Shooting incident reconstruction involves a variety of factors. It is not uncommon for moving vehicles to be part of shooting incidents. Additional considerations are involved when the target is moving, the shooter is moving, or both are moving. In this case the shooter was stationary, and the target, the driver of a Jeep, was moving.
This shooting incident took place in a rural area of a western state known for its "survivalist types" and armed militia. Three teens were riding around in an open Jeep in a sparsely populated area. They were drinking as they drove and were causing the Jeep to backfire by switching the ignition switch on and off. It was approaching sundown as they turned down a narrow stretch of road that led past a small frame house that was essentially surrounded by foliage and underbrush. Only about a 30-foot opening directly across the front allowed a passerby any sort of view of the house and grounds from the roadway.
As they approached the opening in the foliage, they caused the jeep to backfire one more time. Just as they drove past the opening, the driver suddenly slumped forward in the seat. The Jeep, now out of control, crossed over to the left and collided with a pickup parked on the side of the road. With the radio of the Jeep blaring and the intermittent backfires, the other two teens in the vehicle had heard nothing and had no idea what had happened until they saw a wound on the left side of the driver's head with blood running out.
Police officers interviewed the owner of the house that the incident had taken place in front of. He stated that he had been out in front of his house with a 22-caliber rifle "hunting skunks" when he heard the sound of the approaching vehicle. As the vehicle got close, he said that he heard what he thought was a gunshot and instinctively "hit the deck" while holding the rifle up so as not to strike the ground. He said that when he did that, his right thumb was in the trigger guard, and he "may have accidentally fired a shot." When he showed the officers where this took place, a single fired 22-cartridge case was found on the ground. The crime scene is shown in the diagram.
Ultimately officers determined that the Jeep had what appeared to be a recent bullet hole in the rocker molding below the driver side door opening. A search of the roadway failed to locate a fired bullet. It was
also noted that the left rear tire of the Jeep was flat. The tire was removed from the rim and a small piece of nondescript lead was found inside. This piece of lead was about the right weight for a 22-caliber bullet but had no visible bullet characteristics, such as rifling marks or copper coating. A search warrant was obtained, and the rifle was seized from the man, together with a partial box of 22 long rifle cartridges from inside the house.
The question that had to be answered was whether there had been only one shot, as suggested by the single cartridge case, or multiple shots, as suggested by the hole in the rocker molding and the piece of lead in the left rear tire. To help answer this investigators shipped the bullet removed from the boy's head at autopsy, the cartridges from the man's residence, and the piece of lead to the FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., for elemental analysis. Elemental analysis provides a means of determining the exact makeup of a substance in terms of what is present and in what quantity. This was necessary to determine whether the lead fragment from the tire was, in fact, a bullet or a piece of lead wheel weight (something that occasionally ends up inside tires when they have been remounted). Equally important was to establish whether the three samples could have come from the same lot of ammunition.
Lead bullets, such as in many types of 22 long rifle cartridges, consist not only of lead but also have tin and sometimes antimony as part of their formulation. That is done to make the bullets harder so that they have less of a tendency to distort on impact. Elemental analysis is used to determine which of the chemical elements are present and what their percentage composition is. Once the FBI analysis was complete, a report was issued indicating that all three samples were similar in composition and came from the same lot of ammunition.
The term lot of ammunition refers to a production run. In this age of computer-controlled manufacturing, variations in formulations are much less pronounced than they used to be; however, it is still possible to find measurable differences in the compositions from lot to lot. The FBI finding was huge. Three shots, not one, were indicated. While it may have been possible for the man to accidentally fire one round as he hit the ground, the firing of three shots could simply not have taken place by accident. Particularly since the shots were confined to a rather small area of the moving target. At this juncture investigators decided that a reconstruction was in order. The questions that needed answering included the following:
• Where did the shots come from? Near the ground or from some other position, such as with the shooter standing upright?
• Was it possible for three shots to have been fired as the Jeep passed by the opening in the foliage in front of the house?
• Would the rifle hit what it was aimed at?
• How would the rifle have been manipulated in order to hit the boy once and the Jeep twice?
The most reliable indicator of shooter position was the bullet hole through the driver door rocker molding. That is because it was a fixed object on the Jeep, whereas the driver's exact position could never be determined nor could the position of the tire when the bullet struck it. Of course, the Jeep could have been situated on the road in a number of positions when the shot struck the molding. What had to be done was to try positioning the Jeep at various positions (that is, to the far right side, middle, and far left side of the one-lane road) and tracing the trajectory back to the location the man said he had hit the ground at. If the resultant trajectories were the same, the position of the Jeep on the road would be a moot point. If different positions yielded drastically differing points of origin, the situation would become complicated, and resolution would be necessary.
