String of Freeway Shootings In L.A. Area Has Left 4 Dead

A police detective investigates the scene of a shooting on the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles. A rash of highway shootings since mid-March has scared drivers across Southern California.
A police detective investigates the scene of a shooting on the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles. A rash of highway shootings since mid-March has scared drivers across Southern California. (By Luis Sinco -- Associated Press)
By Kimberly Edds
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

LOS ANGELES, May 2 -- Four Southern California drivers have been shot to death and four more have been wounded -- including two last weekend -- in a seven-week epidemic of freeway violence that has stymied investigators and sent shivers through car-dependent Los Angeles.

Authorities said they do not believe the shootings are linked, but the newest rash of car-to-car shootings is the deadliest period of freeway violence to hit Southern California since five people were killed and 11 were wounded during the summer of 1987.

Those shootings prompted humor -- a local radio station gave away bumper stickers that said "Don't shoot. I'm driving as fast as I can." But they also led some anxious drivers to install bulletproof glass in their cars and many others to begin packing guns in their glove boxes.

Freeway shootings are not uncommon. Last year there were 36 reported freeway shootings with one death in Los Angeles. Four people were shot to death on Los Angeles freeways in 2003. But the tight time span and high number of fatalities in the latest string have had some Southern California drivers questioning whether the freeways are worth the risk.

"It's enough to scare anyone," said Sal LaBarbera, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective, "when things happen that quickly. Maybe if they were spread out over the year people wouldn't notice as much."

The dead included a 26-year-old engineer shot in the head along an Orange County freeway, south of the Los Angeles line March 12. Two weeks later, a 20-year-old Long Beach college student was gunned down in heavy midday traffic just south of downtown Los Angeles. Along that same stretch of highway, a 47-year-old father of two on his way back from a junkyard was shot on April 13. And a 32-year-old man was fatally shot on a freeway east of Los Angeles.

One of the wounded drivers over the weekend, a 19-year-old man driving on a desolate section of a freeway at 12:45 a.m., said someone in a car full of men in white T-shirts and shaved heads shot him. In most cases, police have even fewer leads.

There are no links between victims, suspects, time or motive.

"They occurred on the freeway. That's the only similarity," LaBarbera said.

California Highway Patrol officers have been saturating the areas where the shootings have occurred with officers, looking for suspicious activity and hoping their presence will help calm jumpy drivers. But Los Angeles's notoriously crowded roadways may be contributing to the violence.

"With the congestion and the traffic you have people going 90 miles an hour cutting each other off left and right. People are getting tired of it," said LAPD Detective David Peteque, who is investigating the latest shooting incident. "Then you have the thugs and the criminals who have no regard for human life. They shoot people and go home and sleep like babies at night."

The incidents have forced the temporary closure of some of the region's most congested thoroughfares as officers comb the highway lanes for evidence, frustrating already tense drivers and snarling commutes. Despite crowded freeway conditions, authorities have little to work with when it comes to freeway shootings with passing drivers often unaware a shooting has occurred as they zip by.

"Things happen so fast on the freeway," LaBarbera said. "You see something and you drive by it so fast."

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