The Furniture Stripper’s tale is a story of true pathology. It’s hard to say if The Stripper’s paranoia was due to genetics, drug use or constant exposure to methylene chloride, but he was one of the weirdest criminals I ever met in a long career of crime writing.
He was a talented craftsman who restored old furniture, sold it in the Minneapolis antique trade and smoked a lot of weed in the process. Weed is said to make some people paranoid, and it may have had that effect on him, although nowhere near as pronounced as it later became. “He was always shy,” his girl friend told me, “and being around people all the time just got to be too much for him.”
In 1992 the two of them bought an abandoned farmhouse and a few acres in Pine County, a bleak neck of the woods far from the city. It was supposed to be a place to get away from it all for a few days at a time, but to his girl friend’s dismay, The Stripper set up shop there permanently. She continued to come on weekends, always with groceries because he was hesitant to drive to a nearby town for essentials. Over the course of two years he became almost totally reclusive, although he somehow managed to find a connection and started smoking crack obsessively. He used his carpentry skills to turn the farmhouse into a fortress, complete with gun turrets and booby traps rigged to trip loaded weapons.
The basement became a poorly-ventilated workspace, where he continued to strip furniture using the standard stripping agent, methylene chloride, one of the most lethal of all industrial chemicals. He turned out lots of cabinets, chairs and tables, enough to finance his drug habits, which included meth, cocaine, marijuana and a pharmacopeia of downers. The place reeked of methylene chloride, which should have been worrisome, since the maximum exposure a human being can tolerate is well below the odor threshold. Symptoms of acute exposure include giddiness, confusion and delirium. By 1996 he’d begun calling the Pine County Sheriff’s office frequently, usually to report imaginary home invasions, but once to say that Martians had landed in the yard.
The Furniture Stripper’s tale ended about as well as it could have, with a few years imprisonment for a drug charge. I don’t know what became of him after that, but when I spoke with him in the courtroom on sentencing day he seemed relieved. He just shrugged when I asked how he’d managed to assemble the vast arsenal that was confiscated when he was arrested. “Buying guns was easy, he said. “My problem was getting enough stripper to keep working.”