"The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power."-Chomsky

"The trouble with self-delusion, either in a person or a society, is that reality doesn't care what anybody believes, or what story they put out. Reality doesn't "spin." Reality does not have a self-image problem. Reality does not yield its workings to self-esteem management." -J.H. Kunstler

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."-Dylan

Friday, August 7, 2009

8/7/09: Dennis-Violent End to a Tragic Life

As you can probably tell by all the references and foreshadowing, I have been gnawing on this particular post. I have intended to write it each and every one of the past six days, but wanted to be sure that it did not turn into an angry, emotional, self-serving rant. It still may, but it is never going to be the perfect time to write it, so here goes. Comments as always are always welcome below, but keep them respectful.

Last Saturday afternoon (8/1), I went online to the Denver Post for baseball news when I noticed a link that mentioned a funeral the day before for a police officer in Montrose, Colorado who the previous week was killed in the line of duty. When I saw “Montrose,” I instantly thought of Dennis. He was my first “real” ride ever, and as I read the article, I discovered that the man who killed the police officer and wounded two others before killing himself on July 25th was the same man I had ridden with: Dennis Gurney.

There had been a domestic violence call, and by the time police had arrived, he had barricaded himself in his garage. From what I have gathered, he managed to gain access to the gun safe without his estranged wife’s knowledge, or had stashed guns in the garage prior to the call. Either way, the police were unaware that he was armed when they blindly entered the garage to arrest him. He ambushed them. Dennis shot the three officers with a hunting rifle, killing one, and then turned his .22 Ruger on himself, committing suicide with a single shot to the head.

I sat paralyzed in shocked disbelief for a bit, and then frantically scoured Google devouring any details I could find. I naturally then began to reflect back on the short time I spent with him going back to the original post I had written 15-months ago, and finding it grossly inadequate. In my defense, this was only my third or fourth post and I was then treating this evolving blog like a novelty, not focused nearly enough on depth.

I had not figured everything out yet and was focusing much more on my actual written journal. As you will notice, if you go back to May 2008 via the archives, the posts gradually get more detailed as time goes on. I have seriously considered rewriting them several times, but decided that leaving them relatively untouched would preserve the continuity of where my focus and attitude were at the time. With Dennis’ post, however, simply leaving that blurb to stand-alone is now unacceptable at best, and probably bordering on irresponsible.

The many people I have told about Dennis’ death have seemingly responded the same: “See! People are nuts!” or, “You’re lucky he didn’t kill YOU!


Dennis was no lunatic. In my experience, he was a good, generous, obviously tormented person. He was not a person deserving the simplistic label "just another sociopath." With the benefit of hindsight and online newspaper articles, here is a bit more of his story.

As mentioned in the original post, in 1980 while in his early 20’s an oil well fire severely disfigured him. I had known about the fire and obviously, his appearance, but he had omitted some things from his narrative. Before trying to extinguish the flames, he went BACK to seal the source of the fire, sparing some of his co- workers the same fate in the process, while no doubt making his own infinitely worse. While you may sit in judgment this man, I would invite you to ask yourself this: If YOU were on fire, would you first think of the safety of others? Or, might you be focusing on the fact that you cooking alive?

Does this sound like a man with no regard for life?
Now, ask yourself this: How much Hell is a person expected to endure?
Once you have your answer, read on.

The fire had burned Dennis’ nose and ears completely off. With 3rd degree burns over 75% of his body, he died several times during surgery. Then, his wife was not allowed to see him  for 6-weeks after the accident because she was pregnant, and the doctors were actually afraid the sight of him would cause a miscarriage.

His burns were so devastating that doctors were unable to get enough of his skin to complete the graphs and resorted to harvesting skin from human cadavers and pigs. His body periodically rejected these, and the transplanted skin would actually decompose ON his body.

Once the doctors realized he would survive, the reconstruction process began doctors predicted Dennis might live another 10-years. Certainly no more than 20. Remember, this was in 1980.

Dennis’ recovery process required countless reconstructive surgeries over the span of years. The legal process of gaining a settlement from the oil company also took years. Dennis had indicated to me that he was “well off” but I paid little attention figuring, wrongly, that it was bravado. He and his wife ultimately received a huge sum of money, enough so that neither of them ever had to work again. At some point, they moved to Montrose on the advice of doctors who said the dry climate would help a man who had lost his sweat glands.

