Friday, February 09, 2001

In Evansville, Ind., residents wonder how man's life fell apart

Suspected shooter at White House battled troubles

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The May 1971 edition of the Harrison Prophet notes that Robert Pickett had been accepted to the U.S. military academy at West Point, N.Y.

        The high school senior told the newspaper at William Henry Harrison High School he was preparing to attend Purdue University until he learned that the prestigious military school had accepted him.

        “It sounds like his life was on track,” former classmate Janet Leistner said Thursday as she looked at the old clipping.

  Robert Pickett sent a copy of a letter to The Enquirer last week describing his despair over a long dispute with his former employers at the Cincinnati IRS office.
Photo imageText only
        “Something fell apart for him. It makes you realize you have to be a friend to people and listen to people. I certainly feel sorry that one of my classmates had an encounter like this.”

        On Wednesday, authorities say, Mr. Pickett — a man battling mental illness and a grudge against his former employers at the Internal Revenue Service — fired shots outside the White House and was subdued with a shot in the knee by a Secret Service agent.

        He remains hospitalized.

Promise of West Point

        Neighbors and business associates in Evansville were trying on Thursday to understand what happened in the 30 years between the promise of West Point — which he left after a semester — and the incident in Washington.

        They described a quiet, 47-year-old tax preparer who lived alone in his parents' house and who shied away from personal talk.

        “The guy had problems,” said Evansville lawyer Joseph Yocum, who said his onetime client often locked himself in his room. “He just had problems with depression. He wasn't the kind of guy who spilled his guts to people. It probably started with West Point.”

        He said Mr. Pickett had been struggling financially since losing his IRS job in Cincinnati in the late 1980s.

        Steve Yurks, who hired Mr. Pickett 12 years ago to do accounting work for his lawn-care business, said he would continue working with Mr. Pickett if he returns to Evansville.

        Mr. Pickett always was a bit harried around tax season, Mr. Yurks has said, but his mental-health problems never seemed to get in the way of his work, according to others.

Would disappear

        Mr. Pickett was known to disappear for weeks at a time. Evansville police have said Mr. Pickett's father filed a missing-person report in 1993 because of his son's disappearance for a time.

        His mother had died several years before. She reportedly told neighbors that she worried about her son's mental state.

        After Mr. Pickett's father died in 1995, he lived alone in his parents' home, a modest two-story structure.

        Neighbors said he kept the house barely lit and rarely socialized. He was seen outside only when washing his car or cutting the lawn and never talked about much beyond the weather, they said.

        If anything bothered Mr. Pickett, it did not appear to affect his work. A neighbor, Mike Jewel, said Mr. Pickett took care of the books for Mr. Jewel's business, Cottage Florist & Gifts. He had tax returns done in January.

        “Personally, we didn't know him very well,” Mr. Jewel said. “He was a very hard man to know. I don't think anybody could have known Robert. He just didn't want anybody to know him.”

        Greg Bachert, an accountant who shared office space with Mr. Pickett in a two-story brick building on the edge of Evansville's downtown business district, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

"He was in pain'

 Betty Perry
Betty Perry
        Betty Perry, who worked across the hall from Mr. Pickett, said that federal authorities arrived Wednesday to take away Mr. Pickett's computer.

        “I don't see this man as being mean. He was in pain. When you think everybody is against you, that's not normal. It's almost a paranoia. Hopefully, he'll have some very good psychiatric help,” said Ms. Perry, who is trained as a clinical therapist.

        She and Mr. Pickett often struck up conversation in the hallway or at the water fountain.

        He tended to walk with his head down and rarely talked about anything that hinted at his personal life, she said.

        “If you asked him directly about his family, he just wouldn't talk about it or changed the subject,” she said.

        She recently learned that Mr. Pickett reportedly attempted suicide and regrets that she never noticed his mental turmoil.

        She now wonders why she didn't think, “There's a man needing my help.”

        “But how do I know?” she asked. “He was just a very quiet, neat, gentle guy.”


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