Film, Dwyer’s Death Re-Examined
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Kenn Marshall recalls edging toward the door when he saw the enormous handgun being held aloft by State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer.
Marshall’s movements on that snowy January day 23 years ago weren’t entirely motivated by fear. He was thinking about calling his editor, which is not to say he wasn’t scared.
“To be honest, after what he had just gone through, the thought crossed my mind that he could just turn that gun on the people in the room,’’ said Marshall, who was then a reporter for The Patriot-News and now is the media relations director for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. “I certainly felt threatened.’’
Instead, he and a roomful of journalists watched in horror as Dwyer put the barrel of the .357 magnum into his mouth and pulled the trigger, a public suicide that set off a firestorm of coverage and controversy.
Now a fascinating – if slightly one-sided – new film, “Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer,’’ re-examines some of the facts that led to Dwyer’s death, raising questions about his guilt.
The 75-minute unrated film, directed by Buffalo, N.Y., native James Dirschberger, is showing through Nov. 18 at Harrisburg’s Midtown Cinema.
Central to Dirschberger’s cinematic case is an interview with East Shore attorney William T. Smith, who testified during Dwyer’s trial that the state treasurer had agreed to take $300,000 in returning for his help in gaining a lucrative contract for a company called Computer Technology Associates.
While prosecutors conceded that no money had actually changed hands, they maintained that Dwyer’s agreement to take the money was a crime on its own, and a jury agreed. For his part, Dwyer steadfastly maintained that he was innocent.
In an interview for “Honest Man,’’ Smith said he lied about the bribe as part of his own plea bargain.
“He’s dead because of me,’’ Smith said of Dwyer. “To the day I die, I’ll regret that I did it.’’
But the 73-year-old Smith’s credibility is open to question. He’s changed his story more than once in the Dwyer case, and is currently facing prison for his involvement in an investment scam.
“Honest Man’’ is relatively unconvincing as a legal expose. But it is a compelling retrospective of one of the state’s most sensational and sordid episodes. It includes rare interviews with Dwyer’s widow Joanne, who died in 2009, and their two children.
The film follows Dwyer’s rise from humble beginnings in Meadville to his election to statewide office. He often ran on a platform of integrity, which made the bribery charge all the more puzzling to family and friends.
The reporters who gathered in Dwyer’s office on Jan. 23, 1987, thought they were there simply to hear Dwyer announce his resignation from office. “My mission was to stay there until he said those words, then call in a new top for our story,’’ Marshall recalled.
As a row of video cameras whirred, Dwyer delivered a rambling polemic about the criminal justice system. He then handed out a final typewritten page, which contained several grammatical errors and this chilling line: “I am going to die in office in an effort to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.’’
As reporters were just starting to skim the final statement, a frantic-looking Dwyer picked up a large manila envelope and pulled out a .357 Magnum revolver.
“I remember the gun, because it was huge,’’ said Eric Conrad, then a reporter for The Patriot-News and now the director of communications for the Maine Municipal Association in Augusta. “I had one of those moments where I was up in the air, looking down at myself, almost an out-of-body experience.’’
Up until the gun appeared, recalled freelance photographer Gary D. Miller, “It was just kind of a longwinded, sad event.’’
Miller captured one of the signature photos of the event, with Dwyer holding the gun in his right hand while his left arm is extended toward the camera, as if warning off bystanders.
Dirschberger said Dwyer might have decided to kill himself while still in office because of a desire to preserve his state pension for his wife and children.
Whatever grandiloquent statement about the justice system Dwyer was hoping to make, that message got lost in the uproar over the act itself.
In the coming days, newspapers and television stations would endlessly debate how much of the event to show on the screen and the front page. Most refrained from showing the actual gunshot, although one local television station that did was excoriated for breaking into afternoon programming being watched by children who were having a snow day.
Twenty-three years later, Dwyer’s final moments can be viewed, uncensored, on dozens of websites, sometimes set to music.