Rod Meloni: A look back at the Royal Oak Post Office shooting

A memorial outside the Royal Oak Post Office (WDIV)

As the day’s mail whirred through sorting machines and letter carriers assembled the deliveries, there came a strange “pop-pop-pop” sound inside the Royal Oak Post Office.

On Thursday Nov. 14, 1991, the eyewitnesses said the popping at first confused them. It didn’t sound like gunfire. But those who saw 31-year-old Tom McIlvane striding angrily and silently through the building immediately knew a looming, deadly danger had arrived. Managers who caught a glimpse of McIlvane immediately sprinted to the exits. They knew McIlvane’s deadly intent. Letter carriers who didn’t see McIlvane, but saw the managers running, instinctively also knew to run.

It was no secret McIlvane raged at Royal Oak Postal Service management. He’d not been on the job in over a year. Having been written-up for so many disciplinary issues, he’d long since given up doing his job. Instead, he spent his days fighting back against severe discipline. At the same time, he’d loudly proclaimed to anyone within earshot that if he lost his union sponsored arbitration he would make the numerous previous post office shootings that bloodily pockmarked the 1980s “look like Disneyland.” When his co-workers realized it was McIlvane with a raincoat over his arm, hiding a sawed-off Ruger 10/22 hunting rifle, stalking and then shooting managers and union reps, it all made perfectly grim sense.

To the rest of the world, there was no sense to be found. When the network news crews started showing up and beamed the horrible news of five people dead and four others wounded inside yet another a postal facility, it was a shocking development. In those sad moments, the utterly inappropriate phrase “going postal” was born.

As this solemn anniversary arrived, we at WDIV-Local 4 decided to go back and look at that day’s events, what happened and the impact they had. We discovered and uncovered much. As you would expect, the lives of those directly involved wound up profoundly and forever changed. Most have tried to forget, others spent many years trying to make sense of the inexplicable. And perhaps most surprisingly, we discovered there was a hero that day. A protector who sacrificed himself to save others in that critical moment when courage and character mattered most. We looked through the old WDIV video archives in a distant, dusty closet, contacted as many involved as we could, did the legwork to find survivors and did interviews with them. We sat down and pieced together the day’s history. After we wrote and edited it all together, we discovered it was too long to air in a regular newscast. In all, we produced a full 11 minutes in two separate stories. You will find them here. In television news, 11 minutes is an eternity. The story of the Royal Oak Post Office shooting is so complex and compelling, we did not want to break it up so it could fit the usual time constraints. On top of that, there is so much more we just couldn’t fit in. We are linking to the government’s report on the investigation into what happened that day. It runs nearly 400 pages. It details the investigation the late Senator Carl Levin’s office started prior to the shooting. Complaints of management’s not poor, but utterly vicious, employee treatment had federal authorities looking to make changes. But the federal bureaucracy’s glacial response simply wasn’t up to the task of heading off McIlvane’s murderous rampage.

We feature Nov. 14, 1991 as a clash between shooter Tom McIlvane and Postal Manager Chris Carlisle because they were at the heart of this deadly drama. Yet, there is much more behind what federal investigators found.

Postmaster Dan Presilla had been transferred to the Royal Oak facility from his previous role as Director of Postal City Operations in Indianapolis. The government said his management team there, which included Carlisle, had pushed employees so hard that several letter carriers suffered heart attacks. A Government Accounting Office report of complaints against the Indianapolis office at that time found Presilla and his four managers had issued 2,700 disciplinary actions against a 4,000-person workforce in a two-year period. The U.S. Postal Service knew about these problems because there were also Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints that had prompted the launch of an investigation. That investigation profoundly criticized Presilla and his team, but it came out after the Postal Service promoted Presilla to Royal Oak Postmaster and he’d brought his team with him.

At the time, the Postal Service wanted to improve service. It regarded Presilla and his team as good turnaround managers. As Presilla’s discipline took hold in Royal Oak, tremendous pushback came with it. It was McIlvane, and his volatile personality, that caught management’s eye and he became a target. There is no doubt, as the federal investigation shows, this toxic work environment led to the shooting. Now in his 90s, Presilla lives in Florida. He did not return our calls. According to then postal union steward Charlie Withers, who wrote a book about the shooting’s origins, McIlvane apparently heard about his failed arbitration and firing over the phone. Someone -- perhaps Carlisle -- left him a voicemail message. His firing prompted McIlvane to take his .22 hunting rifle, saw off the barrel, fill four magazines with 200 rounds and slip into the Royal Oak Post Office loading dock. He went after and shot at everyone he thought had wronged him. It started with management but also included union leadership. This we know because of one employee interviewed as she emerged from the building. She said McIlvane pointed his gun at her as she cowered under her desk but didn’t pull the trigger saying, “I don’t want you.” As best we can tell, Chris Carlisle was the first person McIlvane sought and gunned down in cold blood. McIlvane found Carlisle inside his office.

