WASHINGTON, [PA]—On December 18, 2011, Eli Franklin Myers III shot two East Washington police officers during a routine traffic stop along Interstate highway 70 in Washington County, Pennsylvania. For those who follow domestic extremist activity, it was a familiar scenario that has played out time and time again on roadways throughout the United States. One of the officers was lying defenseless on the pavement after suffering a gunshot wound to the thigh when he was shot a second time by Myers in the side of the head. A second officer, who arrived as backup, was shot in the hand as he took cover from Myers’ deadly rampage.
Myers fled the scene, retreating to his home in Webster, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where he engaged officers from Rostraver Township and the Pennsylvania State Police in a 10-hour standoff. Myers periodically exchanged gunfire with police as they attempted to negotiate his surrender. He refused their commands and, instead, chose to exit his house and pointed a gun in the direction of police officers who had surrounded his home. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet.
Many who knew Myers were reportedly shocked and confused by his violent actions. According to court records, Myers had no criminal record in Pennsylvania. Many notorious violent rightwing extremists, such as Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph, also had no prior criminal histories before they carried out their violent attacks. A review of media reporting shows that neighbors, friends and acquaintances have conflicting views over Myers’ true identity, his personality and character. Some were perplexed over why he would shoot police officers. Others didn’t appear surprised given his reclusive and anti-social demeanor within the local community. And, unfortunately, those affected by this tragedy may never get the answers they truly seek at the conclusion of the investigation. For them, complete closure may not come.
In order to gain a better understanding of why Eli Myers attacked the police, it is important to examine a wide range of factors that influence a person’s behavior including their social network, current life circumstances (family status, health, financial situation, etc.), belief system (specifically views toward government, our legal system and authority, in general) and traumatic life-altering events, if any. It is also valuable to know how many stabilizing influences the individual has to keep them from straying too far from their behavioral norms. As I reviewed media accounts of Myers’ life, I immediately noticed several “red flags.”
First, Myers had been under-employed. His employment history was described as “spotty at best.” His financial situation was obvious, given the dilapidated state of his home and other personal property. A neighbor said that Myers had been living out of his van at one time, but had recently moved back into his parents’ (now deceased) home. Myers also appears to have had excessive debt. According to WTAE, in 2002, Citibank sued Myers for $10,000 for not paying back a loan.
In addition to his financial challenges, Myers also had visible health problems as described by friends – having a change in complexion and a recent fall which left him somewhat disabled. Myers had also experienced three, recent traumatic events in his life within a relatively short time span: the death of his father in 2009; his mother’s death a few months later; and, then his common-law wife died in 2010. A culmination of socio-economic pressures most likely weighed heavily on Myers. People who are financially desperate and experience traumatic life events can be introduced or even lured to extremist ideas as they seek answers to life’s hardships. Those who ultimately incorporate extremist ideas into their personal belief system are often looking for any justification to blame others.
Second, it appears that Eli Myers had a total disregard for the law as well as government authority, despite having been a part-time police officer for a few years back in the 1970s. Media reports have not yet elaborated on why Myers left his job as a police officer. Myers allegedly did not conform to local county ordinances related to maintaining his property. Despite having been cited and fined by local police earlier this year, he still refused to register his vehicles or clean up his properties. He did not maintain automobile insurance nor receive the annual vehicle inspection as required by Pennsylvania state law. According to news reports, Myers was cited 27 times for code violations on a business property he owned in Charleroi. He reportedly lost that property in a tax sale last year.
Third, Myers appears to have embraced some form of anti-tax sentiment as part of his personal beliefs. Though, it doesn’t look like Myers was a member of any organized extremist group. Yet, at a minimum, he had a 20-year history of not paying taxes. He had 37 tax warrants from the state of Indiana for unpaid taxes between 1992 and 2011. Furthermore, both of his Pennsylvania businesses were allegedly sold at tax auctions, indicating that Myers most likely was delinquent in paying his property taxes there as well. It is important to note that the information age provides a virtual platform (i.e. Internet) for extremists to spread their radical belief systems. A person no longer has to “join” extremist groups or meet face-to-face with their extremist counterparts. Anyone can be introduced to a wide range of extremist ideology and radical belief systems in the comfort and privacy of their own home. Further, the Internet enables individuals to self-indoctrinate and radicalize with relative ease, secrecy and anonymity. It seems that Myers’ view on taxes was not limited to just his financial issues.
