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Police Kill Man Who Commandeered Tank, Rampaged Through Neighborhoods

May 18, 1995

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ An unemployed plumber commandeered a 63-ton Army tank and rampaged through neighborhoods, flattening utility poles, fire hydrants and row upon row of cars before getting stuck on a concrete freeway divider. Police fatally shot him as he tried to dislodge the tank.

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 National Guard Maj. Ed Gale.

Police helplessly chased the tank until it crunched the 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, an unemployed plumber who had served in the military. 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.″

Neighbors said Nelson’s life had been crumbling recently. His home in San Diego was apparently in foreclosure, his utilities had been shut off. On Wednesday, just before the tank rampage, his water was turned off.

Nelson was in his mid-30s and had a history of medical problems, including a broken back from a motorcycle accident. He was clearly in emotional and physical pain, the neighbors said.

One neighbor who said he was a friend of Nelson’s and requested anonymity said he wasn’t surprised that Nelson had acted out.

``A little more extreme than I would have guessed,″ said the man. ``But he wanted someone to listen to what he had to say. He’s been crying out for help for a while.″

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 as it rocked back and forth on top of the divider. They shouted at Nelson to surrender, but he tried to get the tank moving again.

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. Police wouldn’t release any further details about him early today.

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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