Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Tip leads to arrest in Indiana sniper case

Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Tip leads to arrest in Indiana sniper case
By Lesley Stedman Weidenbener and Dick Kaukas
The Courier-Journal

INDIANAPOLIS — A 17-year-old Delaware County high school student was charged with murder Tuesday after police said he confessed to a series of interstate sniper shootings that left a New Albany man dead early Sunday morning.

Zachariah Blanton of Gaston was being held in the Jackson County Jail on charges of murder, attempted murder and criminal recklessness after a hearing before Jackson Superior Court Judge Bruce Markel.

As a 17-year-old charged with murder, Blanton will be tried as an adult in accordance with the law, said Jackson County Prosecutor Stephen Pierson.

Pierson said he doesn’t know whether he will seek the death penalty, in part because of the defendant’s age.

“It’s just a tragic situation all the way around,” he said. “I haven’t made up my mind, and I’m going to take my time.”

Blanton is charged in the death of Jerry L. Ross, 40, who was shot while riding in a pickup truck on Interstate 65 near Seymour.

He also is charged with wounding Robert John Otto Hartl, 25, of Audubon, Iowa, who was riding in another pickup in the same area early Sunday. Hartl was released after being treated at a Seymour hospital.

Police said Blanton also is responsible for two shootings that occurred about two hours later along I-69 near Muncie. Delaware County authorities have not charged him in those shootings.

State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell said the break in the case came when a Delaware County reserve deputy talked to someone who knew Blanton and was concerned that he might have been involved.

He said investigators followed up on the tip Monday night, searched Blanton’s home and found a Remington Model 710 rifle with a scope that fires a .270-caliber round.

Whitesell said that matches the type of weapon used in the shootings, but he said tests to confirm whether the weapon is actually the one that was fired have not been completed.

Suspect called cooperative, remorseful
Investigators who interviewed Blanton Tuesday in Delaware County said he was cooperative and remorseful.

Blanton’s legal guardians — his grandparents — were present for the interview. An attorney was not, Delaware County Sheriff George Sheridan said.

Whitesell said information that Blanton provided led to the charges.

“I would call that a confession,” he said.

After the interview, Blanton was transferred to Jackson County for a probable-cause hearing.

Police said they have not determined a motive, and Sheridan declined to speculate about whether Blanton chose his victims at random.

Whitesell said the investigation determined that Blanton, who had hunted in Jackson County, drove onto an overpass near Seymour, leaned across the trunk of his vehicle and shot at pickups there.

He then drove north to the Muncie area and found a position near mile marker 42 on I-69, where he fired shots before driving south to the exit at mile marker 41 and shooting at a parked car, Whitesell said.

Sheridan said Blanton has faced charges involving sexual offenses and theft, but never was convicted and never served any time in jail or in a juvenile detention center.

'A great kid'
Blanton, who would be a senior at Wes-Del High School in Gaston this year, is a varsity football player and member of the track team. According to an Internet listing of high school football teams, he stands 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 330 pounds.

His uncle, Joseph Blanton, a mechanic who has a business near Gaston, described the alleged shooter as “a great kid” who sometimes helped him around the shop, most recently a couple of weeks ago.

He said he is “a good worker” who likes to talk about sports and car racing.

“I’m just heartbroken,” Joseph Blanton said. “I don’t think he done it.”

Several others who know Zachariah Blanton said they were stunned when they heard he had been accused.

Wes-Del principal Phillip Gardner said Blanton “was on course to graduate this year” and took half his classes at the “career center,” or vocational school.

“This is a very, very small school,” Gardner said, with about 530 students in the middle and high school.

“Everybody knew him. To me he was a student like everyone else, just a Wes-Del kid. It’s shocking.”

Stephen McColley, superintendent of the 880-student school district, said he knows Blanton’s family and “they are good people.”

He said there was nothing in Blanton’s background that would make anyone suspect “he would do this.”

Was a former church group member
Joseph Fights, pastor of Prairie Grove Congregational Christian Church in Gaston, said Blanton grew up in the area, was raised by his grandparents and attended the church’s youth group “until a couple of years ago.”

Fights said he doesn’t know what led to the grandparents’ getting custody. He said he thought Blanton “always had a few problems” that he associated with his coming from “a broken home.”

But Fights said he was “totally shocked” by the charges.

At a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Mitch Daniels said citizen participation and the cooperation of law-enforcement agencies led to a quick arrest.

“Indiana has been spared the sort of fear and uncertainty and disruption that has befallen other jurisdictions,” he said.

Immediately after the shootings, sheriff’s deputies from across the state — including those in Jackson, Clark and Scott counties — joined state police, conservation officers and excise police in the investigation.

The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also took part.

In addition, Whitesell said, Ohio agencies sent investigators who had worked to solve a series of sniper shootings in that state.

Whitesell also confirmed yesterday that as part of the investigation, police found a note written on bathroom tissue and threatening a “bloodbath” in northeastern Indiana. But he said the note is believed to be a hoax and unconnected to Blanton.

