal employees.” Preston Robert Tisch, a postmaster general, expressed his sympathy but didn’t apologize. Management wanted its employees to keep things efficient.

The General Message: Get Over It Already

They told employees that they should already have forgotten about the most terrible day of their lives. Bigler, who left the postal service in late 1986, said that the workplace never really went back to normal.

An employee stands outside the post office crying.
Source: The Oklahoman

Hugh Dale Fowlkes, the Edmond postmaster who happened to be on vacation at the time of the massacre, held a meeting in October of that year, and reportedly told multiple workers to “get over it.” Sanchez said, “A lot of us felt we were going crazy and talked to each other and you were too afraid to tell anybody what’s happening to your mind.”

15 Shootings Between 1986 and 1999

Tragically, this kind of shooting became a theme. The Edmond Post Office Massacre was just the first in a string of post office shootings. There were 15 shootings by postal employees between 1986 and 1999. 34 postal workers and six non-employees in total were killed during these shootings.

Families of the victims stand outside the post office during a memorial.
Source: The Oklahoman

This first shooting was the state’s largest – the country’s third-largest – mass murder committed by a one person in one event. A year later, the U.S. Postal Inspector’s Report concluded that measures should have been put in place: Sherrill should have been profiled and never hired to begin with.

The 1991 Royal Oak Massacre

Another post office massacre, which occurred on the morning of November 14, 1991, happened to be one of the most symbolic events of the “going postal” phenomenon. 31-year-old Thomas McIlvane, a recently fired letter carrier, entered the Royal Oak post office in Michigan, and killed his former bosses.

Survivors cry outside the post office.
Source: YouTube

He simply walked up to the management office and shot them. He killed four other people, wounded four more, and then turned the gun on himself. As it turned out, as horrifying as the act was, McIlvane was responding to a very toxic work environment. He simply had had enough.

When They Saw Him, They Ran

It had been five years since the Edmond shooting. On that day in November, everything seemed to be going as usual. The day’s mail was being sorted through sorting machines and mail carriers were assembling the day’s deliveries. Suddenly, an odd “pop-pop-pop” sound was heard.

A surveillance tape from the post office after the massacre.
Source: YouTube

Survivors later said that it was a confusing sound – it didn’t sound like gunfire. But as soon as they saw their former co-worker, McIlvane, walking eerily and quietly through the building they knew something was wrong. The managers who saw him immediately ran to the exits.

He Was Going to Make the Previous Shootings “Look Like Disneyland”

They could tell he was there to kill. Those who didn’t see McIlvane, but saw their managers running, naturally started running too. Besides, everyone knew that McIlvane raged at Royal Oak Postal Service’s management.

A mugshot of McIlvane.
Source: Detroit Free Press

He hadn’t been at work in over a year because he was constantly being written-up for disciplinary issues and just stopped doing his job. What he did instead was fight back against the discipline. He loudly announced to anyone near him that if he lost his union sponsored settlement, he would make the previous post office shootings of the ‘80s “look like Disneyland.”

A Management Team of Bullies

So, when McIlvane showed up with a raincoat over his arm, hiding a sawed-off hunting rifle, people knew he was serious. But as it turns out, the managers he was hunting down weren’t so innocent…

Postmaster Dan Presilla had been transferred to the Royal Oak facility from his post as Director of Postal City Operations in Indianapolis.

One of the employees addresses the media.
Source: YouTube

According to reports, the management team at Presilla’s former office was pushing employees so hard that several carriers had suffered heart attacks. A government report found that Presilla and his four managers had issued 2,700 disciplinary actions in a 4,000-person office within a two-year period.

The Punish-Loving Manager and His Team Come to Royal Oak

The U.S. Postal Service knew about this because an investigation was launched. That investigation blatantly criticized Presilla and his team, but the report was only released after Presilla was promoted to Royal Oak Postmaster. And he brought his team with him.

An image of police officers leaving the crime scene.
Photo by John Luke

The Postal Service was aware that things needed to be improved overall given the multiple post office shootings. But they considered Presilla and his team as good turnaround managers. Employees at Royal Oak, however, weren’t happy campers. McIlvane, with his unstable personality, caught management’s eye and soon became a target.

