When a blue Dodge van recently rumbled toward Bruce A. Summers as he waited at a city bus stop, something caught his eye.
It appeared someone was pointing a rifle out one of the van’s windows. Then Summers heard a pop, and his military training kicked in.
“I thought it was a gunshot, so I hit the ground,” said Summers, a 52-year-old U.S. Marine veteran who was injured by mortar fire in 1984 while guarding a military airport in Beirut.
A series of rapid shots from what turned out to be a paintball gun sliced through the air, leaving splashes of gray paint on the bus stop windows at 27th Street and Cleveland Avenue.
One pellet struck Summers in the lower right leg.
“It didn’t hurt (bad), but it stung,” he said.
Since early April, police have investigated 20 other paintball shootings reported throughout Kansas City. The most recent was on June 23 at Gregory Boulevard and Prospect Avenue.
“It is the thrill-seeking behavior of the day apparently in Kansas City,” said Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Victims have included teenagers walking in their neighborhood, couples on their way to a nearby market and people waiting at bus stops. So far, no serious injuries have been reported. But a few victims have sought medical treatment for severe bruises.
Investigators have not identified a pattern or connected the shootings, which have generally occurred between 3 p.m. and midnight, to a specific group or individual.
“We’ve even tried to track the color of paintballs they have used; it’s been almost every color of the rainbow,” said Sgt. Eric Dillenkoffer, a Kansas City police assault squad member investigating the attacks. “There has been no common denominator.”
Paintball shootings also have occurred in some other urban communities throughout the United States.
Last month, several paintballs hit a motorist’s car in Houston as she drove on a busy interstate. In late May, prosecutors in Ohio charged a 20-year-old Columbus man with felonious assault after he fired a paintball gun that blinded an elderly man.
Paintball shooting originated in the 1960s and developed as an outdoor survivalist game. Participants armed with high-powered semi-automatic airguns wear helmets, protective masks and other safety gear. A paintball can travel as fast as 200 mph.
In Kansas City, victims have given investigators only vague vehicle and suspect descriptions. And so far, no one has bragged on social media about the shootings, which has made it difficult for police to generate leads.
“It’s been more of a nuisance than anything else,” Dillenkoffer said.
Several aspects of the paintball shootings are parallel to vandalism: they appear to be random, have no geographic pattern and do not target a specific group, Novak said.
But instead of damaging property, the perpetrators inflict physical and psychological pain, he said.
“It is thrill-seeking and causing problems at someone’s expense,” he said. “They (the shooters) also are probably not fully understanding how much danger they are putting themselves in.”
Shooting people with paintballs is extremely dangerous behavior, Novak said. The paintballers could be susceptible to retaliatory violence if they pick the wrong person or the wrong area for their actions.
“If they are truly doing drive-by paintball shootings, man that looks a lot like a drive-by shooting,” Novak said.
On June 19, paintballs whizzed toward Vikalp Thakor and a co-worker as they took a brief walk after lunch.
“They drove real close to us and just shot at us,” said the 36-year-old who works for a biotech company in south Kansas City.
At first, the men thought the two-door silver-colored vehicle had run over something on the road and flattened a tire. But Thakor’s 35-year-old co-worker felt a sharp pain in his lower back and saw green paint splashed on his shirt.
The vehicle did a U-turn and drove back toward the two men. Someone inside pointed the paintball gun through the sunroof.
Thakor ran in the opposite direction and his co-worker dashed behind a tree as the gunman squeezed off eight more shots.
This time, no one was hit.
“I didn’t think anyone would do something like this,” Thakor said. “When we realized what happened, we were really scared.”