Finally, Myers is most known for his obsession with guns – having owned and operated a gun shop in Monessen for many years. He also held a membership at a local gun club. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, one local politician, who knew Myers several years ago, commented that Myers possessed “an arsenal of weapons.” Weapons hoarding can be another indicator of possible extremist beliefs, due to a person's preoccupation with their second amendment rights or infringements thereof. WTAE reported that neighbors said that Myers was known as “someone who can get you anything you wanted in terms of weapons or ammunition including assault rifles.” WTAE also reported that neighbors described Myers as an “illegal gun runner.” Myers’ disdain for the law not only included his many property disputes, his failure to pay taxes and refusal to register and insure his vehicles, but also his continued operation of a gun shop despite not having a firearms dealer’s license as required by federal law.
Given his apparent disregard for laws and government regulations, it would be interesting to learn more about Myers’ second amendment views, his justification for not paying taxes for so long as well as his opinion of the ATF (which issues federal firearms licenses). Myers’ gun license lapsed over 15 years ago, yet, since 1995, he reportedly continued operating an “illegal” gun business without a license. I welcome readers' comments and insights into these matters (see comment box below this article).
To conclude, it is easy to brush off Myers’ failed businesses, multiple tax warrants, civil judgments and code violations as a person in financial distress. Some may quickly conclude that he had his “back against a wall” or “he was breaking from debt” and just "snapped." Others may choose to attribute his violent behavior to “mental illness” despite having no corroborating evidence. Upon closer examination, Myers apparently had enough disposable income which he used to purchase guns, antiques and other collector’s items (which are reportedly littering his residence). So, the question then becomes: Why didn’t Myers use some of that money to pay his taxes, civil judgments, traffic fines and other financial obligations? Perhaps, it wasn’t important to him – or maybe he didn’t think it was legally required.
There is enough evidence to suggest that Eli Myers was likely a tax resister – a person who deliberately avoided paying taxes because they don’t believe it is legally required or necessary. He probably held antigovernment views (although not very vocal about them). Why else would a person thumb their nose at government permits, regulations and law enforcement authority? Myers’ social behavior, life circumstances, likely antigovernment belief system and traumatic life events all played a role in cultivating an extremist-type mindset – an utter disdain for government authority – which was finally unleashed during that fateful traffic stop on December 18, 2011. Extremists are known for their attack-oriented behavior. Myers’ actions that night appeared to be just another example of such conduct.
Many are wondering why Myers shot the two police officers. It may have something to do with Myers’ views concerning his second amendment rights. He was obviously armed at the time of the traffic stop. Myers probably didn’t have a permit for the loaded firearm in the car as required by Pennsylvania state law [see 18 Pa.C.S. 6106]. Once he realized the officers were going to impound his vehicle and likely charge him for the weapons violation (and knowing he was operating a gun shop without a federal firearms license), Myers probably knew he was looking at multiple felony charges which, if convicted, could lead to a relinquishing of his gun rights. This perception may have provided the necessary incentive and justification for Myers to rationalize shooting both officers rather than deal with the consequences of his antigovernment actions. After all, Richard Poplawski, the white supremacist from Stanton Heights (Pennsylvania), killed three Pittsburgh police officers in April 2009 for similar reasons. Poplawski believed the police were coming for his guns as a result of a domestic dispute Poplawski had with his mother. And, think about it, Myers really had nothing more to lose but his Constitutional rights.
In closing, I find it interesting that the president of the gun club to which Myers belonged felt it necessary to explain to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “though he [Myers] talked politics, he was not ‘rabid or radical’. He wasn’t one of these conspiracy guys.” But, as we examine Myers’ private life, it becomes very apparent that he was not the law-abiding, level-headed peacemaker that some perceived him to be. Not all extremists join groups, carry identification cards or espouse crazy conspiracy theories. A discrete extremist is unpredictable and, on occasion, a dangerous individual. In addition, it’s often difficult for others to admit that a close friend, family member or neighbor could take their political views too far, or, engage in ideologically-motivated criminal activity to further those beliefs. It looks like Myers' true identity may very well have been a reclusive antigovernment extremist who had finally had enough with our system of government. He chose to unleash his anger at two local police officers – the ultimate symbol of law, order and authority in a civilized society – at a time of his choosing when the officers were most vulnerable. He then made a calculated decision not to surrender to government authority, but rather end his life in a hail of bullets. Such behavior does not appear to be linked to mental illness, financial distress or common criminal behavior. Rather, it bears the hallmark of an extremist individual hell-bent on retaliating against his enemies when finally pressed to account for his criminal actions.