A Brief History of Violent Attacks Against the IRS

No one likes paying taxes, but a surprising number of Americans have gone to violent extremes, taking their anger out on the bland functionaries at the IRS.

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Apr 15 2015, 2:40pm

The aftermath of Joe Stack's suicidal attack on an Austin IRS building. Photo by David Ingram via Flickr

It's Tax Day, so there's a good chance you're in a bad mood right now. Maybe you waited too long to file, or wish you saved more receipts. Maybe you were sure you qualified for the earned income tax credit, but when you did the paperwork, realized you didn't even come close.

Feel like staining some 1099s with fresh blood? Take a few deep breaths, and try not to turn militant. Dozens of tax protesters over the years have started out as nonconformists, taking a political stance by not paying their taxes, but when the chickens came home to roost, some of them turned violent.

Nonviolent opposition to tax collection started up almost as soon as the federal income tax came into existence, back in 1913. During the Vietnam War, pacifists protested against being forced to pay for people to be killed. That group is still around, actually. And it isn't just hippies. There were—and are—peaceful right-wing tax protesters as well, who have tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to overturn the federal income tax in court. It's also not hard to find pranks against the IRS online, although it is pretty hard to find good ones.

But actual, physical violence against the IRS and the stiffs who work there really got underway in the 1970s, reaching its peak (hopefully) in 2010 with a deadly suicide attack. Here's the story of all that violence—if you're a psychopath who just had to write a huge, unexpected check to the government, please don't get any ideas:

Posse Comitatus and Fred Chicken, 1970s and 1980s:
A right-wing group calling itself "Posse Comitatus"—Latin for "Force of the Country"—came along in the 1970s. The Wisconsin chapter was hijacked by a Christian zealot and white supremacist named Thomas Stockheimer, at which point that group's idealism curdled into militancy. Stockheimer and his crew most famously assaulted and briefly kidnapped an IRS agent named Fred Chicken. The story, as written by Daniel Levitas in his book The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, makes for delightful reading because the victim has a hilarious name, and he doesn't get seriously injured:

Essentially, Stockheimer punched Mr. Chicken, mainsplained politics to him for a while, and then let him go. Stockheimer was later convicted of assault.

It bears mentioning that many of Stockheimer's Posse Comitatus comrades carried out attacks and failed plots against other IRS agents as well, the most notorious of which was Posse leader Gordon Kahl's 1983 rampage in which two US Marshals—not IRS agents—were killed.

Potentially Dangerous Taxpayers, 1990s:
The IRS initially notified the public of militants with tax rage in 1991, handing law enforcement a list of 8,800 "potentially dangerous taxpayers." The title "potentially dangerous taxpayer" may sound like a hilarious badge of honor for your tax-hating uncle, or a possible Twitter bio for Wesley Snipes, but shortly after the list came out, members of the "Tax Protest Movement" showed they were serious by stepping up violence against the IRS. Fortunately, the 1990s was an era of rampant incompetence among members of the militant tax protester community.

In 1992, a mystery gunman-or-woman shot out the window at the Hayward, California IRS office. The following year, a mystery bomber tried to blow up the office in Santa Barbara, a few hours south of Hayward. Fortunately, their plan was idiotic, and involved emptying several consumer-grade propane tanks into the building. The scheme was predictably foiled when someone smelled gas. In 1996, a guy named Joseph Bailie tried to cobble together a fertilizer bomb and blow up the IRS office in Reno, Nevada, but the bomb failed, and Bailie went to prison.

In 1997 and 1999, the Colorado Springs, Colorado IRS office was targeted for nighttime arson attacks that were more competent than the propane bomb fiasco. The strategy in both cases was to smash a window in a lower floor, spread gas around, and then light the place ablaze, hoping the fire would consume the whole empty building. The first time they tried this, the plan worked, caving in the roof on the original building. But the new IRS offices were built of tougher stuff and they're still standing today. In 2001, a man named James Floyd Cleaver was convicted of the 1997 bombing, but not the very similar second one.

The Recent Horrors, 2008 to Today:
Something must have happened to upset the far-right in the late summer and fall of 2008, because people started to get furious at the IRS again, and this time, the acts of violence were uglier than the ones that took place in the 1990s.

In August of 2008, Ernest Milton Barnett got off the phone after a heated conversation with someone at the IRS, hopped into his Jeep Cherokee, drove up a grassy knoll to an area behind the Birmingham IRS building, where he did donuts for a while before driving through a window. When IRS agents tried to scramble away from the lunatic in the Jeep, Barnett backed up and rammed the window a second time. Employees were reportedly injured, and Barnett got four years in prison.

The following month, Randy Nowalk, a businessman in Lakeland, Florida whose friends and relatives said he had a history of theft and lies, hired someone he thought was a contract killer to assassinate the IRS agent who was auditing him. The hitman, who was also supposed to burn down the local IRS office for good measure, was actually an FBI agent.

Two years later, in 2010, a guy named Joe Stack, who was in the middle of an audit, penned a tedious, self-pitying manifesto, before lighting his Waco, Texas house on fire. Then he got into his plane and piloted it into the Austin IRS building, killing himself and an IRS employee, and injuring 13 others. It was the worst attack on the IRS in history.

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