Hunting the Hunter on I-580

Ever since a mysterious suspect's shooting rampage, the CHP has been out to demonstrate its diligence.

Officer Daniel Hesser of the California Highway Patrol usually spends his Friday afternoons in East Bay elementary school classrooms, speaking to children, handing out plastic badges, and answering the inevitable questions concerning the use of his firearm. But not today.

Ever since February 23, when a driver used a ten-mile stretch of Interstate 580 for a shooting gallery, Hesser’s job as the friendly Public Information Officer in Castro Valley has been temporarily redefined as Big Story Media Manager. As part of the CHP’s strategy to assure the public that it’s hunting the anonymous shooter with gusto, Hesser has found himself playing taxi driver for television camera crews in need of freeway footage.

“I’ve taken out about five cameramen so far,” he says as he loads into his patrol car once more, this time for the benefit of a print reporter. “KRON twice, KNTV twice. Fox once.” The list goes on. The images, shot from the comforting perspective of a cop car’s front seat, are broadcast over and over, along with a brief snippet of a patrol officer — sometimes Hesser himself — peering through the driver’s side window, on the lookout.

“We just want to show people that we’re doing something out here,” says the PIO, steering westbound on 580 while adjusting his sunglasses. “It’s bad enough you to have to deal with all the traffic and commute and all the other things on the road. Now you’ve got to deal with someone who’s not quite right in the head.”

Last Thursday, CHP investigators made yet another arrest in the case, temporarily relieving the cloud of fear that has hung over drivers who frequent this stretch of highway. Even so, Hesser’s role continues.

Hesser has been at the Castro Valley office for two years and moonlights as a Child Safety Seat Technician, which means he knows everything about rigging children’s car seats properly. His meticulously gelled cop-do and clear-eyed demeanor make him a good mug for both TV screens and classrooms.

The officer first learned about the shooting spree from the newspaper on his day off, unaware it would soon become the largest investigation he has worked on. From the start, local news reports cast the suspect as a sniper — a poor mischaracterization, according to Hesser. “The person we’re looking for was driving and shooting at the same time,” he explains. “A sniper remains stationary.”

CHP reports indicate the freeway shooter was nimble, as well as raging. Starting at about 6:00 p.m., the height of rush hour, the suspect shot the first car with what ballistics experts believe was a .22, quickly exited the freeway, then reentered going the opposite direction. He drove a mile or two, fired again, then exited. He repeated this exercise several times between the Rowell Ranch Road exit near Dublin to the Estudillo Avenue exit in San Leandro. By the time he finished, around 7:15 p.m., he’d hit eight cars. No drivers were injured, and some weren’t even aware their car had been shot at until a day or two later, when opening the trunk, say, they came across a small bullet hole.

Hesser is in midsentence near the 164th Avenue exit when he passes a maroon-colored pickup and does a double take. The driver wears a baseball cap and has long brown hair and a bushy mustache. Rosary beads and a large crucifix hang from his rearview. He stares straight ahead as the cop passes. “Doesn’t fit the description,” Hesser mutters. “His truck is maroon, but at night, people might think it’s black.”

During the 75-minute shooting episode, no witnesses called from cell phones, a fact that befuddled Hesser at first, and then, after some thought, made perfect sense. He considered the lack of driver-consciousness he encounters all too frequently. As he drives, he recalls accident scenes where drivers were at a loss to explain what had happened, even though they suffered no head injuries. They didn’t know what lane they were in, or what they’d been doing, or who caused the collision.

“So in that sense, it’s not that remarkable at all,” he concludes. “A lot of people don’t pay attention when they’re driving. People are concerned with where they’re going, if they’re late picking up the kids, what’s on the radio. They’re not looking around, taking in what’s going on around them.”

Based on a string of tips, CHP investigators announced they were looking for a dark American-made pickup, and then dispatched more patrol cars to the strip of freeway. Last Monday, according to CHP Sergeant Wayne Ziese, there were a dozen patrol cars, both marked and unmarked, and one airplane cruising over the stretch during commute hours. This heavy-duty patrol has led to the arrests of at least eleven drivers, some of whom have been held temporarily as possible suspects. But Hesser denies officers have a mandate to stop cars that fit the description. Instead, he says, they are staying alert for code violations. “If it happens to be a dark pickup,” the officer adds, “we might go ahead and take it a step further.”

Hesser tells of how one officer pulled over a pickup that was driving aggressively. Outside the driver’s window, the officer smelled marijuana. Turned out the car was heading toward Southern California, carrying two pounds of pot, methamphetamines, and Ecstasy pills. “There’s always going to be a positive effect when there’s more police enforcement,” he says.

Driving back toward his Castro Valley outpost, Hesser notes that his office has been inundated by calls from both drivers and reporters. Drivers were told to make sure that any loud “booms” they had heard weren’t just backfiring automobiles. And members of the media were given a free ridealong on a segment of calm freeway, an image that could be passed along like a plastic badge — but this time for adults.

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