Shawn Timothy Nelson (21 August 1959 to 17 May 1995) was an American plumber and US Army veteran who stole an M60A3 Patton tank from a US National Guard armoury in San Diego, California and went on a rampage on 17 May 1995; he destroyed numerous cars, fire hydrants and an RV before being shot and killed by a policeman.
Shawn Nelson was born in Birdseye, Utah, on 21 August 1959, the second of three sons. He grew up in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego, California, and graduated from Madison High School prior to his enlistment in the United States Army, where he served for two years until his honourable discharge in 1980. After his discharge, he returned to San Diego and worked as a plumber.
Nelson’s mother died in 1988 and his father died in 1992; in between, his wife of six years filed for divorce in 1990. That same year, he was hospitalised at Sharp Memorial Hospital for neck and back injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Nelson later 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.
Nelson’s brother, Scott, said that he became addicted to methamphetamine in the few years prior to the tank incident. His neighbours complained to authorities of him yelling at his roommate at night. Nelson then began to exhibit unusual behaviour. On one occasion, he dug a hole 15 feet (4.6 m) deep in his backyard in an attempt to mine for gold. One of his friends, Carson Honings, referred to the mine shaft as Nelson’s “new hobby”. In April, he filed two damage claims against the city – for police negligence and false arrest – totalling $2 million.
Nelson’s neck and back problems, combined with the theft of plumbing equipment from his truck in June 1994, effectively halted his business. With no income, his utilities were cut off and his house went into foreclosure. In April 1995, Nelson’s live-in girlfriend moved out of their shared home.
According to San Diego police, in 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 which happened about a month before. Whether Nelson condoned the attack or simply meant that he enjoyed the drama was not clear. Police did not believe that Nelson had any connection with the bombing or with a terrorist group.
At dusk, approximately 6:30 pm on Wednesday 17 May 1995, Nelson drove his Chevrolet van to the California Army National Guard Armory on Mesa College Boulevard in the Kearny Mesa neighbourhood of San Diego. Employees at the armoury were working late and the gate to the vehicle yard, which was completely deserted, was left open.
The tanks at the armoury started with a push button and did not require an ignition key. The first two tanks Nelson broke into would not start. As he lowered himself into the third tank, a 57-ton M60A3 Patton, 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 the 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 Clairemont. Police agencies involved in the chase included the San Diego police, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, and due to the tank being stolen from the armoury, possibly military police as well. 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, and fire hydrants, and crushed approximately forty 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 neighbourhood.
From the armoury, Nelson travelled along neighbourhood streets, eventually turning 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 pillars, but failed after a few hits, and decided to continue onto the freeway. Nelson then drove the tank onto the State Route 163 freeway heading southbound, resulting in the freeway being closed and thousands of motorists being stuck. At least one news article speculated that he may have been headed to Sharp Memorial Hospital, which he had unsuccessfully sued in 1990 and partially blamed for his mother’s death. After Nelson attempted to cross into the northbound lanes of State Route 163, the tank became caught on the concrete median barrier and lost one track.
After the tank was immobilized, four policemen climbed onto the tank. San Diego Police officer Paul Paxton, a gunnery sergeant at the time with the Marine Corps Reserve, opened the hatch using bolt cutters. They ordered Nelson to surrender, but he said nothing and began rocking the tank back and forth in an attempt to free it from the median. Paxton’s partner, Officer Richard Piner, leaned in and shot Nelson. The bullet entered through Nelson’s neck.
Nelson later died at the Sharp Memorial Hospital. Despite the widespread property destruction, he was the only fatality reported during the rampage.
Police Captain Tom Hall justified the lethal force used against Nelson because if Nelson had managed to free the tank, he “could have taken out no less than 35 vehicles that were passing at that moment”. Police decided that if non-lethal action such as tear gas were used, this might have stopped Nelson, but not the tank, and officers would not be able to enter the tank if it were still mobile with tear gas present. According to live news coverage at the time, officials were seriously considering asking for help from the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in the form of a Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, as the police force lacked the means for disabling a tank. Nelson’s brother, Scott, stated that police were justified in the shooting.
Officials at the armoury where Nelson stole the tank were criticized for what appeared to be a huge lapse in security, especially after the attack in Oklahoma City the previous month. In addition to the open, unguarded gate to the vehicle lot, the fence surrounding the lot had damaged barbed wire in some places. Residents near the armoury said that even if the gate had been locked, Nelson could have simply climbed the fence in sections where the barbed wire was damaged.
Armory officials said that only a few people were given keys to the vehicles, that the vehicles were kept far away from fences to make them difficult to reach,[clarification needed] that only someone with the proper knowledge could operate and even start a tank, and that there was just no way to foresee such an event taking place. After Nelson’s theft of the tank, security was improved at the Kearny Mesa armoury.
In Popular Culture
- Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story, a documentary film, is based on the incident.
- The tank rampage also appears in TV shows such as the World’s Most Amazing Videos and Destroyed in Seconds.
- The rampage is parodied by The Simpsons in the season 11 episode “Brother’s Little Helper”.
- The rampage is featured in the music video for the song “The Right To Go Insane” by the American heavy metal band Megadeth.