At 8:48 a.m. Monday, postal employees will gather around a dwarf crabapple tree near the southeast corner of the and remember those whose lives were affected by the events of Nov. 14, 1991. On that morning two decades ago, a disgruntled letter carrier took five lives, including his own, and wounded four others in a rampage that would prompt a congressional investigation into working conditions within the post office.
Royal Oak in the 1990s
In the 1990s, Royal Oak became synonymous with many things. Thanks in part to the completion of the Walter Reuther Freeway (Interstate 696) in December 1989, the city’s central business district emerged as a destination location.
Downtown Royal Oak became the location for celebrating world championships (Pistons in ’89 and ’90 and Red Wings in ’97 and ’98), and alternative retail was in its heyday with hipster shops including Cinderella’s Attic, Patty Smith, Dave’s Comics and Off the Record — now all gone.
The ’90s were also filled with controversy. raised a few eyebrows when it hosted live in the store's front window, and Marshall Fredericks' 40-foot sculpture Star Dream Fountain, featuring a nude man and woman, caused some residents to demand a bikini and Speedo for the pair in 1997.
In the ’90s, Royal Oak resident Dr. became infamous for assisted suicides, and the nickname “Dr. Death” was coined. And in the '90s, Royal Oak helped shape the phrase "going postal."
Tragic events of Nov. 14, 1991
Twenty years ago, on a Thursday morning, union steward Charlie Withers heard what he described as “popcorn popping” followed by screaming coming from the workroom floor of the Royal Oak post office.
Withers wrote a book in 2009 called The Tainted Eagle: The Truth Behind the Tragedy, in which he recalled the events of that day. He wrote:
The air was filled with sounds of screaming and popping.
Someone ran up to our door and tried to open it. You could see the doorknob moving. Then a clip from a rifle fell to the floor and you could hear another one being clicked in its place. I heard sounds of movement away from the door and then several more shots were fired in the next office.
I looked out the window and saw a woman scurrying over a concrete wall about 3 feet high. I saw the woman fall into the parking lot, which was on the other side of the wall.
All of a sudden the blare of the fire alarm began to echo through the building. You could see police cars rushing by.
That November day, 31-year-old Thomas McIlvane of Oak Park went on a rampage in the post office after finding out he had lost an arbitration hearing.
McIlvane had been removed from his job Aug. 8, 1990, for profane comments made to his supervisors in phone calls. Withers, who represented McIlvane in his arbitration proceedings, said the gunman went through all his savings in the year he appealed his firing and was penniless when he came to the post office seeking revenge.
McIlvane entered the post office from a rear door by the loading docks on the 11 Mile side of the building at 8:48 a.m. He fatally shot General Manager Christopher Carlisle first. Carlisle was the one who started the disciplinary action against McIlvane.
Sue Johnson, an acting supervisor, was in the room with Carlisle and was also shot. Johnson would spend the next month in a hospital recovering from her wounds.
From there, McIlvane shot Rose Proos, an acting supervisor. Proos was transferred to Oakland Hospital (now St. John’s Oakland Hospital) in Madison Heights, where she died from gunshot wounds.
Next he fatally shot Keith Ciszewski, a labor relations specialist, and then Mary Benincasa, a compensation specialist, before taking his own life.
Outside the building, near the corner of 11 Mile and Main Street, Clark French, an alternate union steward, collapsed when he noticed he, too, had been shot. French survived but has since had multiple surgeries.
went into a code red alert, and the national news media descended on Royal Oak for the next several days. Royal Oak was the nation's third postal shooting in five years. Just one month earlier—on Oct. 10, 1991—a former postal worker killed two employees at the Ridgewood Post Office in New Jersey.
Newspaper clippings in the ’s History Room show that mail stopped for days in Royal Oak, Berkley and Pleasant Ridge; a large memorial service was held at the ; and grief counselors from Common Ground, Oakland County’s crisis center, were dispatched to help postal workers deal with the tragedy.
In April 1992, the Detroit News reported that Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) had received a long list of complaints from Royal Oak post office workers. Levin told the News that the “Royal Oak operation was rife with harassment of employees."
Two months later, on June 15, 1992, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Post Office and Civil Service issued a report on investigations into the events at the Royal Oak shooting. The House panel found that management at the Royal Oak post office had created a "powder keg" and a "lethal formula." The report summarized by saying the slayings could have been avoided.
For the past 20 years, Withers has focused on this complex tragedy. He has passed out fliers on the steps of the Royal Oak post office demanding management accountability, placed wreaths, organized the wearing of black armbands by postal workers and picketed. Working with Levin, he has obtained numerous federal documents, enough to fill his 321-page book.
On Monday, Withers will join his co-workers at the —a living memorial—to remember the tragedy he believes was preventable.
Post office shootings
- Edmond, OK, 1986: 15 dead, six wounded by letter carrier Patrick Sherrill.
- Ridgewood, NJ, 1991: Former U.S. postal worker Joseph Harris killed two employees.
- Royal Oak, MI, 1991: Fired letter carrier Thomas McIlvane killed five people, including himself, and wounded four others.
- Dearborn, MI, 1993: Lawrence Jasion killed two, including himself, and wounded three others.
- Dana Point, CA, 1993: On the same day as the Dearborn shootings, Mark Hilburn killed his mother and then fatally shot two postal workers.
- Goleta, CA, 2006: Former postal worker Jennifer San Marco killed six postal workers before taking her own life.
- Baker City, OR, 2006: Grant Gallaher, a letter carrier, fatally shot his supervisor after running him over several times in the parking lot of the Baker City post office.
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