A Public Awakening--The Edmond Post Office Massacre
Edmond, Oklahoma, is, today, a town typical of what many citizens mean when they use the term “mid-America”. Located just
north of Oklahoma City, in the central portion of the state, the community population is currently less than 50,000. At the time of the
post office massacre the population was under 35,000. To its residents, Edmond traditionally represented the best of what a
mid-American community could offer in terms of family and work values.
Just after dawn, on August 20, 1986, Patrick Sherrill, a full-time substitute letter carrier, reported to the sprawling Edmond post
office dressed in his usual blue uniform and carrying a mailbag over his shoulder. On this day, though, his mailbag concealed
two loaded, .45-caliber pistols he had checked out from the National Guard Armory where he was a member of the
marksmanship team. He also carried in excess of 300 rounds of ammunition and a .22-caliber handgun which was his own
Sherrill said nothing as he immediately walked up to the shift supervisor, Richard Esser Jr., and shot him in the chest at close
range. Still silent, Sherrill stalked more victims throughout the winding corridors of the Edmond post office. His rampage lasted
for only ten minutes but, during that time, he managed to fire off 50 rounds and murder 14 employees. In a final act of violence,
Sherrill turned one of the guns on himself and committed suicide.
This horrific crime inaugurated the era of the violent workplace in the press and the minds of many Americans. At the time, this
incident was the third worst mass murder in American history, and one that shocked the public in a deeply personal way. There
were relentless questions from across the nation, asking how and why this violence could have taken place in such an unlikely
venue, in such a peaceful mid-American town.
A postal-union official blamed management for Sherrill’s terrorism, but this position was not typical among the post office
employees when interviewed by the press. A few employees said they thought Sherrill’s murderous rampage was an act of
revenge. Others disagreed. The morning before the murders, Sherrill met with Esser and supervisor Bill Bland to discuss his
work performance. Police sources stated that Bland threatened to terminate Sherrill; however, the Postal Service claimed this
never happened. If revenge was a motive for Sherrill, the details were not clear and his actions bizarre, seemingly without
Even if this horror was an act of revenge, why would an individual murder so many of his coworkers in an apparently
indiscriminate manner? Where was the sense in such an act? To this day such questions have not been answered satisfactorily
despite other, similar workplace murders. Indiscriminate acts of murder are an unfortunate theme that will be seen to be
repeated in other workplace slayings to be examined. Patrick Sherrill was, at the time, one of the most notoriously indiscriminate
murderers in American history.
Sherrill was 44 years of age on August 20, 1986. He had lived on the same street for twenty years. According to his neighbors,
Patrick Sherrill was sometimes referred to as “Crazy Pat” because of his strange behavior in the neighborhood. Sherrill would, at
times, mow his lawn at midnight, peer into neighbor’s windows while wearing combat fatigues, or tie neighborhood dogs up with
baling wire. He was, by many neighborhood accounts, a loner and a strange individual.
In the workplace, Sherrill was viewed by coworkers as often angry and frequently depressed. There was no real evidence that his
work performance had ever been seriously questioned, even though it was obvious to many coworkers that he was a “problem”
employee. A few of his coworkers described Sherrill as quiet and pleasant, but one who preferred his own company to the usual
workplace socialization. Other coworkers described him as a habitual complainer and a consistent non-performer. Sherrill was,
at best, enigmatic and not well understood by anyone who knew him. This would later prove to be a common profile for a
potentially lethal employee.
Patrick Sherrill’s mother, with whom he lived all of his life, died in 1974; after that he lived alone. There was no evidence of
unusual or traumatic incidents in his life before the post office killings. If some event in his personal life triggered Sherrill’s
actions on that August morning, no one knows of it or has offered it. It was known that Sherrill was scheduled to meet with his
supervisor the morning of the murders to discuss performance issues. The supervisor, however, had no plans for formal
disciplinary action. On the night before the murders Sherrill made a call to his union representative to discuss a possible transfer
to another post office location. Apparently nothing came of that conversation.
