By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS - Columbus' serial highway shooter has shifted southward - closer to Greater Cincinnati - leaving travelers, shoppers and police with one eye on the road and the other on the elusive gunman's favorite perch: overpasses.
Evidence from a pair of weekend vehicle shootings on Interstate 71 in Fayette County links them to a series of nearly two dozen Columbus-area shootings, authorities confirmed Monday. But they wouldn't reveal what clues had surfaced from these latest, southernmost incidents.
Sunday's shootings struck about an hour's drive north of Cincinnati, and only 30 minutes from the Ohio State Highway Patrol's Lebanon post. "We are on a heightened level of alert," Sgt. Pete Combs said Monday, "because it appears as though (the shooter) might be moving down this direction - and we're going to do everything possible to circumvent that."
Troopers were ordered to check on the Warren County segment of I-71 every couple hours Monday. They also remain on the lookout for anyone who appears suspicious or fits witnesses' descriptions of a gunman who fired from a pair of I-71 overpasses: a white male in his 30s or 40s, driving a dark-colored, small- or mid-sized sedan.
"This particular individual is definitely getting more brazen," Steve Martin, chief deputy of the Franklin County Sheriff's Office, which heads a task force of local, state and federal authorities working to solve the months-long string of shootings.
The fact that the gunman has now struck in seven jurisdictions and expanded his area of operation southward presents challenges for law-enforcement officials, Martin acknowledged. But he said authorities would shift resources as needed to follow the shootings.
Among 23 related shootings dating back to May, the shooter has killed one passenger in a vehicle; all the other bullets hit buildings and vehicles.
"I'm not going to comment on whether this guy is good (at shooting) or bad; he just shoots a lot," Martin said.
The most recent shooting happened about 3 miles north of the popular Jeffersonville outlet stores. A bullet fired from one overpass struck a Mercedes that Douglas Berry, 51, of Ontario, was driving after attending a friend's wedding in Cincinnati. Another bullet, fired from a second overpass around the same time, struck the minivan of Cheryl Shreyer, 53, of Baltimore, Ohio. Neither motorist was hurt.
Douglas Berry looks back to the overpass at Brock Road where he was shot at Sunday. The bullet hole in his Mercedes can be seen at bottom.
Berry was staying at his parents' home in Cincinnati Monday. A woman who identified herself as his mother declined to give her name for security reasons, but said her son is a bundle of nerves.
She declined to talk about the Sunday sniper incident.
Investigators haven't identified a pattern in the gunman's actions, Martin said, because the shooter's bullets have hit all manner of vehicles, "from a semi truck to a mini-van," Martin said. "We think this is random - that's exactly what it is; it's a target of opportunity."
At the Flying J Travel Plaza at Ohio 41 and I-71, just south of Sunday's shootings, patrons and employees said they felt apprehensive, but not panicked.
Lauren Scott, a trucker hauling exotic and specialty cars from Texas to Columbus, said, "I asked my company whether I could get hazard pay for coming up here. They said, 'No. Just duck bullets.'"
A bit further south, at the Jeffersonville outlets, shopper Cheryl Mitchem said it did seem eerie that the latest shootings happened close to the community where she lives, Washington Court House. That also was the home of Gail Knisley, 62, the only person killed in the series of shootings. Investigators began to link the highway shootings after she was shot to death Nov. 25 while riding in a vehicle on Interstate 270.
Mitchem, grasping shopping bags from the Bath & Body Works and Bass stores, said news of the shootings wouldn't deter her from her favorite stores. But, she said, "It keeps you on your toes ... Look on both sides of the road as you drive."
The key to arresting the gunman will probably be tips from the public, Martin said, because "law enforcement cannot be everywhere at once, but citizens can."
Witnesses on Sunday didn't get close enough to get a good look at the suspect's face or other identifying features, but the general descriptions they provided are the best that have surfaced to date, Martin said.
So far, authorities have received more than 4,000 tips - including more than 100 since Sunday; nearly 90 percent of the leads have been checked but that still leaves "numerous persons of interest or suspects that have not been eliminated from the investigation," Martin said.
Investigators have heard from a couple people purporting to be the shooter - but have ruled out those people. Martin renewed his appeal to the shooter or anyone with information to call the tip line: (614) 462-4646.
A $60,000 reward is offered for information that leads to the arrest and indictment of Knisley's killer.
The Mansfield News Journal contributed to this report.
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