Thirty years later, it is accurate to say five people died and four people were wounded. But in the days after the shooting, McIlvane lingered in a hospital bed. His shooting rampage lasted fewer than 10 minutes. He found himself on a back stairwell and could hear the police and ambulance sirens wailing. He knew his revenge would have to end there. He took his rifle and shot himself in the head. It was not an immediately fatal blow. He did not die until several days later.

Still, for all of management’s misdeeds, there is still no excusing McIlvane’s murderous rampage. Chris Carlisle grew up in Tucson, Arizona. His parents divorced and he stayed with his mother there. He married, had a daughter with his first wife and they soon divorced. Carlisle went into the Army. Spent four years stationed in Germany, and according to his brother James Carlisle, did very well working as a motor pool mechanic. James says Chris helped turn around a poorly running operation. Carlisle’s father lived in Indianapolis. So, after the Army, Chris moved in with his father there and took a job with the Postal Service. James reluctantly agreed to do an interview with Local Four. He told me he remembers Nov. 14, 1991 “like 9/11.”

“It’s one of those days that you can’t forget,” he said.

He told me his father took Chris’ death particularly hard.

“He got very depressed. He thought about killing himself. It doesn’t matter how a child dies, but when it’s violence like this, just because he was doing his job? I mean come on!”

Three decades later, James Carlisle is still hurting, too. He is particularly upset at the notion so often expressed that Chris Carlisle somehow “deserved it.”

“When you’ve got workplace homicides like this, the people don’t deserve it. You’ve got a mentally unbalanced person putting responsibility for their actions on other people,” he said.

We looked to speak with everyone we could related to the shooting. Some have passed-on, others did not want to discuss their memories. The biggest surprise came after we kept seeing a soundbite in our old file video. It was of a woman telling the story of a man who tried to help a woman escape the gunfire and died in the process. After asking around we discovered that man was Keith Ciszewski, a Post Office union relations manager. We kept hearing what a wonderful human being he was. According to then union steward Charlie Withers, he tried to stop the harassment the Postmaster’s team rained down on letter carriers.

Clark French was the only letter carrier McIlvane shot that day. He was assistant union steward. Without saying a word, McIlvane shot French at point blank range in the back, chasing French as he ran toward the sorting room door. French knew both McIlvane and Ciszewski very well. French has nothing but praise for Ciszewski. After doing some digging, we found Keith Ciszewski’s widow Connie. She had never been approached to do an interview before and she kindly obliged. Keith’s murder upended his family’s life in a fashion you would expect. Connie told me “it affects you for the rest of your life. You don’t wish that upon your worst enemy.” She said Keith actually saved two women’s lives.

“Helped the one lady out the window, she ended up breaking her leg, and he helped the other woman get behind the copy machine. He didn’t have a chance because McIlvane kicked the door in and shot him several times in the head,” she said.

Keith had deliberately put himself between the woman jumping from the window and McIlvane’s gun.

Connie remarried years later. It didn’t work out. Their children are all grown now with children of their own. Keith’s heroic memory is kept alive, Connie tells us, with her grandchildren through pictures and stories. Connie has found some small peace in her life. She works in a hospital hair salon fitting cancer patients for wigs and doing their hair as it grows back. She told us every time she hears about a shooting the pain of Nov. 14, 1991 comes rushing back. Yet 30 years after the Royal Oak Post Office shooting, she says there is a lesson she’s learned. For any family who falls victim to workplace violence like this, she offers survivors consolation. In the end she assured: “You’re gonna be OK.”

When my children were little, they used to ask me about this work I do. My explanation always came down this: At its essence, my job is to tell the stories of how we, as a people, treat each other hoping we learn from the good, the bad and the indifferent. In all my 40 years in this business, I cannot recall coming come across a story that so sharply puts that ideal into perspective. For all the horror, the mistreatment, the rage and eventual murder McIlvane committed, for all the heroism Keith Ciszewski brought to his workplace that day, the human spirit and will to persevere survived. For Connie Ciszewski to consider the carnage of the Royal Oak Post Office and even contemplate, much less say “you’re gonna be OK,” this may be among the most reassuring and awe-inspiring I have ever heard.

WDIV Insider exclusive: Archive footage from Nov. 14, 1991

About the Author:

Rod Meloni is an Emmy Award-winning Business Editor on Local 4 News and a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional.