Joe Steele should’ve been a movie. When he was five and six-years-old he’d show up at house fires in East Lake, holding his grandmother’s hand, dressed in a plastic firefighter jacket, boots, and fire hat. Telltale signs, sure, but everyone has great hindsight. He wouldn’t begin stalking firefighters for another 15 years.
My earliest memory of Joe Steele was him just standing there. Standing in his grandmother’s yard and watching cars go by, blank eyes, an eerie smile on his face. That look on his would follow me all the way up Ridge Road and out of sight. Everyday his sanity faded further and further…
Coggins, a firefighter, got hit first when Steele called to inform him that he’d planted a bomb in his garage. After a solid hour of panic the police found a paper sack full of bricks tucked behind a van, the word “BOM” written in blue marker. Coincidentally, two friends of mine would later make national news for a similar stunt that attracted the ATF and FBI. Their incident was a prank with poor timing, taking place a little too close to Eric Rudolph’s Atlanta bombing, 1996.
My timeline of events with Joe blurs at this point. I became a quick and popular target for Joe Steele’s psychotics, being young and dumb-looking and bearing my dad’s firefighter license tag on my gold Mazda 323. Joe began leaving me notes pinned on trees on Ridge Road wanting to “party” or “get high on weed”. He began calling the police to our house, complaining that my dad was beating up my mother (He wasn’t). He called the fire department, saying that I was burning my own house down (I wasn’t).
Then he showed up with a butcher knife. My parents were out of town and I was on my way out the door when I saw him. Standing at the top of our driveway, the blank eyes and eerie smile in place. And a butcher knife in his hand. He was just… standing there. Joe wasn’t very intimidating physically. Average height, too skinny, and short black hair that he cut himself.
But damn that knife, and damn that look on his face.
Needless to say the situation resolved itself, very anti-climatically I might add. He laid down in the street, arms crossed over his chest vampire-style for about an hour, then went home for dinner.
That incident, and others similar, had been enough for the neighborhood. A petition was drawn and honored to have him placed in “learning facility where he could get the help that he needed.”
My dad was called to testify.
The event was nothing short of a circus. For some reason, that escapes all bounded logic I’ve harvested from a lifetime of Law & Order, LA Law and Night Court, Joe Steele’s attorney thought it would be a good idea for him to take the stand.
ATTORNEY: Mr Steele, in this police report they claim you are planning to kill firefighter Buddy Wilks. Is that true?
JOE STEELE: No sir.
ATTORNEY: Thank you. (Attorney turns his back, walks to his table)
JOE STEELE: I’m going to kill George Cowgill’s father.
My dad said that’s when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. It took the judge approximately seven minutes to rule that Joe Steele did indeed need help and placed him in an institutional learning facility, i.e. away from society.
I eventually moved out of Roebuck, on to the high hills of Sharpsburg Manor. I didn’t travel down Ridge Road as much so I’m not really sure how long Joe Steele was “away”. I did eventually see him again, years later, once again standing out in his grandmother’s yard. No faux bombs, or invitations for drug use. No butcher knifes. He had put on at least 50 pounds of bad weight, and it looked like he was still cutting his own hair.
He still had the blank look in his eyes.
But the eerie smile was long gone.
“I was in my room and I was just like staring at the wall thinking about everything. But then again I was thinking about nothing.” – Suicidal Tendencies.