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Published: Tuesday, 2/10/2004

Latest Ohio shootings linked to Columbus beltway attacks

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
Douglas Berry looks over the Brock Road overpass on I-71, where he says a gunman stood as he fired into his Mercedes. Douglas Berry looks over the Brock Road overpass on I-71, where he says a gunman stood as he fired into his Mercedes.
TIM REVELL / AP Enlarge

COLUMBUS - Witnesses who saw a man shoot two vehicles Sunday from overpasses on I-71 in Fayette County didn't get a detailed enough description for artists to do a composite sketch, authorities said yesterday.

“We've got a pretty vague description: a male, white, 30 to 40 years old in a dark-colored sedan,'' said Chief Deputy Steve Martin of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department. “With the suspects that we're currently investigating, we'll either put them in the mix or take them out.”

Based on evidence collected, investigators said Sunday's day-light shootings are the 22nd and 23rd linked to a “highway sniper” who first struck in May, 2003 and has made national and world news. No one was injured in Sunday's attacks, as the bullets struck the vehicles' hoods.

Chief Deputy Martin said the two Fayette County shootings could not be linked by ballistics evidence to the eight from the same gun, including the shot that killed Washington Court House resident Gail Knisley as a friend drove her to a doctor's appointment on Nov. 25, 2003.

Chief Deputy Martin declined to discuss the evidence obtained Sunday. At least one victim reported seeing the gunman on the overpass with a handgun.

Most of the shootings last year were clustered around the outer belt south of Columbus. But since late last month, the gunman or gunmen have shifted to I-71 and moved southwest.

At about 12:45 a.m. on Jan. 22, a gunshot from the Lambert Road overpass on I-71 struck the hood of a car driven by a Columbus man, about 7.5 miles south of I-270.

At about 2:10 p.m. on Feb. 3, a bullet pierced the windshield of a van driven by a Pittsburgh area man along I-71 in Madison County, about 20 miles from I-270.

And starting at about 11:20 a.m. Sunday, a van and a car were shot only minutes apart from two overpasses on I-71 near Jeffersonville in Fayette County, about 40 miles southwest of Columbus.

Chief Deputy Martin said investigators don't see a pattern and he described the shootings as “random” and aimed at a “target of opportunity.”

“We're all over the page on this thing. We have everything that is shot, from a semi-truck to a minivan,'' he said. The fear that spread through the Columbus area last November and December has spread to small towns like Mount Sterling, which has a population of 1,865 in Madison County near I-71.

“People have started to lock their doors,'' said Mount Sterling Mayor Rob Roy. “This was such a nice, quiet area. We are trying to keep things calmed down, but we are getting into the 21st century like everyone else is.”

Mr. Roy noted that about 1 million vehicles are estimated to pass through Mount Sterling every year to Deer Creek Reservoir and Deer Creek State Park for boating, camping, fishing, hiking, and golf.

“Let's take one-half of one percent of the people who might be thinking of doing something like this and you have got 10,000 people,'' he said.

Yesterday afternoon, Chief Deputy Martin said authorities had received about 100 calls since a press briefing last Sunday afternoon on the two shootings along I-71 in Fayette County.

He asked citizens who live near highway overpasses to be especially vigilant and be on the lookout for a white man in his 30s to 40s who may be driving a dark, small to mid-sized sedan.

“No one knows better than the people living in the areas targeted by the shooter, who belongs and doesn't belong in their respective area. This holds especially true in rural areas where outside traffic is at a minimum,'' he said.

Chief Deputy Martin said the task force of federal, state, and Columbus area investigators has expanded to include law enforcement agencies in Madison, Fayette, and Pickaway counties.

He said the task force also is in contact “on a daily basis” with the FBI's behavioral science experts in Quantico, Va.

Last December, investigators said the person or persons behind the shootings chose the stretch of I-270 south because they may live, work, or drive through the area on a somewhat regular basis.

Columbus-area businesses are offering a $60,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the arrest and indictment of the gunman who killed Mrs. Knisley, 62.



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