Highway shootings are on the rise in some states — and notoriously difficult to solve

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ALAMEDA, Calif. — On the morning of Nov. 18, Amani Morris was headed to a new job at a child care call center in the San Francisco Bay Area when her phone rang. It was her mother FaceTiming from Atlanta. 

Alicia Benton wanted to talk, as she often did, to her two grandchildren. The boys, then ages 5 and 3, were in the car, along with Morris’ fiancé, who was driving.

Moments into the call, Morris, 29, interrupted and told her mother that she loved her and that she’d speak to her after the orientation.

“And that was the last time we spoke,” Benton said.

Minutes after they hung up, as the family approached the Bay Bridge, one of the busiest trans-bay crossings on one of the region’s most congested sections of highway, gunfire struck their SUV, killing Morris. 

Amani Morris.NBC Bay Area

The shooting, which remains unsolved, points to a grim trend in California and beyond — a rising number of highway shootings.

In Michigan, where authorities started tracking the data only last year after they noticed an uptick, there were 67 in Detroit and its suburbs, a state police spokesman said. 

In California, reports of shootings more than doubled in the last three years, jumping from 210 in 2019 to nearly 500 in the first 11 months of 2021. Hundreds of people were injured, according to highway patrol data obtained through a public records request. Fifty died.

And in Illinois, where there’s been such a surge in expressway shootings that the governor pleaded for them “to stop,” authorities launched a well-publicized response announcing arrests and introducing efforts to blunt the violence. Included were a public dashboard mapping every expressway shooting in the state since 2019 and a law named after Tamara Clayton, 55, a mail handler who was gunned down on her way to work three years ago. Her killing remains unsolved. The law called for installing high-definition license plate readers in dozens of spots on Chicago-area expressways.

NBC News requested data from several other states, but authorities in Ohio, Arizona, Texas and Washington didn’t respond. State officials in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida, New York and Colorado said they don’t track such shootings.

Low arrest rates

In two of the states surveyed, the trend has yielded another troubling data point — single-digit arrest rates in the vast majority of highway shootings, which aren’t fatal. Last year in California, authorities took suspects into custody about 8 percent of the time in connection with confirmed shootings. In Illinois, suspects were arrested 5 percent of the time. Only in Michigan, where the rate was 32 percent, did authorities arrest people at a pace that matched national statistics. 

Although the FBI doesn’t track freeway shooting arrests, it compiles “clearance” data — or the number of cases closed by arrest and other means — for all gun assaults. According to the agency, 31 percent of those crimes were cleared in 2019, the latest year for which full data are available. (It isn’t clear whether Illinois counts its clearance data the same way as the FBI. The state police didn’t respond to requests for comment.)      

Homicide arrest rates in Illinois and California were higher, with authorities clearing 21 percent and 34 percent of their cases, respectively — although it isn’t clear how those rates compare to national statistics. The FBI doesn’t tally gun murder and homicide arrests. 

Experts who study clearance rates say unsolved gun violence can have a corrosive effect that criminologists are only beginning to understand, one that potentially exacerbates negative views of police and allows criminals to remain on the street.

“Citizens view law enforcement as illegitimate, unresponsive and ill-equipped to ensure public safety,” said Paige Vaughn, a professor of criminology and sociology at Spring Hill College in Alabama.

A highway patrol official in California described the crimes as formidable to investigate. In Michigan, a state police official said nonfatal shootings were less likely to be solved because victims and witnesses don’t want to talk.  

For Benton — who recalled Morris as a “life-size bright star” with a captivating smile and a big personality — the loss of her daughter and many others in the East Bay is infuriating. “I’m angry, because something should have been done,” she said. “If this were Hollywood or the Palisades, they’d be on it.”

In a written statement, the California Highway Patrol said it takes “all incidents of violence extremely seriously and actively investigates each one with the intent of arresting those responsible.”

Officials in California began noticing an uptick in highway shootings that coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. When mandates were put in place, traffic patterns shifted and gun sales soared, said Ryan Stonebraker, the chief of California Highway Patrol’s Protective Services Division.

Stonebraker said he observed a slump in what the agency classified as gang-related highway shootings and a surge in gun violence prompted by road rage. From 2020 to 2021, the first category plummeted by 38 percent; the latter rose by 54 percent.

“There’s a lot of stressors with the pandemic,” Stonebraker said. “There are a lot of people that are unhinged, they’re upset, or they’re very concerned about safety.”

He added: “Although these statistics are alarming, these are tragic, it’s still rare considering the amount of people we have on some of the busiest freeways in the world.”

