by Tim Gilmore, 2/23/2018
The man lay in a pool of blood just inside the door as Tim Phillips stepped around him.
When Tim yelled, “Why isn’t anybody helping him?” and Clarence Presha said, “He’s already dead,” Tim saw the handgun beside the dead man’s exploded head. It was the same .38-caliber revolver with which he’d shot Chris Shorter and Lynette Johnson that Saturday night on the Northside. That .38 was not the gun from which he’d emptied 50 shells in two minutes.
This morning, the sun shines bright and bland on this sterile suburban office park. The glass doors stand wide open. I walk from one doorway to another, wondering just where Tim Phillips, who’d been 28 years old, a maintenance worker next door at Reichhold Chemicals, stepped around the body of the killer.
That morning, James Edward Pough had opened the door and started shooting. That Monday morning was bland and bright and sunny. The late June heat radiated across the artificially maintained lawns and the asphalt parking lots. Though 86 employees sat at their desks and cubicles in the auto loan office, it was the customers at whom “Pop” Pough first took aim.
The office building has been demo’d inside, steel beams and girders unencumbered by plaster and drywall. Electricians stand on ladders, rewiring the stripped interior structure. They pay me no attention. I wonder if they know this building is the site of the worst mass killing in Florida before the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando in which 49 people died and 58 were injured. I wonder if they worry “the government” will take their guns.
Pough walked into the General Motors Acceptance Corporation office before noon on June 18, 1990 with an M1 Carbine assault rifle. He’d left the 9mm machine gun in the car. First he shot customers Julia White Burgess, who died, and David Hendrix, who survived. Both customers had stopped by to make a car payment. Both of Hendrix’s lungs collapsed. Then Pough took aim at employees.
On the faded rectangular sign standing on the triangle that marks the address—7870 Baymeadows Way—you can just make out the letters, “ATM.” The site of the deadliest non-wartime shooting in Jacksonville history was last home to Florida Telco Credit Union and, ironically, a LifeSouth Community Blood Center, “committed to making sure blood is at your local hospitals in times of need.”
Sheriff James McMillan said Pough “walked through shooting people execution style.” A woman fainted. Everyone screamed. Workers hid beneath desks. In Ocala, Florida, an assistant deputy clerk for Marion County named Nita King received a business call from Jacksonville GMAC. After she “answered the phone and didn’t get an answer a couple of times,” someone screamed, “Help, help, help!” into the phone, and King heard eight or 10 rapidfire gunshots across the line.
Pough walked across the front desk where he’d just murdered two customers and continued the carnage. Somewhere in that two minutes, he shot and killed Cynthia Perry and Barbara Holland, longtime friends who worked side by side. He shot GMAC workers Janice David and Nancy Dill. Jan died on the concrete floor. Pough fired seven shots into Nancy Dill, but she lived. Newspapers at first reported he’d shot her 13 times. He shot GMAC workers Phyllis Griggs and Ron Eschevarria, both of whom lived. He killed GMAC workers Drew Woods and Sharon Hall and Lee Simonton and Denise Highfill.
Denise’s husband Robert, a Jacksonville police officer, had come home from playing tennis when he heard about the shooting. He called his wife’s work number. No answer. He called Police Communications, who told him they knew nothing. A friend drove him by the GMAC building. Someone said Denise had been rushed to the hospital. At University Medical Center, they told him his wife was dead.
GMAC stenographer Jewell Belote might yet live, might yet live, and did, and then died, Wednesday, June 20th, raising the death toll, including the shooter, to 10.
Tim Phillips had first come from the back of the Reichhold Chemical Company offices next door, hearing the rapid gunfire at 7870, saw someone fall bloodied to a patch of grass by a bed of marigolds. She couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know what else to do. He help her head in his lap, inclined her face up, “tried to keep her talking.” Tim recognized her. They’d often nodded, smiled, exchanged pleasantries in a nearby generic office-park sandwich shop. Now she was dying in his arms. Now she was going to live. He still didn’t know her name was Denise Highfill. She was alive when the helicopter lifted her into the sky.
Walking through abandoned ATM lanes, other than this February heat, I might be stepping through Duluth, Minnesota or Duluth, Georgia, through Albuquerque or Oklahoma City—through Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon or Portland, Kentucky—through Portland, Texas or Paris, Texas. This Jacksonville story is an Anywhere, America story. By now, the whole world recognizes the mass shooting as a basic characteristic of the American landscape.
In 1971, James Edward Pough reached into his girlfriend’s purse, grabbed her gun, and shot his friend David Lee Pender three times in the chest, after he and Pender and their girlfriends left a nightclub and Pender called Pough’s girlfriend a bitch.
In 1966, when Pough was 18, he was arrested for “assault with intent to murder,” but Duval County Sheriff’s Office records were so shoddy that in 1990, Sergeant Steve Weintraub told the United Press International that whether or not Pough was convicted was “unclear,” never mind the lost intention.
“The Jacksonville massacre,” said The New York Times, “is certain to revive the debate over ownership of guns.” But every mass killing does that. Over and over. Again and again. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.
“Pough, a black man who held down a steady job, does not fit the model of mass murderers in the United States, most of whom have been white and unemployed,” said a June 24th Associated Press story. Fred Houser, executive vice president at W.W. Gay, electrical contractors, called Pough “the kind of employee ‘we tried to keep.’” W.W. Gay paid Pough $9.95 an hour.
On January 24th, GMAC had repossessed Pough’s 1988 Pontiac Grand Am. UPI reported he drove a “1977 green Buick” to the Baymeadows Way office where he’d opened fire.
The previous two weeks, Pough’s West 22nd Street neighbors said he’d been firing guns into the air every night. His mother had recently died. He’d taken care of her for years. After GMAC repossessed his car, the company sent him a bill for $6,394.
For two minutes, Pough fired and fired. Two minutes, 50 ammunition shells. Then he dropped his assault rifle and shot himself in the head with a .38. He’d walked into the office in a final act of total explosive rage. He’d fired and fired and finally aimed a simple revolver up through his own face and fired his rage through his own face and brain and exploded all the world and obliterated all his hatred for the world and raged through and against all his rage and hate and blew his brains and skull across the glass and steel and concrete offices of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation at Baymeadows Way, a total nonplace that might as well have been everyplace and ended his world and resounded throughout the world as all the world.
Meanwhile, in France, you’re as likely to die from a gunshot as you are from hypothermia in the United States, though in Japan, you’re as likely to die from a gunshot as you are from being struck by lightning in the United States. Of course, most American gun deaths aren’t mass shootings. Most American gun deaths aren’t even homicides. They’re suicides. The United States holds four percent of the world’s population, but owns 40 percent of the world’s guns. Maybe none of these statistics matter, because every now and then, a mass shooting does happen in another wealthy nation, because it’s true you can also murder someone with a knife. Of course, that’s a lot harder, and those numbers are a lot smaller, and America seems to have accepted and acquiesced, into the foreseeable future, having astronomically high murder rates for a wealthy nation.
But in June, 1990, the American Mass Shooting was only a few years older than the mass production of assault rifles when Colt lost its patent for the AR-15 in 1977. GMAC had no security, no bulletproof glass. The company hid documentation of hundreds of threats going back more than a decade.
When the company issued its succinct line of legal defense, “GMAC could not predict a kind of mass murder attack that had never before occurred within GMAC and had not been known to occur within GMAC’s type of business,” upon which courts summarily dismissed the suits of victims’ families against the company, both sides knew the statement was an absolute lie, but it was still believable in 1990.