“I Understand Why He Did It”

After a federal investigation was conducted of this shooting, it was concluded that the toxic work environment definitely led to the shooting. It was so bad that an eyewitness from the shooting later told a reporter, “I understand why he did it.”

A mail carrier leans against his truck and stares at the shooting aftermath.
Photo by John A. Stano

McIlvane apparently heard about his firing over the phone; one of the managers left him a voicemail. Presilla survived the shooting, although he was definitely one of the targets. McIlvane was going after and shooting at everyone he thought wronged him.

McIlvane Died Days Later

One employee said McIlvane pointed his gun at her as she hid for cover under her desk. He didn’t pull the trigger, though, saying, “I don’t want you.” Chris Carlisle, one of the managers, was the first person McIlvane looked for and gunned down in cold blood. He was found inside his office.

An exterior shot of the post office.
Source: Pinterest

In the days following the shooting, McIlvane sat in a hospital bed. The entire rampage lasted less than 10 minutes. He waited at a back stairwell as he heard police and ambulance sirens wailing. He shot himself in the head but didn’t succeed. He only died the following week.

Crude and Abusive Behavior

While the Royal Oak Post Office did indeed harbor a bullying environment, the workers and managers attested to McIlvane’s crude and abusive language. He would call his female manager a “c**t” and “b***h” and Carlisle an “a$$hole.”

A portrait of McIlvane.
Thomas McIlvane. Source: YouTube

There was one incident where McIlvane allegedly reversed his car aggressively towards his managers, but the record is unclear—and biased as it was written up by the managers. There are in total 21 documented cases of McIlvane’s threats to his managers about killing them. They were all from after his firing.

They Pushed the Wrong Guy

“They pushed the wrong guy” is something that came up a lot in eyewitness interviews. McIlvane’s disciplinary files revealed a man who was mentally unstable with a history of downright disrespectful behavior towards managers. Like Sherrill, McIlvane was also in the military.

A mugshot of McIlvane.
Thomas McIlvane. Source: Pinterest

And his military records detail a number of bizarre incidents, including one where he drove a tank over a car without authorization. (For the record, it was empty and intended for a fire extinguishing exercise.) In general, McIlvane didn’t follow basic orders. He once admitted to a military doctor that although he had a “short fuse,” he could control it.

Don’t Bully a Psychopath

McIlvane entering the Royal Oak Post Office workplace was a disaster waiting to happen. The management were experienced bullies, and most likely picked on McIlvane because he seemed like an incredible witness. They probably felt they could get a rise out of him.

An exterior shot of the entrance at the Royal Oak Post Office.
Source: YouTube

One time, three of McIlvane’s supervisors insisted the brake lights on his delivery truck weren’t working properly. So, they made him head over to maintenance to get them fixed. When McIlvane got there, the technician told him his brake lights were working fine. It was obvious to him that he was getting picked on.

The Truth Is Complicated

McIlvane repeatedly accused the management of being “out to get him” and held a conspiratorial mindset. If anyone was to ignore the work environment completely, the man sounded paranoid. But the truth, we now know, is more complicated.

A newspaper clipping of the Royal Oak Post Office killings.
Source: Pinterest

One mail carrier was killed that November day, a man named Clark French, and he was assistant union steward. McIlvane shot French in the back as he chased him toward the sorting room door. Of all the sadness involved in this incident, one story that sticks out…

A Hero’s Tale

There was a man who tried to help a woman escape McIlvane’s gunfire but died in the process. His name was Keith Ciszewski and he was a Post Office union relations manager. According to the union steward at the time, Charlie Withers, 37-year-old Ciszewski tried to stop the harassment the Postmaster’s team was placing on the workers.

A dated photo of Keith Ciszewski with his family.
Keith Ciszewski with family. Source: Pinterest

Ciszewski’s widow, Connie, said “it affects you for the rest of your life. You don’t wish that upon your worst enemy.” Connie revealed that her late husband actually saved two women’s lives.

He Saved Two Women but Not Himself

“Helped the one lady out the window, she ended up breaking her leg, and he helped the other woman get behind the copy machine,” Connie explained. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to save himself because McIlvane then kicked down the door and shot Ciszewski several times in the head.

