A spree of highway shootings in Phoenix, Arizona, over the last two weeks has rattled residents and caused a public safety official to brand the random attacks as domestic terrorism. Since August 29, at least 11 vehicles traveling along an eight-mile stretch of I-10 that bisects the city have been struck with bullets. Though only one person has been injured, the nature of the shootings has left the area’s half-million commuters scrambling to chart new routes to work and school.
If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have. The serial roadway shooter captured the attention of the American public in 2002 when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the Washington, D.C., area with their rolling sniper nest for three weeks. By the time the so-called Beltway shooters were captured by authorities, the pair had killed ten people in parking lots, gas stations, and other locations along Interstate 95. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to blockbuster plots of mass fear: a survey of news reports from the last few years shows that serial shootings occur with startling regularity on America’s roadways, occurring every few years.
Earlier this summer, Fort Collins, Colorado, grappled with its own “serial shooting situation,” when over the span of six weeks, a bicyclist and a pedestrian were killed and a motorist was wounded by bullets fired at random on rural roads and highways. Police continue to investigate whether the unsolved shootings are connected. The state of Missouri was crippled last March and April by reports of more than a dozen random shootings on Kansas City-area highways. A medical supply company employee named Mohammad Pedro was arrested and charged with nine of the incidents, in which two people were wounded. Authorities say Pedro fired from his car at vehicles as they entered and exited the highway. In 2012, the “Michigan Sniper” shot two dozen cars over the course of three days along a four-county stretch of I-96. When he was arrested, Raulie Casteel, a 43-year-old unemployed geologist who suffered from delusional and paranoid thinking, said he believed his targets were part of a government conspiracy. He later testified that being stuck in traffic made him anxious.
And as police continue their investigation in Phoenix, residents are haunted by the memory of a similar episode a decade ago. Between May 2005 and August 2006, the city and its suburb of Mesa were terrorized by “The Serial Shooter(s),” as media organizations dubbed them, who authorities believe were responsible for as many as 29 drive-by shootings, which resulted in eight deaths. Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman primarily targeted bicyclists and pedestrians, but the pair killed at least 10 animals — including dogs and horses — and riddled a bartending school with bullets. Dieteman, who received a sentence of life without parole, referred to the attacks as “random recreational violence,” court documents show. Even those deadly attacks weren’t Phoenix’s first: In the early 1990s on the city’s highways, at least four people were killed in a flurry of shootings. The perpetrator was never caught.
Motives for serial roadway shootings vary, and in some cases are never determined. Thomas Dillon, a serial sniper who used a high-powered Mauser rifle to randomly murder five strangers along the byways of rural Ohio in the 1990s, told 60 Minutes in 2002, just as the Beltway shootings wound down, that there was no rhyme or reason to how he selected his targets. Jeffrey Smalldon, the forensic psychologist who evaluated Dillon, said the gunman was acting out fantastical roles, like president or rock star, “all linked together by the theme of power, prestige, influence, and grandiosity” — but also knew right from wrong.
Similarly, Eric Haney, a former Delta Force sniper who investigated the Beltway shootings, recently told a television interviewer that whoever is responsible for the shooting campaign in Phoenix is “playing out some sort of a fantasy, a juvenile mental game.” Alexander E. Obolsky, a Chicago-based forensic psychiatrist, echoed Haney this week in USA Today, saying, “He feels like god and wants to act like god.”
Colonel Frank Milstead of the Arizona Department of Public Safety scuttled comparisons between the recent Phoenix shootings and the Beltway sniper attacks — the latter, he notes, took place over a much wider area and targeted people rather than vehicles. Speaking with the Washington Post, Milstead said that “a number of different weapons” have been used in Phoenix, unlike 13 years ago, when Muhammad and Malvo killed their targets with a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle. Arizona police are not sure whether the bullets and other projectiles are coming from another car or being fired from a distance. But it was Milstead who took the dramatic step of labeling the Phoenix attacks as domestic terrorism.
“Anytime you have multiple shootings against American citizens on a highway, that’s terrorism,” he said at a press conference last week.
Past efforts to label high-profile shooting incidents — Charleston, Fort Hood, and Chapel Hill — as terrorism have not stuck, because they don’t meet the criteria set forth by the USA PATRIOT Act. But Milstead’s charge has precedent: Casteel, the I-96 shooter, was the first person to be charged with terrorism under Michigan state law. He was sentenced to 18 to 40 years in prison.
[Photo: AP/Matt York]