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Missouri man charged in highway shootings

Police had been tailing 27-year-old suspect for a week

Christine Vendel McClatchy-Tribune

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Like pieces of a puzzle, Kansas City police used tips about an erratic driver, a fingerprint from a plastic bag of shell casings and a bullet from a house that was shot last year to link Mohammed Whitaker, 27, to a series of recent highway shootings.

Jackson County prosecutors on Friday announced 18 felony charges against Whitaker involving nine separate shootings. Two of the charges relate to cases in which victims were wounded. In each case, police recovered, tested and matched spent .380-caliber bullets.

Whitaker remained in jail Friday in lieu of a $1 million cash-only bond. While being transferred between the police jail and the county jail, Whitaker shook his head, no, when asked by a Kansas City Star reporter whether he committed the shootings, which had terrorized motorists and captured national attention.

Authorities at Friday’s news conference said they knew of no motive, they believe Whitaker acted alone and that he had little criminal record.

Officers had been trailing Whitaker for about a week while they finished testing evidence and gathering new information. While under surveillance, police saw Whitaker allegedly driving aggressively and stalking potential victims by pacing cars in their blind spots on highways, according to court records. Whitaker even braked rapidly to allow another motorist to pull up alongside. Whitaker turned to face the motorist, not knowing he was an undercover officer, the records show.

Undercover officers also watched as Whitaker met with a man to buy a handgun with a laser sight in the Bass Pro Shops parking lot in Independence on April 11, four days after police publicly announced they were investigating a possible serial shooter. The sale fell through because Whitaker refused to provide identification to the seller, court records said.

On Sunday, police saw him driving in heavy rain with his windows rolled down near the Three Trails Crossing wearing sunglasses and a hoodie.

The risk of allowing Whitaker to remain free appeared to hit a breaking point for police Wednesday night when they observed Whitaker following a white Honda. Whitaker intentionally crossed all lanes of traffic with his eyes trained on the Honda and “veered directly at the Honda,” narrowly missing it, according to court records.

Police arrested Whitaker at his Grandview apartment Thursday night, believing they had enough evidence to justify it. Their investigation continues.

Police found a .380-caliber gun, .380-caliber ammunition, a black bandanna and a green leafy substance inside his dresser in Whitaker’s apartment, where he apparently lived alone.

Whitaker told detectives he didn’t know much about the shootings, then said he was the victim of the “highway shooter,” but couldn’t explain why he had a bullet hole on the inside, not outside, of his car, according to court records. He said he didn’t own a gun but couldn’t explain why police found one in his dresser. He declined to take responsibility but wept at times in the interrogation room, police said.

The arrest shocked Whitaker’s father, Edward Whitaker, of Cairo, Ill.

“I thought everything was OK with him,” he said. “I just thought he was working and trying to pay off his college bills.”

Mohammed Whitaker last called his father April 7 to ask for money to get him through until his payday. His father sent him $50, wanting to help him with gas and food.

That same day, according to court records, Mohammed used a credit card to buy $27.13 worth of ammunition from an Overland Park gun store.

Police had linked 12 of about 20 shootings to the same gun, leaving three linked cases without criminal charges, including one case in which a victim was wounded. More charges may be added, prosecutors said.

Investigators first noticed the pattern of highway and roadway shootings in early April when a police analyst identified four Kansas City cases and three cases from other cities that bore similarities.

“If the analyst didn’t put that together at the Law Enforcement Resource Center,” police Chief Darryl Forte said, “we probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Most of the shootings occurred in Kansas City, with most in or near the Three Trails Crossing. All of the victims were shot at while approaching highway ramps or road splits, where police believe the gunman veered off in a different direction from the victim.

The highway shootings investigation began to point toward Whitaker last week after two witnesses reported erratic, road-rage type behavior by a driver of a green car. One witness provided an Illinois license plate that police tracked to Whitaker’s father.

The car towed by police Thursday night bore Illinois license plates registered to Edward Whitaker, who said he recently paid for the plates for a white Buick that he gave to his son. But the Buick had transmission problems, so his son began driving a different car recently. His son apparently moved the plates from the Buick to the Dodge Neon.

Court records showed police used their license plate reader database to track the plate in south Kansas City. The investigation showed the plate had been on three different vehicles: a white Buick, a silver Monte Carlo and a dark green vehicle.

License plate reader data showed the plate at a home in the 9600 block of Beacon, where Whitaker sometimes stayed last year. Patrol officers who work the area told investigators they remembered taking a shooting call in October at the house directly behind the address where the suspect’s car had been parked.

Police tested a .380-caliber bullet from that crime and it matched 11 bullets recovered from victims during the recent spree on area highways and roadways, according to court records.

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