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November 4, 2023

In 1995, a Disgruntled US Army Stole a Tank From a National Guard Armory and Rumbled Across a San Diego Neighborhood

On May 17, 1995, US Army veteran Shawn Nelson stole a 57.3-tonne (56.4-long-ton; 63.2-short-ton) tank from the local California Army National Guard armory and drove it around for six miles (9.7 km), crushing cars and infrastructure in his path—though without injuring anyone. A police helicopter and TV news crews captured this 23-minute rampage, from the crushed cars to the shocking conclusion when police lifted the mortally wounded Nelson out of the M60A3.

According to San Diego police, in 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 which happened about a month before. Whether Nelson condoned the attack or simply meant that he enjoyed the drama was not clear. Police did not believe that Nelson had any connection with the bombing or with a terrorist group.

At dusk, approximately 6:30 p.m on Wednesday, May 17, 1995, Nelson drove his Chevrolet van to the California Army National Guard Armory on Mesa College Boulevard in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego. Employees at the armory were working late and the gate to the vehicle yard, which was completely deserted, was left open.

San Diego Police and the California Highway Patrol chase a stolen military tank down Interstate 805. The tank was stolen from the National Guard Armory by Shawn T. Nelson, who led police through the streets of Linda Vista before entering the freeway.

The tanks at the armory started with a push button and did not require an ignition key. The first two tanks Nelson broke into would not start. As he lowered himself into the third tank, a 57-ton M60A3 Patton, he was finally noticed by a guardsman, who approached the tank. Nelson started the vehicle, and with little chance of stopping him, the guardsman rushed to a phone and called the 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 Clairemont. Police agencies involved in the chase included the San Diego police, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, and due to the tank being stolen from the armory, possibly military police as well. The tank had a top speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h), making the chase slow compared to police chases involving automobiles. The 57-ton tank easily plowed through road signs, traffic lights, utility poles, and fire hydrants, and crushed approximately forty parked vehicles, including an RV. The damage to utility poles knocked out power to at least 5,100 San Diego Gas & Electric customers in the Linda Vista neighborhood.

A firefighter jumps from what is left of a station wagon that was crushed by a tank driven by Shawn Nelson, who had stolen it from a National Guard armory.

Jeanie Basurto photographs her crushed car after Shawn Nelson drove a tank through Clairemont on May 17, 1995.

From the armory, Nelson traveled along neighborhood streets, eventually turning north on Convoy Street, west on to Balboa Avenue (then signed as State Route 274), and entered Interstate 805 heading south. While on I-805, he attempted to knock down a pedestrian bridge by running into the pillars, but failed after a few hits, and decided to continue onto the freeway. Nelson then drove the tank onto the State Route 163 freeway heading southbound, resulting in the freeway being closed and thousands of motorists being stuck. At least one news article speculated that he may have been headed to Sharp Memorial Hospital, which he had unsuccessfully sued in 1990 and partially blamed for his mother’s death. After Nelson attempted to cross into the northbound lanes of State Route 163, the tank became caught on the concrete median barrier and lost one track.

After the tank was immobilized, four policemen climbed onto the tank. San Diego Police officer Paul Paxton, a gunnery sergeant at the time with the Marine Corps Reserve, opened the hatch using bolt cutters. They ordered Nelson to surrender, but he said nothing and began rocking the tank back and forth in an attempt to free it from the median. Paxton's partner, Officer Richard Piner, leaned in and shot Nelson. The bullet entered through Nelson’s neck.

Four police officers leaped onto the tank, opened the hatch with bolt cutters, and shot Nelson to death.

Police officers and paramedics tend to Shawn Nelson on a stretcher after Nelson was shot once by an officer in the tank he stole on May 17, 1995. The rampage came to a halt on the concrete divider on state Route 163. Nelson died of his wound.

Nelson later died at the Sharp Memorial Hospital. Despite the widespread property destruction, he was the only fatality reported during the rampage.

1 comment:

  1. There is a story that at one point the police were calling the governor to request an Cobra anti-tank helicopter.




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