Before his job as letter carrier, Sherrill, an ex-Marine sharpshooter, held a number of short-term jobs as file clerk, stockroom
worker, and bicycle repairman. Two years before the shootings Sherrill joined the National Guard. Because of his position on the
marksmanship team, Sherrill was able to borrow handguns from the National Guard armory at his discretion. These were the
weapons he used to murder his fellow employees. Sherrill was also able to check out a supply of “wadcutters”--special bullets
with flat noses that expand when they enter a human target. This is the ammunition he used at the post office that accounted for
so many fatal injuries. Throughout his life Sherrill apparently held a strong fascination for weapons and was highly proficient in
their use. He was also in a position to acquire weapons quickly and easily. These are elements that will be seen to be common
to many workplace murderers.
A psychiatrist, who had never met or spoke with Sherrill, believed that the pattern of his life, and particularly his actions at the
Edmond post office, indicated “factitious posttraumatic stress disorder” (see Appendix C). This was a disorder which, at the time,
was thought to be relatively prevalent among Viet Nam war veterans, like Sherrill. Still, individuals who knew Sherrill personally
and saw him on a frequent basis thought this not likely. The most prevalent view of Sherrill’s behavior indicated that he may have
exhibited signs of depression. Sherrill had no history of mental illness and, in truth, no one knew if he was suffering from a
psychological disorder, mild or severe. One of his former neighbors offered the following response when asked to describe
Sherrill’s mental state at the time of the killings: “He wasn’t Rambo,” insists Charles Thigpen, a onetime neighbor who
remembers him (Sherrill) as a shy but gentle man who liked the words “thank you” and “please”. “We live in a time when we want
quick answers. And since Pat’s not alive to defend himself, they don’t have to be the right answers.”
The fact is that no one was able to specifically account for Sherrill’s actions despite evidence that he exhibited many behavioral
warning signs indicating potential violence. He left no clue behind and said nothing during his rampage which would help to
understand his motives. He murdered at least one individual against whom he could have held a grudge, although this is not
certain, and many others who were apparently selected at random, or for reasons that can never be known.
The Edmond post office massacre is a Category Profile (CP) I, II and V multiple homicide--not a rare or singular event. However,
to relegate it to a simple category and dismiss it is to miss its true and lasting impact on American society. Of primary
importance, the Sherrill case proved to be one of the prototypical scenarios for developing a predictable series of behavioral
criteria common to workplace murderers.
The killings in Edmond received national press and television coverage. To this day, many individuals, when asked, are able to
recall the incident, if not the details. Although violent crimes, including homicide, had been under scrutiny for some time by such
organizations as the Centers for Disease Control, the public had little awareness of the potential threat inherent in the most
seemingly safe job site, in what should have been among the most secure of American towns. Sherrill’s actions in 1986
permanently changed the American tradition of a workplace safe from the ultimate crime. It is not an overstatement to say that a
wave of concern swept America in the wake of the Edmond killings. If such a heinous event could befall a quiet, safe town like
Edmond, at a job site completely unprepared for any threat of violence, it could certainly occur in many other towns and cities
throughout the nation.
For the purposes of this study, the actions of Patrick Sherrill establish an understanding of the true nature of occupational
homicide and the impact it can have in the workplace and society. Sherrill’s background leads to an examination of points in
common with other workplace murderers. His actions just before, and during, the killings will help to formulate prevention
measures later in this study.
The hard truth which underlies this incident, though, cannot be ignored or perhaps ever fully comprehended. Innocent individuals
were ruthlessly murdered for actions they took in the workplace consistent with their job responsibilities. Worse yet, many
individuals lost their lives for apparently no other reason than that they desired to be responsible and productive in society. For
these victims nothing can be offered now except a commitment that, as that society, some action be taken to understand and
prevent such slaughter in the future.