Published in Jul 2021 / Updated in Sep 2021
The entire country was left in shock when R. Budd Dwyer took his own life in full view of television cameras. This was shocking, considering Dwyer was an ambitious politician who had experienced a meteoritic rise to power before his otherwise great political career was rocked by bribery charges.
His death haunts many to this day, not because of how it happened, but because it probably cost an innocent man his life.
In 1987, R. Budd Dwyer was the acting Pennsylvania State Treasurer, and he was battling bribery charges. Little did people know that the charges were pushing him past his breaking point.
He insisted that he was innocent, but nobody would have thought he would go to the extent of killing himself due to the pressure he was facing.
In fact, in this unforgettable press conference, his press secretary James Horshock, and his deputy, Don Johnson, thought he would simply resign and make a final appeal for mercy considering the charges he was facing. However, he seemed nervous and agitated, but that was expected for a man who was facing a serious bribery scandal.
Rather than beg for mercy as the media watched, he continued to insist that he was innocent and talked about how unjust the justice system was.
After that, he took a gun and shot himself dead in front of everyone. His actions baffled many but also made sense in consideration that Dwyer might have been innocent of the allegations leveled against him.
Dwyer Had Enjoyed A Successful Political Career
Soon after he graduated from college, Dwyer got into local politics, and he served in the state’s House of Representatives from 1964 to 1970. After that, he ran for the senatorial seat and won.
In 1980, he decided to give the post of Pennsylvania Treasurer a shot and emerged successfully. Four years later, he won reelection to the position.
That would be his final political position.
During his second term, state officials found out that millions of dollars had been overpaid due to errors. An accounting firm was brought in to explain the mess.
Some months later, an anonymous memo was sent to the state governor, Dick Thornberg, alleging that bribery had taken place during the awarding of the contract to the accounting firm. The memo also claimed that Dwyer was among those who were bribed in the deal.
Dwyer was not exactly friends with the governor Dick Thornberg, and he had refused to pay for his wife’s plane tickets to Germany on two separate occasions.
Dwyer vehemently denied the allegations, which soon turned into court charges.
The prosecution offered him a deal in which he would plead guilty, resign, cooperate with investigators, and serve a five-year jail term. However, Dwyer rejected the deal thinking that the trial would prove he was innocent as he had insisted.
Unfortunately, things would not work out as he planned. He was found guilty and faced up to 55 years in prison. He also faced a $300,000 fine. Some of the crimes he was accused of included mail fraud, perjury, 11 counts of conspiracy, and racketeering charges.
He was due for sentencing on January 23, 1987.
Did Dwyer Commit Suicide Because He Was Actually Guilty, Or Truly Innocent?
On January 22, 1987, Dwyer was thinking about his future, and he put his thoughts in writing on a piece of paper that said:
“I enjoy being with Jo so much, the next 20 years or so would have been wonderful. Tomorrow is going to be so difficult and I hope I can go through with it.”
On the morning of January 22, 1987, he gave his prepared statement before he added these words:
“… I’ve made a decision that should not be an example to anyone because it is unique to my situation… Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, DeeDee – I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Goodbye to you on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”
After this unscripted speech, he reached for a Manila envelope, got a .357 Magnum revolver, and said:
“Please leave the room if this will affect you.”
People yelled for him to stop, and others approached the podium to try and take the weapon away from him. However, none made it in time. Dwyer put the barrel in his mouth and fired. He fell to the floor immediately, dead.
The Aftermath Of Dwyer’s Suicide
Unlike what some reports claim, Dwyer did not actually take his life live on television. Many local stations edited the footage to avoid the graphic details. Others froze the part where he shot himself and allowed the audio to continue playing in the background.
However, a station showed the raw video on two occasions and argued that it was important given the nature of the story. Obviously, these were very different times.
A feature documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, was released in 2010, exploring his life and the suicide he committed.
The documentary records one of the major trial witnesses, William T. Smith, saying that he lied under oath about never offering Dwyer a bribe. Dwyer was convicted mainly due to Smith’s testimony. He did this to protect his wife from prosecution as she had played a role in the conspiracy.
The documentary also features interviews with his family, colleagues, and friends, including her widow Joanne who died in 2009.
Joanne insisted that her husband was the “product of a very, very poor justice system.”
His family members also expressed their opinion towards journalists, who, instead of rushing to stop him from shooting himself, decided to film and take photos instead.
However, some onlookers were heard shouting, “Don’t do it, Budd!” before he shot himself as everyone watched. Onlookers who tried to approach the podium were too late.
Smith was regretful of his lies and how they contributed to Dwyer’s suicide. However, the film also explores the fact that the politician was dealing with depression before he died.
When he died, he was still in office. Fortunately, the documentary film helped clear doubts about him. Dwyer’s wife got full survivor benefits that amounted to over $1.28 million.
Some of those close to him suspect that he took his own life as a way to preserve his state-provided pension for the sake of his family. Apparently, his legal defense costs had already ruined his finances.
Corruption in the form of bribes and payoffs persisted even after Dwyer “left” office. He had been in the public service for 22 years at the time he drastically ended his life.
In the documentary film dedicated to him, he is described as an honest and hardworking man, but still, it’s up to you to decide if Budd was a victim or culprit.