Still, the theory of pandemic-related stress combined with increased gun sales was advanced in a recent report from Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, which found that fatal road rage shootings more than doubled across the U.S. from 2019 to 2021. The report looked at all roads — not just interstates — and suggested that the trend didn’t appear to be slowing.

In Michigan, investigators weren’t sure what was behind the jump, State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said. In Illinois, a state police spokeswoman declined to discuss the issue; in an interview with NBC Chicago, Maj. Matthew Gainer attributed a “very small percentage” of the shootings to road rage.

“It’s targeted violence of opportunity, where somebody has a beef with somebody else, and they happen upon them, and it happens to be on the interstate,” he told the station. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said “dangerous gang members” are behind the spike.

In California, the shootings were recorded across vast swaths of the state — in the Bay Area, in Southern California, in the Central Valley. Interstate 80, the highway that Morris and her fiancé were driving on when she was fatally shot, recorded the most outbreaks of gun violence from 2020 to the first 11 months of last year, 73, according to state data. 

Interstate 580, which snakes from the Central Valley into the Bay Area, was second, with 69.

While freeway violence isn’t new, Stonebraker said, the state had never before had that kind of jump. In a shooting two weeks before Morris’ — on a section of freeway a few miles away — 23-month-old Jasper Wu was killed while he slept in his car seat. In February, Bay Area basketball legend Gene Ransom was killed on the same highway, Interstate 880.

A suspect was arrested hours after Ransom was gunned down. Jasper’s fatal shooting remains unsolved.

Jasper Wu.
Jasper Wu.Courtesy Family via Carl Chan

Jasper’s parents declined to be interviewed. Carl Chan, a real estate agent and advocate who has worked with the family since the boy’s death, said the couple hoped other families wouldn’t have to endure their pain.

Chan said that $10,000 offered by the Crimes Against Asians Reward Fund remained available for information leading to an arrest and prosecution.

“He was not being targeted,” said Chan, who is also the president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, a sponsor of the fund. “It was a stray bullet. That bullet could be you, me, your family member, your loved one.”

‘The challenge of the freeway shooting environment’

Wide gaps between arrests in fatal and nonfatal shootings aren’t unusual. Anthony Braga, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a paper last year that they’re pervasive among police agencies that study the issue: Homicide detectives tend to be in dedicated units with relatively light caseloads and priority access to prosecutors and crime labs. Detectives investigating nonfatal shootings, meanwhile, are often non-specialists handling a variety of crimes and don’t follow up beyond initial investigations. “Failures to make arrests can lead to a cascade of retaliatory gun violence,” he wrote.

Illinois State Police didn’t respond to a request for comment about how it investigates expressway shootings. In California, Stonebraker said beat officers and investigators from one of the agency’s 103 local offices respond to initial calls. But if a shooting is fatal, a more specialized detective is likely to handle the investigation, he said.

Stonebraker pointed to several factors that make a shooting on a freeway difficult to investigate: It’s not a static environment — it’s a place defined by constant motion and, at least during the day, blaring noise. 

Shell casings, if they are found, might be in an entirely different place from where they started. Gunfire might not be heard above the din of traffic. Potential witnesses might not think twice about a car pulling over. And victims of nonfatal shootings might not contact authorities until they’re home — and they might not know where on the freeway their car was shot. 

“We get a lot of people that don’t even know they’ve been shot at and they find a bullet hole in their car,” he said. “It’s hard to articulate — did that come from the freeway?”

That, Stonebraker said, “is the challenge of the freeway shooting environment.”

Stonebraker said his department has increased patrols in areas that have had the most shootings. And officials have sought more training for investigators and funding for technology like closed-circuit TV cameras and license plate readers. A similar effort is underway in Illinois, where authorities this year announced the introduction of hundreds of license plate readers and an air operations team, among other measures.

Tamara Clayton.
Tamara Clayton.Jayla Shelton

To Jayla Shelton, Illinois’ push to address the violence that took the life of her mother, Tamara Clayton, a single mom who worked the graveyard shift for decades to send her to private school, was a good start. 

The cameras offer a way “for some people to get caught that need to be caught.” But she worried that they’re nowhere near enough.

“They have no other predators to worry about,” she said. “They know they have a slim chance of being caught. People can’t defend themselves because they’re driving.”

In the three years since her mother’s killing, Shelton, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., has struggled to find peace. And she remains fearful that she might lose someone in her husband’s family, who still live in Chicago.

“It’s a constant struggle,” she said. “We all have to live with that for the rest of our lives.” 

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