Anatomy of a Workplace Massacre

Anatomy of a Workplace Massacre

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because the workplace actually can be bad for your health.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Presently, on the southern edge of the semi-sleepy sorta-suburb of Westchester, New York — New Rochelle, to be exact — there’s a Home Depot on one side of Interstate 95 and Conrail train tracks running parallel. Years ago though, in the same spot and towering above the roadway, was Neptune World Wide Moving. Its red neon sign shined crimson all over the area’s gas stations, lumberyards and postindustrial storage spots that cranked on into the nights, and if you were a local, it had a landmark status not unlike the Statue of Liberty. 

But around 7:45 a.m. on Valentine’s Day 1977, things went very quickly from ordinarily average to horribly worse and changed how everyone felt about Neptune. Since that was the day that twice-court-martialed Army vet Freddie Cowan, a Nazi-sympathizing powerlifter, showed up to work angry. Angry and festooned with, in addition to tattoos of swastikas, knives and skulls, bandoliers of ammo, four pistols and a Saco .308 HK-41 semiautomatic assault rifle.

I get very mean when I’m hungry.

Freddie Cowan 

After years of threatening interracially dating neighbors, smashing TVs in bars when he mistakenly spent time chatting up a woman he discovered was Jewish or kicking dogs to death for being the color blackit was getting suspended at his job moving furniture for Neptune, presumably for being rude to customers, that broke the camel’s back — a break that later saw the 33-year-old Cowan kick in the doors at 55 Weyman Ave. in search of Norman Bing, the Jewish supervisor who had suspended him.

Bing, seeing the 6-foot, 250-pound Cowan coming in the building didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing and sheltered in place. That place being an office that wasn’t his, where he hid under a table. Not deterred, Cowan killed whoever he could from a retaliation list that covered all of the usual bases. In the end, five people lay dead (a sixth, an Italian-American, died later), including three African-Americans, one East Indian and one white cop. A cop whose presence among the dead could be explained by a note later found in the attic apartment Cowan lived in at his parents’ house. “There is nothing lower than black and Jewish people unless it’s the police who protect them.”

Then the story got really weird. Calls of officer down got more cops to show up, three of whom were, in short order, shot and wounded. By noon, the Neptune building was surrounded by 300 officers, cops who had also dragged Cowan’s parents to the scene to try to negotiate a peaceful release of possible hostages and a surrender. Cops with armored personnel carriers, state cops, sharpshooters, feds and a hostage-negotiating team from the New York City Police Department.

And Cowan? Reached by phone, he tried to put it all in perspective. “I get very mean when I’m hungry.” This was a prelude to asking for potato salad. As the afternoon rolled around, according to an account in The New York Times at the time, his mother had told a friend: “Pray for Freddie. He’s gone crazy.” But not so crazy that he didn’t apologize to the mayor of New Rochelle for causing all the grief. “I’m not going to hurt anyone at this point,” he said, right before shooting himself. By dusk, the siege had ended and the city was left trying to figure out what had happened and how they happened to miss that it was going to happen, since, by all accounts, Cowan as a local boy had been everything but nice and quiet.

Son of Sam was making headlines during the same period, and Charles Whitman, the mass-murdering sniper in Texas had been a decade before. But Cowan was still sui generis in American crime circles since in the middle of the disco heyday and loosening mores, he had been so clearly motivated by racial animus. An animus that was even a stone’s throw removed from the ’60s civil rights struggles. 

“Cowan had a premorbid condition of race-based hatreds and paranoia,” said Dr. Jody Foster, vice chair for clinical operations in the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and author of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively With Difficult People at Work. “But this is spectrum, and who could have possibly predicted Cowan?”

“You know your grandfather worked in that building, don’t you?” my mother Irma said. And for a period in the late ’60s, we had lived directly opposite Neptune. The red glow of the Neptune sign, night-light for a kid who was prone to being concerned about monsters. “He had died a few years before this craziness though.”

But New Rochelle had mostly been populated back then by Black domestic workers, Italian laborers, Irish cops and German retailers employed or patronized by the well-to-do Westchester residents. “It had been a wonderful neighborhood,” Irma added.