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Tax protester's bitterness had been decades in making

AUSTIN, Texas - In the California where Joe Stack started out as a fresh-from-college software engineer, fighting the tax man was, quite literally, a religion.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, California was not just the center of the "silicon revolution." The Golden State was also a teeming hive of anti-government activity, much of it aimed at the federal income tax code.

Tax protesters and self-styled patriots railed against exemptions granted to religious organizations, the Catholic Church in particular. They formed their own "churches" and invited others to join.

"It sounds like he went down that same path," said Dennis Riness, who did time in federal prison for running a church-styled tax shelter. "And ran into the same brick wall."

Riness and most others gave up the fight. It seems Joe Stack could not, unable to let go of his hatred for a system that he felt enslaved him. After two decades of financial setbacks and professional disappointments, facing an audit in a down economy, he decided to strike back.

In an angry letter, Stack, 53, set out his grievances, attributing his failures to everything from the dot-com bust to the "911 nightmare." He traced his problems with the government back 24 years and an obscure change in the Internal Revenue Code affecting software professionals. He posted his manifesto on the Web site of his business Thursday morning.

A short time later, his house 20 minutes north of the Texas Capitol was ablaze. He was behind the controls of his single-engine Piper PA-28: "Going southbound, sir," he radioed the airport tower. "Have a great day." Impact with the black-glass building that houses IRS offices came moments later.

Miraculously, the crash that consumed Stack killed only one other victim - Vernon Hunter, 68, a Vietnam veteran and father of six who worked for nearly 30 years at the IRS. Ken Hunter said if Stack had come in and talked to his father, he would have done his best to help.

But Stack wasn't looking for help. Like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, he hoped his suicidal flight would become "a catalyst" for fundamental change, said JJ MacNab, who has studied tax protesters for a decade. "McVeigh wasn't willing to die," said MacNab, a Maryland-based insurance analyst. "This guy was."

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