Thursday, December 4, 2003

I-270 drivers alert for hidden shooter

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Nothing along this southwestern stretch of the Interstate 270 outerbelt by itself strikes terror into the hearts of the thousands of people who drive this way every day.

But everyone who lives near or travels the stretch between suburban Grove City and Obetz knows of the danger that can strike without warning.

They know that in the past two months at least one gunman has struck nine moving cars and broken a window at an elementary school just off the highway. They know one of those bullets on Nov. 25 killed Gail Knisley, a 62-year-old grandmother from Washington Court House who was a passenger in a car.

Nonetheless, workers replacing a culvert a few blocks from one of the shootings stood in plain sight by the side of the road. People filling up gas tanks at service stations made no effort to conceal themselves.

Still, daily routines have changed.

"I take the back roads now, mostly," said Christy Gool, 33, a mother of two whose Grove City home overlooks the section of interstate that's become internationally infamous. "I'm right next to it."

Gool says she won't let her twin 11-year-old boys ride their dirt bikes in a nearby field. "Not until this is over," she said.

She shrugs at the notion of fear. "I think it's some young kid out there looking for thrills," she said. "I think he's a bad shot."

The Franklin County sheriff's office on Tuesday linked 12 shootings that go back to May 10. Four of the shootings were from the same gun. Investigators wouldn't say why, but they think the others are connected.

On Wednesday, police were investigating a report of a gunshot in woods near the sites of the highway shootings.

Chief Deputy Steve Martin said he didn't think it was connected to the 12 shootings.

Police did not find a weapon when using dogs to search the woods between an apartment complex and a park after a resident reported a gunshot. A helicopter was sent to scour the area. No arrests were reported.

Robin Hammond, 43, said she was walking her dog in the woods when she heard a gunshot.

"I heard it, and I took off," she said after calling the sheriff's department. "I'm still shaking."

A shooting on the Ohio Turnpike that wounded two in a car Tuesday night also did not appear to be connected, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said Wednesday.

A driver and passenger were shot while traveling on the turnpike in Erie County's Berlin Township, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. Two men were arrested.

The beltway incidents have occurred in a mostly rural area of Interstate 270 and Highway 23, at a point where Columbus' skyline just becomes visible to motorists driving north.

It's an area split down the middle by Interstate 71, Cincinnati's link to Columbus and Cleveland. It's not Columbus' prettiest gateway, featuring such roadside attractions as gravel pits and the city's sewage treatment plant.

To the west is Grove City and several new starter-home subdivisions. Exit signs tout the usual assortment of gas stations, convenience stores and fast food chains.

To the east is a hilly, wooded area dominated by the Scioto River. There are farms with empty fields, a few more gas stations and more homes.

At many points along this route, there are hills and inclines lined with brush and trees that look down on the interstate. While the approaching winter has stripped away most of the leaves, it would be difficult at best to spot someone crouched down within a few yards of the asphalt - even during full daylight.

Now, there are more police officers than usual. One state trooper was helping a driver replace a flat tire just before noon Wednesday.

"We do have troopers in that area," said Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Rick Fambro. "We can't say if we've stepped up anything we're doing in that area."

While this is the least-used portion of the outerbelt, as many as 70,000 cars drive through here every day, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.

One of those cars is a truck owned by Gary Carroll of Frankfort, Ohio. The 46-year-old cement truck driver commutes along the beltway Monday through Friday. He also comes this way on weekend trips to visit his mother in suburban Reynoldsburg. He wife, Connie, also travels this road to a job at the Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

He said neither he nor his wife has looked for alternate routes, even though, in recent evenings, he's seen police helicopters flying over the area.

"There's not much you can do," he said. "We look. I don't see where he's hiding at."

Carroll thinks he's a hard target to hit, especially because he's moving at more than 50 mph and the shooter is stationary.

He wishes the police would say more about the weapon the shooter is using so he'd know whether looking around would make a difference.

"They're not saying what the caliber of the gun was, whether there was a scope or anything else," he said. "I mean, there's not much you can do."

E-mail The Associated Press contributed.

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