It appears that things were, relatively speaking, fine for nearly 20- years after the accident. He was active in the community, made friends etc., and there are even anecdotes from friends who never knew him to drink- even a beer. Yet, it appears that in the end that, despite the money and affluence, somewhere around 2000 things began to take a turn. From what I can infer, he began to drink more, becoming increasingly mean, spiteful, depressed, and ultimately violent when he did. Clearly, something had happened or changed. Someone noted that 2000 was the 20- year mark he was never supposed to reach.

Fast forward now to 2008.

Dennis picked me up in May while I was in Ft. Morgan. He claimed that I was the only hitcher he had picked up "in 20,000 miles," and had done so because (as I would hear often from that day forward from various people) he just had a “feeling.” I believe he needed the nonjudgmental companionship that an anonymous backpacker might provide. We spent nearly 5-hours riding along I-70 toward Glenwood Springs and he was gulping his now-famous vodka the entire way. He had a few peculiar conversations with his wife that I could hear via the truck speakers (OnStar), and then became progressively more despondent as the night, and vodka, wore on.

His wife had a strange tone to her voice, as though she sensed something familiar (drinking), and was not buying in to his repeated proclamations of sobriety. As the night progressed he became more introspective and reflective, and we forged an odd sort of bond as he began to open up. During that time, I saw first hand, at least superficially, many of the things written in various publications: Depression, self- destruction, self-pity, a quiet rage, and a complete lack of the fundamental tools needed to cope with his burden.

Dennis really was a good-hearted human being; but one relentlessly tormented by his appearance and by what had happened on that oil rig. Our conversation centered on how he hated his appearance and despised people for the way that they silently, but blatantly reacted to him. He knew his life was out of control because of it. The resulting over-sensitivity and self- consciousness turned vodka into his best (and indispensable) friend. Dennis knew his life was slipping through his fingers into that bottle, but was helpless to do anything about it because, for whatever reason, it was his only refuge. These were his own words, not just my vain attempt at street corner psychiatry.

I tried to encourage him to treat the source, rather than simply the symptom. In other words, I thought Dennis needed to deal with his appearance and how he felt about himself before the alcoholism. The two walked in lock-step, and I knew what I was talking about.

I spent most of my own teens, 20s and early 30s using alcohol as that same readily available anesthetic and social lubricant. I could clearly see my own reflected image in his anger driven self-destructiveness. It is the kind of rage that has no outlet because it has no target. Whom could he blame for his condition? God? I shared my own experience with alcohol abuse, and that the “state” had also tried to force me into the blanket cure-all: AA. And, how it was a complete failure even though I went in with an open mind. In the end, the solution cannot be found externally because it’s not “out there.” It must come from within; otherwise, you are substituting one anesthetic for another. One that is less destructive to be sure, but one that also continues to hide or suppresses the “infection”, so to speak.

I told Dennis that, for me, nothing worked for any length of time until I began to take a long, painfully honest look inside and began to confront some of the darkest, frightening, suppressed, corners of my psyche. The very ones we desperately want to avoid out of fear. The fear that we may not like what we find. Nevertheless, I told him, in the end it is a dragon we must face and ultimately, we each have to face him alone.

The good news is that while the dragon has a mighty growl, he has no teeth other than those we ourselves provide him through fear and cowardice. Rather than breathing fire, he has little more than nasty, chronic halitosis. Once you discover this closely guarded secret he begins to cower, then sit relatively quiet in the corner, snorting occasionally. But, a good metaphorical dirty look will silence him. Some say that he my eventually die of starvation once we quit feeding him our irrational fears. Perhaps we have the choice of either wallowing in our own mental feces, feeling victimized, or taking control of our fears and embracing the responsibility for becoming the person we choose?

Again, I know I just said it but it bears repeating: This is not a job we can contract out, and no person can “give” you these things. You can receive guidance but ultimately, it is your battle to fight alone. The reward however is priceless. Along the way, it will redefine you and allow you to reclaim your identity and establish it from within. I shared all of this with Dennis. Much of what happened with me personally with my family, a year later this past June, was yet another step in this long process. I don’t believe it’s “coincidence” that I noticed \I was finally able to drink like a normal human being again without the familiar and repeated Random Acts of Stupidity.

