A recent burst of sniper shootings along an Ohio highway has been linked to earlier shootings 25 miles to the north, leaving experts fearful that the gunman has widened his comfort zone and is looking for more prey.
“This particular individual is definitely getting more brazen,” said Franklin County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Steve Martin after authorities linked two shootings on Sunday to the string of attacks that have terrorized the community for months and left one person dead.
The growing target area could be part of a strategy to throw off the police and “freak out an additional portion of the population,” said N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist associated with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The serial shootings — 23 in all — began in May, though most have occurred since mid-October. The shootings have happened at various times of the day and night.
Investigators on Monday linked the most recent gunfire to the bulk of the highway shootings, but would say only that the connection wasn’t based on ballistics tests.
Bullets have shattered windshields, flattened tires and pierced the aluminum frame of cars, vans, delivery trucks and tractor-trailers. Shots have dented school buses and broken a school window. Homes also have been hit, with one bullet found in a bathtub. The only person hit so far has been killed.
Until last month, the gunfire was scattered along or near Interstate 270, a busy highway that encircles Columbus. The last four cases, including two shootings on Sunday, skipped outside that area, moving progressively farther southwest on Interstate 71.
The freeway bisects the state from Cincinnati to Cleveland and carries an average of 34,000 vehicles a day in the area, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.
“The logical thing is to go down the road a bit,” where people would be less concerned, Berrill said. Police also might not be as prepared as they would be in the original crime zone.
Serial criminals often start in the area where they live or work, said Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI agent who examined patterns of criminal behavior. As they continue to be successful, they will move out of their comfort zone and become more emboldened, he and other experts say.
“He likes the challenge,” Van Zandt said. “He likes the possibility of being caught. He likes beating the authorities.”
On Sunday, a minivan and a Mercedes were hit on I-71 about 40 miles southwest of Columbus and — 25 miles outside the sniper’s original target area.
“It’s obvious our target area has increased,” Martin said.
Suspect: white male
The latest shootings also gave investigators their best description yet: a white man of medium build in his 30s or 40s and a black sports car. One victim said he saw the man fire from an overpass.
Pointing to the initial false descriptions in the Washington, D.C., sniper case, experts say eyewitness information often is unreliable. However, the description in the highway shootings does make sense, they say.
“This is not a childish prank,” said Jack Levin, a criminologist and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University. “This is an adult who is organized and quite crafty in the way he carries out the crime.”
Serial criminals often are middle-aged men who may have suffered a financial disaster or other calamity, he said. “Some decide not to get even with a spouse or boss, but with the whole community,” Levin said.
But Van Zandt warned that authorities need to make clear that people should not exclude possible suspects because of the description. “My fear for you always is a copycat,” he said.
Martin said the shootings are a new phenomenon for investigators. “We’re all over the page on this,” he said. “We think it is random. This is a target of opportunity.”