The name Marvin Heemeyer may not ring a bell in the minds of many. For the first 52 years of his life, Heemeyer went by his given name and made a living as a welder and muffler repairman. But early in 2003, something changed that pushed Heemeyer into a new life, one that would garner him a more ominous (and melodramatic) name that may sound familiar to anyone with a YouTube account. And that name was “Killdozer.”
Websites, social media groups, and online forums have, in the years since the Killdozer’s 2004 rampage, depicted Heemeyer as a blue-collar folk hero — a man who rose up against the wealthy and the powerful; a modern David who built his own Goliath. These believers tout claims that Heemeyer’s armored-rampage claimed no lives because the man sought only retribution against the property of those who had wronged him. But police tell a very different story. According to law enforcement, it was sheer luck that saved lives during the Killdozer’s rampage who tore through town in a specially modified bulldozer that destroyed more than a dozen buildings.
In the early 1990s, Heemeyer moved into Grand Lake, Colorado, bought a few acres of land for $42,000 in 1992, and opened his own muffler repair shop. He was widely regarded as a fairly jovial, blue-collar guy, working on the land he had bought to make a living with his own two hands as people in rural Colorado communities tend to do. That is until he ran into a zoning dispute with the town government.
After 10 years of operating his business on the two-acre patch of land Heemeyer had purchased, plans were approved to build a massive concrete plant just at the edge of his property. This plan proved to be a serious issue for Heemeyer, as the only access road to his business crossed directly through the planned concrete factory, meaning neither he nor any customers, would have street access to his business.
This is where the legend of the Killdozer tends to part ways with reality in some accounts. Those who prefer to paint Heemeyer purely as the wronged party jump directly to the town zoning commission’s 2001 decision to authorize the concrete plant’s construction. Heemeyer appealed that decision, claiming it would block access to his existing business, but his appeal was denied. Soon after that interaction, Heemeyer was hit with a series of fines totaling around $2,500. The fines were levied for violations that included “junk cars on the property and not being hooked up to the sewer line.” The sewer line infraction was particularly offensive to Heemeyer as he apparently could not get access to sewer lines without crossing over eight feet of the concrete plant’s property.
This all sounds like a small business owner getting muscled out by a town zoning commission and big business (and there may be some truth to that narrative), but Heemeyer also found himself trapped on that two-acre plot of land through his own lack of foresight and, some could argue, due to his greed. Prior to that zoning decision, Heemeyer had entered into an agreement with the company that owned the land for the proposed concrete plant: they would pay him $250,000 for his two acres of land, allowing him a tidy profit over his $42,000 purchase and enough money to set up shop somewhere new.
However, Heemeyer soon backed out of that deal, upping his demand to $375,000, based, one can assume, on the idea that the concrete plant would have to agree to his demands. Heemeyer soon upped the ante again, reportedly demanding a deal worth as much as a million dollars to get him to leave his two-acre plot. At that point, many contend, the concrete plant opted to simply pursue its zoning rights and stop trying to deal with Heemeyer.
“I was always willing to be reasonable until I had to be unreasonable,” Heemeyer wrote. “Sometimes reasonable men must do unreasonable things.”
Whether you think Heemeyer was screwed over by the government or not, there’s no debating that he was convinced that he was. He first leased his business to a different company before selling the property outright to a third party, using the proceeds to begin custom modifications to his Komatsu D355A bulldozer. Over the next 18 months, Heemeyer would build makeshift armor plating that housed the bulldozer’s cabin, engine, and even parts of its tracks. Using a combination of sheets of “tool steel” and 5,000 psi Quikrete (concrete) to create the armor, some portions of the bulldozer sat behind more than a foot of protection, rendering the vehicle all but impervious to small arms fire, and as the police would find, even small explosives.
Heemeyer installed monitors inside the protected cabin that were wired to cameras he placed around the exterior of the armored bulldozer. He then enclosed those cameras inside three inches of bullet-resistant plastic to ensure law enforcement couldn’t shoot them out. Inside their bullet-proof cases, Heemeyer added air jets to blow the dust off the camera lenses.
