Police on Friday identified a suspect in a string of at least a dozen random vehicle shootings on Kansas City, Mo., highways that since early March have wounded three motorists and caused driver angst on the freeways of the Midwestern city.
In a midday news conference attended by local, state and federal officials, authorities named Mohammed Pedro Whitaker as the elusive shooter. The man has been charged with 18 felonies involving nine separate shootings. He is being held in lieu of $1-million bail.
Whitaker, 27, lives in the suburb of Grandview, home to a freeway confluence called the Grandview Triangle, where at least six of the reported shootings happened.
"I'm so pleased tonight might be a night to sleep. It's been so many nights without that for us," said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.
Since the shootings began in March, police have linked at least a dozen incidents along the network of freeways that connect the vast metropolitan area, home to 1.7 million residents. Most of the shootings have taken place along stretches of Interstates 435 and 470 on the Missouri side of the city — either on weekday evenings or daytime Saturday — but a few have been reported in suburban cities on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas state line.
The unexplained shootings put people on edge, with many freeway drivers panicking when another vehicle pulled up alongside, thinking, "Is the driver looking my way? Does he have a gun?"
Police said Friday they had received more than 100 tips in the case. They also received critical information from a man who police say was shot during the spree. His wounds were not serious and he came forward with evidence.
Peters Baker, the prosecutor, said authorities built their case through “a period of surveillance, ballistics tests, witness statements [and] tips.” She added: "It wasn’t built on one thing. It was built on a series of things that have become important.”
The chief expressed confidence that investigators got their man.
“I have a level of confidence that the person in custody is responsible for what has been going on in our streets,” Forte said at Friday’s news conference.
Added Peters Baker: Charges would not be filed if we were not confident.” Additional charges are possible.
On Thursday, after taking Whitaker into custody, police made the unusual move of going directly to the public with the news -- even though the man was not named or officially charged. This was an apparent effort to calm nerves in this sprawling metropolitan area, which serves as the eastern gateway to the nation's prairies, with numerous highways twirling off in all directions.
Police Chief Darryl Forte on Thursday tried to calm a jittery public, saying it was OK to head back out on the freeways without fear of becoming the next shooting victim.
"We're here now to basically let people know someone has been apprehended," he said during an impromptu news conference about 50 yards from the suspect's home. "I wanted to make sure the residents and those who travel through Kansas City know they’re safe. They’ve been safe the whole time."
TV news reports showed a man in handcuffs being escorted into police headquarters Thursday as investigators swarmed a four-plex apartment about two blocks from the site of several of the shootings. A green Dodge Neon was towed away on a flatbed truck as evidence in the case.
Since early March, police investigated nearly two dozen shootings, but several were later deemed not part of the case. Last week, police said they had connected a dozen shootings to the same person.
Two drivers were shot in the leg and the third was hit in the arm. On Monday, a female motorist reported that a man in another car pointed a gun at her minivan as she drove through the Grandview Triangle area. No shots were fired, and the man mouthed a word, either "pow" or "boom," she told police.
Authorities had offered a $10,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.
Serial gunmen have plagued other cities. In 2002, John Allen Muhammad and a teenage accomplice killed 10 people and injured three others in the Washington, D.C., area before being arrested in the so-called Beltway sniper attacks. Muhammad was executed in 2009. In 2004, in Columbus, Ohio, Charles McCoy Jr. was arrested and charged with two dozen shootings and one death. He is serving a 27-year sentence.