Manhunt is detailed as Grandview man is charged in area highway shootings

04/18/2014 1:12 PM

04/20/2014 5:08 PM

Like pieces of a puzzle, Kansas City police used tips about an erratic driver, a fingerprint from a plastic bag of shell casings and a bullet from a house that was shot last year to link Mohammed Whitaker, 27, to a series of recent highway shootings.

Jackson County prosecutors on Friday announced 18 felony charges against Whitaker involving nine separate shootings. Two of the charges relate to cases in which victims were wounded. In each case, police recovered, tested and matched spent .380-caliber bullets.

Whitaker remained in jail Friday in lieu of a $1 million cash-only bond. While being transferred between the police jail and the county jail, Whitaker shook his head, no, when asked by a Star reporter whether he committed the shootings, which had terrorized motorists and captured national attention.

Authorities at Friday’s news conference said they knew of no motive, they believe Whitaker acted alone and that he had little criminal record.

Officers had been trailing Whitaker for about a week while they finished testing evidence and gathering new information. While under surveillance, police saw Whitaker allegedly driving aggressively and stalking potential victims by pacing cars in their blind spots on highways, according to court records. Whitaker even braked rapidly to allow another motorist to pull up alongside. Whitaker turned to face the motorist, not knowing he was an undercover officer, the records show.

Undercover officers also watched as Whitaker met with a man to buy a handgun with a laser-sight in the Bass Pro Shops parking lot in Independence on April 11 — four days after police publicly announced they were investigating a possible serial shooter. The sale fell through because Whitaker refused to provide identification to the seller, court records said.

On Sunday, police saw him driving in heavy rain with his windows rolled down near the Three Trails Crossing wearing sunglasses and a hoodie.

The risk of allowing Whitaker to remain free appeared to hit a breaking point for police Wednesday night when they observed Whitaker following a white Honda near Interstate 49 and 140th Street. Whitaker intentionally crossed all lanes of traffic with his eyes trained on the Honda and “veered directly at the Honda,” narrowly missing it, according to court records.

Police arrested Whitaker at his Grandview apartment Thursday night, believing they had enough evidence to justify it. Their investigation continues.

Police found a .380-caliber gun, .380-caliber ammunition, a black bandana and a green leafy substance inside his dresser in Whitaker’s apartment, where he apparently lived alone.

Whitaker told detectives he didn’t know much about the shootings, then said he was a victim of the “highway shooter” but couldn’t explain why he had a bullet hole on the inside, not outside, of his car, according to court records. He said he didn’t own a gun but couldn’t explain why police found one in his dresser. He declined to take responsibility but wept at times in the interrogation room, police said.

The arrest shocked Whitaker’s father, Edward Whitaker, of Cairo, Ill.

“I thought everything was OK with him,” he said. “I just thought he was working and trying to pay off his college bills.”

Mohammed Whitaker last called his father April 7 to ask for money to get him through until his payday. His father sent him $50, wanting to help him with gas and food.

That same day, according to court records, Mohammed Whitaker used a credit card to buy $27.13 worth of ammunition from an Overland Park gun store.

Investigators first noticed the pattern of highway and roadway shootings in early April when a police analyst identified four Kansas City cases and three cases from other cities that bore similarities. Police later identified a total of about 20 similar incidents.

“If the analyst didn’t put that together at the Law Enforcement Resource Center,” Police Chief Darryl Fort said at a news conference Friday, “we probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Most of the shootings occurred in Kansas City, with most in or near the Three Trails Crossing. All of the victims were shot at while approaching highway ramps or road splits, allowing the gunman to veer off in a different direction from the victim.

During the investigation, police received various descriptions of suspect vehicles but never publicly released a description. A man who was shot at in Leawood told police the shooter wore a ski mask, glasses and a hood and drove a metallic green car.

Police positively linked 12 shootings through ballistic evidence. Three of those cases have not resulted in criminal charges, including one case in which a victim was wounded. More charges may be added, prosecutors said.

Local job

Mohammed Whitaker was born in Indiana, graduated from high school in Moberly, Mo., and attended but later dropped out of a technical college. He worked various temporary jobs and most recently at OptumRx, a medical supply company in Overland Park, his father said.

Whitaker is on administrative leave from his job at OptumRx, the division of UnitedHealth Group that fills prescriptions, a company spokesman said.

On his Facebook page, Whitaker went by his middle name, Pedro. But his friends at Moberly High School, class of 2004, knew him as Mohammed, an easy-going and friendly kid.

“We kind of hung out with him,” said classmate Lindsay Still Swoboda, who works at a credit union in Columbia. “He was a pretty decent person. He was friends with everybody.”

Michael Vanella, who was a year younger but later married one of Whitaker’s classmates, agreed.

“He was a decent guy,” said Vanella, also of Columbia.

On his Facebook page, Whitaker wrote that he started work last year at UnitedHealth Group in the medical billings and collections department. But the public page doesn’t show much else, other than he changed his profile picture periodically. The most recent one has him sitting on a bed, smiling, cellphone in one hand and a canned beverage in the other.

Whitaker had moved into his residence in Grandview in January after moving out of a home in south Kansas City that he shared with several roommates.

“To my knowledge, he’s never fired a gun,” said his father, who had heard of the shootings in Kansas City, but he “never had a dream or clue (his son) could be involved in something like that.”

A high school friend of Mohammed Whitaker recognized Whitaker’s image on television Thursday night and called Whitaker’s brother, who called their dad.

The father, who is divorced, said Friday afternoon he was trying to figure out how to call his son behind bars. Whitaker has two brothers and one sister.

Break in case

The highway shootings investigation began to point toward Whitaker last week after two witnesses reported erratic, road-rage type behavior by a driver of a green car. One witness provided an Illinois license plate that police tracked to Whitaker’s father.

The car towed by police Thursday night bore Illinois license plates registered to Edward Whitaker, who said he recently paid for the plates for a white Buick he gave to his son. But the Buick had transmission problems, so his son began driving a different car recently. His son apparently moved the plates from the Buick to the Dodge Neon.

Court records showed police used their license plate reader database to track the plate in south Kansas City. The investigation showed the plate had been on three different vehicles — a white Buick, a silver Monte Carlo and a dark green vehicle.

License plate reader data showed the plate at a home in the 9600 block of Beacon, where Whitaker sometimes stayed last year. Patrol officers who work the area told investigators they remembered taking a shooting call in October at the house directly behind the address where the car had been parked.

Police tested a .380-caliber bullet from that crime, and it matched 11 bullets recovered from victims during the recent spree on area highways and roadways, according to court records.

The woman who lives behind the house on Beacon said she and her husband were home about 9:30 p.m. Oct. 12 when they heard a loud noise. They later saw a hole in their master bathroom wall and a bullet on the floor. When asked about Whitaker on Friday, Quenlin Tolbert said she didn’t know him or why he would allegedly shoot at her home.

“We were new to the neighborhood, so we really didn’t know anybody,” she said.

In other evidence cited against Whitaker, investigators turned up a plastic Wal-Mart bag containing shell casings and empty ammunition boxes near 104th Street and Grandview Road last week. A fingerprint on the bag and a fingerprint on the inside flap of a box matched Whitaker, court records said.

At the news conference Friday, Mayor Sly James praised the public for providing valuable information to the investigation.

“It’s only through doing that, that we can stop people from terrorizing this city,” he said. “It does take a little bravery, but at the end of the day, it’s better than living in fear.”