Shock and bravado on sniper's stretch

Fifteen shootings along I-270 have thrust Obetz, Ohio, into prominence - and the rumor mill.

In this modest suburb just south of Columbus, where a sign welcomes visitors to the "Home of the Zucchinifest," the downtown is barely big enough for its single stoplight.

But for the past few weeks, the 4,000 residents of Obetz have had a strange and terrifying claim to fame. They, along with tens of thousands of others who live or drive along this seven-mile stretch of I-270 and Route 23, have seen Obetz thrust into startling prominence by a mystery shooter whom the local paper has dubbed the "I-270 Sniper."

So far, just one person has been killed. But police say 14 other fired shots are connected - in a pattern so random and so focused on one area that schools have kept kids inside at recess, thousands of commuters have rerouted their drives, and nearly every conversation here eventually drifts back to the sniper.

"Some people think it's a high school kid, some think it's an older guy. I just sit back and listen to it all," says Kevin Gegorski, an Ohio University student who's working at the K&M Market here over winter break.

"I take 270 five times a week," offers Jake Sizer, a young man also working behind the counter, with a bit of bravado. "I even had to change a flat there a few days ago, right in the heat of it all."

"Wasn't there another shooting today?" a customer asks.

"Nah, they just found another bullet, but it was from a few months ago."

It's a typical exchange at K&M - "Gossip Central," as Mr. Gegorski calls it - where theories, rumors, and news fly faster than packs of cigarettes off the shelves. "It's all anyone talks about," Gegorski says.

From dismissible to dire

But officially at least, there isn't much to say. Police have been tight-lipped with details, refusing to give a profile or make conjectures. The shooter has hit as many as 13 vehicles, an elementary school, and a house (both school and house were empty at the time) - yet it's still not clear whether the sniper is pulling the trigger from a moving car or while lying in wait along the road. Some of the shootings were at night, some during the day. All took place within about seven miles; none was fired far from I-270.

So while some, like Mr. Sizer, declare a steadfast adherence to old commutes, many others are rediscovering back roads they hadn't used in years.

Take Ernest Parker, who used to drive 270 twice a day for his work as a private state contractor. "Now I take Alum Creek Road to 104," he says between bites of fried chicken at J.R. Valentine's Family Restaurant, a popular truck stop that advertises its "All-U-Can-Eat fish fry" and "Steak-out Saturday" out front. "Am I nervous?" Mr. Parker asks. "Totally."

"You'd feel better if they knew if somebody was sitting in a car, or if it was a drive-by, or why it's in that area," adds his wife, Barbara. "It's shaky that they're doing it in broad daylight."

Until Nov. 25, when Gail Knisley was killed by a bullet as a friend drove her down 270, few were aware of the shootings. Other bullets had shattered windows, punctured tires, or shot through car doors. But police brushed off the bullet that triggered Hamilton Central Elementary School's alarm in the wee hours of Nov. 11 as an act of vandalism; when an officer found a bullet in the driver's side door of a woman's SUV on Nov. 18, he didn't even keep it.

After Ms. Knisley's death, police reexamined other shootings. They've connected at least six by ballistic evidence; they believe the rest are related.

It was scary news for the 77,000 commuters and truckers who use the corridor daily. And it struck Obetz with special gravity. I-270 runs right through the town; you see passing trucks from the Dairy Queen and the pizza place, from the countless warehouses and shipping centers that make up the town's industry. Until recently, the interstate view marked Obetz as a transportation hub; now, it reminds some of the danger they face every day.

'You know everybody's name'

"This is a Mayberry kind of town," explains Joe Groom, who's owned K&M since 1975 and, like most residents here, speaks in a gentle drawl. "You know everybody's name and you know the kids." The death, he says, felt distant at first. But then there was the school, and the home of Emma Fader and her son Donald Fitch. "That guy's home, it's right over there," says Mr. Groom, pointing. "It's all family here, so when it happens to him it happens to us." He knows Mr. Fitch well: "He's our Cincinnati Bengals guy. He loves those Bengals."

For Fitch, a disabled Ameritech worker whose small pink house lies about 150 yards from 270, finding the bullet in his living room was a shock. Learning that it was connected to the other shootings was, in contrast, a relief. "You know they're not targeting you," he explains. He found the bullet in the corner; it had just missed hitting the parakeet.

But mostly, the shooter makes Fitch angry. "I wouldn't qualify him to be a sniper," he says, noting the military history of "true" snipers. "He's out to terrorize and scare people."

If some are terrorized, though, others have found comfort in black humor. Truckers joke about it on their CBs - and laugh about how the information relayed often resembles a game of telephone.

Alice Tackett, who manages the Comfort Inn just off the highway, says she gets a kick out of watching people react to the "turkey shoot" - target practice with paper turkeys - just behind her motel. The truckers who often sleep in their cabs nearby jump particularly high, she laughs. "You've got to have a sense of humor or you'd be scared to death."

In J.R. Valentine's, another resident kids the sheriff at the bar about the response he got to his own target practice the other day: Two helicopters swooped in to check it out. "I had told the neighbors about it," he laughs. "Next time I guess I have to call the sheriff."

Theories, tips, and vigilance

The local police have had their hands full, responding to calls, allaying fears, and dealing with more than 1,700 tips. Last week, police installed security cameras along the most targeted stretch.

But while police mobilize their resources, nearly every Obetz resident has a theory of his own. Some think it's a gang initiation rite, others say it's someone laid off and angry. By far the most prevalent theory is that it's a teenager.

"I think it was just a kid doing something for kicks," says Jim Ryan, the owner of Possum Holler Pizza, just a few doors down from Fitch's house. "I don't think he ever intended to kill anybody." Police come in to Possum Holler - which looks out over a bare field at 270 - every day to ask Mr. Ryan if he's seen anything; once he called them when he noticed a boy walking on the railroad tracks.

But Ryan insists he's not nervous, either in the store or while he's driving. "The only time I don't take 270," he says, sprawled in a chair behind the counter, "is when I have my grandbaby with me."

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