Fear on the 91: Scores of freeway pellet gun shootings unnerve drivers and stump CHP
Taryn Campbell sat at the wheel of her Ford Flex, grinding along in stop-and-go traffic on the 91 Freeway. That was when she heard the “loud popping sound.”
“It startled me. I saw the window had been cracked,” Campbell said. “The car behind me was two lengths back, so I knew I hadn’t been rear-ended. Something had flown through the window.
For the record:
9:28 a.m. May 21, 2021An earlier version of this article misidentified the freeway in Seal Beach where similar shooting incidents had occurred as the 5 Freeway. The shootings occurred on the 405 Freeway.
“That’s when I called my husband, and he told me someone has been shooting through car windows on the freeway,” she said of the May 11 incident in Corona near Lincoln Avenue.
Like tens of thousands of Southern California commuters, Campbell was heading home after a long workday. Her route to the Inland Empire from Orange County is one of the nation’s busiest arteries. And in recent weeks, that freeway has become a crime scene — at the center of nearly 60 incidents in which motorists have come under fire in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.
Campbell, a hospitality manager, crawled home to the Norco area with her window gradually falling apart. Once she stopped and investigated the damage, she found a buckled pellet inside her vehicle.
California Highway Patrol investigators think it is the same ammunition fired at dozens of drivers in recent weeks.
“I am just grateful no one crashed because of this pellet,” she said. “But sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt or worse.”
Projectiles have shattered the windows of more than a dozen cars along the 91 Freeway, and authorities believe the shootings may be related.
Such shootings aren’t unprecedented on California’s busy roadways. Given the scale and the escalating threat, the CHP is conducting a widespread, coordinated investigation across three counties, Assistant Chief Donald Goodbrand said.
“We do believe it is coming from a moving vehicle,” Goodbrand said Thursday. “At this point, we are still determining if this is an individual or multiple individuals. We have shootings in the morning and afternoon.”
In fact, the rear window of a CHP patrol car was shattered after being struck May 14 in Anaheim on the eastbound shoulder of the 91.
“We are taking each of these incidents seriously and actively searching for those responsible,” Goodbrand said. “The public should still feel safe while driving their vehicles on our California freeways.”
CHP investigators are working with prosecutors, and Riverside County Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin said he plans to personally review the case — or cases — when CHP investigators have a suspect or suspects in custody.
“The conduct is incredibly dangerous,” Hestrin said. “Shooting at cars traveling at freeway speeds will result in death or someone getting seriously hurt.”
The windows of three cars were shot out on the 91 in Corona overnight Tuesday and into early Wednesday. One car heading east was struck about 11 p.m., and about 5 a.m., the windows of two other cars heading west were damaged.
On Thursday, news helicopters hovered over the scene of a series of new shootings during the morning commute.
A Toyota FJ Cruiser SUV was traveling on the 91 Freeway in Corona near Green River Road around 5:15 a.m. when the vehicle’s back window was shattered. A second vehicle, a black Jeep, had its rear window shot out near the 57 Freeway transition in Anaheim about an hour later. CHP investigators said they were aware of at least two vehicles with window damage.
No serious injuries have been reported so far. The shooter or shooters remain a mystery. No specific descriptions of suspects or vehicles involved in the shootings exist. Investigators think the weapon being used is small caliber, such as a BB or pellet gun.
CHP Officer Dan Olivas of the Inland Empire Division said the agency has dealt with such shootings with BB and pellet guns but not with such high frequency or with so many hot spots.
Rumors on social media are rife, including that white cars are the ones being targeted. CHP investigators say that’s not true: “I am not sure if people realize the majority of vehicles on the road are white,” Olivas said.
Four months into 2021, life is returning to normal as vaccination efforts drive down COVID-19 infections. But L.A.’s elevated gun violence is not receding apace.
The shootings are putting a dent in drivers’ lifestyles and their wallets, as the damage is generally below the insurance deductible for most drivers. Campbell said she paid $439 to repair her Flex’s rear window. “Someone is taking the time out of their day to ruin others’ days,” she said.
Goodbrand, whose CHP unit patrols Orange County, said technology like ShotSpotter would not detect BB guns being fired, so ultimately, public help is likely to yield the best clues in the shootings.
He said that if a vehicle’s window is shattered, drivers are advised to pull over to the shoulder or off the freeway as soon as it is safe and call 911 so officers can immediately come to the scene.
“We know a lot of people have dash cams, so if you hear there was a shooting during your drive on a freeway, we would appreciate it if you’d review the video for evidence that helps us apprehend who is responsible,” Goodbrand said.
Similar incidents have been reported in Los Angeles County, dating back to April. In Orange County, two motorists reported shattered windows while driving on the 405 Freeway in the Seal Beach area on April 27.
CHP investigators, Goodbrand said, think the massive number of reports is in part because of heightened public awareness of the shootings. “People may have gotten a shattered window in the past and never called it in. But now, everyone is aware,” he said.
While the fear persists among many motorists, most aren’t planning to change their commutes.
“I do keep an eye out,” Campbell said. “I am really vigilant. But I don’t have the option of avoiding the 91.”
Anyone with information about the shootings is asked to call the CHP Border Division Investigative Services Unit at (714) 288-6336.
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