Published February 21, 2010
AUSTIN, Texas – In the California where Joe Stack started out as a fresh-from-college software engineer, fighting the tax man was, quite literally, a religion.
Back in the 1970s and '80s, California was not just the center of the "silicon revolution." The Golden State was also a teeming hive of anti-government activity, much of it aimed at the federal income tax code and the agency that enforced it — the Internal Revenue Service.
Tax protesters and self-styled patriots railed against exemptions granted to religious organizations, the Catholic Church in particular. They formed their own "churches" and invited others to join.
"It sounds like he went down that same path," said Dennis Riness, who did time in federal prison for running a church-styled tax shelter. "And ran into the same brick wall."
Riness and most others gave up the fight. It seems Joe Stack could not, unable to let go of his hatred for a system that he felt enslaved him. After two decades of financial setbacks and professional disappointments, facing an audit in a down economy, Stack decided to strike back.
In an angry letter that rambles on for 3,000 words, the 53-year-old Stack set out his grievances, attributing his failures to everything from the dot-com bust to the "911 nightmare." He traced the beginnings of his problems with the government back 24 years and an obscure change in the Internal Revenue Code affecting software professionals.
"It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn't limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants," Stack wrote. "I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure (sic) nothing will change."
He posted his manifesto on the Web site of his business last Thursday morning. A short time later, his house 20 minutes north of the Texas Capitol was ablaze. He was behind the controls of his single-engine Piper PA-28: "Going southbound, sir," he radioed the airport tower. "Have a great day."
Impact with the black-glass office building that houses offices of the IRS came moments later. Miraculously, the crash that consumed Stack killed only one other victim — Vernon Hunter, 68, a Vietnam veteran and father of six who worked for nearly 30 years at the IRS. Ken Hunter said if Stack had come in and talked to his father, he would have done his best to help.
"My dad didn't write the tax law," he said. "Nobody in that building wrote the tax law."
But Stack wasn't looking for help. Like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, he hoped his suicidal flight would become "a catalyst" for fundamental change, said JJ MacNab, who has studied tax protesters for a decade.
"McVeigh wasn't willing to die," said MacNab, a Maryland-based insurance analyst. "This guy was."
There's no doubt that Andrew Joseph Stack III had his share of misery.
He told his daughter he was an orphan at age 4, when both his parents died in an auto accident, and was separated from his two brothers and sister, spending at least part of his childhood in a Catholic orphanage.
Eventually, he and little brother Harry were shipped off to the Milton Hershey School, an institution for orphaned boys founded by the Pennsylvania chocolate magnate and his wife. In college, Stack went through stints during which he survived on peanut butter and bread — "or Ritz crackers when I could afford to splurge."
Yet he also had advantages that others did not.
At Hershey, where he was known as Andy, Stack had it better than most of his schoolmates. Because he was in glee club and lived in one of the "musical homes," he was exempt from working the morning milkings in the school dairy barns, said former classmate Mike Macchioni.
And, like all Hershey students, Stack would have left the school in 1974 with a suitcase filled with new clothes, $100 in cash and the promise of financial help for college, Macchioni said. He attended Harrisburg Area Community College from 1975-77 but did not graduate, said school spokesman Patrick M. Early.
Brilliant by all accounts, hot-tempered by some, Stack headed for California in the early 1980s to make his fortune in computers. It was then, he wrote, that he got his "introduction to the real American nightmare."
In 1985, Stack incorporated Prowess Engineering Inc. in Corona, Calif. Papers list Stack as chief executive and financial officer, and wife first Ginger as secretary and co-director.
Around this time, the budding entrepreneur had developed some kind of beef with the IRS. According to his suicide letter, some friends introduced Stack to "a group of people who were having 'tax code' readings and discussions."
In those days, they weren't hard to find.
Groups such as Your Heritage Protection Association and the Church of Christ, led by disbarred attorney William Drexler, were holding forth to packed rooms, preaching the gospel of hard currency and the unconstitutionality of the tax code.
"We carefully studied the law (with the help of some of the 'best', high-paid, experienced tax lawyers in the business)," Stack wrote, "and then began to do exactly what the 'big boys' were doing (except that we weren't steeling (sic) from our congregation or lying to the government about our massive profits in the name of God)."