Reporter Lesley Stedman Weidenbener can be reached at (317) 444-2780. Reporter Dick Kaukas can be reached at (812) 949-4033.

Copyright 2005 The Courier-Journal.

8:14 PM July 25, 2006
Hunch leads to sniper suspect
By Tim Evans and John Strauss

A sheriff deputy's hunch led to the arrest today of a teenage hunter in the interstate sniper case, State Police Commissioner Paul Whitesell said.

Zachariah Blanton, 17, of Gaston in Delaware County was held today on murder, attempted murder and criminal recklessness charges. Blanton was held in the Jackson County Jail in Seymour, near the location where one motorist was killed and another wounded early Sunday.

Whitesell discussed the charges in a late afternoon news conference with Delaware County Sheriff George Sheridan and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

All three credited the public with responding to the police request for tips in the case.

“Without the alertness and volunteer cooperation of citizens in at least two places, this could not have been brought to as swift a resolution,” Daniels said.

Whitesell said the break in the case came when a reserve deputy from Delaware County spoke to an acquaintance of Blanton who was concerned about the teen.

“He (the acquaintance) was concerned about whether or not the suspect might have been involved,” Whitesell said. “The reserve deputy took that lamentation and followed up and called Sheriff Sheridan.”

The deputy was aware of the massive local, state and federal probe into Sunday’s shootings.

Jerry L. Ross, 40, New Albany, was killed by a gunshot while traveling on I-65 just north of Seymour. Robert Otto Hartl, 25, Audubon, Iowa, was treated after being hit by gunfire near the same location. The men were in southbound pickup trucks, and both shootings occurred at about 12:30 a.m.

Two hours later, a semi was hit by gunfire on I-69 near Muncie, and an unoccupied pickup truck was hit nearby in the same area. No one was injured in those shootings.
A Jackson County judge found probable cause to issue a warrant for Blanton on the three charges.

During a hearing this afternoon in Brownstown, investigators also presented testimony tying Blanton to the shootings in Delaware County, according to Jackson Superior Judge Bruce Markel III.

Markel said there was no testimony linking anyone else to the shootings.

Denise Blanton, the suspect's great-aunt, told The Star-Press of Muncie that she was shocked by the charges. “I can’t imagine that he would be involved."

Phillip Gardner, principal of Wes-Del High School in rural Delaware County, told The Associated Press that Blanton was on course to graduate next year.

Wes-Del has 300 students. Blanton was an average student who played football and was a shot putter for the track and field team.

“I know he was into mechanics,” Gardner told AP. “He had a big, old four-wheel truck that he was driving all the time. That kind of kid.”

He called the arrest “just tragic.”

“It’s very difficult for our whole community. We’re all just shocked.”

Staff writers Theodore Kim and Vic Ryckaert contributed to this report.
This story will be updated.

Copyright 2006 All rights reserved

Interstate sniper suspect in custody
CRIME Police: 17-year-old admits to weekend shooting that killed one, injured another

This story ran on on Wednesday, July 26, 2006 12:09 AM CDT

INDIANAPOLIS A 17-year-old from Delaware County has confessed to a series of sniper shootings that killed one motorist and injured another along Indiana highways last weekend, police said.

Zachariah Blanton, of Gaston, was arrested Tuesday afternoon on charges of murder, attempted murder and criminal recklessness with a firearm. He is being held in the Jackson County Jail, near Seymour, where the first of two sniper attacks on Interstate 65 early Sunday killed Jerry Ross, 40, of New Albany, and injured Robert Otto Hartl, 25, of Audubon, Iowa.

Police do not yet have a motive in the case, though Delaware County Sheriff George Sheridan Jr. said Blanton has a history with police. Sheridan said Blanton has no convictions on his record and has never served time, even as a juvenile. He would not comment further.

The sniper attacks early Sunday sparked statewide concern, with electronic message boards on Indiana interstates instructing motorists to "report suspicious overpass activities -- call police."

Investigators received more than 50 tips Monday, but didn't see a break in the case until that evening.

An acquaintance of Blanton told a Delaware County reserve deputy he was concerned that a friend might be responsible for the Interstate 65 attacks and similar shootings reported two hours later on Interstate 69, near Muncie. No one was injured in the second round of shootings.

Blanton cooperated with investigators Monday night, and during a search of his grandparents' home, officers recovered a rifle and scope that matched the type of weapon used in the shootings, police said.

Indiana State Police Superintendent Paul Whitesell said there was no need for a written confession, given Blanton's cooperation with investigators.

Police said Blanton, a student at Wes-Del High School, knew the area around Seymour -- where the shootings began about 12:20 a.m. Sunday -- from past hunting trips.

"(That) helps explain why he was able to perpetrate the crime from that overpass because it requires a certain esoteric knowledge of the lay of the land, and to egress out of there in the fashion that the shooter did," Whitesell said.

Police said Blanton then drove about 100 miles northeast, stopped at an I-69 overpass and shot a moving semitrailer. Blanton then a drove a mile south to another overpass, where he shot an unattended vehicle, Whitesell said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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