Highway shootings worry area residents more than possibility of terrorism

The Columbus Dispatch – Sunday, December 14, 2003

This South Side shooter has us shook.

Almost all of us think he (she? they?) will strike again.

More than half of us have heard concerns for our safety from out-of-town friends or relatives.

A third of us won’t drive on the south Outerbelt anymore, and a few have stopped traveling on any part of I-270.

And we now worry more about becoming a victim of the sniper rather than of terrorists.

Almost the only bright spot in this mess: Virtually all of us think law-enforcement officers eventually will catch the shooter.

Fifteen shootings — most in the past two months — on or near the south Outerbelt have been linked by authorities, including one Nov. 25 that killed Gail Knisley, 62, as she was riding in a car. One bullet hit a school, another a house, and several hit moving vehicles.

A telephone poll conducted last week for The Dispatch by Saperstein Associates shows how the shootings have affected lives in the Columbus area.

“It’s hard for me to think of another event that has had such impact,” said Martin D. Saperstein, president of the polling firm.

Even after the Sept. 11 attack, the only major behavioral change in central Ohio was a greater reluctance to travel, he said.

“This may have even a larger effect on people’s behavior than something that happened in another part of the country,” Saperstein said.

One reason for the deep impact of the shootings: “It’s hard to see an agenda (of the shooter), and I think people feel very vulnerable when these sort of events are completely random.”

Indeed, the poll shows only 13 percent think the sniper actually is trying to kill people; about three-fourths say they think the shots are being fired at random.

Almost two of every three said Columbus’ image is suffering because of the shootings, which have received prominent coverage from CNN, Time magazine and international news outlets.

“It’s given Columbus a bad name,” said Janet Mouser, 55, a Jackson Township resident who works part time in a clerical job. She said she avoids the sniper’s target zone whenever possible.

“It’s kind of scary,” Mouser said. “I’d like to go over there, but some idiot’s out there.”

Mouser said she used to live in Hamilton Meadows, an area where the search for the sniper has focused. The mother of four often looks after some of her six grandchildren, but now she’s afraid to have them along while traveling in that neighborhood.

James Wooten, 50, of the East Side, is staying away altogether.

“I’m just not going in that area. I’m avoiding it,” the former carpenter said.

Wooten lives just south of I-70 near Hamilton Road and worries about a stray bullet hitting his house. He said a friend’s girlfriend’s tires were shot out on I-270 a couple of years ago.

“This isn’t something new,” Wooten said. “You hear gunfire at night all the time. Look at the news in the morning. There’s always somebody getting shot. It’s terrible.”

Andrew Dutcher, 37, periodically drives from his Dublin home to a South Side warehouse where he stores the unusual product he sells: foam hats shaped like Ohio Stadium.

The Dublin resident is almost thankful for sluggish sales, because he hasn’t had to use the south Outerbelt recently.

“I’m nervous about making that drive,” he said. “If I had to go down and pick up a few hundred hats, I would do it under the cover of darkness. I’ve come too far in life being a cancer survivor to be taken out by a stray bullet.”

Dutcher said he’s confident police eventually will catch the person responsible, but he wonders why authorities didn’t figure out they had a sniper on their hands sooner.

“It seems like after the second or third (vehicle) being shot by a random shooter that they should have put two and two together that someone was trying to mimic the Washington sniper.”

A small majority of those taking the survey agreed that authorities should have connected the shootings sooner, although three-fourths say they generally approve of how authorities are handling the investigation.

“I don’t know if they are doing everything they can, but I don’t know what else you can do,” said Renee Osborne, 43, of Upper Arlington. “I thought it took them too long to pull the bullets together. I must be watching too much CSI.”

Osborne also has relatives in Grove City and “thinks twice” about driving there.

The shootings haven’t deterred Joan Campanella of the East Side from her regular visits to Scioto Downs, on Rt. 23 south of I-270.

“I don’t get panicky over the slightest thing I hear,” she said.

Campanella, 74, said several of her children on the East Coast have called to make sure she was OK.

“I think it gets hyped up a little,” she said.

Jim Sanfillipo, 49, a Northwest Side resident who owns a 104-year-old produce company, said he is concerned about the sniper case but thinks the law of averages is on his side.

He said both he and his produce trucks travel the south Outerbelt quite often.

“Americans seem to panic,” said Sanfillipo, a regular gambler. “I was the guy who got on a plane four weeks after Sept. 11 and flew to Las Vegas.”

George Liniman, 58, of the West Side, drives I-270 on the South Side nearly every day from his home near Georgesville Road.

“Nothing’s changed my habits,” he said. “I’m one of those crazy Vietnam vets, and nothing fazes me. I’ve been shot at plenty of times.”

The shootings have added an unusual twist to the gun-control debate. While almost 80 percent of poll participants said stricter gun-control laws would not have prevented the shootings, more than a third said the incidents have made them more likely to favor tighter controls.

Forty-two percent support the bill passed by the legislature last week that would allow most Ohioans to carry concealed weapons. Gov. Bob Taft has pledged to veto the measure because the list of those with permits would be kept secret from the public.

The telephone poll of 406 people Monday through Thursday in the area covered by exchanges in the Columbus phone book has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The margin of error is greater for subsamples, such as gun owners and Outerbelt-area residents (defined as those with ZIP codes that include I-270 near where the shootings have occurred). As in any opinion poll, other sources of error are possible.