The Smiths '80s radio-station takeover: What really happened according to the police report
After examining the letters he wrote to his parents, which were included in the original Lakewood police file, and the details of that harrowing and fateful day in the fall of 1988 from the original offense report, one thing becomes clear: James Kiss was a very troubled young man with a seemingly dastardly plan. But according to Agent Hitchins, who spoke with two witnesses, and Agent Hinkle, who obtained a confession from the suspect, the eighteen-year-old boy simply gave himself up without any sort of struggle and handed over his weapon. It was odd ending, considering that he had purchased the rifle, a Remington .22 caliber Apache 77, just a few days earlier, with the specific intent of taking over a radio station at gunpoint and then forcing the staff to play the music of the Smiths.
That was the plan, anyway, and Kiss had apparently run through it in his mind hundreds of times and even driven past the station and/or visited more than two dozen times in the preceding six months, sometimes going as far as to venture into the station and engage the receptionist in incidental chatter. But this particular Tuesday night, he had finally mustered the nerve to make the trek from his suburban home in Arvada to the station on the western edge of Lakewood, just off a frontage road on West Hampden Avenue. Armed with the rifle, six Smiths cassette tapes and one Morrissey album, he was ready to make a statement.
He couldn't have picked a more unlikely place to stage such a coup. At least on paper, the station seemed like a completely incongruous choice. In 1988, Y108 was the top-rated station in town, but it was also a Top 40 station with a narrow playlist that consisted of a steady stream of superficiality ranging from "Don't Worry Be Happy," by Bobby McFerrin, to Poison's "Don't Need Nothing but a Good Time."
It's a safe bet that back then, none of the listeners and probably hardly any of the on-air staff had even heard of the Smiths, much less played them before. What's more, as poppy as the songs are, in retrospect, the notably more dour aesthetic of the band, particularly from a lyrics standpoint, would have been as foreign a prospect to listeners as Bollywood ballads piped in directly from Bombay. Such a grandiose gesture, in any case, would have no doubt been completely lost on the masses.
Just the same, Kiss went through with it -- or he planned to, anyway, until he lost his nerve, as the Denver Post put it in a pithy blurb the next day. Tersely written in almost police-blotter fashion, the item didn't even include his name. It's easy to see how it might have seemed like a non-event to folks. The incident was quite eventful, however, for Greg Fadick, the Y108 production director who ended up relieving Kiss of his rifle after encountering him in the parking lot, and Pam Hall, who later phoned the police.
According to the police report, Fadick was leaving his office just after 5 p.m. and making his way to his truck. A guy in a brown Oldsmobile station wagon next to him motioned for Fadick to roll his window down. The man said something to him, something Fadick couldn't hear, so he got out of his truck and approached the vehicle. Fadick asked the man what he had said, and the man replied, "Tell those people to call the police," and then motioned toward the studio, a converted split-level house. Fadick stood motionless for a moment, the report says, before "Kiss pushed the butt end of the rifle into his stomach, and said, 'Here, take this.'"
With the rifle in his hands and absolutely no idea of what was happening, Fadick hastily made his way back into the station. Once he made it safely through the doors, he asked Hall to call the police. Hall thought he was kidding until he said, "No, I'm not kidding. This guy outside gave me this gun, and he told me to call the cops." Convinced that Fadick was indeed not kidding, Hall phoned Lakewood Police and reported what was happening, and they responded immediately by sending out four officers to deal with the situation.
When Agent Hinkle arrived at the station just before 5:30 p.m., he found the suspect sitting calmly behind the wheel of his car. Upon engaging him, Officer Hinkle ordered the suspect out of the car and frisked him for weapons. While he was patting him down, Hinkle noticed a green rifle case, plus live .22 caliber rounds and a magazine clip resting on the dashboard, and that's when he began to ask questions.
"Not knowing what was going on," he writes in the report, "I asked the general threshold question, 'What's going on, partner?'" to which the suspect confessed, "'I was gonna hijack it, but I lost my nerve.' I said, 'Hijack what?' Suspect Kiss replied, 'The radio station -- I was going to make 'em play some tapes, but I couldn't go through with it.'"
That was enough for Hinkle, who found probable cause and placed Kiss under arrest, while Agent Hitchens interviewed the witness and Agent Binks processed the crime scene, seizing the suspicious items in the car with the approval of the suspect, who had evidently consented to the search. When Binks surveyed the vehicle, he found a cartridge with ten .22 caliber rounds in it, along with forty other rounds remaining in a fifty-round box in a plastic cup holder and a pellet gun on the rear floorboard. Along with the arsenal, Binks located a Smiths album on the front seat and a green backpack containing several cassettes, six featuring the Smiths and one featuring Morrissey.
On the way to the police station, meanwhile, Agent Hinkle advised the suspect of his Miranda rights, which he subsequently waived -- at which point Hinkle discussed the situation with the suspect, who laid out his plan about making the station play the music of the Smiths, explaining that "he would fire a round into the ceiling, if necessary, to convince them he was serious," according to Hinkle's report.
