More than a fascinating piece of Smithsology, the '80s radio takeover is a story of redemption
Besides being a long, seemingly unfounded piece of local-music folklore, as well as a now well-documented and utterly fascinating part of the Smiths mythology, the story of James Kiss is a redemptive one. It's a case study of desperation, certainly, but it's also a cautionary tale of a troubled young man who crafts a dastardly plan in isolation, but then, rather than seeing it through, he inexplicably abandons his intent, puts the gun down and turns himself in.
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And then rather than being defined by this ill-conceived moment, which was clearly fueled by adolescent discord and depression, the young man was set on a completely different path. Rather than ending in tragedy, the harrowing incident ultimately served as a paradigm shifter, allowing him to become who he is today, a seemingly well-adjusted man in his early forties, nearly two and a half decades removed from that fateful afternoon in 1988.
The first and probably most obvious question for Kiss some 25 years later is why he had hatched a plan to take over the radio station in the first place, and perhaps equally as plaguing, why the Smiths? "My intention was to throw my life away," Kiss recalls. "If you're going to throw your life away, you might as well do it in a way that makes the most sense to you, I guess.
"I guess you would have to understand the Smiths and know the Smiths, which I'm sure you do," he adds, "to understand that there's something poetic about a Top 40 radio station playing all Smiths songs." It certainly would have made for a startling contrast to listeners, as the station's playlist at the time consisted of songs like "Don't Need Nothing but a Good Time," by Poison, and a host of other tunes with similarly superficial sentiments, such as "Don't Worry, Be Happy," by Bobby McFerrin. "Oh, my God," says Kiss. "To somebody who's depressed, when that song comes on...oh, God."
Okay, so while that explains the why, the next pressing question is why not? After seeming so determined, reportedly even staking the station out for months, why all of a sudden didn't he go through with it? What exactly made him change his mind?
"In all the times I ran through it in my mind, the people -- since I didn't know anyone that worked there or anything -- the people were just faceless people to me," he explains. "But when I got there, and there was one lady in particular -- I had no idea who she was, but she was coming out of the radio station, and I just imagined how scared she would be, and I didn't want to hurt anybody, let alone scare anybody, and that just brought it all home to me that I couldn't do it. I could not do that to other people. I couldn't scare them, frighten their families or anything like that.
All the same, it was a rather frightening experience for everybody else, especially Greg Fadick, the station staffer to whom Kiss turned his rifle over.
"I remember that vividly," says Fadick, now in his fifties, via phone from his home in South Florida. "It was the end of the day. I was actually leaving for the day, walking out into the parking lot on Hampden Avenue. As I was going to get in my truck, there was a guy sitting there in a car. I believe it was like a station wagon or something, an older car with its windows down. He said, 'Can I talk to you for a moment?' And like an idiot, I walked over to the passenger window, leaned down on the window, kind of stuck my head halfway in the car and said, 'Yeah, what can I help you with?'
"He stuck a rifle in my face -- seriously, barrel a couple of inches away from my nose -- and didn't say anything, just pointed the rifle in my face," Fadick goes on. "And literally, we stood there like that for -- for me, what seemed like an eternity, as you can imagine - what may have been a minute or two. And finally, all of a sudden, with no reason or anything, he just turned the rifle around, handed it to me butt first and said, 'Would you go inside and call someone and tell them that I need help?' I said, 'Absolutely.'"
The curious part is why, after coming to his senses, Kiss didn't simply turn his stepfather's car around and point it back toward home before that exchange with Fadick? After all, nobody knew why he was there or the fact that he was armed. He could have merely gone about his business, and nobody would have been the wiser. "It was a tipping point," Kiss acknowledges. "I had painted myself into a corner. When I realized I couldn't do it. I had nowhere to go.
"At the time," he adds, "I just wanted somebody else to make the decisions."
Like most kids at that age, Kiss was having difficulty seeing the light at the end of the tunnel -- or any light, for that matter. Kiss clearly must've recognized the irony of his disposition when he signed off one of his letters to his parents by including the line "There is a light that never goes out," from the Smiths song of the same name.
He says he was struggling with a bout of depression at the time, spurred by the fact that he had just graduated from high school and had no real plans, and all this was compounded by the fact that he was dealing with an injury that was preventing him from working. "I was not really liking what life was like," he recalls, which made the music of the Smiths resonate even deeper. "Anybody who's listened to the Smiths knows that if you're depressed, they're great to listen to," he acknowledges.
