Template:Otherpersons Shawn Timothy Nelson (August 21, 1959 – May 17, 1995) was a U.S. Army veteran and unemployed plumber who stole an M60 Patton tank from a United States National Guard Armory in San Diego, California and went on a rampage on May 17, 1995, destroying cars, fire hydrants, and an RV before being shot dead by police.
Prior to the incident
Nelson was hospitalized in 1990 for neck and back injuries from a motorcycle accident. He sued the hospital for $1.5 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.
His wife of six years filed for divorce against him in 1991, and both of his parents died of cancer in 1992. Scott Nelson, Shawn's brother, said that Shawn became addicted to methamphetamine in the few years prior to the incident. His neighbors complained to authorities of Shawn yelling at his roommate at night. Nelson then began to exhibit unusual behavior. On one occasion, he dug a hole Template:Convert/ft deep in his backyard in an attempt to mine for gold. In February 1995, he filed a notice informing the county of his plans to mine bedrock in his backyard, even though he was not required to because his backyard was private property. Nelson's fishing friend, Carson Honings, referred to the mine shaft as Shawn's "new hobby". In April, he filed two damage claims against the city totaling $2,000,000. One of them was for police negligence, and another for false arrest.
Nelson's neck and back problems, in addition to his plumbing equipment being stolen from his truck, effectively halted his business. With no income, his utilities had been cut off and his house was in foreclosure. In April 1995, his live-in girlfriend died of a drug overdose. His brother, Scott, said of him, "My brother was a good man. He'd help anybody. He just couldn't help himself."
According to San Diego police, 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. Whether Nelson condoned the attack or simply meant that he enjoyed the drama is not clear. Police did not believe Nelson had any connection with the bombing or with a terrorist group.
At dusk of Wednesday, May 17, 1995, Nelson drove his Chevrolet van to the California Army National Guard Armory in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego. Although the gate to the vehicle yard was usually locked after 5:00 p.m., employees at the armory were working late, and left the gate open. The vehicle yard was completely deserted. Nelson likely used a crowbar to break open the tank hatches. Though the tanks did not require an ignition key to start the engine, since they simply used an ignition pushbutton, the first tank he broke into would not start, and neither would the second. As Nelson lowered himself into the third tank, a 57-ton M60 Patton, he was finally noticed by a Guardsman, who approached the tank. Nelson was able to start the vehicle, and with little chance of stopping him, the Guardsman rushed to a phone and called 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 the Clairemont neighborhood in San Diego, California. The tank had a top speed of Template:Convert/mph, making the chase slow compared to police chases involving automobiles, but it was no less dangerous. The 57-ton tank easily plowed through road signs, traffic lights, and, in what is probably the most famous image of the chase, crushed a van up against an RV, and then plowed straight through the RV. He even attempted to knock down a bridge by running in to the supports, but got impatient and gave up after he failed to topple it with the first few hits. He eventually became caught on a concrete median of State Route 163, as he attempted to cross the median into the oncoming traffic. Four police officers climbed onto the tank. San Diego Police Officer Paul Paxton, a Gunnery Sergeant at the time with Alpha Company, 4th Tank Battalion, a locally based Marine Corps Reserve unit, was able to open the hatch after another officer tossed a pair of bolt-cutters to him, gaining access to the turret. The officers ordered Nelson to surrender, but he said nothing and began lurching the tank back and forth in attempt to free it from the median. The Officers on the turret had to struggle to maintain their footing. Officer Paxton's partner, Richard Piner, leaned in and shot Nelson. The bullet struck Nelson in the shoulder, travelling through his body. It was an immediate fatal wound, and despite being quickly pulled out of the tank and rushed to the hospital, he died.
Questions were raised as to whether or not it was necessary for the police to kill Nelson. Scott Nelson himself said police were justified in shooting his brother. Police Captain Tom Hall said that if Nelson managed to free the tank, he "could have taken out no less than 35 vehicles that were passing at that moment." As one police officer said, "if he gets loose from there, if he gets into oncoming traffic, we will have someone killed". 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.
Station KGTV/Channel 10 broadcast footage of Nelson's shirtless, bloodied body being pulled from the tank by police both live and during the eleven o'clock news. The image of Nelson that was broadcast made Scott Nelson aware that his brother was the driver of the tank. KGTV was the only station that decided to air this footage. While some people questioned whether it was necessary or appropriate for KGTV to show such images, KGTV then-news director 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." Richard Tuininga, news director of KUSI/Channel 51, supported Klotzman's decision, even though his own news program decided not to air the footage. There is also commonly screened footage that is often used in documentaries that shows paramedics and police officers carrying Nelson's shirtless body to an ambulance on a stretcher.
Officials at the National Guard armory 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 April 19. 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 armory 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 are given keys to the vehicles, that the vehicles were kept far away from fences to make them difficult to reach, that only someone with 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 tightened at the Kearny Mesa armory.
- A documentary film was made that was based on the incident, called Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story.
- The Thrash metal band Megadeth shot a video based on the incident, for the single "The Right to Go Insane". In the video, Dave Mustaine plays the role of Nelson, with David Ellefson as his brother, while the other band members star as Nelson's friends.
- YouTube video of a segment detailing the incident with the tank.