by Tim Gilmore, 2/23/2018
WARNING: This story contains graphic content that some readers will find too disturbing.
The man lay in a pool of blood just inside the door as Tim Phillips stepped around him.
When Phillips yelled, “Why isn’t anybody helping him?” and his colleague Clarence Presha said, “He’s already dead,” Phillips saw the rifle stock beside the dead man’s exploded head. The question seemed foolish.
This morning, 28 years later, the sun shines bright and bland on the sterile surburban office park. The glass doors stand wide open. I walk from one doorway to another, wondering just where Tim Phillips, who was 28 years old, a maintenance worker next door at Reichhold Chemical Co., stepped around the corpse of the killer.
James Edward Pough had opened the front door casually and started taking aim. That Monday morning, the late June heat radiated across the artificially maintained lawns and asphalt parking lots. Though employees worked at their desks and cubicles in the auto loan office, it was the customers at whom “Pop” Pough first fired.
The office building’s been demo’d inside, steel beams and girders unencumbered by plaster and drywall. Electricians stand on ladders, rewiring the stripped interior. They pay me no attention. I wonder if they know they’re working at the site of the worst mass killing in Florida before the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando. But then, such records don’t stand long these days. I wonder if they’re afraid “the government” will take their guns, since 17 people died and 15 were injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida a week ago on Valentine’s Day.
Pough walked into the GMAC (General Motors Acceptance Corporation) office before noon on June 18, 1990 with a .30-caliber semiautomatic rifle and a .38-caliber revolver. 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 car payments. Both of Hendrix’s lungs collapsed. Then Pough took aim at employees.
On the faded rectangular sign standing on the trapezoid 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 collapsed, fainted. People screamed and fled to to the back, knocking each other down, losing a shoe, pushing each other, pulling. Workers hid beneath desks. In Ocala, Florida, an assistant deputy clerk for Marion County named Nita King received a business call from the GMAC office. She “answered the phone and didn’t get an answer a couple of times,” then someone screamed, “Help, help, help!” into the phone, and King heard eight or 10 gunshots across the line.
Pough walked across the front desk where he’d just murdered two customers and shot Cynthia Perry and Barbara Duckworth Holland, who worked side by side— shot them in the head and in the back. The whole event lasted three or four minutes. Pough shot GMAC workers Janice David and Nancy Dill. Pough fired 13 shots into Nancy Dill’s stomach and chest, both arms, and both legs, but somehow she did not die. Pough also shot employees Phyllis Griggs and Ron Eschevarria, both of whom survived. Pough walked across the concrete floor of the sterile suburban office building—It could’ve been anywhere in America—and fired and fired and fired and…Pough shot to death GMAC workers Drew Woods and Sharon Louise Hall and Lee Simonton and Denise Sapp Highfill. Highfill’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. He drove by the GMAC building. Police cars, ambulances, and rescue vehicles stood parked at odd angles in the street and parking lot. Someone said Highfill’s wife had been rushed to the hospital. He drove to University Medical Center where doctors told him his wife was dead. GMAC stenographer Jewell Belote might yet live, might yet live, and did, and then died, Wednesday, June 27th, raising the death toll, including the shooter, to 10. Four victims survived.
Walking through these abandoned ATM lanes, except for the fact of February heat, I could be stepping through the suburbs of Duluth, Minnesota or Duluth, Georgia, of Albuquerque or Oklahoma City, of Walla Walla, Washington or Paris, Texas. This Jacksonville story’s a chronicle of Anywhere, America. Duluthuquerque-Walla Walla-Texas. By now, the whole world recognizes the mass shooting as a basic characteristic of the American landscape.
But if mass shootings are as American as Disney World, jazz and opioid addiction, Pough also embodied the Jacksonville from which he rose. 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. He and Pender and their girlfriends had just left a nightclub when Pender called Pough’s girlfriend a “bitch.”
In 1966, when Pough was 18, he was arrested for “assault with intent to murder,” but the Sheriff’s Office kept records so shoddily that in 1990, Sergeant Steve Weintraub told the United Press International that whether or not Pough was convicted was “unclear.”
“The Jacksonville massacre,” said The New York Times, “is certain to revive the debate over ownership of guns.” But every American mass killing does that, again and again and again.
“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 opened fire.
The previous two weeks, Pough’s West 22nd Street neighbors said he’d been firing a gun into the air every night. His mother had died three years before. He’d taken care of her for years. After GMAC repossessed his car, the company sent him a bill for $6,394.
Before the massacre, after midnight, June 17th, he killed a pimp and a prostitute near his home, then asked two teenagers for directions and shot them. They survived.
Sheriff McMillan said Pough fired away until he saw no one else to shoot. Then he shot himself in the head. He’d walked into the office in a final act of total explosive rage. He’d fired and fired and murdered nine people and injured four others right here and finally aimed his .38 into his own face and fired his rage into his face and his brain and exploded all the world and obliterated all his hatred for the world and raged through and against all his rage and hatred 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, ended (for him) the whole world, and resounded his hatred and murder throughout the world as all the world, the ultimate act, amen.
Tim Phillips first came from the back of the Reichhold Chemical Co. offices next door, hearing the repetitions of murder from gun barrels at 7870, saw a woman fall bloodied in her floral-print dress into a patch of grass by a staged bed of marigolds.
She couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know what else to do. He held her head in his lap, inclined her face up to the sunlight, “tried to keep her talking.” Two gunshots had ripped her dress apart, laid bare one bloody breast. Another bullet had torn through her cheek, ripping open one side of her face.
Phillips recognized her. They’d often nodded, smiled, exchanged pleasantries in a nearby generic office-park sandwich shop. Now she was dying in his arms. He still didn’t know her name, didn’t know her name was Phyllis Griggs.
When Phillips helped police slide her body onto a stretcher, then watched—and it was all so surreal—a helicopter descend upon her all but lifeless physical form, then lift her—if what the machine lifted yet was “her”—into the Jacksonville sky, he stumbled into a building full of blood, strewn with prostrate bodies, and almost stepped on the corpse of the killer, whose head lay in a pool of blood, murder weapon on the floor beside him, rifle stock nearby.
“You’re not going to die,” Phillips had told Phyllis Griggs repeatedly. She kept saying she didn’t know what her two sons would do without her. “You’re not going to die,” he said. She didn’t. But Janice David died, shortly after another helicopter lifted her into the sky.
Investigators found at least 38 shells from Pough’s assault rifle. Newspapers said the massacre was likely to renew the “assault weapons debate.” Countries with strong gun laws continued to have far fewer gun deaths than did the United States. The U.S., its gun laws weak, suffered gun deaths on the level of a third world country at war. In England, people were as likely to die from being shot as Americans were from falling off a ladder. The Japanese were as likely to die from being shot as Americans from a lightning strike. But around Jacksonville, bumper stickers said, “Gun control means hitting your target.” On June 17th and 18th, 1990, James Edward Pough hit 18.