In 1984, James Garner starred in a feel-good movie about fighting small-town corruption with the aid of a vintage tank. The local jail was destroyed, the good guys won, the bad guys were exposed, and a good time was had by all.
Just over a decade later, a suicidal man decided to try the same thing. Not standing up against corruption. The tank rampage.
Shawn Nelson was a former plumber who had become addicted to methamphetamine following a divorce and a severe motorcycle accident. In 1995, in what would later be described as one of the most notable examples of “suicide by cop”, he decided to put his two years of Army service to use.
Nelson, a resident of San Diego, had been suffering from depression and had recently begun actively discussing suicide with his friends. He became very drunk on March 17th and decided to drive to the Army National Guard Armory. There, he entered the poorly guarded vehicle lot. Taking advantage of his unusual luck at not being found, he parked and started hunting around for something interesting to drive.
He entered a tank, and was presumably delighted to learn that it, like those he had manned during his two-year Army stint in the late 1970s, had a simple push-button ignition. His delight likely died away as the push-button failed to work. Rather than give up, he tried another one… which also failed to start. He climbed into a third, and as he was doing so, he was seen. Nelson was ordered out of the vehicle.
When this tank’s push button started, Nelson decided to ignore the order. Instead, he took the armor unit out for an incredibly destructive trip around San Diego. Power lines were shorn, cars were crushed, RVs were torn in half, fire hydrants were knocked off of their pipes… against the might of the M60A3 Patton, nothing was safe.
Well, almost nothing. At one point, he tried to knock over a pedestrian bridge crossing interstate 805, which is where he learned that the mass of a giant concrete structure is considerably greater than that of a mostly-empty car frame.
While attempting to cross onto State Route 163, the tank became stuck on the concrete median. This delay afforded police time to climb onto the tank and cut the hatch with bolt cutters. Now able to confront Nelson directly, the police instructed him to stop and step out of the tank. Instead, he started to rock the tank back and forth, attempting to clear it from the impediment.
One of the officers fired at Nelson, who died as a result. The decision to use lethal force was examined, and the rationale the officer provided was deemed appropriate. The determination had been made that if the tank was made free multiple lives would be in jeopardy and that if tear gas was used but the tank were freed as a final effort of Nelson, officers would be unable to enter and control it.
The loss of life was regrettable, and the loss of property was considerable, but luckily during the entirety of the rampage Nelson had neither killed nor physically injured anyone.
Curious as to what it looked like? Here’s a news program on the event…
Question of the night: what’s a vehicle you’d like to (safely!) drive?