Dennis took to this concept and desperately (not an exaggeration) wanted me to stay at the hotel to talk more, offering as bait to take me all the way to Grand Junction or Montrose the next day. However, by the time that he checked into Glenwood Suites he was unable to hold a sensible conversation due to fatigue and vodka.

I also had begun to sense an odd vibe as his mood deteriorated. I'd had long since had enough and needed to move on. I told him, truthfully, that I liked him & would love to chat with him more but was simply sick of dealing with his vodka. His truck conveniently had a laptop with nationwide broadband, so I had secretly sent out Couchsurfing requests between Idaho Springs all the way to Breckenridge before finally arranging to stay with Leah in Glenwood Springs. I then hoped that I could keep him motivated to make it there through our conversations and the implications that there were ladies waiting to "party" with us!

I never talked to Dennis again, although he did have my cell number. I have since hitched and backpacked all over the country and Dennis had been a favorite story and reference point about the interesting, and GOOD, people I have encountered. He will continue to be.

I believe he was a tormented soul who was seeking the friendship of a complete stranger and for a while, and found it. I had often wondered what had become of him and thought of him often. People seem to love to label Dennis as a “cop-killing monster” but he was no monster. The best and most accurate assessment I can give would be that, knowing what I now know, I would GLADLY still hop in and take that ride across the mountains with him again.

Dennis had talked of alcohol related legal- troubles in Oregon and Eagle, CO and, from what I have read, the state had ordered rehab which, not surprisingly, failed miserably. Cart before the horse. According to the papers and court documents, things began to get more severe last September. There were at least two arrests since then for domestic violence and Dennis and his wife had separated. He was living in a hotel and spending most of his time writing reconciliation letters, drinking, and violating restraining orders until July 25th.

It would appear to me that Dennis simply did not have nearly enough fists to swing. Even if he had them, there would still be no target for the rage and depression that consumed him. Other than himself. Inevitably, when all you can blame is God, the lashings lands on those who are closest. In his case, this person appears to be the wife who had stood by him through everything.

While I cannot imagine living his life and can sympathize, the raw truth is that, in the end, the responsibility for his life lay in his hands, as it does all of us. Tragically, his inability to regain control ultimately led to alcohol-induced bloodshed and devastated families.

I seriously considered making the 300- mile journey to Montrose for Dennis’ funeral this past Tuesday. Had the Saturn not broken down in March, I surely would have. I would liked to have made the humble gesture to his family, and let them know that there was one more person who was thinking of them. Someone else who had some level of compassion and at least a primitive understanding for what they have been through over the last 29-years. It also would have been a nice gesture to Dennis himself. Unfortunately, it did not work out.

One of the most disconcerting things I have seen over the last week is the barbaric treatment of Dennis and his family by the supposed “innocents” sitting unseen at computer terminals. The ability to anonymously “contribute” to news articles opened the door to Hell’s Kitchen, and out have slithered some of the most vile invertebrates imaginable. I have seen an odd mix of contrived busllshit. For example, obvious feelings that Dennis was “Burning in Hell” due to their personal religious beliefs, yet conveniently omitting those main tenets of Christianity; compassion and forgiveness as opposed to a primitive blood thirsty vengeance. Some of the comments directed at his family are unconscionable.

Anonymity removes accountability and breeds a curious regression back to the schoolyard. It has shown me once again the rotted underbelly of the vultures some show themselves to be when no one is looking. On a positive note, the nephews of the slain police officer recognized that there were two families decimated, and sent flowers to the Gurney family. I thought that showed extreme empathy and kindness. I hope it will serve as an example to the Christian Values Vultures ravenously pecking away at Dennis’ corpse.

Nancy Lofholm at the Denver Post opened herself up to criticism by writing a very fair article last Sunday. It was through her piece that I learned of Dennis’ actions on the rig, and much of his background. She took the time to gather and present a more complete picture, and I was impressed. She avoided the route of generic sensationalism, instead choosing to attempt to tell the full story. I personally emailed her, and she deserves acknowledgment here... **Continued**