Iowa congressman and his family retell how they fought off a gun-wielding robber


Iowa cattle farmer and a Vietnam veteran, 77-year-old Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-IA) describes to The Washington Post, during an interview, how an intruder came onto his Iowa farm and attempted to rob him and his family members. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 28, 2011

Congressman Leonard Boswell had kenneled his two Rottweilers for the night. Just before bedtime, the 77-year-old Democrat put on his blue-striped robe and removed his hearing aid, turning down the volume on what had been a loud mid-July week of debt-ceiling drama on Capitol Hill.

He was getting a glass of water in the kitchen, and even without his earpiece, he could sense some commotion on the main floor of his farmhouse. He rushed to the nearby bedroom to check on his wife of 56 years, Dody. She was in bed — nothing wrong.

He bounded down the hallway toward the front door. He had lost weight recently, after stomach surgery; the silver-haired combat veteran was less hulking, but swifter. As he moved forward, he could see his 22-year-old grandson, Mitchell Brown, standing frozen in the living room, staring toward the front door. Then Boswell saw what Mitchell saw: a man in a neoprene ski mask, brandishing a pistol, pinning Boswell’s daughter — Mitchell’s mother — against a wall.

“He was saying, ‘Get the money or I’ll shoot her,’ ” Boswell recalled. He could see how glad his daughter Cindy Brown was to see her dad. “My instinct was: ‘If you’re going to shoot, shoot me. And I’m comin’ after you.’ I wanted to get my hands on him.”

The Boswell homestead, with its rolling hayfields, braying cattle and buggy-driving Amish neighbors, seems particularly far from affairs of state or worries of the world. But at 10:45 that Saturday night, trouble intruded.

Leonard Boswell had long ago learned how to handle himself. On the family’s 500 acres near the Missouri border, the men of the Boswell family were hardy and fit; during his boyhood, his elders each milked 40 cows a day and then repaired to the square-dance hall every weekend for hard-earned breaks. During World War II, his cousin Cleo wanted to fight for his country, but the military deemed butterfat production to be crucial to the war effort. A despondent Cleo got called a “draft dodger” by a tavern denizen, and the Boswell men, with 10-year-old Leonard holding their coats, formed a phalanx and silenced the badmouthing with a single punch.

Years later, when he played tackle for the Graceland College football team, Leonard Boswell met a pretty blond cheerleader from the Chicago area. They married in 1955, and the next year, the draft board called. Leonard told Dody, “I have to. I gotta do it.”

He didn’t expect to serve 20 years, including white-knuckle raids piloting a helicopter in the Charlie Beckwith era of Vietnam fighting. Dody Boswell didn’t expect to enjoy the career she stumbled into — teaching learning-disabled students — which she enthusiastically did for 36 years.

They returned to the farm in 1976. Leonard Boswell was chosen to run the local farmers’ co-op, and then another calling took him away from the farm. He served 11 years in the state legislature and, to date, 15 in the House of Representatives.

“Shangri-la” is what Dody Boswell calls their rural retreat. She has named a weeping willow by the driveway “Cindy”; and “Mitchell” is a cottonwood by the back patio. Leonard unwinds here most weekends, and the couple has entertained Al Gore and Dick Gephardt on the farm during campaign swings.

This year, border-adjusting state legislators pushed a Republican incumbent, Tom Latham, into Boswell’s congressional district. The GOP named the Blue Dog Democrat — a supporter of abortion rights in a deeply religious community — as a top target. Fifteen months before Election Day, a Karl Rove-backed political group began taking out ads against Boswell on TV stations in Des Moines. But Leonard Boswell is known for fighting back.

With the congressman fast approaching him, the assailant pushed Cindy Brown down the stairs that led from the front door to a lower level. She did a full somersault. She had no time to get out of the way of the hurtling mass of fists and knees and elbows, as her father and the man tumbled down seconds after she did. The attacker was first on his feet, and pulled Cindy to hers, holding the gun to her throat with the same warning: “I’m going to shoot her.”

Undeterred, the congressman grabbed the man and pulled him off his daughter and held both the man’s wrists together, though only briefly. The congressman and the intruder traded blows and wound up on the floor. The man pounded Boswell’s abdomen with the pistol. Blood streaked the bathrobe.

Meanwhile, the congressman’s grandson had sneaked out of the living room, through the kitchen, across the hallway and into a spare bedroom. Mitchell opened the gun cabinet and pulled out the 12-gauge that had belonged to Leonard Boswell’s father. It was not a sentimental choice: He opted for the 12-gauge because it came with several boxes of ammunition, ample rounds for any additional assailants who might be lurking outside. He loaded four rounds into the magazine and one into the chamber. His goal was simple, limited: “I knew I had to get the advantage.”

Downstairs, Cindy felt her brain switch from fear to anger. She steeled herself to pull the assailant off her father. Then she heard a “sweet little voice.” Dody Boswell, in her nightgown, had come into the front foyer, where all the violence began, and called down the stairwell: “What’s going on?” The attacker bolted back up the stairs, with Cindy right behind him.

The man grabbed the birdlike older woman, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and teeters without her cane, and repeated his demand: “Get me the money!”

