California

Man steals tank, drives through city before being shot by police

May 17, 1995

San Diego, California

Shawn Nelson steals a tank, goes on a 23-minute rampage ending when he is killed by police

Nelson, allegedly a methamphetamine addict, had been suicidal; a combination of neck and back injuries from a motorcycle accident and the theft of his plumbing equipment made it nearly impossible to continue his plumbing career. In an effort to make money somehow, he came up with various tactics, including trying to dig a hole in his backyard to find gold. He also attempted to sue the hospital that treated his motorcycle injuries $1.6 million for false imprisonment, assault, battery, and negligence. These lawsuits were dismissed and the hospital counter sued for $6,640 in unpaid bills. Additionally, he sued the police department $2 million for false imprisonment and negligence. With no income from his plumbing business or the failed lawsuits, his utilities were disconnected and his house foreclosed upon. Compounding issues, his live-in girlfriend died of a drug overdose the month before he stole the tank.

Nelson snuck into the California Army National Guard Armory, broke into an M60A3 Patton tank. A guard noticed Nelson and attempted to stop him before the tank was started, but Nelson was able to get the vehicle operational before the guard reached him. The guard, unable to compete with a tank, immediately called police.

The police engaged Nelson in a chase topping at 30 miles per hour. Nelson plowed through vehicles, traffic lights, signs, and fire hydrants. He also attempted to destroy a bridge by ramming its supports but gave up when it failed to fall after a few hits.

Eventually, the tank became stuck on a cement median. Police immediately converged upon the tank and opened the hatch. Nelson was told to surrender, but he remained silent and tried to move the tank back and forth to free it. A police officer, fearing the tank would go through incoming traffic causing casualties and more damage, shot Nelson in the shoulder once to end the rampage. Nelson later died in the hospital.

Largely because the tanks and ammunition were stored in separate areas of the armory, Nelson could not fire any shells which limited his frenzy. The only casualty was Nelson himself. There were no injuries.

A video of the spree can be seen here.

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