RIDGEWOOD, NJ — In the early morning hours of October 10, 1991, former U.S. Postal Service clerk Joseph M. Harris — dressed in a full ninja costume — broke into the home of his one-time supervisor Carol Ott, 30.
Finding his ex-boss in her bed, the 35-year-old Harris maniacally stabbed and slashed Ott to death with a three-foot samurai sword. He then snuck downstairs and fatally shot Cornelius Kasten, Ott’s fiancé, who had been watching TV. And he was just getting started.
From there, Harris burst into the Ridgewood Post Office, where he used to work. In April 1990, after numerous run-ins with Ott about his job performance, the higher-ups fired Harris. Now he’d be firing back.
Harris blasted his former workplace with bullets and killed overnight mail sorters Joseph M. VanderPaauw, 59, and Donald McNaught, 63. He then barricaded himself inside and took shots at other workers and responding officers.
A four-hour standoff with police followed, during which Harris fired more rounds and lobbed out two homemade hand grenades that exploded with minor impact.
After surrendering, the SWAT team walked Harris out. He was wearing black military fatigues, a gas mask, and a ninja hood. Such had been his longtime mode of preferred dress.
Harris’s arrest, compounded with a well-remembered 1986 Oklahoma post office massacre, launched the term “going postal” into the popular lexicon.
Still, as shocking as the Ridgewood incident had been, more was about to be revealed. Harris had dressed up like a ninja and killed before — and he’d gotten away with it.
On November 15, 1988, Joseph M. Harris hid outside the Montville, New Jersey, home of failed investment banker Roy Edwards, 43. Harris had been a client of Edwards and lost his life savings. Time had come, this psycho figured, to make the banker pay.
After forcing Edwards and his two daughters, aged seven and nine, into the residence at gunpoint, Harris handcuffed each member of the family, including Irene Edwards, the banker’s wife.
Over the ensuing four hours, Harris savagely beat Edwards and sexually assaulted both Irene and the two children. The horror climaxed with Harris shooting Edwards to death and fleeing on foot.
For the next three years, police had no idea who had committed this atrocity. Only after the Ridgewood Post Office slaughter were they able to connect any suspect to the crime, let alone so unlikely a “ninja.”
In the wake of the post office tragedy, officers searched Harris’s unsuccessfully booby-trapped apartment. Numerous weapons and scrawled screeds were scattered around the small dwelling. Among them, the team discovered a gun that matched the one that killed Roy Edwards.
They also turned up paperwork detailing their business transactions, and a note in Harris’s handwriting that stated, “If you’re reading this, I was probably killed. That guy conned me out of $10,000.”
Going into separate trials for both the Edwards murder and the post-office attack, Harris’s lawyers pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense argued that Harris never had a chance. He was born behind bars to an incarcerated mother and exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia beginning in early childhood.
One of Harris’s alleged lifelong delusions involved him being possessed by a “ninja spirit.” He claimed that a phantom had entered his body and forced him to commit the crimes in consideration.
Both juries found Harris guilty. He got a sentenced to lethal injection for the Edwards incident and to 160 years for the post-office blow-up. Fate cut both terms short.
On September 24, 1996, two days before Harris’s attorneys were scheduled to appeal his death sentence before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the killer succumbed to a fatal stroke in jail.
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