Although Kansas City police announced Friday they had linked 12 recent highway and roadway shootings in the area, the motive in the string of shootings remains a mystery.
Police Chief Darryl Forté would not reveal which shootings, of the roughly 20 cases under review, investigators had linked or through what evidence. Police still didn’t have any suspect or vehicle information to release, he said, including whether they suspect a lone gunman or a group of shooters in the crimes.
If history is of any help, similar highway shootings across the country have shown the perpetrators usually work alone and many suffer from mental problems.
Just last month, a judge sentenced a 44-year-old Michigan man to 18 to 40 years in prison for shooting at 23 moving vehicles on Interstate 96 and nearby roads between Lansing and Detroit over three days in October 2012. No one was struck. The gunman said in court that he suffered from anxiety and believed drivers were part of a government conspiracy against him. He wanted “to send a message to back off.”
In Columbus, Ohio, in 2005, a judge sentenced a 29-year-old man to 27 years in connection with two dozen sniper shootings in 2003 and 2004 that terrorized motorists. The only victim hit by a bullet, a 62-year-old woman, died.
That man committed the crimes and threw wood and bags of concrete mix off highway overpasses to muffle voices in his head calling him a “wimp,” according to news accounts of his sentencing. Psychiatrists said he had severe delusions that television shows and commercials were mocking him. Toward the end of his spree, he believed firing from overpasses would make news coverage of Michael Jackson stop.
In 2008, two teenagers in Virginia started a shooting spree by firing at a deer. They shifted to shooting at cars, houses and utility equipment because they were drinking beer and frustrated with trying to fix a car. Two motorists suffered minor injuries.
Earlier that year, a north Louisiana man opened fire on a highway and hit an 84-year-old man. He later fired upon two other vehicles before shooting a 30-year-old woman in the face. He told police he was mentally ill.
In the Kansas City area shootings, details from police reports can provide insight into the shooter, according to a nationally recognized retired FBI agent and profiler.
The victims’ ages, genders and vehicles have varied, which shows they’re not being specifically targeted.
“They’re victims of opportunity,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, who retired from the FBI in 2009.
The days and times of the crimes are different too.
“That shows an impulsive nature,” she said. “He’s looking just to shoot whoever comes across his radar screen.”
The crimes don’t appear to provide immediate satisfaction, in the sense that the shooter doesn’t know if he has hit the victims. In fact, some victims didn’t realize for days that a gunman had targeted them.
But the shooter’s reward is the hunt, said O’Toole, who is editor in chief of a new quarterly journal about violence and gender.
“He’s enjoying more being a predator,” she said. “It’s probably exciting for him to be out there, and he has the power over these people.”
Predatory behavior is much more associated with men than women, so the shooter is likely male.
The shooter isn’t thinking about the consequences of his actions and may be immature, O’Toole said, because his repeated crimes increase his chance of arrest.
“It’s illogical,” she said. “But his judgment is obviously flawed anyway.”
The shootings must be important to him for him to have continued despite the risks, she said.
“This is fun behavior for this guy. It makes him feel powerful,” she said. “It makes the rest of his life tolerable.”
The intense police attention this week apparently put off the shooter, who has not struck since Sunday, according to police.
“That shows a lack of confidence,” O’Toole said. “But I think he will resurface again when he feels more comfortable.”
Investigators, including federal agents, met this week for daily briefings to exchange information and strategize. At Friday’s briefing, investigators picked apart the cases to find details that could reveal more about the shooter’s habits. The group, which has received more than 80 tips, plans to reconvene Monday.
Most of the shootings have occurred on highways, with most of those in or near the Three Trails Crossing. Three victims have been wounded.
In all the cases being reviewed, except for the shooting of a Leawood house, the victim was in a moving vehicle and approaching a highway ramp or road split. Police believe the shooter in many cases is also in a vehicle, where he can veer off in a different direction from the victim. But the shooter could be hiding along roadsides in some cases, police said.
Most of the shootings occurred in the evening, starting about 5:30 p.m. Several daytime shootings occurred on Saturdays.
Police released two new reports Friday of cases under review. One involved a woman driving along Bruce R. Watkins Drive between 75th and 85th streets April 4 who heard a loud noise and later found a bullet hole near her trunk. In the other case, a 55-year-old woman came forward this week about a bullet hole in her car. She believes she was shot at 8 p.m. March 28 in the Three Trails Crossing.
Meanwhile, Forté said he believes the area’s highways are safe.
“My mother lives near the Three Trails Crossing, and just this morning I told her it was safe to be out driving,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell my own mother that if I didn’t believe it. It’s probably one of the safest places in town right now.”
He said motorists have a greater chance of being involved in a crash, but that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, keep drivers off the highways.
Investigators don’t know if the shooter’s intent is to kill, but Forté said the shootings could have resulted in homicides.
“I don’t know how you can’t think that you might kill someone when you’re shooting through a door like that,” he said.
Most of the vehicles have been hit on doors, mostly on the passenger side. In one case, a bullet struck a windshield, and in another case a bullet hit a driver’s side window.
The investigation began April 1 when Kansas City police analysts identified four highway shootings that appeared similar. They looked for more cases in the area and identified 13 that were believed to be part of a possible pattern.
That pile of cases grew this week as more victims came forward, analysts looked at older cases and other agencies identified possible cases. The total being examined fluctuates. But police announced Friday that one of the original 13 cases had been excluded because investigators believe it was the result of road rage.
The work of investigators on the cases has impressed Forté, he said.
“I’m confident there will be some positive resolution to this,” he said.