That passage rings familiar to Riness. In 1978, he and partner Michael S. McGinnis founded the tax-protest group "TEA, an Association of Twentieth Century Patriots" — which claimed up to 4,000 members. The pair joined up with the Universal Life Church in Modesto, Calif., and formed their own denomination, the Church of Universal Harmony, selling church charters for up to $1,500 apiece.
MacNab is convinced after reading his manifesto that Stack likely started his own "home church." He wrote that he and his friends were very careful to "make it all visible, following all of the rules, exactly the way the law said it was to be done."
"The intent of this exercise and our efforts was to bring about a much-needed re-evaluation of the laws that allow the monsters of organized religion to make such a mockery of people who earn an honest living," Stack wrote.
Riness said that's exactly what he was hoping to achieve with the Church of Universal Harmony: "I thought that the worst thing that would happen is that if we got so big and others got big, the code would change and they would take away tax breaks to churches," he said.
Both men would learn that wasn't the worst possible outcome.
According to Stack's letter, this "little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0." Riness lost more than just money. In 1986, he pleaded guilty in federal court to tax fraud. That October, he was sentenced to 13 months in prison, fined $5,000 and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.
Something else happened in 1986 that would gnaw at Stack for the rest of his life. Section 1706 of the federal tax code was changed in a way that essentially forced technology consultants — designers, programmers, systems analysts or, like Stack, software engineers — to be classified as employees rather than as self-employed workers, depriving them of certain tax deductions.
"(T)hey could only have been more blunt if they would have came out and directly declared me a criminal and non-citizen slave," Stack wrote.
Stack dedicated himself to the "campaign against this atrocity." By his own account, he spent nearly $5,000 and "at least 1000 hours of my time writing, printing, and mailing to any senator, congressman, governor, or slug that might listen; none did, and they universally treated me as if I was wasting their time."
Stack's first documented run-in with revenue officials appears to have come in 1994, when he failed to file a state tax return. The California Franchise Tax Board eventually suspended Prowess in 2000.
In 1995, Stack started Software Systems Service Corp. in Lincoln, Calif. But that company, too, was suspended in 2004 because Stack failed to pay $1,153 in state taxes, board spokeswoman Denise Azimi said.
In March 1998, Ginger Stack filed for divorce. The following year, just two months after the divorce was finalized, she filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing IRS liabilities totaling nearly $126,000. Although much of that debt was from 1993, when the couple were still married, Joe Stack was not included in the filing.
Despite his financial ups and downs, Stack did well enough to indulge his interest in flying. He obtained his first pilot's license in 1994 and had owned a costly Velocity Elite XL-RG plane in addition to the Piper.
But he complained that most of his business dried up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — when "Government came to the aid of the airlines with billions of our tax dollars" and "left me to rot and die while they bailed out their rich, incompetent cronies WITH MY MONEY!"
He decided to relocate to Texas, airplane mechanic Dave Page recalls, because he liked the Lone Star State's "tax structure."
Stack landed in Austin, the state's capital city and a hotbed of technology companies. In 2003, he started a company called Embedded Art that he described as a "small independent software house, specializing in process control and automation."
But Stack found Austin a place "with a highly inflated sense of self-importance and where damn little real engineering work is done. I've never experienced such a hard time finding work."
Friends said they saw no signs of that simmering rage. A bass guitarist and an above-average keyboard player, Stack blended right into Austin's rich music scene. He teamed up with other musicians to form Last Straw, a jazz-blues-rock ensemble. Lead singer Simone Wensink thinks Stack might even have been the one who came up with the band's now-ironic name.
"I felt like totally safe with this man," said Wensink, who once flew in Stack's plane to New Mexico.
In May 2007, with nearly $225,000 in bank loans, Stack bought a two-story, 2,500-square-foot brick house in a tree-shaded Austin subdivision. Two months later, he married the former Sheryl Housh, a piano instructor with a daughter from a previous marriage.
His anger, however, continued to build. Court records indicate he was employed as recently as last year as a software engineer for DAC International, an Austin-based aerospace engineering, manufacturing and marketing firm. As part of a corporate bankruptcy filing, Stack submitted claims for $1,238 he said he was owed in back pay from March 2009 and accrued vacation time.
He claims to have started his letter "many months ago" as a kind of "therapy," but reached a tipping point last week.
Police say Sheryl Stack took her 12-year-old daughter to a hotel Wednesday night following an argument with her husband. The family's accountant confirmed Saturday that the Stacks were in the midst of an audit for reportedly failing to report income.
"I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different," Stack wrote. "I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."