Freeway shootings have left 5 dead, drivers with the jitters
By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES — Until a few weeks ago, Jeffrey Mines thought the freeway was the best way to cover the 20 miles from Compton to his sick uncle’s house in Hollywood.
Not any more. A recent bout of unrelated freeway shootings, one of the worst ever to hit Southern California, unnerved Mines so much that he found another route.
"The freeways are just not safe," said Mines, 45, who now stays on city streets. "I am trying to save my life."
At least seven shootings in the past six weeks along major roadways have resulted in five deaths and several injuries. Many drivers have been left with the jitters, and jammed commuter corridors have been brought to a halt while authorities searched for clues.
Officials said the shootings were unconnected.
"There is no trend," said CHP Officer Tony Garrett, a spokesman for the agency. "The public tends to think this is an increase; it’s just random incidents."
Since Feb. 27, a 54-year-old chiropractor died after she was shot in the head while driving on the 10 Freeway in eastern Los Angeles County; a 26-year-old man died after a shooting on the 101 Freeway following an argument on Hollywood Boulevard; and two teenage boys died after they were shot on a state highway in San Diego County.
Another death was being investigated as a possible suicide.
Authorities also were investigating an apparent BB gun attack that shattered rear windows of six vehicles on the 10 Freeway in eastern Los Angeles County.
With witnesses hard to find, no arrests have been made in any of the cases. Some experts believe such high-profile incidents can spawn copycat attacks.
"When you see an event like this happen, it does create a suggestion in the minds of others to do the same thing," said Lawrence Palinkas, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California who researches the psychological effects of shootings and other traumas.
Mines said his nephew had his tires shot out as he drove on a freeway in South Los Angeles in February. He is convinced that drivers are getting more stressed out as they grapple with rising gas prices and the other demands of getting by in Los Angeles.
Police can struggle when investigating the attacks. Officer Jackie Bezart, a spokeswoman for the Long Beach Police Department, said potential witnesses often speed by shooting scenes, unaware that an attack occurred.
Some drivers said they were more worried by reckless drivers than freeway shooters.
"I am more afraid of the guy on the cell phone than I am the sniper," said Don Feeney, 40, who refuels vehicles for a movie production company.
"For the millions of miles that are traveled on California freeways, the number of shootings is few and far between," said Garrett, the CHP spokesman.
Freeway shootings gained widespread notoriety in 1987, when a string of about 50 unrelated shootings in Southern California left at least five people dead and more than a dozen injured. The attacks were blamed in part on increased anger and frustration over rising traffic volume and roadway construction.
In 1998, three attacks on women drivers and several other shootings left at least three dead.
In the summer of 2005, four people were killed in freeway shootings in the Los Angeles area. Police arrested two men in connection with one of the slayings but later dropped charges after they were unable to find a key witness.
The killings prompted the CHP to form a special task force to investigate such crimes. Garrett said the task force had not been reactivated so far in this year’s shootings.
Ray Russell, 65, a superintendent for a construction company, said he worries about highway shooters as he makes his rounds across Los Angeles in his pickup truck.
"It’s something I consider as being a very good possibility," Russell said as he pumped diesel fuel at a service station in Echo Park near downtown. "We have become almost animals with no sense of values, no sense of life. It bothers me."