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Tank's Driver Beset by Drug, Money Problems

May 19, 1995|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — Shawn Timothy Nelson, the former Army tank crewman slain by police after going on a destructive urban rampage in a stolen M-60 tank, had talked about suicide and was tormented by family, financial and drug woes, police and friends said Thursday.

Nelson's wild ride Wednesday evening left streets and freeways looking like battlegrounds. It culminated on a freeway near a hospital with which he had been embroiled in a legal fight. Detectives are investigating the possibility that Nelson was bound for the hospital on some kind of a revenge mission, according to San Diego police spokesman Bill Robinson, but they have not yet determined a motive or a target.

"He never made a specific threat," said San Diego Police Capt. Tom Hall. He described Nelson as a divorced, self-employed plumber who had just broken up with his girlfriend, "had not been working lately and had been acting rather strangely."

Nelson's brother, Scott, told reporters Thursday: "The man who died yesterday was only a shell of the person we loved. The real Shawn died two years ago at the hands of drugs and alcohol. We are very sorry for all the damage done and very thankful that no one was hurt."

In recent years, Nelson's parents died of cancer, he lost his job and he broke his neck in an accident. He was about to be evicted from his house, his brother said. Although tests are not complete, Scott Nelson told reporters, a coroner's investigator said the dead man smelled of alcohol.

Scott Nelson did not criticize the shooting of his brother by an officer atop the tank, a frenzied scene captured by news cameras.

"I don't want to say anything about the police," Nelson said. "They were doing their job."

The theft of the tank from a California National Guard armory prompted the city's mayor to fire off an angry letter Thursday, asking Gov. Pete Wilson to order an investigation into security at the facility.

"I am extremely concerned about the ease with which the individual was able to enter the National Guard Armory," said Mayor Susan Golding in the letter. "The National Guard armory houses arsenals of military hardware and equipment that when fallen into the wrong hands can be deadly. The security measures that were in place at the time are clearly unacceptable."

And a National Guard spokesman acknowledged Thursday that vehicles entering the grounds are not checked and credentials are not required, despite a security alert imposed after last month's bomb attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"We will heighten our security effort," said Col. Robert Logan. As a precautionary measure, the Guard has removed batteries from the 28 tanks used for monthly training exercises in Southern California, Logan said.

About 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the 35-year-old Nelson, who once served in an Army tank battalion in Germany, drove his Chevrolet van with the personalized license plates "KAN FIX" into the armory north of downtown. He was shirtless and looked disheveled, according to a neighbor who saw him leave home hurriedly about 6 p.m., but military personnel did not challenge him. He broke into three padlocked tanks, succeeded in starting the third and rumbled over a chain-link fence, police said.

Then he wreaked about 22 minutes and six miles of havoc: He rammed at least 40 vehicles, slightly injuring a mother and child by smashing into their van, attempted to hit pursuing police cars and plowed into bridges, utility poles, fire hydrants, signal lights, a bus bench and finally a concrete freeway divider, where the tank became stuck in a cloud of dust.

Four of the dozens of converging police officers clambered onto the still-running tank and wrested open a locked hatch with bolt cutters. One of the four officers was a tank crew veteran in the Marine reserves who had been ordered to the scene because of his expertise.

After Nelson refused commands to surrender and relinquish the controls, an officer fired one shot into the tank and wounded him fatally in the upper right shoulder, Hall said.

Police said the shooting was justified because they had to stop the bizarre chase before the driver killed someone with the formidable armored vehicle, which police have no armament capable of engaging. The officers also did not know whether Nelson had a gun, police said.

"You've got a [53-ton] vehicle driven by someone purposely hitting vehicles that are occupied," Hall said. "That is a serious threat to public safety."

Although a tread came off the tank when Nelson tried to swerve over the divider into oncoming traffic lanes, it was not clear to the officers that the tank was disabled and the officer with military experience believed that Nelson had shifted gears to perform a spinning maneuver used to dislodge stalled tanks, police commanders said.

"If he had not crashed into that median, we would have been in big trouble," said Assistant Chief George Saldamando. "He was still actively trying to break loose. I don't know how nobody else was killed."

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