There are plenty of events and names that stand out over the several centuries of American political history. But one name, in particular, stands out as both tragic and controversial: Budd Dwyer.
He was a man whose career was marred by charges of corruption and bribery. His life seemed to be balanced on a razor’s edge. Therefore, Dwyer’s story took a haunting turn on that fateful day in 1987.
Dwyer was the Treasurer of Pennsylvania. He faced the grim reality of a looming prison sentence. But what inner demons pushed him to the edge of desperation? What would drive a person, burdened with the weight of public scrutiny, to have infamously committed suicide on television as Dwyer did?
The history of Budd Dwyer is one of the complexities of power, the fragility of the human psyche, and the haunting question that lingers: what leads an individual to make such a desperate and irreversible choice?
Dwyer’s Early Life and Political Career
Dwyer was born in 1939. The journey of his life began with a relatively normal upbringing in St. Charles, Missouri. Later on, he would pursue an education at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He earned a degree in Political Science and Accounting in 1961.
Afterward, Dwyer ventured into teaching. He worked as a social studies instructor and football coach for a short time. However, public service beckoned. In 1964, R. Budd Dwyer secured a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing the 6th district.
His success in the position helped to earn him reelection in 1966 and 1968. His ambitions led him to aim higher. In 1970, Dwyer ran for the Pennsylvania State Senate from the 50th district, with subsequent re-election victories in 1974 and 1978.
As his political stature grew, so did his political goals. In 1980, he set his sights on the office of Pennsylvania Treasurer. Dwyer’s relentless campaign paid off as he emerged victorious. He assumed the responsibilities of the Treasurer.
Recognizing his accomplishments, the public reelected him for a second term in 1984. From a little-known Pennsylvania politician to the Pennsylvania State Senate to Treasurer, Budd Dwyer demonstrated a tenacious spirit and a commitment to public service.
From the halls of education to the corridors of government, he forged a path that would eventually lead to a tragic and fateful crossroads.
Corruption Charges and Legal Battle Push Budd to the Edge
Budd Dwyer’s political career took a dark turn when he became embroiled in a corruption scandal that would overshadow his previous accomplishments.
In 1984, it was revealed that public employees in Pennsylvania had overpaid millions of dollars in taxes. Dwyer, then the State Treasurer, awarded a lucrative contract to a firm called Computer Technology Associates (CTA) to sort it out.
However, suspicions arose when financial discrepancies were noticed. This led to an investigation into the contract. The investigation uncovered allegations of bribery with Janice R. Kincaid, a former CTA employee. She claimed that Budd Dwyer awarded the contract to CTA in exchange for a $300,000 kickback.
Dwyer vigorously denied the accusations and attempted to obstruct the investigation. He erased evidence from his appointment book and withheld information from the authorities. However, the evidence against him continued to mount. Soon, he was indicted by a federal grand jury.
Acting U.S. Attorney James West prosecuted Dwyer. He was eventually convicted on 11 counts, including conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. Throughout the legal battle, Budd Dwyer denied his guilt and refused to resign as State Treasurer.
Dwyer’s conviction meant that he faced up to 55 years in prison and a hefty fine. Despite his plea for a presidential pardon and his appeal for support from influential figures, Dwyer’s fate seemed sealed.
The week of his scheduled sentencing, there were discussions regarding his removal from office based on Pennsylvania’s constitution. These stated that convicted civil workers could be automatically removed from their positions.
The decision on this matter was expected to be made just a day before his sentencing hearing. This added to the mounting pressure and uncertainty surrounding Dwyer’s future.
The Fateful Press Conference
In a tragic turn of events that shook the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Robert Budd Dwyer took his own life during a press conference on January 22, 1987.
Facing a crowd of reporters and live cameras, Dwyer unleashed a speech against his bribery and mail fraud convictions. With a shocking twist, he then retrieved a .357 Magnum revolver from a manila envelope, evoking cries of despair from the room.
Despite pleas for him to reconsider, Budd Dwyer asked for anyone to leave who felt it would affect them. In a split second, he placed the barrel of the gun in his mouth and ended his life with a single gunshot.
Dwyer’s press conference was initially anticipated as a resignation announcement prior to his scheduled sentencing the next day. Instead, it left those in attendance in utter disbelief.
Gasps permeated the room as shock and panic set in, and attendees realized Dwyer had just committed suicide. Dwyer’s lifeless body slumped against a cabinet. Blood flowed from his mouth and nose.
It became evident that Dwyer’s public suicide had been meticulously planned. He distributed a 20-page statement outlining his perspectives on the criminal charges against him. But he withheld the 21st page that detailed his final plans.
The coroner confirmed that Dwyer died instantaneously. But the tragic event left behind a myriad of unanswered questions and a sense of profound shock and sorrow. Dwyer’s suicide marked a dramatic and devastating end to his life.
Where Did it All Go Wrong for Budd Dwyer?
The tragedy of Robert Budd Dwyer followed a series of difficult events. This led to him taking his own life. The specter of a looming sentence, with the potential of up to 55 years in prison, cast a formidable shadow over his future.
The conviction and the prospect of losing his freedom were undoubtedly overwhelming. And the public exposure, media scrutiny, and loss of his political career all must have contributed to a sense of humiliation and hopelessness.
It is important to recognize that Dwyer’s death was a result of deep personal struggles and mental anguish. The pressures he faced, both internally and externally, became insurmountable.
In moments like this, it is crucial to remember that help is available. Seeking professional assistance can have a profound impact on those grappling with mental health challenges, whether it’s you or someone you care about.
“Budd Dwyer – An Honest Man.” Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer. Accessed May 18, 2023. http://dwyermovie.com/.
Cusick, Frederick, Dan Meyers, and Walter F Roche. “Treasurer Dwyer Kills Self Suicide at News Session.” Philly.com, January 23, 1987. https://web.archive.org/web/20160203184646/http://articles.philly.com/1987-01-23/news/26186493_1_treasurer-dwyer-state-computer-contract-federal-charges.
Pridmore, Saxby, and Garry Walter. “The Predicaments of People Whose Suicide Was Captured on Film.” Malays J Med Sci 20, no. 4 (July 2013): 64–70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3773354/