The tide obviously changed dramatically for Kiss after he handed himself over to the authorities. Although he ended up spending three days in detention and was potentially facing charges of attempted first-degree kidnapping and extortion, the Jefferson County district attorney at the time, Miles Madorin, determined after reviewing the case that it was not prosecutable, noting that Kiss hadn't actually committed a crime, and what's more, he renounced as much beforehand -- and so with that in mind, Madorin declined to pursue the matter any further.
These days, particularly with the frequency of armed standoffs and the increasing prevalence of mass unprovoked shootings -- some of the most high-profile of which have taken place on Colorado soil, one just five miles to the south of this particular incident -- it's hard to imagine that such a situation in this era would have a similar outcome, on either end. It's as unlikely that a would-be assailant would have a change of heart after months of planning as it is that a prosecutor would decline to prosecute the case. Times were different back then, though, obviously. While folks at the station were admittedly shaken up by the episode, after a few days, everything sort of went back to normal, according to Fadick.
"You know, really, there wasn't a huge change," he says, after a slight moment of reflection. "Of course, our general manager was one of the greatest men I ever knew, Joe Parish. Joe made sure we all had a good lesson in safety. Pay attention. If you see any strange people in the parking lot, don't go out or go straight back in the station. And it was not just some corporate thing to do. Joe actually really cared a lot about everybody that worked there.
"That was one of the greatest places," adds Fadick, who's still in radio today. "I've been to a lot of great places in my career -- and still am in a great place -- but that was one of the most unique places I'd ever been in, and I'd have to say the best place I've ever been. There was a chemistry among that staff that -- you know, we were all a little freaked out about it for a day or so, but as far as lasting effects, I would say no, not really. There was more of an attitude there of we'll take care of each other. We get through anything and life goes on."
Life does go on. And for Kiss, the ordeal itself and the events that followed, particularly the fact that no one was harmed and, more important, that the DA declined to prosecute, proved to be quite pivotal for this barely eighteen-year-old kid from the suburbs of Denver. "It forced me to look for help," he says.
"Let's back up a bit," he continues. "I was told by a doctor I was no longer going to be able to do my job because of a physical disability. And that's what got me really depressed. It was like, 'Okay, now I can't even do my job, so what's the point?' After the arrest, I went to try to apply for unemployment until I could get a new job. They said, 'You can't apply for unemployment if you can't do your job because of a physical condition. You have to go through Colorado Vocational Rehab.'"
And so that's what he did, and getting in contact with officials there altered his course, and ultimately led him to college. "Back then -- I don't know how it works nowadays -- but back then you'd go in for two or three days of testing to see what your aptitudes are," he remembers. "And then they pay for the training for the job you have aptitude for. Apparently I scored highest in the IQ part of the testing, or whatever you want to call it, the academic part."
By January 1989, Kiss was enrolled and taking classes at Metro State. "Within a period of three months, it was completely turned around," he recalls. "I had a future. I mean, I had a plan. It gave me goals to look forward to again." It also changed his social dynamic, he says, "once I got into Metro and found a whole bunch of other people like me -- um, not a whole bunch, but enough."
With a fresh start and a promising future, Kiss overcame the previous bout of depression that led to the incident at the radio station, and when he did, he hardly recognized the person he was before. Besides music, he had previously sought solace in putting his thoughts on paper.
Eventually, however, the poems he wrote, and frequently referred to in the letters to his parents included in the original Lakewood police file, ear marking them as essential reading for articulating his situation, were no longer seen as a comforting means of expression, but rather a chagrin-worthy part of his past.
"I was so embarrassed of those poems, even afterwards," he confesses. "Just about a year afterward, I read those poems, and it was like, 'What the hell was I thinking?' Because I was out of that depression.
"It definitely clouded my thinking," he admits now. "I didn't have the problem-solving skills that I needed. It was foreign for me to look at that stuff, but it was probably about a good year or two years before I did go to bed without reliving that whole thing in my mind -- how close I came to throwing it all away.
"I was thinking about how I had let myself get down so low," he continues. "This was my concern, and that I never allow myself to get that low again. It was a definite watershed moment in my life, because I realized something very important about myself, and that is it's not easy for me to hurt people. It kind of set my motto, or the rule that I try to live by now, and that's to help as many people as possible and to hurt as few as possible."
These days, Kiss works with young people, some of whom are probably lost a lot like he was back then. With a unique perspective gleaned from his own experiences, he's able to share some of what he's learned to help others. "I can see it when kids start to paint themselves into corners, and I try to get them to work their way out of that."
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