Highway Shootings Often Require Luck to Solve
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The Rev. Craig Forwalter remembers it starting as a quiet morning drive along a tree-lined highway. A bullet shattered the windshield, striking his wife's head.
"It sounded like a baseball bat hitting the windshield," said Forwalter, who was driving back in 1996. His wife survived. "I heard this loud bang and wondered what happened, and I saw this bullet hole."
He says police later stared blankly at the car, unsure of how to track down who had been firing randomly at cars.
The attack on the Missouri highway is reflective of a string of 16 shootings on a stretch of Columbus highway, including one that killed a 62-year-old woman in November. At least 10 times since 1991, shooters have fired randomly at cars on busy U.S. highways. At least three people have died in the shootings at moving cars. Unlike the sniper shootings around Washington, D.C., and in West Virginia -- in which victims were standing or walking -- moving cars were targeted in each of the 10 cases.
While authorities arrested the people believed responsible in six of the cases, investigators and crime experts say catching someone doing highway shootings often can be a matter of luck.
Investigators lack well-defined crime scenes that yield physical evidence, said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. And since the victims aren't acquainted with their attacker, it's much harder to determine a motive.
Fast-moving cars offer thrilling targets for criminals who don't necessarily want to see their victims' faces or blood, he said.
"There's a certain dehumanizing aspect about a car," Fox said. "It's much easier to shoot at metal even if there's something inside."
Fox said, "Most of the usual strategies for investigating crimes have no value. It's basically open the phone lines to anyone who might have a tip and hope you can sort out the good leads from the worthless ones."
Investigators in Columbus have been inundated with leads, about 2,300 tips from the public as of Thursday.
"We're realizing how many shootings there are because we've asked everybody to call us," Franklin County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Steve Martin said at a recent daily news briefing. "Traditionally, they just don't call in and now we're finding out how many gunshots are out there all the time."
Ohio investigators have positively linked seven shootings, saying the bullets all came from the same gun. The seven shootings include three since the death of a 62-year-old woman riding in a friend's car on Interstate 270 shortly before Thanksgiving, but investigators believe all 16 shootings reported since last May are connected.
Most of the shootings occurred within the past two months. A school, cars, trucks and vans also have been hit at various times of the day and night.
Most recently, schools in the area were closed after bullet marks were found on two school buses. The bullets have not been recovered and authorities have yet to determine whether the damage is linked to the highway shootings.
Forwalter said police were obviously frustrated when his wife was shot on a rural Missouri highway years ago as they were driving to a church activity.
"I could see the helplessness on the policemen because this was something they couldn't prevent. It's kind of, they're milling around and watching but they don't really have anywhere to go," said Forwalter, a minister for the United Church of Christ who now lives in northern Indiana's Wanatah.
His wife, Cheryl, required stitches, but avoided serious injury because the bullet did not fracture her skull. She declined an interview request through her husband, who said she still gets upset talking about the shooting.
The suspects were soon captured. Three men and a 16-year-old boy were charged with unlawful use of a weapon after police said they climbed an abandoned 80-foot water tower to randomly shoot at cars. The teenager also was charged with second-degree assault and armed criminal action.
Police found the four walking along the highway shortly after the shooting. No other injuries were reported, but authorities said at least three vehicles were targeted, and dozens of shell casings were found at the tower.
FBI figures show that between 1982 and 2001, there were 327 cases of murder involving a sniper attack, or about 0.1 percent of all reported homicides during the period. However, the data available to the FBI did not include cases where the victims survived or where no one was injured.
In Nevada, a man who confessed to shooting six cars on an interstate in 1995, injuring one man, was pulled over the same day -- about 300 miles away -- because his taillight was out. Washoe County Deputy District Attorney Tom Barb said it otherwise would have been extremely difficult to catch Christopher Merritt.
"There are too many places for people to go in this country to get away from being responsible for the actions they take," Barb said. "If he hadn't gotten caught for committing another crime, we likely would have never figured out who it was."
In 1991, a man shooting randomly at cars hit a school bus on a Massachusetts highway, killing a 14-year-old girl, said State Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Berna. Scott E. Chipman was sentenced to life in prison.
A man arrested on a charge of drunken driving had been at a party where Chipman talked about shooting at cars and the man told police about it, Berna said.
"That's just a lucky break," Berna said.