Friends Didn't See Texas Pilot's Passion for Tax Feud

Joseph Stack felt the federal government, especially its tax code, robbed him of his savings and destroyed his career while allowing corrupt executives to walk away with millions.

It's clear from the 3,000-word manifesto posted on a Web site registered in his name that the bitter feud with the federal tax agency was his passion — a passion so deeply held that it apparently drove him to commit suicide Thursday by slamming his single-engine Piper PA-28 into an Austin office building that houses the Internal Revenue Service.

"Nothing changes unless there is a body count," Stack wrote.

It was a passion that some of Stack's friends say they never saw.

They knew Stack as a fellow country rocker and band mate who recorded with them in Austin's vibrant music scene. They recalled a quiet father who visited Norway every year to visit his daughter and grandchildren. They never heard Stack talk about politics, about taxes, about the government — the sources of pain that Stack claims drove him to his death.

"I read the letter that he wrote. It sounded like his voice but the things he said I had never heard him say," said Pam Parker, an Austin attorney whose husband was one of Stack's band mates. "He didn't rant about anything. He wasn't obsessed with the government or any of that. ... Not a loner, not off in a corner. He had friends and conversation and ordinary stuff."

There was nothing ordinary about Stack's anti-government screed. Part-autobiographical, the rambling letter references attending college, a divorce and some failed business ventures in California. Mostly, though, Stack outlines his frustration with the government and the IRS. The 53-year-old contract software engineer wrote that he spent months on the six-page diatribe in hopes it would be therapeutic.

Instead, "there isn't enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken," Stack wrote. He lamented that he couldn't "gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head." The end of the letter makes clear Stack's acts were premeditated. It's dated Thursday, with the years he lived: 1956-2010.

"I think that Joe must have been hurting really bad to take these kinds of steps to make the pain stop," said the Rev. Patti Herndon, who married Stack and his wife, Sheryl, in July 2007.

In his note, Stack refers to several disputes with the IRS that cost him more than $40,000 and "10 years of my life." He twice started software companies in California that ultimately were suspended by the state's Franchise Tax Board. Stack listed himself as chief executive officer of both.

In 1985, he incorporated Prowess Engineering Inc. in Corona, Calif. In 1994, he failed to file a state tax return and was suspended in 2000 by the tax board. He started Software Systems Service Corp. in Lincoln, Calif., in 1995. That entity was suspended in 2004. Denise Azimi, spokeswoman for the Franchise Tax Board, said Stack did not pay state taxes in 1996 and 2002 — a bill totaling $1,153.

Those disputes were apparently never discussed among friends.

"I don't know what to base his madness on," said Michael Cerza, who played drums, piano and trumpet with Stack in The Billy Eli Band. "It must have been lurking beneath the surface."

Stack attended Harrisburg Area Community College from 1975-77 but did not graduate, said school spokesman Patrick M. Early. Before that, he graduated from Milton Hershey School in nearby Hershey. The Hershey school was founded and endowed by the candy magnate more than 90 years ago as a home and school for orphaned boys.

"He talked about that, and my husband and I talked about how well adjusted he was," Parker said.

Stack later married, moved to California and had a daughter who grew up to marry a Norwegian pilot. Parker said Stack went to Norway to visit her and his one or two grandchildren each year.

According to his letter, he moved to Austin sometime after 2001. The divorced bass guitar and piano player met Sheryl, a pianist who gives lessons, through friends who thought their mutual passion for music made them a match. Cerza said he recently received a group e-mail in which Stack invited friends to one of his wife's piano recitals.

"Joe was very straight — didn't drink or smoke. He was intelligent, concerned about all the stuff normal people are concerned about," Cerza said. "He did not strike me as having any angular edges at all. He would be the guy who would choose not to say anything in a group of people."

Parker said she last saw Stack at one of his wife's recitals, and that the couple occasionally attended classical jazz house concerts the couple hosted in their home, a 2,500 square foot house on a street lined with oak trees in a middle-class Austin neighborhood that he bought in 2007. The home was set ablaze Thursday morning, burning to the ground as Sheryl and the couple's daughter watched from the street.

"They're remarkably calm but they're clearly distraught. ... They're in need of some mental health assistance and we're providing that," said Marty McKellips, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

In his letter, Stack writes of trouble finding work in Austin and acknowledges failing to file a tax return one year because he didn't make any money. The tipping point for Stack appears to be a recent audit, and the discovery of nearly $13,000 in unreported income.

"I know I'm hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand," Stack wrote. "But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure (sic) nothing will change."