Kalamazoo, Mich. – County officials say that a shooter who killed six people and injured two others here on Shabbos was an Uber driver who appears to have gunned down people at random during a four-hour rampage.
Authorities said they are investigating reports that the suspect gave a harrowing ride to one passenger just an hour and half before the shooting began and that he may have continued picking up fares during the spree of violence.
On Sunday morning, Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeffrey Getting said police identified the gunman as Jason Brian Dalton, 45, of Kalamazoo. Dalton was taken into custody hours earlier and appears to have acted alone. His victims, shot at three different locations, had no apparent relation to the assailant.
“These weren’t sudden explosions, this was done intentionally,” Getting told reporters during a briefing. “They appear to have been chosen at random because they were available.”
State police on Sunday identified four of the six victims killed. All four were shot at a Cracker Barrel restaurant: Mary Lou Nye, 63, of Baroda, Michigan; Mary Jo Nye, 60, of Battle Creek; Dorothy Brown, 74, of Battle Creek; and Barbara Hawthorne, 68, of Battle Creek.
Ninety minutes before his shooting spree began, Dalton picked up a Kalamazoo resident for an Uber ride, but drove so dangerously that the man cut the journey short and called 911. Another passenger said Dalton told her he had just started as an Uber driver a few days earlier and was already getting bad reviews. An Uber spokesman confirmed that Dalton was a driver for the mobile ride company. Getting and Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley said authorities are investigating reports from passengers that Dalton continued picking up fares before and after the shootings.
Authorities said the shooting spree is not being investigated as an act of terrorism. The violence across Kalamazoo is the latest in a series of mass shootings that have become a grim feature of American life in recent years. It comes more than three months after 14 people were killed in what was later deemed a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, and less than five months after a lone gunman killed nine people at an Oregon community college.
The shootings have intensified a long-running debate over proposed restrictions to gun access and made gun control a recurring issue in the run-up to presidential elections in November.
According to Kalamazoo Chief Hadley, the suspect in Saturday’s shooting did not have a criminal record.
“We are trying to piece together a motive,” Hadley said on Sunday morning. “Honestly, it appears to be completely and totally random.”
Getting said Dalton, who will be arraigned on Monday afternoon, will likely be charged with six counts of murder, with two counts of assault with attempt to commit murder, and six counts of felony with a firearm. “And then we’ll see from there,” he said.
In speaking to reporters early Sunday, Getting said Dalton shot his first victim, a woman, multiple times outside the Meadow Townhomes apartment complex at 6 p.m.
This woman, who was not identified, is “severely injured” but is expected to survive, Getting said. Paul Matyas, Kalamazoo County under sheriff, said the woman was with her three children at the time. The children appeared to be uninjured.
Four hours later, Dalton appeared outside the Seelye Automotive Group, a car dealership, at 10 p.m. and killed two men – an 18-year-old and an older man believed to be father and son – while they were sitting in their car.
Fifteen minutes after that, Dalton opened fire at a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant, killing four people. A 14-year-old girl was also shot. Getting said she was “seriously gravely injured” and it was unknown if she is expected to survive.
“This is your worst nightmare, where you have somebody just driving around randomly killing people,” Matyas told a local television station.
Getting said video from the car dealership and restaurant helped police identify Dalton’s car in the parking lot of a downtown bar where he was arrested at 12:30 a.m. without struggle. It was not immediately clear if he had been inside the bar.
A semi-automatic handgun was recovered from the car, Getting said, and a search of Dalton’s home produced evidence that suggested Dalton acted alone. It was not immediately clear whether Dalton had a license for the firearm, but neighbors said he was known to own several handguns.
Getting told The Washington Post that the gun in Dalton’s car appeared to be a potential match to the shootings.
An account from an Uber customer in Kalamazoo may provide clues to Dalton’s mental state on the day of the shooting. In a phone interview, Mackenzie Waite of Kalamazoo said her fiance was picked up by an Uber car – a silver Chevy Equinox driven by Dalton – around 4:30 p.m. for what was supposed to be a short ride costing $5. Halfway through the trip, the driver picked up a phone call on his bluetooth, Waite’s fiance later told her. Her fiance couldn’t hear what was said, but the driver began acting strangely.
“He blew through a stop sign, side-swiped a car, starting driving in (and) out of the other lane of traffic,” Waite said. “My fiance was just pleading with him to stop the entire time.”
The fiance Matthew Mellen said Dalton introduced himself by a different name than his Uber listing, which he said reads “Jason.” Mellen said Dalton talked and acted normally even as he was swerving erratically and refusing to stop. “He was like asking me, ‘Don’t you want to get to your friend’s house?'” Mellen said.
When the car at one point finally slowed down, Mellen said he jumped out and immediately called 911. He also sent a long description of the ride to Uber.
As part of the process of using Uber’s mobile app, her fiance had received a picture of the driver, which he sent to the authorities.
Waite and her fiance were so alarmed that Waite posted a warning on Facebook along with a picture of the driver. “He was acting completely normal throughout all this erratic driving!! … Hoping this man will be arrested or hospitalized soon if he has a medical condition causing his behavior,” she said in the post.
Waite said Uber did not immediately respond to her fiance’s message, and the police didn’t call back until 6:30 p.m. to ask her fiance for a description of the driver and car.
In the end, all they were left with was an Uber bill for the $5, Waite said.
Another passenger Sara Reynolds of Kalamazoo, 25, said Dalton picked her and a friend up a week ago on the night of Valentine’s Day. ”
She still had the receipt with his picture for the 21-minute drive she took to the movies.
“He was kind of shy and awkward and didn’t really talk that much,” Reynolds said. “He said he had just started driving just a couple days prior to our ride, and he already had some bad reviews. I asked him why and he said it was because his car was acting up while he was doing bar runs. But he mumbled it like he didn’t want to talk about it.”
Reynolds said Dalton was otherwise normal, which only made her more disturbed when she matched his mugshot on the news and the picture on her Uber receipt.
“The scariest thing is how unexpected it was,” she said. “I’ve been in pretty gross Uber vehicles. He had a clean car. The guy who drove me did not seem capable of stuff like this.”
An Uber spokesman, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said Dalton had passed a background check required for drivers employed by the company.
“We are horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo, Michigan,” Uber’s chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, said in a statement. ” We have reached out to the police to help with their investigation in any way that we can.”
Neighbors said there was nothing unusual about Dalton, who lived outside Kalamazoo with his wife and two teenage children. James Bloch, who resided next door to the family for 17 years, was friendly with Dalton, who he said enjoyed working on cars in his spare time.
“The guy must have flipped,” Bloch said. “He never was in that state of mind ever. There was no sign of depression.”
Gary Pardo Jr, the son of another neighbor, said Dalton was occasionally a “hothead.”
Bloch said Dalton had taught auto body repair at a local community college in the past. He also worked for Progressive insurance company. Jeff Sibel, a spokesman for Progressive, said Dalton left the company in August 2011.
Bloch said he believed Dalton may have been at his home between 6 and 10 p.m. on Saturday night, during the window in which the shootings took place. Kalamazoo authorities searched Dalton’s home on Sunday morning, Getting said, and found “evidence of value.” He declined to specify what that might include.
Officials said the names of the remaining victims will not be released until their families are notified.
The shooting comes as Republican and Democratic presidential candidates make their case to voters about a range of public issues, including national security and the Second Amendment. Last month, President Barack Obama delivered an emotional speech about gun violence as he announced steps that would restrict access to weapons in certain cases. His announcement received immediate condemnation from prominent Republicans, including presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas.
(C) 2016 The Washington Post · Mark Guarino