On a snowy day in January, Robert Budd Dwyer arrived at a press conference with a seemingly unremarkable manila envelope. The gathered journalists might have imagined that it contained documents or briefing notes. But the Pennsylvania State Treasurer knew different. The heft of the envelope reminded him that it was not paperwork in his hand but a terrible secret.
The then-47-year-old had entered politics in the 1960s after several years working as a high school social studies teacher. He started out in public life as a member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives as a Republican. He would then go on to secure a seat in the Pennsylvania State Senate.
Dwyer continued to rise through the echelons of power in the 1970s before eventually being elected the State Treasurer. After stepping into his new role in 1981, Dwyer had to grapple with a challenging situation that would ultimately destroy his career.
At the beginning of the decade, it came to light that accounting mistakes had led to Pennsylvania state workers paying excessive federal taxes. The contract to resolve the issue and calculate the compensation they were due was worth millions of dollars. There was subsequently fierce competition between accounting firms to secure the work.
An anonymous note would later emerge claiming that Dwyer had accepted bribes in exchange for awarding the contract. It had been granted to a Californian-based firm named Computer Technology Associates – CTA. The firm was owned by John Torquato, Jr.
Dwyer strenuously denied these allegations. However, a federal investigation led to Dwyer being charged with taking a bribe of $300,000 in exchange for exerting the influence of his office in favor of CTA being awarded the contract.
Federal prosecutors offered Dwyer a deal that would have required him to resign from office and take a charge of accepting a bribe. This came with a potential sentence of up to 5 years in prison. However, Dwyer refused the deal, preferring instead to go to trial.
The decision proved to be disastrous. On December 18, 1986, Dwyer would be convicted of perjury, mail fraud and conspiracy. He faced a jail sentence of up to 55 years and a potential $305,000 in fines. However, Dwyer was able to retain his position until sentencing, which was set for January 23, 1987.
After a final fruitless attempt to clear his name by seeking an executive pardon from President Reagan, Dwyer decided to hold a news conference on January 22. It was widely expected that the state treasurer would take this opportunity to resign before his sentencing the following day. However, the occasion would have a grim and unexpected conclusion.
At the press conference, Dwyer spent close to 30 minutes delivering a 21-page prepared speech that attacked the criminal justice system. He was at pains to identify those he felt were responsible for ruining him. However, his speech did not contain any mention of resignation.
Some members of the press became restless and were preparing to leave before Dwyer had finished his diatribe. He noticed this and encouraged them not to leave. “Those of you who are putting your cameras away, I think you ought to stay because we’re not, we’re not finished yet,” he said.
Dwyer stopped reading from his prepared statement and passed out envelopes stamped with the treasury department’s insignia. As it later turned out, these included messages for his family, requests for his funeral arrangements and an organ donor card. The final envelope that Dwyer produced contained a Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver. “Please, please leave the room if this will… if this will affect you,” Dwyer said.
When the gun was spotted there was panic. Some of those in the room attempted to get help. Other onlookers begged Dwyer to put the gun down. Still others made their way toward Dwyer in an attempt to take the gun from him. “Don’t, don’t, don’t this will hurt someone,” he said.
Before anyone could intervene, Dwyer put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, pulled the trigger and fell down dead. Footage of the press conference went out on a number of television stations to a daytime audience. While some stations froze the footage before the fatal gunshot, others broadcast the shooting in full. Consequently, they received hundreds of complaints for airing the shocking images.
More than 700 people attended the Dwyer’s funeral in his hometown of Meadville, P.A. And Dwyer’s persistent claims of his innocence during the trial and in the lead-up to the fateful press conference were supported by details that would later come to light in the years following the event.
A co-conspirator in the bribery scandal and the main witness of the prosecution later confessed in an interview that he had perjured himself and lied on oath about Dwyer accepting a bribe. His motive? Simply to get time knocked off his sentence.
Dwyer’s 21-year-old son first found out about the incident when he heard a radio report while on the road, returning from Penn State University. With scant details, he was left unsure of what had happened or even whether his father was dead or alive. Robert Dwyer Jr. still keeps the letter that his father wrote him before his death. It is kept securely locked up alongside other mementos, such as his father’s jack knife.
Dwyer’s wife, Joanne, was took his suicide hard. Dwyer Jr. and his sister tried to help their mother cope with life following their father’s suicide, but she was never able to recover. She struggled with alcoholism for decades and eventually died from cancer in 2009.
The highly public suicide of a politician had a resounding impact at the time. Heavy snow meant that many schoolchildren were at home on the day that Dwyer took his life. Because of this, those watching daytime TV at the time witnessed the shocking events as the footage was broadcast – and a home audience stared into the eyes of a human being in his final moments.
Although it might have been Dwyer’s intention to highlight his innocence by committing suicide in the most dramatic way possible, the act overshadowed any message he might have had. In an age before the internet and social media, it was a horrifyingly visceral scene.