Marvin Heemeyer built a tank. He built a tank, leveled a good portion of a previously quiet small town in the Rocky Mountains with it, then immediately gained a measure of fame because of it, and almost as immediately met an inglorious end.
But here's where the story gets weird (as if it isn't weird already). Somehow during the past 17 years since, Heemeyer has become a legend of sorts. A patriot, even, in some people's eyes. A hero for our troubled times.
Which, for more than one witness to this bizarre chapter in modern American history, is simply wrong. Just flat out wrong.
A man with a grudge built something, instantly christened a "killdozer," to tear up a town: How is he a hero?
"It is the predominant narrative; that Marv was screwed by this small town board that was out to get him, that the local community was out to get him," says Patrick Brower, the author of a book on Heemeyer and his tank. "People get focused on this, that Marv was victimized by the town. But the idea, somehow, that Granby was sophisticated enough to launch this campaign to go get Marv really defies my imagination."
The Start of It All
Heemeyer's story, at least the interesting part, begins in Granby, a town in a high basin of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado. Granby, elevation somewhere around 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), is small. Fewer than 2,000 people live there now, and it was no bigger than that in June 2004, when Heemeyer bulldozed his way into history.
Tourism is a draw in the area, though Granby is hardly the center of it. But Rocky Mountain National Park is less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. Denver is less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the south. If you want to see the grandeur of the Rockies, any time of the year, and want to get away from the crowds, going through Granby would not be out of the question.
"It's not like a boutique tourism town, like an Aspen or a Vail. It's not really like that at all," Brower says. "It's really a mix between that and just a service town," with a couple of banks, a concrete plant, an electrical co-op and many businesses that cater to the tourism industry.
Granby also is like a lot of small towns in America in that it's a place where it's relatively easy to get to know people and for people to know you. Like it or not.
"There's new people coming and going a lot here, but it definitely has its good old boy local element as well," Brower says, "an element that Marv really tried to capitalize on."
Who Was Heemeyer?
Heemeyer had moved to a town outside of Granby in the fall of 1991 and was running a muffler shop he had opened in Granby years earlier. By all accounts, he was a wizard as a welder. He was, by his own account (on recordings that he made in the weeks before he embarked on his tankcapade), a successful business owner. He was happy, snowmobiling with his friends, hot-tubbing at his cabin and working hard at his shop.
But as any small-business owner in any small town anywhere in America will tell you, the red tape can be a bear. And Granby had its share of red tape. Heemeyer found himself at odds with others in the community, both in government and outside of it, after buying some land at auction (to, he says, at least one person's discontent). Then he tried to get an easement for a sewer line. Heemeyer wasn't willing to pay a good deal of money to tie into the existing sewer line, and the problems that caused with the town government bloomed into a multiyear disagreement.
Heemeyer complained to the town council about neighboring businesses, lashed out at other land and business owners, and generally railed at anyone who he felt was trying to take advantage of him. He sued, and sued again. Finally, after more than a decade of bad blood between Heemeyer and the town and some of his fellow business owners, he sold his property (for about 10 times what he bought it for) and did what he felt he had to do.
"Basically, what all this is going to prove when it's all over with — if it's ever all over with, which I doubt — it's going to prove, I hope it's going to prove to people, that meddling in your neighbors' business is destructive for the most part," Heemeyer said on one of his pre-tankcapade recordings. "It's going to come back to haunt you ... And it can come back to haunt you in spades. And the only person you have to blame is yourself."
Marv Heemeyer took all that money he made on the sale of his property and the welding skills he had honed over a lifetime and, surreptitiously over the course of more than a year, built himself a tank on a bulldozer body. A tank, complete with thick steel-plated walls to ward off attackers and a couple of guns to inflict some harm.
And June 4, 2004, Heemeyer took that tank to the streets of Granby to exact his revenge.
