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Published: Saturday, 2/7/2004

Bullet that hit van on I-71 linked to I-270 shootings


COLUMBUS - The gunman who killed a 62-year-old woman in November along I-270 has struck again, expanding the series of shootings to a rural county about 20 miles from the stretch of the Columbus outer belt where most of the shootings have occurred.

Yesterday, investigators said ballistic tests show a bullet that pierced the windshield of a van driven by a Pittsburgh-area man on Tuesday in Madison County came from the same weapon that killed Gail Knisley and has been used in seven other shootings. No one else has been injured.

The announcement raises the number of related shootings to 21 since May, 2003 - and expands the search for the gunman or gunmen from southern Franklin County into a rural county with a population of about 40,000.

John W. Caito, 49, told investigators that he was driving a company van for Trans-American Automation at about 2:10 p.m. on Tuesday when something struck the driver's side of his windshield.

Mr. Caito, who was driving north on I-71 in Madison County about two miles north of State Rt. 56, told police he initially thought the van had been hit by a rock.

Shortly after Mr. Caito returned home to Scott Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh, he checked the van's windshield and saw what looked like a bullet hole, said Chief Deputy Steve Martin of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department.

Mr. Caito declined to comment last night when contacted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Pennsylvania State Police examined the van and recovered a bullet fragment from the dashboard. Yesterday, authorities said ballistics experts agreed that the bullet fragment is “positively linked” to the weapon used to kill Mrs. Knisley, a Washington Court House resident who was hit by a bullet as a friend drove her to a doctor's appointment.

Authorities have refused to disclose the type of weapon or the caliber of the bullet.

The bullet apparently was fired from a highway overpass, but Mr. Caito didn't see the gunman, Chief Deputy Martin said. Mr. Caito will be interviewed soon by the task force investigating the series of shootings, he added.

At about 9 a.m. yesterday, the Franklin County Sheriff's Department received a phone call from a motorist who said he was driving on I-270 when he heard a man say over a CB radio that he was the “sniper” and he was going to kill someone.

“There is no information at this time indicating that the message heard was from the shooter involved in these incidents,” Chief Deputy Martin said.

The task force of federal, state, and Columbus-area investigators met yesterday with law enforcement agencies from Madison, Fayette, and Pickaway counties to brief them on the investigation.

Patrols by marked and unmarked vehicles will be stepped up in those counties, Chief Deputy Martin said.

“This person is still out there, and every time this person or persons does something, the chances of catching that individual or individuals is greater,” he said.

From May 10 until Nov. 11, when an empty elementary school was targeted, the shooter or shooters struck along a seven-mile section of I-270.

But since then, the shootings have spread to a used car lot on High Street north of I-270, an empty house in the Columbus suburb of Obetz, an occupied house in a Columbus neighborhood near I-71 and I-270, and two school buses near I-70.

The mayor of London, which is the county seat of Madison, said the shooter's move into the rural county that has stretches of both I-71 and I-70 has “everybody on pins and needles.”

“The closer it gets to home, the more worried I become,” said David Eades, who has been mayor since 1992. “It is a constant worry just driving down the highway.”

Mr. Eades said his theory for why the shootings have spread to Madison County is that “there are so many patrols and so much heat in Franklin County that he is wandering away from that area a little bit.”

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