Shawn Nelson

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Shawn Nelson
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Full Name: Shawn Timothy Nelson
Origin: Birdseye, Utah, United States of America
Occupation: Plumber
U.S. Army soldier (former)
Goals: Cause as much chaos and destruction as possible (failed)
Crimes: Theft
Destruction of property
Attempted murder
Type of Villain: Homicidal Destroyer

Shawn Nelson (August 21, 1959 – May 17, 1995) was a 35-year-old plumber and former US Army soldier infamous for stealing an M60A3 Patton Tank before driving through San Diego, California and going on a destructive rampage. He destroyed cars, fire hydrants, and an RV before being shot and killed by a policeman.


Prior to the rampage

Nelson was born in Birdseye, Utah, on August 21, 1959.

Nelson was hospitalized in 1990 for neck and back injuries from a motorcycle accident. He sued the hospital for $1.6 million, citing negligence, assault, battery, and false imprisonment. A superior court judge dismissed the case, and the hospital counter-sued for $6,640 in medical fees and legal expenses. Nelson claimed that he was forced to be treated without his consent.

His wife of six years filed for divorce against him in 1991, and both of his parents died of cancer in 1992. Scott Nelson, Shawn's brother, said that Shawn became addicted to methamphetamine in the few years prior to the tank incident. His neighbors complained to authorities of Shawn yelling at his roommate at night. Nelson then began to exhibit unusual behavior. On one occasion, he dug a hole 15 feet (4.6 m) deep in his backyard in an attempt to mine for gold.

In February 1995, he filed a notice informing the county of his plans to mine bedrock in his backyard. Nelson's fishing friend, Carson Honings, referred to the mine shaft as Shawn's "new hobby". In April, he filed two damage claims against the city totaling $2,000,000. One of them was for police negligence, and another for false arrest.

Nelson's neck and back problems, combined with the theft of plumbing equipment from his truck, effectively halted his business. With no income, his utilities were cut off and his house was in foreclosure. In April 1995, his live-in girlfriend died of a drug overdose. His brother, Scott, said of him, "My brother was a good man. He'd help anybody. He just couldn't help himself."

The rampage

According to San Diego police, the week before his tank rampage Nelson told a friend that he was thinking of committing suicide, and the following weekend, told a friend that "Oklahoma was good stuff, in apparent reference to the Oklahoma City Bombing perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh which happened about a month before. Whether Nelson condoned the attack or simply meant that he enjoyed the drama is not clear. Police did not believe Nelson had any connection with the bombing or with a terrorist group.

At dusk on Wednesday, May 17, 1995, Nelson drove his Chevrolet van to the California Army National Guard Armory in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego. Although the gate to the vehicle yard was usually locked after 5:00 p.m., employees at the armory were working late, and left the gate open. The vehicle yard was completely deserted.

Nelson likely used a crowbar to break open the tank hatches. The tanks involved started with a push button and did not require an ignition key. The first two tanks he broke into would not start. As he lowered himself into the third tank, a 57-ton M60A3, he was finally noticed by a Guardsman, who approached the tank. Nelson started the vehicle, and with little chance of stopping him, the Guardsman rushed to a phone and called police. As ammunition was kept in another building, none of the vehicle's weapons could be loaded or used by Nelson.

Nelson led police on a 23-minute, televised chase through the streets of the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. Police agencies involved in the chase included the San Diego Police Department, San Diego County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol, and due to the tank being stolen from the armory, possibly military police as well. Phillip Cady was the first police officer on the scene of the tank chase. The tank had a top speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h), making the chase slow compared to police chases involving automobiles. The 57-ton tank easily plowed through road signs, traffic lights, utility poles, fire hydrants and crushed several parked vehicles including an RV. The damage to utility poles knocked out power to at least 5,100 San Diego Gas & Electric customers in the Linda Vista neighborhood. Nelson traveled north on Convoy Street, west on to Balboa Avenue (then signed as State Route 274), and entered Interstate 805 heading south. While on I-805 he attempted to knock down a pedestrian bridge by running into the supports, but gave up after he failed to topple it with the first few hits. Nelson drove the tank onto the State Route 163 freeway heading southbound, resulting in the freeway being closed and thousands of motorists being stuck. He eventually became caught on a concrete median barrier on State Route 163 north of the Genesee Avenue interchange located at approximately 32.795687°N 117.157627°W, as he attempted to cross into oncoming traffic. Four police officers climbed onto the tank. San Diego Police officer Paul Paxton, a gunnery sergeant at the time with the Marine Corps Reserve, opened the hatch. The officers ordered Nelson to surrender, but he said nothing and began lurching the tank back and forth in attempt to free it from the median.

Officer Paxton's partner, Richard Piner, leaned in and shot Nelson. The bullet entered through Nelson's shoulder. Nelson later died at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Despite the widespread property destruction, Nelson was the only fatality in the incident.