In the early 1980s, Pennsylvania discovered its state workers had overpaid federal taxes due to errors in state withholding. Many accounting firms competed for a multimillion-dollar contract to determine compensation to each employee. In 1986, Dwyer was convicted of receiving a bribe from a California firm trying to gain the contract. Throughout his trial and after his conviction, he maintained that he was innocent of the charge and that he had been framed.
On the morning of January 22, 1987, he committed suicide with a gun during a televised press conference at his office in Harrisburg, the state capital.
Dwyer graduated from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the Beta Chi chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity. After earning a master's degree in fine arts, he taught social studies and coached football at Cambridge Springs High School.
A Republican, Dwyer became active in politics. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from the 6th district (although seats were apportioned by county prior to 1969) from 1965 to 1970. He also served as a member of the Pennsylvania Senate from the 50th district from 1971 to 1981. After his tenure as a state senator, Dwyer was elected state treasurer, a position he held from 1981 until his death in January 1987.
During the early 1980s, employees of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania overpaid millions of dollars in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes. As a result, the state solicited bids from accounting firms to determine refunds for employees.
The California-based Computer Technology Associates was owned by a Harrisburg native named John Torquato, Jr. He used area connections and bribery to obtain the contract, worth a reputed $4.6 million. Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh received an anonymous memo about the bribery.
After an investigation by the United States Attorney, Dwyer was indicted for receiving a kickback of $300,000 in return for using his office to steer the contract toward CTA. The US Attorney also indicted Torquato, Torquato's attorney William Smith, Smith's wife, and former state Republican Party Chairman Bob Asher. In return for lighter penalties, Torquato and the Smiths pleaded guilty and testified on behalf of the government against Dwyer and Asher.
Dwyer was offered a plea bargain on a single charge of bribe receiving, which would have meant imprisonment for a maximum of five years, but he refused it. Dwyer would have been required to resign his office and cooperate fully with the government's investigation. Instead, the government hobbled Dwyer's defense by refusing to name some unindicted co-conspirators believed to have been staff members of the Dauphin County Republican Party.
Dwyer was convicted of having accepted the bribe in December 1986. He continued to profess his innocence, as did others close to him. After being convicted, Dwyer wrote to President Reagan seeking a presidential pardon.
Because of a loophole in Pennsylvania law, Dwyer continued serving as state treasurer until his sentencing by U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Muir. The maximum sentence Dwyer faced was 55 years imprisonment and a $300,000 fine. His co-defendant Asher received one year in jail. Asher later returned to politics and served as a Republican national committeeman for Pennsylvania.
On January 22, 1987, the day before his sentencing, Dwyer called a press conference. Appearing agitated and nervous, he professed his innocence and declared that he would not resign as state treasurer. Those attending heard his final words:
"I thank the good Lord for giving me 47 years of invigorating challenges, stimulating experiences, many happy occasions, and, most of all, the finest wife and children a man could ever desire."
"Now my life has changed, for no apparent reason. People who call and write are exasperated and feel helpless. They know I'm innocent and want to help. But in this nation, the world's greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime they know I did not commit. Some who have called have said that I am a modern-day Job."
"Judge Muir is also noted for his medieval sentences. I face a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for being innocent. Judge Demiria has already told the press that he, quote, 'felt invigorated' when we were found guilty, and that he plans to imprison me as a deterrent to other public officials. But it wouldn't be a deterrent because every public official who knows me knows that I am innocent; it wouldn't be a legitimate punishment because I've done nothing wrong. Since I'm a victim of political persecution, my prison would simply be an American gulag."
"I ask those that believe in me to continue to extend friendship and prayer to my family, to work untiringly for the creation of a true justice system here in the United States, and to press on with the efforts to vindicate me, so that my family and their future families are not tainted by this injustice that has been perpetrated on me."
"We were confident that right and truth would prevail, and I would be acquitted and we would devote the rest of our lives working to create a justice system here in the United States. The guilty verdict has strengthened that resolve. But as we discuss our plans to expose the warps of our legal system, people have said, 'Why bother, no one cares.' 'You look foolish.' '60 Minutes, 20/20, the ACLU, Jack Anderson, and others have been publicizing cases like yours for years and it doesn't bother anyone.'
