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Shawn Timothy Nelson

Shawn Timothy Nelson officially died Wednesday, but methamphetamine, alcohol and deep sadness took his life a long time ago.

Family members said internal demons motivated the 35-year-old unemployed plumber to go on a 23-minute rampage in a stolen tank, leaving a path of destruction on streets and freeways.

Nelson, they said, couldn't cope with the recent loss of both parents to cancer, his wife of six years to divorce in 1991, and -- perhaps the final straw -- the loss of his live-in girlfriend last month.

He was also faced with financial ruin resulting from serious neck and spine injuries and the theft of costly work equipment from his truck. Nelson's home was in foreclosure and his utilities had been cut off.

"This was Shawn's last cry for help," said Diana Fletcher, a family friend who read a statement at a news conference in front of Nelson's Clairemont home yesterday.

"Those of us that knew and loved him were unaware of the severity of Shawn's difficulties," Fletcher said. "The man that died yesterday was only a shell of the person we loved.

"The real Shawn died two years ago at the hand of drugs and alcohol. We are very sorry for all the damage done and are very thankful that no one was hurt."

Nelson's brother, Scott, said he learned from a television broadcast about the tank rampage. "I thought, like everyone else, `What kind of a crazy person would do this?' "

He said he realized the man was his brother when he saw a telecast of the limp body being pulled from the tank after Nelson was shot by a police officer.

"My brother was a good man. He'd help anybody. He just couldn't help himself," said Scott Nelson. "My brother's not crazy, he just needed help. ... He wasn't a gun-toting crazy guy."

Nelson said he is not angry at police. "I can't blame anybody. I blame myself for not being able to help, but I'll go crazy if I do that. ... I'm not going to say anything against the police. They were just doing their job."

Shawn Nelson, who loved dogs, children, surfing, scuba diving and fishing, grew up in Clairemont and attended Madison High School.

He served in the Army from 1978 to 1980 and was trained at Fort Knox, Ky., as a tank crew member. He later served in Germany with a tank battalion. After he was discharged, he became a deck hand on a San Diego-based tuna boat and traveled to Panama.

When he returned, he became so popular at a plumbing company that customers asked for him. He later left to start his own business. But then his drug abuse began about two years ago, his brother said, and consumed his life.

Police said yesterday they can only speculate about Nelson's motive in the tank theft and rampage. Authorities said they have no records linking him to drug use, domestic violence or mental illness, just the comments of neighbors and friends.

And although police said he told a friend over the weekend that "Oklahoma was good stuff," an apparent reference to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, authorities have uncovered no links between him and militias or fringe groups.

"He spoke of suicide in the last week to a friend, who said he was acting more bizarre lately," said police Capt. Tom Hall. "We have found nothing to indicate this was a conspiracy or that it was an in-depth, planned event.

"Certainly, people break; that could be it," Hall said. "We may come out of this only with assumptions."

Neighbors said they suspected drug activity at the house on Willamette Street near Kleefeld Avenue where Nelson lived with a roommate, and they often heard loud arguments at the home.

Neighbors said police had come to the house a few times in the last year. "We would hear yelling off and on, shouting profanities," said Linda Ahlgren.

Nelson was a night owl and was sometimes seen standing on his front porch at dawn or toiling in his back yard under floodlights late at night, neighbors said.

He spent a lot of time pursuing an odd and futile plan to strike it rich by mining for gold and other minerals in a 15-foot-deep hole in his back yard.

"It was a big hole," said Matthew Ahlgren, 11, a playmate of Nelson's nephew. "He said he found gold. We looked at it and thought it was clay."

In February, Nelson filed a notice with the county stating his intent to mine bedrock in his back yard. On the form, Nelson described himself as "veteran and all around cool dude."

County officials say the document is used to stake a claim to prospect and extract minerals on public land, such as a national forest. It is not required for private property.

"We don't have the slightest idea why he did that," said Bob Frazier, chief deputy in the County Assessor's Office. "I think he was just trying to tell the world he was digging a mine on his property."

Carson Honings, a 39-year-old commercial fisherman and a friend of Nelson's, described the mine shaft as an example of him being eccentric, but not obsessive or crazy. "That was his new hobby," Honings said.

Nelson had some strange wranglings with court and government officials.

He filed two damage claims against the city in April, asking for $2 million in damages. Each was filled out in rambling, scribbled prose.

One document alleged police negligence last June, while the other alleged a false arrest in August.

In the false-arrest claim, he wrote that the city was at fault because "I was on privet (sic) property doing no wrong. He had no right in starting anything with me."

Nelson described his losses as, "Afaid (sic) to leave house haven't worked since arest. House in forclouser, Have no food."

Beneath a line asking for "any additional information that might be helpful in considering claim," he wrote: "My rights to life liberty + pursuit to happiness have been taken away. I will fight to get system removed of unconstitutional procedures."

Nelson also was involved in a legal dispute with bizarre overtones arising from medical treatment at Sharp Memorial Hospital in October 1990 for a broken neck and back.

He filed a lawsuit asking for $1.5 million from the hospital, its staff and several physicians, claiming negligence, assault, battery and false imprisonment. It was dismissed by a Superior Court judge two years ago.

The hospital, meanwhile, won a countersuit against Nelson for $6,640 in unpaid medical fees, court costs and legal expenses.

His wages were garnisheed, but the money was never collected. Nelson told bill collectors he had not asked to be treated and was "drugged into the hospital and treated without his OK," according to the court file.

Nelson claimed doctors had not properly immobilized him for a potentially paralyzing injury, adding that he was handcuffed, shackled, attacked and injured when he tried to leave. Hospital lawyers replied that Nelson "was belligerent and abusive and left the hospital against medical advice."

