On June 4th, 2004, the small town of Granby, Colorado was briefly the center of the nation’s attention.
On that day, an armor-plated bulldozer rumbled down the streets of Granby. The driver of the bulldozer was a local business owner named Marvin Heemeyer. Heemeyer, who had previously been at the center of a zoning controversy, spent two hours driving the bulldozer through various buildings in Granby. He destroyed the muffler shop that he had once owned. He destroyed a nearby concrete plant. He drove through the Granby City Hall. He smashed the bulldozer through the offices of the local newspaper. He demolished the home of a family who he felt had conspired against him. He took out a hardware store. For two hours, the police chased him, firing their weapons at the bulldozer and discovering that nothing could slow him down. In fact, it wasn’t until one of the bulldozers’ treads dropped into the hardware store’s basement that the rampage stopped, Unable to free the tread, Marvin Heemeyer committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Before he went on his rampage, Heemeyer recorded himself talking about why he was going to do what he did. He mailed those tapes to his brother in South Dakota a few hours before getting in the bulldozer. His brother later turned those tapes over to the FBI. In the tapes, Heemeyer discussed what he felt was years of harassment by the Granby town council and the zoning board. He described himself as being an “American patriot” and he even went so far as to say that he felt his rampage was predestined. He also went on to express amazement that he was able to spend two years openly modifying the bulldozer and turning it into a tank without anyone asking him what was going on. He also made clear that when he entered the bulldozer for the last time, he knew that he was never going to leave it. He truly was going on a suicide mission.
Those tapes are at the center of Tread, a documentary about Marvin Heemeyer and his 2004 rampage. The film alternates between people discussing their memories of Marvin and that day and the taped voice of Marvin himself attempting to explain his motivations. Almost everyone who is interviewed talks about what a friendly and genuinely nice person Marvin seemed to be. Even though Marvin spent two years planning his rampage, no one — not even his girlfriend — appeared to suspect a thing. Even in the weeks directly before his rampage, Marvin was making plans for the summer. One friend of Marvin’s does speculate that Marvin spent “too much time alone.”
As many people interviewed point out, Marvin was, by most measures, a successful businessman. He had a reputation for being the best welder in the county and he opened up a muffler shop in a building that he bought for $44,000. He later sold that building for $400,000. However, as the tapes reveal, Marvin didn’t view selling his shop for a profit as being a success. Instead, he viewed as something that he was forced to do by the town council and their refusal to side with him in a zoning dispute that he had with the manufacturers of a concrete plant. Marvin felt that the town was ruled by one family and that family was conspiring against him and singling him out for harassment.
I’m about as anti-government as they come so my natural instinct, when Tread began, was to be sympathetic to Marvin’s anger, if not his solution. And, having now watched the documentary, I still have no doubt that Marvin probably was, to an extent, targeted by the zoning board and the town council. The fact of the matter is that it’s rare that people don’t let the least amount of power go to their head. That’s especially true when it comes to small towns. There seems to be a natural pettiness that comes along with having power. That’s true regardless of whether you’re the mayor of a small town in Colorado or the governor of a state like …. oh, I don’t know, let’s just say Michigan and New Jersey. At the same time, when you listen to Marvin’s voice on tapes, it’s obvious that there was more going on in Marvin’s head than just anger over the zoning dispute. When Marvin talks about how God obviously wanted him to modify the bulldozer and use it to destroy the town, you realize that, if it hadn’t been the zoning dispute, it probably would have been something else. Marvin comes across as time bomb while the town leaders come across as being the people who unknowingly lit the fuse.
I have to admit that, until I watched this documentary, I had never heard of him but a simple Google search revealed that, in the years following his death, Marvin Heemeyer has gone on to become a hero to certain anti-government activists. Though it’s been 16 years since he unleashed his bulldozer on the town of Granby, his story still feels relevant today. There’s still a lot of angry people out there and, if anything, the people in power have gotten even more heavy-handed and arbitrary in their behavior today than they were in 2004. That said, if you’re looking for a film that either vilifies or blindly celebrates Marvin Heemeyer, Tread is not that film. Overall, Tread portrays Marvin Heemeyer as being a complicated man who, in the town of Granby, found the perfect reason (or, depending on how much sympathy you may or may not have for him, excuse) to strike out.
It’s currently available on Netflix.