Saturday, November 8, 2003

Suspect thought company out to get him, dad says

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Tom West, the suspect in the Watkins Motor Lines shooting attack that killed two people and injured three in West Chester, is led from the old Butler County Courthouse in Hamilton Friday following his arraignment.
(Gary Landers photo)
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ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. - The father of a man accused of a killing rampage at a West Chester trucking company Thursday says he is just as horrified and baffled as the victims and their families.

But Joe Eschenbrenner II says his son believes employees and agents of Watkins Motor Lines were following his van across the country, tampering with it, and chasing him from cheap apartments and weekly rentals two years after he quit the company.

"From the story I get piecemeal and in short drabs, a lot of things were happening to Joey that he couldn't understand," the 78-year-old Eschenbrenner says, sitting in a coffee shop near his suburban Chicago home Friday. "He thought other Watkins drivers were following him or had hired someone to chase him."

Police say Tom West, whose birth name is Joseph Eschenbrenner III, showed up at Watkins' West Chester hub with two handguns and shot five employees he had never met, killing two.

Watkins officials would not talk about the case Friday and would not address the father's statements. West worked out of the trucking firm's Atlanta office as a driver from 1998-2001.

"No one who was killed or wounded knew Mr. West," says Rose Ann Froberg, spokesman at the company's Florida headquarters. "It has been two years since Mr. West was a Watkins employee, and it would be irresponsible to speculate as to Mr. West's motives. We will not."

Eschenbrenner says his son, who is 50, really enjoyed being a truck driver.

"He liked working at Watkins but they started putting the heat on him and pushing him around," Eschenbrenner says. "He always told them he was the best driver they had and they didn't know it."

Eschenbrenner calls his son a drifter and a veritable stranger who would flit in and out of his life at a moment's notice. He might show up for Thanksgiving dinner with a phone call 15 minutes before he arrived.

Accused shooter Tom West was arraigned in a Butler County courtroom before Area III Court Judge Robert A. Hendrickson. He was ordered held without bond pending a preliminary hearing on Nov. 14 in Area III court.

Greg Howard was appointed West's attorney. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.

Two men wounded in the shooting spree at Watkins Motor Lines remained hospitalized Friday. Glen Brierly was in serious condition, and Gary Fissel was in fair condition.

But he was never unkind and never violent, Eschenbrenner says.

"It's completely out of line. I never heard of him having a gun. I don't know where the gun thing came along. As far as I know he never used a gun," he says. "He was on his own. We very seldom heard from him. ... He would show up and then be gone two days later."

Ghost-like existence

West drove from job to job in the same white van police say he used in Thursday's shooting. In an overnight search, .25-caliber and .40-caliber handguns and ammunition were found inside it.

The van, according to family members, was one of West's few possessions.

It was registered to him at a post office box in Las Vegas, where West told his father he was living and working as a casino card dealer. But the Clark County (Nev.) Sheriff's Department, which maintains records for all casino employees, says there is nothing on file for him under either of his names, meaning West could not legally work as a card dealer in the county.

The sheriff's office reports West resided in Las Vegas once before in the mid-'80s, where he lived in hotels and motels that rent by the week. Computer searches revealed he had no criminal record.

The conflicting details about his jobs add to West's almost ghost-like existence.

"He liked to move around a lot. He seemed to float with these jobs," Eschenbrenner says.

West's family doesn't know if he ever married or had children. After quitting Watkins two years ago this month following an accidental rollover, West took jobs as a contractor and did home renovations.

"He did first-class work. He had no problems getting jobs. He was good with his hands," his father says.

He is shown in his 1972 Forest View High School yearbook as a smiling member of the Cooperative Work Training program, which put students to work in blue-collar jobs.

"Classes developed good work habits and healthy attitudes," the yearbook states near a picture of West towering over his classmates, arms folded across his chest.

However, West never forgave his father for not putting him through college.

"I kept telling him he had to get the grades, but when he didn't get into college he blamed me for it. But he didn't try. And I didn't have any money," says Eschenbrenner, who made a living as a traveling vinyl-plastics salesman and supported his family alone after his wife died. "He went to school every day, but he didn't have the grades."

The family moved to neighboring Arlington Heights, Ill., from Brooklyn, N.Y., when West was 6 1/2 years old.

In the late 1960s, the family moved into a modest ranch home in this northwest Chicago suburb.

But when West graduated high school, he packed up his green station wagon and never looked back.

"He had a car and he was a roamer. He wanted to see the world, I guess," Eschenbrenner says. "He never told me, he just packed up and went. Joey moved around a lot, and that's why he liked to drive trucks."

Happy-go-lucky kid

It was easier for Eschenbrenner to talk about his son as a boy, a good kid who played outfield in Little League baseball and was in Cub Scouts.

"He was not a good baseball player, but he wanted to be part of the crowd," he says. "The people in the neighborhood really liked him. He was a happy-go-lucky kid."

Eschenbrenner struggles to picture his boy as a gunman on a killing spree. The only thing that he thinks could have driven his son to sudden violence is a severe head injury West suffered as a teenager in a car accident.

"He cracked his skull," Eschenbrenner says, adding that he doesn't know if the injury caused some kind of mental damage. "We never saw any sign of it. But when you crack your head, who knows?"

Eschenbrenner says he doesn't know why his son changed his name. But at some point, he says, West was driven to the edge.

"It sure shook me, that's for sure," Eschenbrenner says of the shootings. "I said a flock of prayers for the victims and the victims' families and Joey last night."

Eschenbrenner doesn't know what to say to the victims.

"What can you say? You can't say anything. All you can say is, God bless you."

He also doesn't know what to say to his son - and is unsure now if he will even visit him behind bars.

"He is not a stranger, but his activities are," Eschenbrenner says. "Anything I would have to say would be redundant. Why did you do it? What do you need, a toothbrush? I have no idea."

Reporter Robert Anglen contributed to this story

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