SPECIAL REPORT: Trucker has a close encounter with Ohio sniper

| 12/4/2003

Yellow driver says bullet hitting his rig sounded like an explosion

Bill Briggs was listening to his favorite blues guitarist, only miles from home and “hauling a load of sailboat fuel” when it hit him.

The driver’s side window of his truck blew to pieces with a sound like an explosion.

The 36-year trucking veteran didn’t know it yet, but he had just become the latest target of what media reports are calling a serial sniper in the Columbus, OH, area. Briggs was one of the lucky ones.

Authorities now believe that a string of 12 shootings at or near the southwestern part of I-270, a loop highway surrounding Columbus, are linked. All of the shootings have taken place since May.

Only one bullet hit a human target. It struck and killed local resident Gail Knisley Nov. 25, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Knisley was riding in the car of a friend who was taking her to see a doctor. A pickup truck was hit just a few hours later nearby. Other bullets have hit a school and other cars.

Briggs’ encounter came more than a month earlier. He was traveling back from a run to Roanoke Oct. 19 when he turned onto Interstate 270. It was 11:30 at night, his run was nearly done and he was close to his home in Hilliard, OH.

"It was quiet out there, there wasn't any cars around me hardly," he said. "Hell, I was just grooving on to a blues tape."

Suddenly, a loud sound like an explosion hit, and the window next to his head shattered inward. That’s when Briggs’ instincts, honed during his stint in the Vietnam War, kicked in – he hammered down and quickly removed himself and his new Volvo rig from the line of fire.

"I was thinking the whole time, what the Hell was that, a rock or what," he said. "I flipped the dome light on, look around and didn't see any rocks."

Since he was only four or five miles from the Yellow Freight terminal, Briggs decided to bring his rig in. He reported what had happed to the shop foreman, who told him to write up the damage.

When he walked around to the passenger side of the vehicle to retrieve his gear, he discovered what hit him was no rock.

"I tried to open the door and it would only open like six or eight inches," he said. "I looked up and the weather stripping that goes around the frame was stuck to the door.

"When I jerked it loose a bullet fragment fell out," he said. "There was a big hole in the door about two or three inches in diameter. That's when I called the cops."

Briggs cannot pinpoint the location where his rig was shot, but he knows the general area. He remembers thinking “man, I need to remember where I’m at.” After the bullet hit, the next mile marker was 2, which he thinks would put the shooting between the ½ mile and 1 ½ mile mile markers.

He had just come off Route 23 north and onto I-270 west. He believes the shooting location is past where Interstate 71 crosses the highway, and before the Grove City exit.

The waning quarter moon and street lights made it a fairly bright night, he recalled.

The location is “very suburban,” Briggs said. A berm runs along both sides of I-270 in that area – in some areas, the land behind the berm is empty, in some areas, new homes are under construction.

The police told him at that time they thought the shooting was random.

"At that time, they didn't have anything to go on," he said. "In fact, he told me that there hadn't been any other shootings so they're probably just going to have to write it as random, and it'll probably be open and shut.

"Then again, until Mrs. Knisley got killed the other day, nobody was reporting anything," he said. "It was a broken window here, a hole in a fender there. Everybody felt like we did that it was just a stray shot."

After the Knisley shooting, reports began to pour in, and already, a member of the task force investigating the shootings has interviewed Briggs again.

His experience has created a stir among truckers who live and travel in the region. Truck driver Dwayne R. Jones of New Iberia, LA, told The Cincinnati Enquirer he heard a group of truckers speculating on the shooter’s identity during a conversation at a local truck stop.

Jones, 38, who drives for Covenant Transportation Inc. of Chattanooga, TN, said the truckers agreed the shooter was not a truck driver – after all, a trucker wouldn't aim at another trucker, they said.

Meanwhile, police are moving closer to solving the case. While they would not release many details, they have received more than 500 tips, according to The Associated Press, and they have linked the bullets from four of the shootings through ballistics.

Despite the potential danger, Briggs hasn’t let the shooting break his stride.

"I was back out there the next day and went right by it again," Briggs said. After two decades in the Army and more than 35 years behind the wheel of a truck, Briggs said he was pretty set in his ways. "I'm not going to let something like that intimidate me or bother me."

But that doesn’t mean he would recommend that for anyone else.

"I'd just hate to see the businesses in that local area around there lose customers," he said. However, "If they can find a way around there, and it would make them feel better to do that, then by all means I'd say do it."

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.