Rather than take the Jeep back to the scene and try to move it about, it was decided to construct a mock-up that incorporated the molding such that it was at the same height above the ground as it originally was when affixed to the Jeep. The mock-up was light and portable so that it was easy to move about on the roadway to do trajectory analysis. The mock-up also permitted the use of a laser that was projected through the bullet hole from the inside of the molding. The laser beam represented the bullet trajectory and allowed quick determinations to be made as to the probable shooter position for the various positions of the Jeep on the roadway. The results were the same for every possible position of the Jeep: The shot came from a position close to the ground in the area the man had identified. Did that mean he was telling the truth?
Even though the shot to the molding was consistent with coming from close to the ground, as the man had stated, the problem was the other two shots and the moving target. As already pointed out, there was simply no way that three shots could have accidentally hit the driver and the Jeep, the main reason being that in order for the shots to strike the moving target, the gun barrel would have had to follow or track the Jeep and its occupants. In order to quantify this it would be necessary to know how fast the Jeep was moving as it came into view from the man's position. By knowing how fast the Jeep was going and what the field of view of the target was from the man's position, it could be determined how long the Jeep remained in view. Once that was determined, it would be necessary to know how fast the weapon could be fired (that is, Could three shots have been fired in the time frame the target was visible?).
A good estimate of the Jeep's speed was obtained by examination of the damage that resulted from impact with the parked vehicle following the shooting. Using the principles of accident reconstruction and the associated formulas for calculating speed at impact based upon vehicle damage, it was determined that the Jeep was going approximately 25 miles per hour (40.2 kph). Interviews with the two passengers in the Jeep corroborated that approximate speed.
The "window of opportunity" for the shooter was determined by measuring the opening in the underbrush along the roadway through which the shots had to have come. This was found to be approximately 30 feet (9.1 m). Using the speed of 25 mph, the time required for the Jeep to traverse the 30-foot view that the shooter had of the Jeep was determined to be 0.8 second. The calculations are summarized below:
Conversion of miles (km)/hour to feet (m)/second: 25 miles (40.2 km)/hour x 1 hour/3,600 seconds x 5,280 feet (1,609.3 m)/mile (1.6 km) = 36.6 feet (11.2 m)/second
Calculation of time required to travel 30 feet (9.1 m): 30 feet (9.1 m) ^ 36.6 feet (11.2 m)/second = 0.8 second
The remaining task was to determine how fast the semiautomatic 22 rifle could be fired. This was somewhat subjective since it would obviously not be a question limited to mechanical function alone: Different people would probably differ somewhat in how rapidly they could fire a given weapon. The first thought might be to have the man show how fast he could fire the weapon. However, the pitfall associated with that sort of experiment was brought home in the O. J. Simpson case when the prosecution asked Simpson to try on the glove in front of the jury, and he had a great deal of "difficulty," leaving the impression that it did not fit and producing the outcry on the part of some "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit."
The best that could be done was to establish the maximum rate of fire for the weapon and leave it at that. Doing that resulted in a maximum rate of fire of four shots per second. The answer as to whether three shots could have been fired at the Jeep and its occupants from the man's position as the Jeep passed by was found through one more calculation.
Calculation of the number of shots possible in 0.8 second: 0.8 second x 4 shots/second = 3.2 shots
It was therefore possible for three shots to have been fired in the time allotted. The tracking that was required for the shots to strike the Jeep and driver was particularly incriminating and indicated intent. At trial the fact that only one fired cartridge case was present at the scene was used by the prosecution to show that the man had not only intentionally fired the shots but had then tried to cover up his crime by removing two fired cartridge cases and leaving the one. It was believed that the man probably did not know that he had hit the rocker molding and the tire in addition to hitting the driver.
One question that is begged is what possible motivation was there for the shooting. It was learned that the kids had been in that area before and had had a previous run-in with the man. The man had apparently been so angered by the first encounter that he had set out to get revenge should they ever return. It was their bad fortune to do so. The man was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Had he not have hit the molding and the tire, as well as the driver, he might have well gotten away with murder, as it would have been extremely difficult to prove it was not an accident as he had described.
This case illustrates some of the varied aspects of shooting incident reconstruction that can arise from the particular circumstances of a shooting. It also illustrates the need for a firearms examiner to be creative and adaptable in the process of reconstructing a crime. Above all, the examiner must be observant and detail oriented in order to be able to carry out the reconstruction of a crime. A further example of the application of these skills is found in the following two case studies.
Was this article helpful?