PANAMA CITY — The burly, bipolar man who held a Florida school board at gunpoint was frustrated and broke. He was a troubled ex-con with an interest in anarchy, and when his wife was fired from her teaching job and their benefits ran out, he went to the board meeting and said he was prepared to die.
Clay Duke killed himself Tuesday after firing at the board members, missing them by mere inches, and exchanging a volley of gunfire with a security guard. A day later, his wife tearfully talked about the man she loved, calling the 56-year-old father a "gentle giant."
"The economy and the world just got the better of him," Rebecca Duke said in a rambling press conference.
The shooting gained nationwide attention because it was captured by local television stations, and the video was posted on the Internet and broadcast on TV throughout the day. (It can be found online at links.tampabay.com.)
In the video, Duke spray painted a circle and a large, red V inside it on the meeting room wall and muttered about rising taxes and how his wife was fired from the school district. The school superintendent begged Duke not to shoot, but he did. A School Board member crept up from behind and hit Duke with her purse — and Duke only called her a name, but didn't shoot.
Rebecca Duke said her husband was an excellent marksman who probably intentionally missed the five board members who were sitting just steps away.
"He didn't want any one to get hurt but himself," she said.
No one but Duke was injured; a school security guard fired several shots and hit Duke three times in the back. In the end, Duke took his own life by shooting himself in the head.
Police said the attack wasn't some spur of the moment idea. At his mobile home in the woods, they found Dec. 14 circled on a calendar. And police said he had at least 25 more rounds of ammunition in his pocket.
Born in Ocala, Duke graduated from King High School in Tampa. Little is known about his early adult years; family members said he was in the Air Force for eight years, but that could not be confirmed.
In the mid-1990s, Duke had drifted to the Florida Panhandle. Those years were a blur of court hearings and personal conflicts. He divorced a woman named Anita in 1995 and at some point, had a daughter. In 2000, he was convicted for waiting in the woods for his ex-wife with a rifle, wearing a mask and a bulletproof vest. She confronted him and then tried to leave in a vehicle, and Duke shot the tires.
Duke's attorney on the case, Ben Bollinger, remembered Duke as especially paranoid about the new millennium.
"He was one of these Y2k people," he said, referring to a computer bug that some people thought was going to cause massive problems and economic chaos Jan. 1, 2000. "He was stockpiling weapons, assault weapons."
Bollinger said Duke took a plea agreement: Five years in prison followed by 10-years' probation. He sought psychiatric help and took his medications as ordered and completed his probation, his lawyer said.
He was released in January 2004. About a year later, he sued the Social Security Administration, which had denied his application for disability benefits and health insurance.
"He couldn't work. He just mentally couldn't make the connection for eight hours a day," said David Evans, the attorney who represented Duke.
Evans said Duke had been diagnosed by several doctors as bipolar but didn't have enough money to buy the needed medication. They filed at least five appeals to the denials. Duke withdrew the suit in 2006.
He and Rebecca had married in 1999, just before his prison sentence. She said Wednesday that Duke faithfully took his medication for his bipolar disorder, but that he was under a lot of stress — she had been fired from the school district and her final unemployment check was due this week.
Tommye Lou Richardson, the executive director of human resources for the Bay District, said Rebecca Duke was hired in September 2009 as a primary school teacher for students with special needs. She was given a 97-day probationary period, and was terminated.
"She was not performing appropriately, we thought, the principal thought, and so she was let go," Richardson said.
She wasn't able to go into any further detail.
About a week ago, Clay Duke joined Facebook. Over the past several days, he added photo stills from the movie and graphic novel V for Vendetta, a nihilistic account of a masked man who fights against a totalitarian government. He had written something of a suicide note in his "About Me" section:
"My testament: Some people (the government sponsored media) will say I was evil, a monster (V) . . . no . . . I was just born poor in a country where the Wealthy manipulate, use, abuse, and economically enslave 95 percent of the population. Rich Republicans, Rich Democrats . . . same-same . . . rich . . . they take turns fleecing us . . . our few dollars . . . pyramiding the wealth for themselves."