Sunday, November 30, 2003

Travelers avoiding I-270 after string of shootings

By Liz Oakes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS - In the wake of 11 reported shootings on Interstate 270 that have killed one person and narrowly missed several others, Thanksgiving travelers and residents here were driving out of their way to avoid the circle freeway.

"I go around 270 all the time. I'm a construction worker," said Robert Stewart, 42, of Columbus at the Interstate 71 rest stop in Warren County Saturday.

But "since that lady got killed, I don't take 270. At all."

Gail Knisley, 62, of Washington Court House, was shot and killed on Tuesday as a friend was driving her on a southern stretch of the Columbus beltway for a medical appointment.

The Franklin County Sheriff's Office said last week that authorities have been investigating 11 reports of shootings since May along about a five-mile southern stretch of highway circling the city. The area is about 75 minutes from Cincinnati's I-275 beltway at Interstate 71.

Authorities say the shooting of Knisley - the only person hit by a bullet - was not accidental and is linked to at least one other case after conducting tests on bullets found after the shootings.

Police won't use the word "sniper" but say more shootings may be connected.

Stewart, a roofing contractor, and his brother were returning to Columbus after visiting their sister in Cincinnati. They said the shootings dominated their return-home conversations.

Stewart said he thought kids might be involved. But he's still worried enough to avoid I-270.

The Rev. Raymond Miller, 48, pastor of Truth Baptist Church in West Salem, Ohio, said, "I'll take 71. I won't travel that road."

He found out about the incidents after driving on the interstate on Wednesday to get to a church service, where a member mentioned them.

Now, he says, he won't risk the lives of his family.

"Even if the traffic were bumper-to-bumper going through Columbus, we would still take (71), rather than going around 270," Miller said at the rest stop.

He was returning from Thanksgiving at his daughter's house in Kentucky, and had his pregnant wife, Wanda, his daughter, Leah, 17, and sons, Aaron, 5, and Jedidiah, 5 months, as passengersr.

"I have no desire to risk their lives trying to drive through a dangerous area," he said. "If it's God's providence, sometimes you can't avoid such things.

"Am I worried? Yes."

Speculation: It's not a trucker

Not everyone on the road is so concerned.

Tom Otten, 44, of Price Hill, an Elder alumnus, stopped for gas at the Jeffersonville exit on his way to his alma mater's championship football game on Saturday. He said he happened to be driving I-71 straight through Columbus, but wouldn't mind taking 270.

"It wouldn't matter to me," said Otten, dressed in a purple Elder jersey and pumping gas into a gray Plymouth minivan with "Elder Panthers" painted in large white letters on the side windows.

"I move pretty quick. A moving target's hard to hit," Otten said.

Even those who sometimes must drive stretches of the road where the shootings have occurred as part of their occupation are worried.

Dwayne R. Jones, 38, of New Iberia, La., who drives a tractor-trailer for Covenant Transportation Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn., said he heard other truckers discussing the incidents at a truck stop.

Jones said the truckers were speculating on the shooter. They didn't think it was someone in their business, he said, because a trucker wouldn't aim at fellow truckers.

On Saturday, three Ohio State Highway Patrol cars were parked in the I-270 median from U.S. 62 in the west to U.S. 23 in the east, where many of the shootings have occurred.

Mark Smith, 47, a self-employed interior trim carpenter and a Columbus native, said he has seen twice the normal number of state troopers along the interstate recently. But the increased presence hasn't relieved many residents' minds.

"What relief does that give?" said Smith, pausing outside the Waffle House in Grove City, a Columbus suburb, on U.S. 62. "If a guy wants to shoot you, he's going to shoot you."

Many residents are taking alternate routes to work, he said, stacking up back roads into the city.

"There are friends of mine that are (avoiding) 270," Smith said, but he isn't.

"Catching a bullet is like winning the lottery," he said. "It's one in a million."

E-mail The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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