Something came over Dody Boswell that she couldn’t later explain, except to say, “You know what? I felt love.” An instinct from handling a learning-disabled classroom at Lamoni Middle School, she suspected. With a muzzle to her temple, she reached up with her right hand and cupped the neoprene-covered cheek of the assailant.

“Oh, no!” she said, emphatically and softly. “You shouldn’t be doing this.”

The assailant lowered his gun. Dody turned to find her purse.

Suddenly Mitchell rounded the corner and entered the foyer. He silenced the shouting, without uttering a word. The freckled, sturdy 22-year-old stood in aim stance, pointing his great-grandfather’s air-pump shotgun, with a round in the chamber, a finger on the trigger and both eyes trained on the intruder.

When the attacker saw Mitchell and the 12-gauge shotgun, he yelled an epithet, fumbled the front door open and bounded outside toward a getaway pickup waiting up the farm’s long driveway.

Cindy locked the front door, and Mitchell ran out through the back door. With his mother calling him back inside, he fired two warning shots into the air, impressing upon the intruder that the rounds were live. Mitchell returned to the kitchen, and his mother locked the back door. Her hands were too shaky to dial 911. The Boswells called for help through Dody’s MedicAlert pendant.

Police arrived en masse. In the pitch-black hayfield, sniffer dogs found the intruder’s backpack, with plastic ties inside, and a pistol, which turned out to be a pellet gun, disguised in a metal mold that even the sheriff would mistake at a distance for one that fired bullets.

Within three days, investigators tracked down David Dewberry, a young man one year younger than Mitchell. Mitchell’s grandfather had long ago hired Dewberry’s grandfather to paint the barn and mow the lawn. Dody had hired Dewberry’s mother a few years back to do other household chores. Sometimes David Dewberry played in the pond while his mother worked. The families had lost contact.

“You wanna talk about internal combustion engines or something he’s interested in?” Boswell asked. Mitchell “knows more about it than anyone else I know. He’s interested in machines and tractors” and balers and sports cars and earth movers. “I ask: ‘How do you know all this?’ And he’s right.” Every time.

In the many months Mitchell has lived on the farm, he has taught himself organic farming through long computer research sessions. Boswell has given his grandson the old feedlot by the barn, and though it looks jungly and haphazard, the black-dirt patch yields the best red onions his grandfather ever tasted, now on order for a Mexican restaurant in town. “So this is a test to see if he can stick with it,” Boswell said.

Mitchell’s focus comes and goes. He left the loaded shotgun on the kitchen table after the police arrived. And yet throughout the tense conflict, he proved silent, determined, methodical. “Typically, he can be pretty impulsive,” Cindy recalled. “He doesn’t naturally have some of the skills that other people have.”

“Mitchell has Asperger’s [syndrome],” his mother explained. “We like to treat it like a gift.”

For those crucial hours, Mitchell showed all the disorder’s signs of “hyperfocus,” a mental state triggered by trauma but resulting in calm concentration. Others might be distracted by emotional cues like intonation and facial expression; Mitchell is not. His mother explained that her brain was flooded with confusing information, and she at first thought the intruder was a prankster. Mitchell assessed the situation differently and formed a uniquely rational response.

Cindy recalled how, when Mitchell had seriously injured himself after falling off a rope ladder, the 14-year-old asked the paramedic to confirm the ambulance’s engine size. Stunned, they agreed he had the correct model number. “Good,” Mitchell assured them. “It’ll go fast.”

The congressman noted how Mitchell had chosen the most complicated gun in the cabinet, how he knew to load enough rounds for any scenario. (“I just did what I did,” Mitchell said. “It just happened.”) Most important, Mitchell had held on to a gun safety lesson long impressed on the Boswells’ grandchildren: Drawn weapons usually do their job without ever being fired.

Three days after the July 16 attack, the congressman flew back to Washington, having missed a night of sleep and endured long ones afterwards; his two broken ribs ached whenever he was lying down. Cuts and bruises on his forearms were as dark and menacing as a stevedore’s tattoos. A hematoma protruded just below his sternum for weeks. But Boswell downplayed his injuries as something everyone goes through sometime; he once took a hoof to his torso and wore a horseshoe print on his ribcage for weeks.

“It’s probably the safest place in the Midwest,” the congressman joked about his farm, heavily guarded in recent weeks, with a Capitol Police officer staying for a stretch. Dody Boswell has trouble resisting an urge to call on the alleged assailant in jail. “I just keep wondering if there wasn’t something I could do,” she said, though Cindy talked her out of it. “Maybe if we could have kept up a friendship.”

Leonard Boswell will have stern words for the intruder, he intimated, but he felt mostly relief. “I am so thankful that [Mitchell] did not pull the trigger because he woulda killed him. It was a 12-gauge, within four feet,” the congressman said. When held to someone’s skull, the gun wielded by “the desperado,” as Boswell called him, could also have been deadly.

But neither gun discharged. David Dewberry and his alleged getaway driver face trial in September. Farm chores resumed. Mitchell’s focus turned to red potatoes and broccoli and arugula. “I kinda forgot about the whole thing,” he said.

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