Kiss then evidently pointed out that the Smiths "play music about how insensitive everyone is," and added that he was planning to play their music as a protest. "Later, he alluded to one of their songs, which calls for a 'brave protest,'" Hinkle noted in his report. Kiss next explained that "he picked Y108 because they're number one," wrote Hinkle, noting the larger listening base, "and because they play Top 40 music, which the Smiths and Kiss regard as shallow, meaningless."
After revealing to Hinkle that he'd been by the station in August with a BB gun and had otherwise stopped by the station a number of times previously, Kiss explained how he had left the manual for the rifle, along with his insurance card and car registration, in a bag to be turned over to authorities after he took over the station. "That way we would know who he was, and that he was serious," Hinkle wrote, adding that Kiss's plan was to take four hostages and let everybody else go. After being booked and processed, Kiss was taken to Jefferson County jail.
Hinkle added these notes to the report: "In Kiss's left front shirt pocket was a photo button of a man he said is 'Morrisey [sic]'," one of the leaders of 'Smiths,'" and that Kiss purportedly told him that "he has felt like he 'doesn't fit' in today's world. He says he doesn't have any friends, and is also despondent because he's got hip problems which will require surgery."
What Hinkle and the officers didn't know -- and couldn't possibly have known at the time -- was the level of Kiss's despondency. When Arvada police searched his home, again with his consent, they found a magazine about the Smiths, a poem and a pair of letters, which were entered into evidence. In the letters penned to his parents just before the incident, Kiss spelled out exactly what he was planning and tried to explain why.
Continue on to read the letters he wrote
The first letter, dated four days before the incident:
Dear Mom and Al,
What ever I do today is not meant to hurt you. I love you and hold a great deal of respect for you, and if you should be hurt by what I'm going to do I feel very sorry. I feel your biggest question is going to be why, so I'll try and explain.
My views of life and the world are dismal at best. I don't feel right here. I feel as if I'm out of place. My spirit is lost and my body is pollution filled. I always dream about the past, about giving my life for someone else, and about doing things I can never do. It's my only escape. I believe life never ends. When a person dies he is just born again. Therefore people shouldn't let themselves be tied by the codes of the day, and if someone's life is not going well, it would be just as easy to quit and start again. I could write a book of my opinions, but no one would want to read it.
I guess what I'm doing is a protest about life. The world's dying and most don't care, and if they do care there is nothing to do about it because man is the problem. Whoever or whatever made the human race made a big mistake. My views of life are in the "poems" I have written. Some of them show hope, but it quckly dies in others. A lot in the first book have nothing to do with my views.
The second book shows my interest in Morrissey and the first time I planned to do this (this is the second) I think my ideas are mounting somewhat stemmed from Morrissey. There's no doubt his words have changed me and in a way the Smiths and Morrissey are one reason I'm doing this. The third book continues from the second. I want you to know my exact plan.
I have bought a gun for this time. When I tried it the first time I had a fake gun. I'm going to Y108 and I'm going to take control of the station and play all the Smiths and the Morrissey tapes over the air. (As I re-read what I've wrote it sounds crazy to me.) When it's over I'll give myself up. I do not expect to die, but if that happens I won't really mind. I will not hurt anyone else that doesn't try to stop me. I really don't expect to be successful.
At the end most will say I'm insane. I feel I'm sane if everyone else is insane, but I'm insane if they're sane.
Again, I'm sorry for you if I cause you pain. I hope through reading my words you can see why I did this and find a way to forgive me. You're still my mother and father. I hope I'm still your son.
With love and regret,
"Life is hard enough when you belong here"
The second letter, dated on the day of the incident:
Dear Mom and Al,
I am ashamed for any respect you have held for me because I really didn't deserve it. It's true that lies lead to more lies and I have told so many. I have backed out again last Friday. It has happened so many times I think reasons of why outweigh the reasons why not. My only problem is the reasons why not revolve around you two. I hate to disappoint you. I hate to leave you. I hate to hurt you. I can only hope that your pain is weak and short lived. I hope you find a way to understand and forgive. If you can't I'll understand.
I must be crazy because I look around for what purpose I could possibly have in this world and this is the only one I could find. One for whom people could laugh at and wonder where I went wrong.
I could write forever and not tell you all I want. Please read the poems. Please do not blame yourselves because you have been good parents. Please forgive me and don't cry for me.
"There's a light and it never goes out"
I think I feel much better when it's over
Although Kiss was arrested on suspicion of attempted first-degree kidnapping and extortion, the Jefferson County District Attorney at the time, Miles Madorin, reviewed the case and declined to pursue charges. "Case not prosecutable because he renounced his purpose prior to committing any act," wrote Madorin in his declination of the case. "Also insufficient evidence of a substantial step taken for any attempt. He never contacted any victim." With that, the incident was put to rest and subsequently forgotten by everyone except perhaps diehard Smiths fans and Morrissey, who referenced the incident in an interview with Details some years later.
Next: Check back tomorrow for more on this story. Over the weekend, we caught up with Fadick and Kiss and talked to both about the incident. Fadick recounted the day's events, while Kiss talked in more detail about what happened and why, how his life took a paradigm shift after this watershed moment, and how the story is ultimately a redemptive one.
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