It seemed like the quintessential Southern California story. Frustrated motorists, no longer able to put up with bumper-to-bumper freeway tie-ups, soaring temperatures or the everyday inconveniences of life in general, vent their anger by firing guns at other drivers.
The phenomenon began June, 18, 1987, when a Valencia motorcyclist traveling on the Antelope Valley Freeway was shot at but not hit. Two days later, a 24-year-old father, Rich Lane Bynum of Orange, died after being shot twice in the neck by a motorist on the Santa Ana Freeway. His killer has not been found.
From then on, roadway violence was constantly in the news, with two dozen shootings in Los Angeles County alone. Four other people were killed here and at least a dozen people injured.
Politicians vowed to take strong action. "This sort of cowboy mentality doesn't belong anywhere. God knows, it doesn't belong on the freeway," Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said last July in announcing attempted murder charges against an unemployed Sylmar carpenter who had fired three shots at another car on the Golden State Freeway after a dispute over tailgating.
As suddenly as it started, however, the freeway shooting came to an end. Or did it?
While the California Highway Patrol concedes that roadway flare-ups received an unprecedented amount of attention last summer, spokesman Kent Milton maintained that the phenomenon was nothing new--and not necessarily over.
"As we tried to make clear last summer, it's been going on for at least 10 years," Milton said.
From June, 1987, (when it began keeping track of these incidents) through May 31, the CHP received reports of 2,128 instances of freeway violence statewide. "Don't make those all sound like gun wavers," Milton cautioned. "In an awful lot of those, someone waves something in the air; we don't know what it is."
The CHP has not been keeping separate figures on actual shootings, he said.
After last summer's publicity, the Legislature authorized 150 new CHP positions, about one-third of which have been filled, Milton said. "We're hopeful the increased presence will have the desired effect," he added. Twenty-one of the new officers are assigned to Southern California.
As for the 16 criminal cases filed by Reiner's office last year, results have been mixed. Two were dismissed, and three are pending. Four defendants are fugitives.
Seven cases resulted in convictions, but only three of these led to prison sentences:
- Lewis Meeks, the Sylmar carpenter, was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to three years.
- Thomas Lee Robison, a teen-age transient, pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder and was sentenced to 12 years for shooting and wounding stuntman Henry Kingi during an argument on Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood.
Robison, a passenger in one of the cars, "wasn't even part of the argument," Deputy Dist. Atty. Harold Lynn said.
- Ronald Elam, a member of a Los Angeles car club, was sentenced to 27-years-to-life after being convicted of the murder of Debbie Ann Scott and the attempted murder of Kevin Lewis. Scott, a mother of three who was driving a pickup truck, was shot in the head after she angered Elam by passing him on Avalon Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles.