Warren "Gator" Taylor was tired of driving, so he pulled off the interstate in this Blue Ridge Mountain town to buy gas and food. The Tennessee man had been angry at the government for months, even years, federal officials said Thursday, and this seemed like as good a place as any to use the guns/">handguns and mock explosives he had packed in his beloved red pickup.
He had no apparent connection to Wytheville, but the picturesque community of 8,500 reminded him of the tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., three hours away. So after breakfast at a local eatery and a steak at Applebee's, he pushed his wheelchair through the door of the post office Wednesday afternoon, officials said, slammed what looked like a bomb on the counter and took three people hostage.
Just over eight hours later, after demanding only a pizza he shared with his captives and a pack of cigarettes for a hostage who smoked, he let them go, wheeled himself outside in his chair and surrendered.
"There was no mission statement. No demands made. No purpose in what he was doing. There was no reason for any of it," said Jimmy Oliver, 41, one of the hostages, who spoke with The Associated Press at his mother's floral shop. "He just wanted to destroy a federal building with a lot of people.
"Once we established a relationship, he decided destroying people wasn't in the cards."
Oliver, a divorced father of two, was at the post office to mail Christmas gifts to his teenage sons and was filling out forms at a counter when he noticed a heavyset man using his wheelchair like a walker to brace himself.
The man stuck one of his four guns in Oliver's face and told him to get on the floor, where he laid next to an older man while the gunman grabbed Margie Austin, a postal supervisor.
Oliver, who said he had served 18 years in the military, mostly with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, thought about his children and family and tried to stay calm. Austin did the same, even as the gunman at one point grabbed her and used her as a human shield as he fired at police outside.
"I tried to keep him calm and see what he wanted," Austin said. "I just wanted us to get out alive. There were times I didn't know whether that would happen."
When the gunman asked the hostages their names, Oliver introduced himself as a former staff sergeant, hoping for mercy.
Slowly, the gunman opened up, saying he had been in the Marines for 20 years and was proud of his military experience. On Thursday, military officials could not immediately locate any record that Taylor served.
In the last few years, the gunman told Oliver and the others, his life had headed south. He said his son had been killed in Afghanistan; the AP could not immediately find any record corroborating that.
The gunman said he had no money, and his 2007 red Dodge diesel pickup truck was about to be repossessed. Mostly, he railed against the government _ high taxes, gun control, and President Barack Obama.
"He was really down on the government," Oliver said. "About the government taking over the right to bear arms ... he was angry at the government overtaxing us."
He told the hostages about the steak he had eaten at Applebee's, calling it his last dinner, Oliver said. According to a criminal complaint by Postal Inspector J. David McKinney, Taylor later told authorities he had decided to "end it" at the post office.
The gunman asked for the FBI to get involved, then demanded a pizza. It took a few hours, but police delivered a large Pizza Hut supreme, which Oliver retrieved from the door and the hostages and gunman shared. Later, the gunman insisted police bring a lighter and a pack of Marlboros for Oliver.
As the night dragged on and negotiations continued, the gunman allowed the hostages to call their families. Austin was able to let a friend know she was OK. A friend of Oliver's who is a police officer in South Carolina called to wish him a merry Christmas and the gunman answered.
Oliver said they talked about bombs over the phone and "that seemed to calm him down."
Finally, the tired gunman turned to his hostages and told them, "It's over." He unloaded three of his four guns and waited with the hostages until police ordered them out of the building an hour later. The three hostages came out, one at a time, followed by Taylor, who raised his hands and shirt to show he was unarmed.
During an arraignment Thursday in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on kidnapping and other charges, he said nothing save a brief apology to people in the courtroom.
"I'm sorry I got everybody out on Christmas," said Taylor, of Sullivan County, Tenn., who sat in his wheelchair wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt. A judge ordered him to have a mental evaluation.
Taylor, who has a criminal record and was registered as a sex offender in Florida, didn't argue for bail but had his lawyer ask about accommodations for his health conditions. He has a prosthetic leg and diabetes, public defender Randy Cargill said.
A woman who answered the door at Taylor's trailer in the Beverly Hills Mobile Home Park in Bristol, Tenn., said she was his girlfriend and they spent a lot of time talking about the Bible and religion. Her Christmas gift to him was going to be an index to the Bible.
"I keep asking myself if I should have seen some warning signs. This is totally out of character for the person I know," said the woman, who identified herself as Barbara but would not give her last name. She said they met when he moved to the trailer park eight months ago.
Meanwhile, Oliver, who does not want to be called a hero, said he is still hasn't fully processed what happened.
"I know this has changed my life. You want to live your life to the fullest and not take anything for granted. But it's really too early to give you a more meaningful answer. This ended 11 hours ago."
Associated Press writers Tom Breen in Roanoke and Bristol, Tenn.; Michael Felberbaum in Richmond; and Tim Huber in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.