A Smoke-spewing Apocalypse
The whole ugly Friday is recounted in Brower's book, "Killdozer: The True Story of the Colorado Bulldozer Rampage," and it's the subject of a 2020 documentary, now available on Netflix, called "Tread." A ton of videos of that day, too, are available online, many of them containing archival news footage of the rampage.
Heemeyer, behind the controls of his steel-and-concrete reinforced killdozer, began his attack on the town and his enemies at about 3 p.m., bursting through a wall of the secret shop where he constructed his monstrosity.
First, he flattened a couple buildings at a close-by concrete batch plant that he had complained about to the town council. And then, with what seemed to be a clear plan, he got even with others on his list. By the time he was finished, he had demolished 13 buildings, including the town hall and the library within it, the police station, the home of the ex-mayor, a bank, numerous vehicles, the newspaper where Brower worked and the local hardware store.
During the rampage, law enforcement tried to stop Heemeyer and his dozer with volleys of gunfire. Nothing worked. Heemeyer, with powerful rifles mounted inside the tank, shot at police and at least one of his rival business owners. He aimed his guns at propane tanks and fired, apparently trying to set off a major explosion (with what could have been a great loss of life). He plowed down buildings with people still in them. Others gathered in the streets to watch the odd spectacle.
Brower was in the newspaper offices that afternoon when Heemeyer came by, sending the walls tumbling and Brower running into the street.
"Right from the start, the day of the rampage, and I was running for my life from my building that he was destroying ... I knew, right away, I said, 'I'm on the wrong side of this story,'" says Brower, who had been covering Heemeyer's interactions with the town government for years and had met with him to hear out his beef against the paper.
"There was a woman talking on the local radio station as Marv was going through town ... she was sitting there saying, 'Marv is just a gentle giant, he's a teddy bear of a guy, he would only hurt people who hurt him ... ' It's just galling."
The wrecking spree went on for some 90 minutes, but miraculously — despite the machine's meme-made name and Heemeyer's best if ultimately inept efforts — no one was killed. No one, that is, except Heemeyer, who took his own life not long after his not-quite-lethal weapon bogged down in the middle of razing Gambles hardware store. "The idea somehow that Marv didn't want to hurt anybody is absolutely absurd," Brower says. "He just failed."
After hours of trying to get into the stalled-out dozer, police finally cut through a steel door and pulled out Heemeyer's body in the darkened morning hours of June 5. Heemeyer was 52 years old.
"Had they not meddled in my business," Heemeyer pronounced in his pre-rampage manifesto, "this whole thing would have turned out completely different."
A Martyr Is Born
Granby has been rebuilt, including a new town hall. These days, when the curious roll through the town, they look for wrecked buildings and bulldozer tracks, or some other sign of the tank, but only the stories remain. The killdozer itself was cut into pieces and scrapped.
Meanwhile, Heemeyer has become, to many people who inhabit the fringes of the internet, an example of someone who stood up for his beliefs, who took on a corrupt establishment and, when he couldn't beat it, did his machine-welding best to bring it down.
As often is the case, the true story has little to do with the internet legend.
"I'm happy being the person that kind of wants to dissuade people's perception of it," Brower says now. "But I can tell you that the vast majority of comments that I get, either on my blog or anonymously through email or whatever, are that I'm a SOB, that I'm an a******, all kinds of negative language. That Marv is a hero, that the town tried to screw him, and that I'm a liar.
"It's just disturbing. These people want to embrace this, 'Attacking government ... with firearms in a tank,' and make it sound like a good thing. That he was justified. Without really knowing the truth."
The indisputable truth is that Heemeyer destroyed a lot of public and private property that day — he caused a reported $7 million in damage — and could have killed several people, whether he intended to or not. The truth is his actions, even if blurred into the category of some kind of righteous civil disobedience, were hardly heroic to a lot of people in Granby.
And the truth, too, is that in the minds of many others who know Heemeyer only through his internet legend, the truth just doesn't matter. To them, Marv and his killdozer will continue to live on, triumphantly.