COLUMBUS - Authorities yesterday said the reward for the tip that leads to the arrest of the gunman or gunmen behind a series of sniper-style shootings along the south outer belt has increased to $30,000.
Investigators also tried to tamp down talk that the investigation has stalled or slowed.
“The fact that there is a lull in the number of reported shooting incidents in the I-270 area has only allowed investigators the opportunity to make quicker progress on covering the leads already phoned in, “ said Chief Deputy Steve Martin of the Franklin County Sheriff s Department. He is the spokesman for the task force of investigators.
On Tuesday, investigators announced the sixth ballistic match to the same weapon that killed Gail Knisley, 62, at about 10 a.m. on Nov. 25 along I-270 south of Columbus.
Police said the bullet was fired no later than Nov. 15 into an empty van for sale at a used car lot on the south side of Columbus.
The last gunshot linked to the same weapon used to kill Mrs. Knisley was fired into a house in Obetz along I-270 on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1. No one was home.
Authorities said in addition to the six ballistic matches, nine other shootings are “related” along a seven-mile stretch of I-270.
Mrs. Knisley, of Washington Court House, is the only person struck by a bullet and killed in the 15 shootings. The first occurred May 10, the second on Aug. 31, and the remainder since Oct. 10.
In addition to shots fired at motorists along I-270 and on roadways near the freeway, the gunman or gunmen have fired shots into a vacant elementary school, a house in Obetz along the freeway, and a used car lot that is 1.4 miles north of the westbound lanes of I-270.
On Dec. 1, authorities announced a $10,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the arrest and indictment of the freeway shooter or shooters. The reward, offered by several Columbus-area businesses, was increased to $20,000 on Dec. 7 and $30,000 yesterday.
Also yesterday, the Ohio Department of Transportation said it had placed two employees on paid leave during an investigation into their discovery of a handgun Dec. 7 along the ramp from I-270 south to U.S. 40 west - on the west side of Columbus.
ODOT spokesman Michelle May said as three employees put up signs that morning, transportation manager Jimmie S. Gaines, 49, found a 380-caliber handgun in the grass.
Mr. Gaines and route marker Chris A. Chesser, 44, handled and unloaded the gun before placing it in a plastic bag and storing it in the glove compartment of an ODOT truck, Ms. May said.
The workers didn t report finding the gun until two days later, Ms. May said.
The gun was turned over to the Ohio Highway Patrol, ODOT has placed Mr. Gaines and Mr. Chesser on paid leave, and the task force interviewing the shootings has interviewed the men.
The ODOT workers found the gun about 15 hours after the state shut down a section of I-270 for about two hours as investigators used vehicles and laser beams to try to pinpoint the trajectory of bullets that have hit vehicles since May 10.
“This is unacceptable and egregious behavior that defies our policies and common sense,” ODOT Director Gordon Proctor said. “Pending the outcome of our investigation, these employees face serious disciplinary consequences up to and including dismissal.”
A third employee, highway maintenance worker Rex A. Sullivan, knew the gun had been found, but he didn t handle it and wasn t in a supervisory position, Ms. May said. Mr. Sullivan remains on the job.
Chief Deputy Martin said the state patrol is working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to try to pinpoint the gun s owner, but he said “right now it is not pertinent” to the investigation.
“We d encourage anybody who would find anything - a weapon, any kinds of bullets, shell casings - to please report that to our tip line and we ll get someone out there as soon as possible,” he said.