Southern California marked its eighth freeway shooting in two months Monday as authorities established a special task force aimed at halting the violence that has baffled detectives and frightened commuters.
The shootings have left four men dead and four injured, but investigators are struggling to generate leads and so far have made no arrests.
The killings within such a short period have attracted intense media interest, marking the third time in two decades that freeway violence in Southern California has generated national headlines.
But law enforcement officials stressed that there was no indication that freeway shootings had actually increased.
"We don't want the public to think there's an onslaught [of shootings]," said CHP Assistant Chief Art Acevedo. "We are actually on pace to have fewer shootings this year, and remember, these shootings are taking place in three counties that are heavily traveled with high populations. Compare that to shootings that take place on a daily basis and that puts a proper perspective on the size of the problem."
The latest incident occurred during the Monday afternoon commute when someone fired through the windshield of a car on the Antelope Valley Freeway in Santa Clarita. Investigators closed the freeway for about an hour to search for shell casings.
Police also disclosed a previously unreported attack that occurred Saturday. A 16-year-old driver on the Golden State Freeway was shot three times, but drove himself to the hospital.
In an effort to reassure motorists, the California Highway Patrol on Monday created an investigative unit to work with local law enforcement agencies to track down leads in the cases, which have been spread across Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties. Officials also boosted the number of marked patrol cars as well as unmarked vehicles such as pickup trucks and compact cars that would cruise the freeway system.
The CHP said it was considering buying camera recording equipment for the freeways that could automatically read license plates. Such a system might allow law enforcement to identify cars that had passed through a particular section of the freeway at a particular time, and allow officers to contact potential witnesses and suspects.
Joel Best, the head of the sociology department at the University of Delaware who studied reports of the freeway violence in 1987, said such incidents are deeply frightening, although the likelihood of dying from freeway violence is far less than the chance of being killed in a traffic accident.
"You sort of assume you're going to get through the day and not be struck by lightning and you're going to get through the day without having someone you don't know shooting you for no reason," said Best.
Best, however, cautioned that such "crime waves" often represent a spike in media coverage of certain types of incidents rather than a true trend.
Indeed, so far this year, 11 freeway shootings have been reported in which a person or vehicle was hit by gunfire within Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department said. That is two fewer than over the same time period a year ago.
In 2004, 36 freeway-related shootings were reported within Los Angeles, and one resulted in a death. In 2003, four people were killed and 46 incidents reported. (The CHP does not have current statistics on the number of freeway shootings.)
Authorities believe that the most recent shootings are unrelated. No common pattern has emerged. Some victims were black, others Latino, and at least one was white.
"We don't believe there is one shooter going around shooting up people," Acevedo said. "We believe these are random acts of violence."
The shootings first attracted attention on March 12 when a 26-year-old Fontana man was fatally shot in the head on the Costa Mesa Freeway in Tustin about 1 p.m. Seventeen days later, in another midday shooting, a 20-year-old college student was fatally shot on the Harbor Freeway in South Los Angeles. In ensuing weeks, two additional shootings occurred on the same two stretches of freeway -- one during daytime, one in the early morning, leaving one man dead and two others injured.
On April 22, a San Bernardino man was shot and killed in an early morning shooting on the Pomona Freeway in Riverside.
This weekend, two teenagers were shot and injured in separate shootings on freeways in the San Fernando Valley.
One attack left a 16-year old wounded early Saturday after an altercation on the Golden State Freeway in Sun Valley. In that case, gestures were exchanged by the victim and suspect on a street leading up to the freeway, and the suspect pursued the victim onto the freeway, Acevedo said at a press briefing Monday at the CHP's Los Angeles County headquarters in Glendale.
LAPD officials described "road rage" as the motive in that shooting, which left a 17-year old passenger uninjured.