Inside the cabin, he included fans and an air conditioning system as well as three gun turrets: one for a .50 caliber rifle, one for a semi-automatic .308, and one for a .22 LR rifle.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the setup, however, wasn’t its ability to absorb or dish out punishment, but rather its permanence once Heemeyer was inside. The armored shell had to be lowered down onto the vehicle using a custom crane he’d built, and once he was inside, there was no way to get back out. Heemeyer, it seems, spent a solid year and a half planning his own suicide mission, compiling a list of buildings and people he’d target before he was through.
“I think God will bless me to get the machine done, to drive it, to do the stuff that I have to do,” he said. “God blessed me in advance for the task that I am about to undertake. It is my duty. God has asked me to do this. It’s a cross that I am going to carry and I’m carrying it in God’s name.”
On June 4, 2004, Heemeyer was ready. He climbed inside his bulldozer, used a remote to lower the armored shell down into place, fired up the beast, and drove it directly through the wall of his former shop (from which he was still operating). From there, he drove directly into and through the concrete plant across the way, before setting off into town. Once there, he destroyed the Town Hall, the office of a local newspaper (Sky-Hi News) which had published a number of editorials critical of his side of the zoning dispute, and the home of the former mayor who had been involved at the onset of Heemeyer’s dispute. One should acknowledge, however, that the mayor had already died and the house’s only occupant was his elderly widow.
Police fired on the vehicle throughout, first looking for gaps in the armor and then attempting to take out the cameras, but the bullet-proof plastic proved to be too much for the officers’ pistols. At one point, Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Trainor even climbed aboard the vehicle, riding it like a scene out of an action movie as he looked for a gap in the armor he could drop a flash-bang grenade through or even find a clear shot to the driver. He had to give up so as not to be injured by debris as the vehicle crashed through buildings.
Heemeyer went on to destroy the library, which had been occupied by a children’s group until it was evacuated by police minutes before Heemeyer’s arrival, and a number of other buildings. His rampage claimed 13 buildings before a puncture in the “Killdozer’s” radiator, combined with a track that stuck while he was in the basement of the Gambles hardware store destroying it, rendered the vehicle immobile. As the surrounding police descended on the vehicle, they heard the pop of a single gunshot inside the cabin of the vehicle: Heemeyer had shot himself.
After explosives proved unable to penetrate the vehicle’s armor, law enforcement had to employ an oxy-acetylene cutting torch to get through the armor and retrieve Heemeyer’s body.
No one, aside from Heemeyer, was killed that day, though police say they have nothing but luck to thank for that. Heemeyer reportedly took shots at police vehicles and even at propane tanks using the weapons on board. Had a tank been ruptured, the threat posed to nearby civilians would have been serious. The same would be true if police hadn’t used the community’s 911 system to reverse-call residents and warn them of the impending danger. According to reports, journalists in the newspaper office Heemeyer that destroyed were still fleeing the building out the back door as he came through the front wall.
It’s hard to say whether Marvin Heemeyer intended to end any lives other than his own that day, so defining him as a hero or a villain can be a murky undertaking if that’s what you think delineates the two. All told, his rampage caused more than seven million dollars worth of damage to structures and vehicles in the community, though, in the minds of some, every bit of it was warranted.
Today, Heemeyer has a devout following in anti-government online communities that see his story as one part hero’s journey and one-part cautionary tale: the story of a man who was pushed so far that he chose to push back, even at the cost of his own life. In other circles, however, he’s seen as a troubled man who chose to turn to violence when life didn’t go his way.
“I’ve seen that the way people have venerated Marv and praised him after the fact, without even really knowing what happened or the facts of the situation, has been repeated in many other rampages and tragedies in America since then,” said Patrick Brower, an editor who worked in the newspaper office Heemeyer destroyed.
“How many people lose petty zoning fights with government in America? Everybody, all the time. That’s not an excuse to go out and tear the town to pieces and shoot at people,” Brower said.
Ultimately, Heemeyer, it seems, saw himself as the hero that elements of the internet make him out to be. Yet, some within his community, particularly those victimized by the “Killdozer” rampage, recall him as a broken man who took out his woes on the community at large. How do you see him?
This article was originally published on March 19, 2019.