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Police Kill Man Who Commandeered Tank, Rampaged Through Neighborhoods

May 18, 1995

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ A man commandeered a 63-ton Army tank and rampaged through neighborhoods, flattening utility poles, fire hydrants and row upon row of cars before crashing on a freeway. He was shot and killed by police.

No bystanders were injured Wednesday evening after the theft from a National Guard armory. The tank’s weapons _ a 105 mm cannon, 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun and 7.62 mm machine gun _ were not loaded, said Maj. Ed Gale.

Police helplessly chased the tank until it crashed into a 3-foot-tall highway divider and got stuck.

``The guy was just going crazy,″ said Kelly Bird, who said he saw at least 25 cars flattened. ``He was mowing cars over.″

Tread marks led up to one 1983 Cadillac, which was smashed down to a height of 2 1/2 feet.

The driver was identified as Shawn Nelson. Authorities were unsure how he managed to steal the M-60 tank from the armory, where 10 tanks were stored.

``He may have represented himself as a contractor,″ Gale said. ``Someone in the Marine Corps or Army over the last 30 years would have the knowledge to disengage the safety systems.″

The tank smashed through an armory gate about 6:45 p.m. and rumbled through quiet suburban neighborhoods at up to 30 mph. San Diego Gas and Electric officials said the tank bowled over power lines, knocking out electricity to about 5,100 customers in the area.

``He didn’t go down the center of the street,″ said resident Bill Pinol. ``It seems he just wanted to get the utilities and cause as much as damage without hurting people.″

Tanks are not uncommon on the streets surrounding the armory. ``But we don’t expect them to attack us,″ said resident Lisa Zaliausks.

Nelson then drove onto Interstate 805 and Highway 163 before crashing into the divider, said police Capt. Skip DiCerchio.

Four officers leaped onto the tank and opened the hatch with bolt cutters. They shouted at Nelson to surrender, but he tried to restart the tank.

One shot was fired, and Nelson was hit in the neck, DiCerchio said. Cathy Spearnak of Sharp Memorial Hospital said Nelson died of ``gunshot wounds,″ but she declined to say how many times he had been hit.

Police said they didn’t know whether Nelson was armed.

Hours after the tank rumbled through the neighborhoods, residents circulated outside exchanging stories and examining rows of flattened cars.

The owner of the crushed Cadillac, Tony Basurto, was watering tomatoes in his back yard when his car was flattened.

``I can blame somebody _ the armory, for not keeping the thing under lock and key,″ he said. ``There’s no excuse for somebody stealing a tank. How can you explain it?″

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