Tank's Driver Beset by Drug, Money Problems

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Shawn Timothy Nelson, the former Army tank crewman slain by police after going on a destructive urban rampage in a stolen M-60 tank, had talked about suicide and was tormented by family, financial and drug woes, police and friends said Thursday.

Nelson's wild ride Wednesday evening left streets and freeways looking like battlegrounds. It culminated on a freeway near a hospital with which he had been embroiled in a legal fight. Detectives are investigating the possibility that Nelson was bound for the hospital on some kind of a revenge mission, according to San Diego police spokesman Bill Robinson, but they have not yet determined a motive or a target.

"He never made a specific threat," said San Diego Police Capt. Tom Hall. He described Nelson as a divorced, self-employed plumber who had just broken up with his girlfriend, "had not been working lately and had been acting rather strangely."

Nelson's brother, Scott, told reporters Thursday: "The man who died yesterday was only a shell of the person we loved. The real Shawn died two years ago at the hands of drugs and alcohol. We are very sorry for all the damage done and very thankful that no one was hurt."

In recent years, Nelson's parents died of cancer, he lost his job and he broke his neck in an accident. He was about to be evicted from his house, his brother said. Although tests are not complete, Scott Nelson told reporters, a coroner's investigator said the dead man smelled of alcohol.

Scott Nelson did not criticize the shooting of his brother by an officer atop the tank, a frenzied scene captured by news cameras.

"I don't want to say anything about the police," Nelson said. "They were doing their job."

The theft of the tank from a California National Guard armory prompted the city's mayor to fire off an angry letter Thursday, asking Gov. Pete Wilson to order an investigation into security at the facility.

"I am extremely concerned about the ease with which the individual was able to enter the National Guard Armory," said Mayor Susan Golding in the letter. "The National Guard armory houses arsenals of military hardware and equipment that when fallen into the wrong hands can be deadly. The security measures that were in place at the time are clearly unacceptable."

And a National Guard spokesman acknowledged Thursday that vehicles entering the grounds are not checked and credentials are not required, despite a security alert imposed after last month's bomb attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"We will heighten our security effort," said Col. Robert Logan. As a precautionary measure, the Guard has removed batteries from the 28 tanks used for monthly training exercises in Southern California, Logan said.

About 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the 35-year-old Nelson, who once served in an Army tank battalion in Germany, drove his Chevrolet van with the personalized license plates "KAN FIX" into the armory north of downtown. He was shirtless and looked disheveled, according to a neighbor who saw him leave home hurriedly about 6 p.m., but military personnel did not challenge him. He broke into three padlocked tanks, succeeded in starting the third and rumbled over a chain-link fence, police said.

Then he wreaked about 22 minutes and six miles of havoc: He rammed at least 40 vehicles, slightly injuring a mother and child by smashing into their van, attempted to hit pursuing police cars and plowed into bridges, utility poles, fire hydrants, signal lights, a bus bench and finally a concrete freeway divider, where the tank became stuck in a cloud of dust.

Four of the dozens of converging police officers clambered onto the still-running tank and wrested open a locked hatch with bolt cutters. One of the four officers was a tank crew veteran in the Marine reserves who had been ordered to the scene because of his expertise.

After Nelson refused commands to surrender and relinquish the controls, an officer fired one shot into the tank and wounded him fatally in the upper right shoulder, Hall said.

Police said the shooting was justified because they had to stop the bizarre chase before the driver killed someone with the formidable armored vehicle, which police have no armament capable of engaging. The officers also did not know whether Nelson had a gun, police said.

"You've got a [53-ton] vehicle driven by someone purposely hitting vehicles that are occupied," Hall said. "That is a serious threat to public safety."

Although a tread came off the tank when Nelson tried to swerve over the divider into oncoming traffic lanes, it was not clear to the officers that the tank was disabled and the officer with military experience believed that Nelson had shifted gears to perform a spinning maneuver used to dislodge stalled tanks, police commanders said.

"If he had not crashed into that median, we would have been in big trouble," said Assistant Chief George Saldamando. "He was still actively trying to break loose. I don't know how nobody else was killed."

While the chase was under way, leaving power outages and traffic jams in its wake, police vehicles surrounded their lumbering quarry and tried to clear a path ahead. Meanwhile, police commanders scrambled to come up with a strategy in consultation with the National Guard.

Saldamando said: "We had people at National Guard headquarters asking, 'How do you stop a tank?' There's a thing called a tank breaker bar. But one of the tank tracks has to be stopped and you stick the breaker bar into a cog. That only works if the tank is stopped. And you have to have the breaker bar available."

Police were reviewing tactics and contingency plans Thursday in the no-longer-unimaginable event of another confrontation with a military vehicle, Saldamando said.

Detectives were also delving into the background of the dead man, described by friends and neighbors as a genial but troubled person burdened by accumulating personal and financial problems.

Nelson's recent statements alluding to suicide may have been the product of continuing woes: a longtime struggle with alcohol and methamphetamine use, his divorce, his breakup with his girlfriend and the decline of his contracting business, according to friends and police. He had become especially despondent after the theft of his plumbing tools last year. His home's water and gas service had been turned off because of unpaid bills, and he recently received an eviction notice, according to relatives and friends.

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Although Nelson's destination was unknown, police said it may be significant that his route took him close to Sharp Memorial Hospital, which is east of the freeway above the spot where the tank turned onto the median. Nelson had filed two lawsuits against the hospital, according to officials there. He sued after a fight with an emergency room security guard while he was a patient in 1990, then sued the hospital again for malpractice in 1992. The suits were consolidated and dismissed in 1993, a spokeswoman said.

Asked whether his brother might have been headed for Sharp Memorial, Scott Nelson noted that their mother had died at the hospital three years ago. "He thought he got a raw deal there," Scott Nelson added, referring to his brother's run-ins with the hospital.

Shawn Nelson also appeared to target city property in his rampage, at one point stopping to crash repeatedly into the pillars of a pedestrian bridge. Given the nationwide attention to politically motivated violence in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, there was speculation throughout San Diego on Thursday that Nelson was impelled by some kind of grudge against the government.

But the only sign of a political sentiment was Nelson's recent cryptic comment to a neighbor that "Oklahoma City was good stuff," the interpretation of which is not clear, Hall said.

Nelson was known on his street of small, working-class houses for his willingness to do affordable plumbing jobs--and for an obsession with minerals that led him to dig a makeshift, 15-foot "mine" in his back yard, neighbors said.

"He was kind of obsessed with the idea he had minerals in his yard," a neighbor said. "He installed a hot water heater for me and talked about mineral rights. He was going to sell his house for a million dollars because he had all this gold and oil in his yard. I thought he was a little odd, a little kooky, but he was a nice man and gave me a nice price."

Nelson enlisted in the Army in 1978. He served in an armor battalion based in Germany and was discharged with the rank of private in 1980, records show.

Nelson's military career was marred by "multifaceted" disciplinary problems, according to an Army official who asked not to be identified.

Nelson did not exhibit a fascination with weapons, his brother said. "He wasn't a gun-toting crazy person. He needed help. But nobody could help him."

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