The Grandview man admits he’s a little nervous behind the wheel these days.
When it comes to taking his daughter to college in the morning, he avoids the more convenient Kansas City highways and maneuvers through backstreets. When he’s driving, he’s looking around.
“I’m more aware of who’s driving around me,” he said. “Before, you really didn’t care.”
Before, he also wouldn’t have worried about using his name in the newspaper.
But now, as authorities in the Kansas City area investigate a spate of roughly 20 roadway shootings in a month — which include three victims who suffered bullet wounds either to their leg or arm — he doesn’t think using his name is a good idea.
“I don’t want someone coming to Grandview tracking me down,” he said.
Indeed, there’s uneasiness and fear around Kansas City.
Random shootings can do that when they victimize people traveling highways and busy roads to and from work, the grocery store or school. And no matter how often experts point out that a person is more likely to be injured in a traffic crash than hit by a bullet in this recent spree, there is still concern.
“You start to get that, ‘It could have been me. Hey, I drive that way,’
” said Ken Novak, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “When it’s violence or incidents that people can say, ‘But for the grace of God go I’ .... that’s going to induce more fear.”
Kansas City police released specific information and reports from some of the shootings last week. On Monday, officials spoke of 13 incidents, three of which occurred in Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit and Leawood.
All of those shootings targeted moving vehicles near highway exits or road splits. Eleven of the incidents occurred on highways, most in or near Three Trails Crossing, also known as the Grandview Triangle.
By Wednesday, after more calls and tips came in and analysis was done, that number had grown to a possible 20 –– and national news outlets were on the story. Two days later, detectives were able to definitively link 12.
“It’s very concerning,” said Danielle Strickland of Kansas City, who travels Interstates 70 and 435 to and from work. “You don’t know which highways they’re going to target.
… I’m definitely making sure I don’t cut anybody off.”
Yet Strickland and others say they can’t let what’s happened paralyze them and they still go about their routine.
“Yes, you always have reservations,” said Vickie Marshall of Kansas City. “But you can’t not continue on living. You have to keep on going and keep your eyes open, be very aware of what’s going on.”
Police, federal agents and Highway Patrol troopers are involved in daily briefings and investigators continue to work leads. But still no suspect information or possible motives have been discussed publicly.
Leaving just anxiety and lingering questions about the random highway violence.
“I think people, generally speaking, can handle just about anything except uncertainty,” said Jeff Lanza, a former FBI agent who now works as a consultant. “If you don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s where the stress comes in. You wonder, where will he strike next?”
The first shooting, according to police reports, happened March 8. The most recent one came on April 6, a week ago today.
In that one, a 57-year-old Blue Springs man said he was driving east on I-435 when he heard two bangs. Though he thought he had run over something on the highway, he soon noticed a pain in his leg that he initially thought was a cramp, according to police reports.
He reached down, touched his calf and saw blood on his hand. He pulled over and called 911.
Police found three bullet holes in the driver-side doors of the man’s vehicle. At the time, police already were investigating a series of incidents.
Kansas City police first noticed a possible trend of shootings on April 3.
“That’s when the analyst first said, ‘Hey we have a couple incidents that have occurred on highways where vehicles have been shot at,’
” said Capt. Tye Grant. “It was only two or three cars at that time.”
The department learned about three shootings that had been reported in other jurisdictions. Then the incidents started to pile up. From April 3 to 6, motorists reported shootings every day — some days two occurred.
“The number quickly rose,” Grant said.
The attacks have occurred mostly at night. Three daytime crimes occurred on Saturdays.
Police think the shooter in most cases used a handgun. Detectives don’t have a reliable description of a suspect to release but think the shooter mostly fired from a vehicle.
Focus has turned to the shooting investigation, with other duties put on hold, Grant said.
The longer it takes to find and arrest a suspect, the greater the apprehension.
“It could be me next,” said Doug Senter of Lee’s Summit as he put gas in his truck Friday afternoon at a station off I-70. “It could be one of my kids.”
For the community psyche, closing the case is crucial, said Brian Houston, co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Missouri.
“We want this to stop obviously, but what we really want to know is who is doing it and why,” Houston said.
When that happens, people understand the risk of such attacks occurring in their lives.
“We know the risk of a car accident and since we know that we can deal with it,” Houston said. With the shootings, “once we have an explanation and know what’s going on, we can make our peace with it.”
Some experts point to the serial shootings in Washington, D.C., in 2002 for similarities to what’s going on in Kansas City.
The attacks crippled that city as people were shot at random. The two shooters, who were linked to 27 shootings, including 10 fatalities in the Washington area, used a high-powered rifle, firing from the trunk of a car. They were later convicted.
Others say what happened in Ohio, near Columbus, in 2003 and early 2004 more fits the Kansas City situation. For months, the “Highway Shooter” kept authorities at bay. More than 5,000 tips poured in.
The Ohio suspect became known for going to overpasses in the area and shooting at cars below. One woman was killed in the spree and two dozen shootings were reported.
“People were definitely afraid,” said Franklin County (Ohio) Sheriff Zach Scott, who back then was a lead detective on the investigation. “They wouldn’t drive on certain freeways.
… It has an impact on the community.”
As news of the shootings aired on TV and appeared in newspapers in Ohio, the suspect moved around, Scott said. The investigation eventually included more than 10 agencies and encompassed at least three counties.
The main focus for Ohio authorities was the collaborative work of a task force and communication with the public.
“We kept the community apprised of what was going on,” Scott said. “It’s everyone’s problem, not just a cops problem.”
A tip from a resident eventually led to the suspect, who was later sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Grant agrees that the public’s help is crucial.
“We don’t solve the crime, the community solves the crime,” he said. “Even if it seems trivial to somebody else, it could be something very important to us.”
In the Kansas City area, agencies do have more officers on the street, which some drivers say makes them feel safer.
“We’re asking for people to keep their eyes open,” said Leawood Police Maj. Troy Rettig. “If they see something suspicious, make note of it and get the information to us as soon as they can.
… These areas are very populated, there are a lot of eyes out there, and we’re asking people to help us out if they can.”
On his way home one night last week, the man from Grandview saw 10 to 15 cars from different law enforcement agencies. They were parked along the roadways at various spots.
“They’re not gunning for speeders,” the man said. “They’re just sitting there, watching.”