Stolen tank rampage
San Diego’s 1995 Tank Rampage | Case Closed #2
The time a man snapped and went on a rampage across San Diego, California in a stolen tank.
People can snap over any set of circumstances, and decide to get revenge when they feel like they have been wronged, though not everyone goes to such lengths as one man did one infamous day in San Diego, California, in 1995.
One such person who took that a step further on May 17, 1995, when a man named Shawn Nelson, a U.S. Army veteran and unemployed plumber, stole an M60A3 Patton tank from the United States National Guard Armory in San Diego, California. Over the course of his rampage, of which was caught on live television, he left the destruction of many cars, fire hydrants, and even an RV vehicle in his wake.
Before he stole the tank and went on his infamous rampage, Nelson was a U.S. Army veteran who went about his life like anyone else, but his infamous crime proved what could happen when an ordinary person gets pushed too far towards the edge.
Born on August 21, 1959, Nelson’s spiral downward began in 1990, when he got hospitalized for both neck and back injuries he sustained from a motorcycle accident.
He later sued the hospital for $1.6 million, citing negligence, assault, battery, and false imprisonment. Additionally, he made the claim that he was forced to be treated without his consent. However, a superior court judge not only dismissed his case, but the hospital also counter-sued him for the $6,640 in medical fees and legal expenses.
In 1991, his wife of six years filed to divorce against him.
By 1992, he lost both of his parents to cancer.
According to Nelson’s brother Scott, a few years before the incident, his brother became addicted to methamphetamine.
Nelson’s neighbors made complaints against him to authorities about hearing him yelling at his roommate at night. Also, around this time, Shawn began behaving strangely, including one occasion in which he dug a hole 15 feet deep in his backyard to mine for gold.
In February of 1995, Nelson filed a notice informing the county of his plans to mine for bedrock in his backyard. A fishing buddy of Nelson’s, Carson Honings, referred to the activity as his friend’s “new hobby.”
In April of that same year, he filed two damage claims totaling $2 million. One of the complaints was about police negligence, and the other for false arrest.
Then, things went downhill further. Nelson’s plumbing business got halted from the combination of his neck and back problems, as well as his plumbing equipment getting stolen. Moreover, his live-in girlfriend had recently died of a fatal drug overdose.
Furthermore, with his business halted, Nelson lost his income, which resulted in both his utilities getting cut off and his house going into foreclosure.
With all of his problems accumulating, Nelson became more and more of a ticking time bomb.
According to San Diego police, a week before his rampage, Nelson told a friend how he was having suicidal thoughts.
The following weekend, he told another friend that “Oklahoma was good stuff.” Whether this was a reference to the Oklahoma City bombing which happened a month earlier, is unknown. Also, it is unclear whether this statement meant that Nelson condoned the attack or if he was just into the drama that followed in the aftermath.
At dusk, on Wednesday, May 17, 1995, Nelson drove to the California Army National Guard Armory. The armory, located in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego, was coincidently left open instead of being locked after 5 p.m., as usual, that evening. The reason for this was due to employees reportedly working late at the time.
Despite the gate to the vehicle yard usually being locked after 5 p.m., the gate happened to be left open due to employees working late that evening.
At the time, the vehicle yard was left wholly deserted.
After sneaking into the yard, Nelson went about making multiple attempts at breaking open several of the tanks’ hatches using a crowbar.
The first two tanks he managed to break into would not start but, after breaking into a third one, a 57-ton M60A3 Patton, he got it to start.
As soon as he got it started, a guardsman finally noticed him and began approaching the tank.
In response, Nelson started driving away in the tank. Unable to stop him, the guardsman rushed to a phone to call the police.
Thankfully, none of the tank’s weapons could be loaded or used by Nelson since the ammunition was kept separately in another building.
For the next 23 minutes, Nelson led police on a televised chase through the streets of the Clairemont, San Diego neighborhood. The tank, having a top speed of 30 mph, led to a slow chase compared to one involving a car.
Throughout Nelson’s rampage, the tank plowed through road signs, traffic lights, utility poles, fire hydrants. In addition to that, the tank also crushed several parked vehicles, even slicing open an R.V. at one point.
Due to the damage sustained from the tank to multiple utility poles, power was knocked out to at least 5,100 customers of San Diego Gas and Electric, in the Linda Vista neighborhood.
Moving on, Nelson then headed north on Convoy Street, west on Balboa Avenue, entering Interstate 805 and headed south.
While on Interstate 805, things turned from bizarre to scary when Nelson attempted to knock down a pedestrian bridge by repeatedly running into its support beams. Fortunately, the supports held strong enough until Nelson gave up and moved on.
Next, Nelson then drove the tank onto the State Route 163 freeway heading southbound, resulting in the freeway quickly getting closed down and blocked off. Thousands of motorists were also left stuck as the police continuing trying to stop Nelson whose rampage continued.