At this point, Dwyer stopped reading his prepared text. The part he did not read follows:
"I've repeatedly said that I'm not going to resign as State Treasurer. After many hours of thought and meditation I've made a decision that should not be an example to anyone because it is unique to my situation. Last May I told you that after the trial, I would give you the story of the decade. To those of you who are shallow, the events of this morning will be that story. But to those of you with depth and concern the real story will be what I hope and pray results from this morning--in the coming months and years, the development of a true Justice System here in the United States. I am going to die in office in an effort to ...see if the shame[-ful] facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride." Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S. Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don't want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, DeeDee - I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Good bye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain."
Having stopped reading, he called to three of his staffers, giving each an envelope. One envelope contained a suicide note to his wife. The second contained an organ donor card and other related materials. The third envelope contained a letter addressed to then-Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, who had taken office just two days earlier.
Dwyer then produced a manila envelope with a blued .357 Magnum Smith and Wesson model 27 revolver in it. As he pulled the gun out of the envelope, he said to the gathered crowd, "Please leave the room if this will offend you." Attendees pleaded with Dwyer to put the gun down, while some ran to get help. Others tried to approach him. Dwyer advised everyone not to come near him, saying, "Don't, don't, don't, this will hurt someone." With people still trying to persuade him to reconsider, Dwyer turned the gun toward his body, opened his mouth wide, and pulled the trigger. The bullet exited out of the back of Dwyer's skull, and he collapsed against a nearby wall with blood pouring profusely out of his nose. Witnesses screamed and cursed as five news cameras recorded the events. Although Dwyer died within seconds of the gunshot, he was not pronounced dead at the scene until 11:31 a.m., EST.
Dwyer was buried in Blooming Valley Cemetery in Blooming Valley, Pennsylvania, near his hometown of Meadville.
A number of television stations throughout Pennsylvania broadcast taped footage of Dwyer's suicide to a midday audience. Local station WPVI (Channel 6) showed Dwyer pulling the trigger and falling backwards, but did not show the bullet path. Over the next several hours, news editors had to decide how much of the graphic footage to air.
Many stations, including WCAU and Pennsylvania's Group W stations KYW and KDKA, froze the action just prior to the gunfire. However, the latter two allowed the audio of the shooting to continue under the frozen image. Group W's news cameraman William L. "Bill" Martin and reporter David Sollenberger had a camera set up at the conference. They chose to air the audio with a freeze frame of the gun in Dwyer's mouth. Only a handful aired the unedited press conference. WPVI in Philadelphia re-broadcast the suicide footage in full on their 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Action News broadcasts without a warning to viewers. That station's broadcast is a source for copies circulating on the Internet. WPXI in Pittsburgh is reported by the Associated Press to have broadcast the footage uncensored on an early newscast. In explaining the decision to air, WPXI operations manager By Williams said, "It's an important event [about] an important man." Williams avoided airing the footage in the evening newscasts, explaining, "Everyone knows by then that he did it. There are children out of school."
The broadcast of Dwyer's suicide became a topic for educators in Pennsylvania classrooms; it led to questions about the practice of airing live news broadcasts in public school settings, despite the fact that suicide was not shown live and that schools were cancelled for the day due to heavy snow. This issue was also raised following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Branch Davidian Siege in Waco, TX, events which were shown live in many classrooms.
Many older students reacted to the event by creating black comedy jokes similar to those that circulated after the Challenger disaster. A study of the incidence of the jokes showed that they were told only in areas where networks showed uncensored footage of the press conference.
At least one reporter present at Dwyer's suicide suffered from being a witness. Tony Romeo, a radio reporter, was standing a few feet from Dwyer. After the suicide, Romeo developed depression and took a break from journalism.
Since Dwyer died in office, his widow Joanne was able to collect full survivor benefits, totaling over $1.28 million. A spokesman for Dwyer suggested that he may have committed suicide to preserve the state-provided pension for his family, whose finances had been ruined by legal defense costs.
One year after her husband's suicide, Joanne Dwyer moved from their home in Hershey to the Tempe, Arizona area with her son Robert and daughter Dyan. She never married again. Mrs. Dwyer remained in Tempe until her own death on Sunday, July 12, 2009, at the age of 70. She was buried next to her husband in Blooming Valley Cemetery.
The Following Music Video was inspired by Dwyer's story