Investigators search the crime scene.
Source: YouTube

“I heard gunshots and saw glass breaking at Keith’s window,” said an eyewitness. “That woman was running across the parking lot. But she injured her ankle while she jumped out of the window. So, I hear gunshots and I see her go down and I’m assuming that Tom is shooting out the window at her, I decided it still wasn’t safe.”

A Life-Changing Moment

McIlvane was not shooting at the woman who escaped out the window. She survived. Connie recalled seeing one of her husband’s friends going into the hospital, full of blood, “and I ran up to him and I said, ‘John where is Keith?’, and he just shook his head.”

An image of a bullet hole in broken glass.
Source: YouTube

She said then, “Don’t tell me that!” and just dropped to the ground. “That moment changed my life and my kids’ life forever,” said Connie. The couple had two girls and a boy and had been married 10 years.

The Truth Behind the Tragedy

“He was a very silly, happy-go-lucky … everybody loved Keith,” Connie shared about her husband. “He was a very fair man and all of the employees really liked him.” Charlie Withers, the union steward, recalled that Ciszewski was trying to stop some of the lower-level managers who were acting out towards employees.

An image of filmmaker Emil Chiaberi and Charlie Withers. 
Charlie Withers. Photo by Ray J. Skowronek

“He was trying to stop it,” said Withers. Withers wrote a book about the November 14th shooting, The Tainted Eagle: The Truth Behind the Tragedy. In it, he documented the toxic management style at Royal Oak Post Office and how it pushed McIlvane to the breaking point.

The One Who Survived the Shooting

Clark French, the man McIlvane chased and shot in the back, survived the ordeal and endured a very long and painful hospital stay. He has only admiration for Ciszewski. “Keith’s last act in life was saving somebody else’s life, and that was the type of man he was,” said French.

A picture of Clark French during an interview.
Clark French. Source: Detroit News

“I always reminded my children that their dad was a hero,” Connie said. “I’m more than proud. How can you not be proud? I’m sad I don’t have him but I’m happy that he went above and beyond to help the ladies that he helped get to safety.”

It Wasn’t THAT Unthinkable

Unlike the first post office shooting in 1986, in which everyone was shocked and horrified, the Royal Oak shooting was less unthinkable. Terrifying, sure, but many of the workers had almost been waiting for something like this to happen.

An image of Clark French ID at the time.
Clark French. Source: Detroit News

“When I heard there was a shooter, in my mind it could have been anyone,” one postal worker told a reporter after the shooting. It was this same worker who said, “I understand why he did it.” multiple investigations into the postal office revealed some answers to this going postal saga.

A Deadly Cocktail

The post office’s workplace exposed a culture that contributed to shootings and was viewed as the main cause. The problem is when you have a toxic culture in combination with a deranged person. It’s a deadly cocktail, if anything.

A video still of the post office after the shooting.
Source: Detroit News

The investigations’ findings found the postal service adopted a dangerous – cruel and abusive – relationship between the bosses and their workers. But for whatever reason, the country wasn’t paying much attention, and the whole “Going Postal” thing became a late-night comedy punchline.

The Non-Murdering Postal Workers

The dozen or so individuals who carried out these shootings were a very small percentage of the thousands of postal workers who hated gong to work every day. The large majority of them simply kept suffering, without murdering anyone, and were too scared to leave their jobs.

Police tape marks the scene after the shooting.
Source: Detroit News

Why? Because the post office happened to be one of the few employers in the country that was willing to provide middle-class wages and benefits to workers with no college education or trade skills. The dangerous thing about that is accepting people like Sherrill and McIlvane into the workplace.

A Survivors Club

Tracy Sanchez, the survivor from the Edmond massacre, said she didn’t only find help from her therapist but from a survivor from the Royal Oak shooting: Charlie Withers. Sanchez contacted him after seeing him on ABC’s 20/20, where he blamed management harassment for the shooting.

A survivor from the Edmond massacre speaks during an interview.
Source: The Oklahoman

For years, the two survivors discussed the shootings and their post-massacre lives over phone conversations every few months. They are both part of a club of mass shooting survivors – one that’s only grown over the decades. Sadly, such massacres seem to have become popular in not just post offices, but schools and other public places.

Stay safe, everyone.