Eventually, Nelson attempted to cross into oncoming traffic. However, this was stopped when he managed to get himself stuck upon trying to go over the concrete median divider on State Route 163 north of the Genesee Avenue interchange.
With Nelson now stuck, four San Diego police officers climbed onto the tank. One officer, in particular, Paul Patton who, at the time, was a gunnery sergeant with the Marine Corps. Reserve, opened the tank’s hatch.
Now cornered, they ordered Nelson to surrender. However, instead of complying, Nelson said nothing. Instead, he attempted to free the tank by moving it back and forth to and resume his path of destruction and chaos. His attempt was ultimately stopped however, when, to put an end to the destruction once and for all, Nelson was shot through his shoulder by Officer Patton’s partner, Richard Piner.
Another, more in-depth video piece on the incident.
With the rampage finally over, officials took Nelson to Sharp Memorial Hospital, where he ultimately died from his injuries.
In the aftermath of the incident, questions were raised on how necessary was it for police to ultimately shoot Nelson. Was the action justified? In response, the Police Chief at the time, Tom Hall, defended the officers’ action by saying:
“he [Nelson] could have taken out no less than 35 vehicles that were passing at that moment.”
Furthermore, even if police had opted to take non-lethal action instead such as tear gas, while this would have stopped Nelson himself, it wouldn’t have prevented the tank from moving again. Besides, even if they did use tear gas, none of the officers would have been able to enter the tank while it was still mobile with said tear has present.
According to lives news coverage made at the time, officials were at such a loss at how they were going to stop Nelson with what they had at their disposal, that they considered asking for help from the United States Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, and have a Cobra attack helicopter dispatched.
When asked if the police were justified in shooting his brother, Scott Nelson agreed that they were.
The News Coverage of the Incident
During Nelson’s 23-minutes long path of destruction, multiple television news stations covered the incident. However, of all the coverage, only the local news station KGTV, on Channel 10, chose to air the footage of Nelson’s shirtless, bloodied body getting removed from the tank. They did this both in the live footage and during their 11 p.m. time slot. It was this broadcast that Scott recognized his brother as the perpetrator.
In response to the criticism of this decision, the then news director at KGTV, Jeff Klotzman said:
“We felt it was a critical part of the story. We warned our viewers three different times that it was graphic, and it was.”
The director of another news station, KUSI of Channel 51, Richard Tuininga supported the decision Klotzman made, oddly enough since his news program made the judgment not to air the footage.
The Criticism of Armory Security
Officials from the National Guard armory where Nelson stole the tank were criticized for the perceived massive lapse in security; this criticism was taken even more seriously considering the Oklahoma City bombing had happened just a month earlier.
Moreover, the open, unguarded gate wasn’t the only piece of criticism made, as the fence surrounding the lot was found to have damaged barbed wire in several places.
When asked about this, residents who lived near the armory stated that even if the gate had been locked, that Nelson could have still gotten in through one of the sections of the fence with the broken barbed wire.
Additionally, officials of the armory added that very few people were given keys to the vehicles, that they were all kept as far from the fences as possible, and that only someone with proper knowledge could even operate a tank, let alone start one. There was just no way of foreseeing this kind of event happening before it did.
Later News Coverage Update
Eighteen months later, the event still made headlines in The San Diego Union-Tribune newspapers. One such story outlined what had transpired since that bizarre day:
The state of California paid $149,201 to cover property damage along Nelson’s route. It moved military tanks out of all National Guard armories statewide, relocating them to Camp Roberts in San Luis Obispo and Fort Irwin in Barstow. The Army National Guard also evaluated security at all state armories, resulting in changes in procedure and heightened awareness.
The National Guard was considered negligent, so the state eventually paid the damage claims of 28 individuals, companies and the city, according to public documents. The payout included $10,000 for Pacific Bell, $12,500 to the city of San Diego and $40,965.69 to San Diego Gas & Electric. The rest was paid to citizens, mostly for damage to motor vehicles.
So that was the story of the time a man stole a tank and went on a rampage in San Diego, California. Though his actions cannot be condoned, it does shed light into how circumstances could lead to someone to commit a crime as well as prompt a discussion concerning mental health and awareness for mental health issues.
Also, as a note to Nelson’s character before the incident, from the people who knew him beforehand, Scott Nelson said of his troubled brother:
“My brother was a good man. He’d help anybody. He just couldn’t help himself.”
At the end of the day, though he could have seriously injured, if not killed any number of people that day, no one else lost their lives during this dramatically dangerous incident. Hopefully, this is one piece of history that won’t ever repeat itself.
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Nicole Henley is a writer and storyteller. An East-coast girl whose obsessed with shows like The X-Files, Buffy and almost every crime procedural series under the sun. Writing the story is merely half the journey. When she’s not covering cold cases or mysteries, she’s watching movies or writing poetry, short stories, and flash fiction that may or may not be based on horror.