In January 1992, Robert Mack, a missile mechanic for General Dynamics in San Diego, learned his fate at an afternoon termination meeting. He certainly knew he was going to be fired for attendance issues because that morning, he traded some cocaine for a gun. He was ready to kill himself during the meeting. “That will show them,” he thought.
At the end of the meeting — ironically, he was 90 minutes late — Mack changed his mind. He shot and killed the young HR manager handling his case and shot and wounded his boss, who later died. Mack surrendered to the police and was sentenced to two life terms.
As the center of a book I co-wrote with Michael Mantell, called Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace, I interviewed Mack in 1993 at the prison where he was housed in San Luis Obispo, California. The book came out in 1994 and served as an early guide for business people concerned about this emerging and dangerous workplace issue. Back in the 1990s, multiple such shootings occurred at post offices. (The U.S. Postmaster General at the time, Marvin Runyon, wrote the Foreword for our book.)
I interviewed Mack again in prison in 2013 in Blythe, California, 20 years after our first face-to-face conversation. I wanted to know what he had learned after two decades. Short answer: not much. While he told me he was sorry for “what had happened,” he blamed General Dynamics for driving him to do what he did. If he had apologized for his crime to the California Parole Board, he certainly could have been let out early. He was already in his 60s when I interviewed him the second time.
In October 2020, Robert Mack died from cancer at his sister’s home in San Diego at age 72. He had been released from state prison several months earlier because of his medical issues, which included several back surgeries, as well as other usual reasons such as overcrowding, expensive medical costs for older inmates, and probably the fact that he was no longer a danger to others.
Over the nearly 30 years that I knew Robert Mack, I kept in touch a few times per year at first, then more infrequently through letters. He said he was always glad to enhance my knowledge of workplace violence through our conversations. For the most part, he was honest with me about why he did what he did. I asked him a lot of hard questions about why he shot those two men, what prison life was really like, and what he was doing to make amends. He told me he had been through a lot of counseling programs and group meetings to give him insight into his crimes. I’m sure he attended those meetings; I’m not so sure they had the desired effect.
He often asked me to contact the parole board to help get him released. I never did. I was a cop in San Diego for 15 years. I was on duty during the Mack shooting, and I believed, then and now, that he belonged where he was for as long as he failed to own what he did. If he had been let go much earlier, I don’t think he would have harmed anyone else after his release. Crime and violence are typically the actions of young, impulsive men.
After I learned today he had died, I thought about how hard he tried to get me to understand why he did what he did. I thought about the three families whose lives he ruined — the two victims’ and his own.
I wanted to interview Mack in prison in 1993 because he survived his crime. These days, most workplace and school violence perpetrators kill themselves or are killed by the police.
Now he is gone, a man I knew a lot about, for all the wrong reasons, for 30 years. I will think about what that all means, then, now, and going forward.