Despite such unusual behavior, family and friends said they are shocked and heartbroken by the actions of the man whose death has made international headlines.

"Shawn had a really good heart, and it took me totally by surprise that he would do that," Honings said. "I hate to portray him as some kind of a nut, because . . . he wasn't that way. God, he was just smiling at me the other day and saying he wanted to go back to fishing and get away."

Police are awaiting tests to determine if Nelson was on drugs during the incident. His brother said he does not know.

"All I know is," Scott Nelson said, "he was my brother, and I loved him."

Police are criticized and praised for reaction to stolen tank incident

23-May-1995 Tuesday

Why was it necessary to execute the tank joyrider? I understand the endangerment to the public, but I don't understand the need to kill a man in a vehicle that has been immobilized. I don't excuse the damage and fear he generated, but the killing was senseless.
NELSON LUGO
San Diego

Before the critics and Monday morning quarterbacks second-guess the police officer who shot the nut who stole the National Guard tank, give some thought to what actually occurred and must have passed through the officer's mind as he heard the police radio describe destruction, before he climbed to the tank turret, forced open the hatch and ordered the driver out.

What must the officer have been thinking? How many innocent persons may have been crushed in their cars? How many lives may have been lost? He stole the tank; what other weapons might he possess?

The officer acted with thoughtful valor, not senseless wanton destruction. San Diego citizens owe him a debt of gratitude
ROBERT L. DODGE
San Diego

Consider that everyone concedes that the tank was disabled. It was obvious that the driver was mentally ill. The police could simply have halted and diverted traffic from Highway 163. Then there would have been no further danger to motorists from the tank. And if they had stayed off the tank's turret, they would not have placed themselves in harm's way, or have risked provoking an unstable man. Then time, or tear gas, could have been used to bring the driver safely into custody, rather than a risky and ultimately lethal frontal assault.
PETER A. VANCE
San Diego

I sincerely hope that the officer who opened the hatch -- without knowing whether the driver had any weapons -- and did the job the public entrusted to him receives a citation for his bravery. Instead of crucifying these loyal, devoted and dedicated people who step in harm's way each day to protect our lives and property, we should be grateful that there are those who will do this thankless and often impossible job
MARY N. FOWLER
Escondido

The San Diego Police Department has a long, painful history of lethally employing firearms against demonstrably unarmed individuals, or against individuals armed only with something like a baseball bat. This makes me ashamed of my city.
DAVID EDWARDS
San Diego

Give the police their raise. How can we quibble over a few pennies after watching the bravery and courage it took to tackle that tank? That was dramatic, but the thousands of less dramatic but equally dangerous encounters by police make them deserving of a worthwhile raise.
ERNESTINE SMITH
San Diego

Our community should not demand any police officer's job because of proven or supposed misjudgment during this incident. The men and women of our police force deserve, in the main, this community's support, especially when they are faced with an "off the wall" disaster. We should not be seeking scapegoats for errors in judgment when there are absolutely no precedents or protocols to follow. And we should temper our thinking by considering how we might have performed in similar circumstances.

But our community should demand an inquiry into all the facts concerning the police reaction during the final moments of this event. That inquiry must include citizens. We no longer can allow inquiries to be the sole domain of law enforcement and composed only of law enforcement personnel.
RICHARD K. HALL
San Diego

It seems to me that Shawn Nelson could have been apprehended without bloodshed had the police left their guns holstered and sprayed him with Mace or pepper spray. If that had not worked, police could have dropped a tear gas canister into the tank. In such a confined area, Nelson would have been rendered helpless and could easily have been arrested unharmed.
MITCHELL CUSHMAN
San Diego

The city of San Diego should be proud of the brave police officers who had the courage to climb aboard a moving tank at great risk to their lives to put an end to the rampaging menace to public safety. For the misguided Monday morning quarterbacks who can second-guess the police, I ask: How would you stop a tank with a range of up to 300 miles that could kill and destroy every inch of the way?

Let us be thankful that we have brave officers who took the appropriate action and had the courage to do what most of us would not have done.
HAL GOTTESMAN
San Diego

My family and I are offended by the front-page headline of May 19 that refers to the rampaging tank driver as the "victim of his demons." This person is most definitely not a victim. On the contrary, the many innocent people who lost property and peace of mind were his victims.

Everyone makes choices in his or her life. If this man was under the influence of drugs, it was his choice to take drugs or alcohol. Plenty of good people endure painful times in their lives and go on making rational, logical decisions without resorting to the escapism of drugs or alcohol. For the press to take up the banner of victimhood, which is so popular these days, is probably not a surprise, but it is offensive to me. A better headline would have said, "Aggression with military tank wreaks havoc," or some such headline.
ATHENA Z. HARMAN
La Jolla

A front-page headline of May 19 read: "We had no options that were viable."

Wrong! There is always an option that most people don't think of; that is to do nothing. The police acted too hastily. Did any of them notice that the tank track was broken? The driver was going nowhere.
RAYMOND A. OLOW
San Diego

The situation called for negotiators to induce the man peacefully out of the tank. An irresponsible Rambo rushing of the tank was not necessary.
CARINNE WEAVER
San Diego

The response of the Police Department to this bizarre situation was impressive. When the tank got caught up on the freeway divider, the officers who, without hesitation, rushed forward to do what they could to stop the driver from going any farther confirmed that our admiration and respect are well-deserved.

Having seen the malicious destruction this criminal left in his path and his obvious disregard for human safety, and not knowing whether he was armed or what further intentions he may have had, the courage of these officers was overwhelming.
JOHN D. and TRINA F. ADAMS
San Diego