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Police Seek Tips in 10 Shootings on Ohio Highway

Woman, 62, is gunned down. Investigators are reluctant to blame the attacks on a sniper.

November 29, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Authorities on Friday pleaded with the public to call in any tip, "no matter how insignificant it may appear," as they investigated a string of 10 shootings along a major highway south of Columbus, Ohio.

Gail Knisley, 62, was killed Tuesday when a bullet tore through the door of a car she was riding in on her way to a doctor's appointment. Franklin County Chief Deputy Sheriff Steve Martin said that "nine other similar shooting-type incidents [have been] committed in the same general area" along Interstate 270 -- eight in the last two months and one in May.

No one was injured in the other shootings. In several cases, however, the bullets punctured tires, shattered windows and ripped through the steel frames of sedans and minivans.

Authorities have said that ballistics tests tie Knisley's shooting to at least one other case. They have studiously avoided using the word "sniper." But it was clear from Martin's news conference Friday that detectives considered it at least a strong possibility that all 10 of the shootings were linked -- and certainly were not accidental.

"To the person or persons responsible for committing these crimes: We desire to open a dialogue with you," Martin said, asking the shooter to call a sheriff's hot line. He also urged residents to report suspicious behavior they might note among acquaintances, such as skipping work unexpectedly, collecting clips about the shootings or altering their physical appearance.

Because earlier shootings had been reported to different agencies, authorities did not realize until Knisley's death that vehicles on I-270 repeatedly had come under fire.

Last month, for instance, authorities investigated as an isolated incident a report by truck driver William Briggs, 56, whose tractor-trailer was shot at as he drove home about 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 19.

"I was coming back from a run and I was almost home, just sitting there listening to my favorite blues guitar player, thinking the roads were pretty empty, when boom, the window blew in," Briggs said. "I'm an old Vietnam vet, and my instincts kicked right in. We were always trained to drive through an ambush, so I just gunned it."

When he stopped a few miles down the road -- his nose cut and glass shards in his hair -- Briggs found a "big old hole" in the passenger side door. The bullet had torn through the driver's window, whistled by his head and lodged in the weather stripping.

"The way things go in the U.S. any more, I thought it could have been a stray bullet" from a gunfight on nearby surface streets, Briggs said.

He reported the shooting to police, who interviewed him for two hours but did not mention any similar cases. Only in the last week, Briggs said, did he realize he was not the only victim of such gunfire.

"Who in the world would do something like that?" he asked. "Whoever it is has to be a coward, to shoot at unarmed people with no chance to defend themselves."

Since the incident, Briggs has driven many times along the heavily wooded stretch of highway where most of the shootings have occurred. "I won't say I'm nervous, but it does make me wonder when I drive out there," he said.

Other drivers were willing to say they're unnerved.

"It just freaks me out," said Keith Evans, 33, who commutes along that stretch of road to his job staffing a security gate for a trucking company. In the last few days, he said, he's seen many more patrol cars along the road, which reassures him. Still, he drives with his cellphone close, prepared to punch in 911.

"I just wish this would get done and over with so it won't be like the sniper out in Washington, D.C.," Evans said. If the perpetrator is not caught soon, he said, "I'm sure there will be more people hurt."

The shots have been fired at different times of day and night, targeting cars, vans, SUVs and trucks in eastbound and westbound lanes of I-270 south of Columbus. The six-lane highway runs past both industrial parks and residential neighborhoods. At least one shooting possibly linked to the case occurred on another nearby highway, Route 23.

Federal, state and local authorities have been assisting the Franklin County Sheriff's Department.

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