Freeway shootings continue to menace Hampton Roads, commonwealth

The number of incidents this year in Hampton Roads is on pace to exceed the 35 reported freeway shootings in 2022 in the sprawling region

June 27, 2023 12:05 am

Midday traffic on the American Legion Bridge on June 14, 2022. (Bruce DePuyt/ Maryland Matters)

Something bizarre must happen to some folks when they get behind the wheel, cruise onto the interstate and encounter other motorists.

At least that’s how one man, arrested after a shooting in March on Interstate 64, explained it to the Virginia State Police. It’s the first time the suspect has faced violent criminal charges, according to his comments and an online search of court records.

So much gunfire in Hampton Roads has occurred recently that Capt. Timothy Reibel, a division commander in the state police’s Chesapeake field office, felt compelled to publicize the 18 freeway shootings that happened between Jan. 1 and June 7 in his area. The attacks injured six people.

The uptick in shootings is an indicator of the mayhem that too often accompanies motorists on highways in Virginia. It was understandable – if regrettable – during the pandemic, when nerves, fear and frustration were at a breaking point.

The fact many shootings still take place, as we strive for a return to normalcy, shows the disturbing trend hasn’t fully abated. That threat frightens motorists and challenges state troopers.

The number of incidents in Hampton Roads is on pace to exceed the 35 reported freeway shootings in 2022 in the sprawling division. Seven shootings have occurred this year in Hampton alone, the city with the most.

Reibel – who is part of a state police division that covers a huge territory including New Kent County to the north, Brunswick County to the west and the Eastern Shore – said there’s no indication that most interstate shootings have been random. Several cases involved suspects and victims who knew each other. 

When a similar spate of freeway shootings took place last year, I wrote about the pandemic’s effect on road rage and other lawbreaking on highways in Virginia and nationwide. I mentioned then that authorities blamed road rage in the shooting death of a 6-year-old boy in California in 2021. Aiden Leos’ mom had raised a middle finger to a car that cut her off. Someone in the car fired, killing the boy. A man and woman have since been charged in the slaying. 

Road rage and highway shootings are on the rise. But why?

Roadway gun violence is truly a longstanding problem, especially in Hampton Roads. An August 1994 news story noted 19 of 36 shootings reported so far that year on Virginia highways had happened in Hampton Roads. The region I live in has too many trigger-happy folks on the freeways.

Yet the pandemic’s effects can’t be ignored, either. Isolation, anxiety and our short fuses have played a role in the craziness on the highways.

A report in 2021 mentioned the problems around the United States after the pandemic began. Police said road-rage incidents spiked as people became more stressed and tensions flared more quickly.

As we emerge from the worst of COVID-19, we need to take a collective breath and resist the urge to tailgate, flip off passing motorists or take every perceived slight as an excuse to rumble at 65 mph.

Fifty-one freeway shootings occurred statewide in 2020, 71 in 2021 and 55 last year, said Corinne Geller, a state police spokeswoman. Most cases remain without arrests.

“With every shooting, we always appeal to the public,” Reibel told me during an interview last week about the Hampton Roads cases. The recent spate made the situation more urgent.

The shooting I referred to in Chesapeake earlier is a case in point. No one was hurt, but it could’ve easily turned out worse.

The unnamed victim, according to a criminal complaint filed in Chesapeake General District Court, told officials an SUV pulled alongside on eastbound I-64 during a road rage incident. The paperwork doesn’t specify what caused the confrontation.

The man in the SUV rolled down his passenger-side window and fired at least two shots, the victim said, near Exit 296A. Officials later recovered a bullet from the victim’s vehicle.

A separate witness photographed the SUV and gave the images to police. Troopers linked the vehicle to Duane A. Brown, 51, of Portsmouth, who the complaint says admitted being in a confrontation but denied shooting at anyone.

Brown told officials, though, they’d find a firearm in his vehicle. He had no prior arrests and said he had “never been handcuffed,” according to the complaint; he said that the incident was uncommon for him. 

Brown now faces two felony counts. A preliminary exam is scheduled on July 20.

Another shooting occurred in March on I-664 in Chesapeake. The criminal complaint describes a driver in a Lexus tailgating another vehicle and then racing in front of it and hitting the brakes. The victim told police as the Lexus left the interstate, two shots were fired. The victim continued driving to work, where he found bullet holes on his vehicle.

State police eventually identified Eltron Mizell of Suffolk as the suspected shooter. The 24-year-old man confessed to police he was involved in a road-rage incident and shot at the other vehicle, court records show. He faces a felony charge in the shooting.

Reibel reiterated, perhaps to calm fears, that no single person is behind the uptick in shootings. It is a public problem that will take our collective efforts to solve. 

“Don’t do anything to further incite an individual.”

– Capt. Timothy Reibel, a division commander in the state police’s Chesapeake field office, on preventing freeway shootings

He also advised motorists on how to de-escalate incidents on the road with other cars: Back off. Get in another lane. “Don’t do anything to further incite an individual,” he said.

In these freeway shootings, rarely are there fixed locations, Reibel said.Witnesses are hard to find and the duration of the incidents is quick. In some cases, victims won’t cooperate – suggesting they want to settle the score themselves. All of this makes it hard to arrest suspects.

“We need people to come forward,” the captain told me. “We need people to talk.”

That’s true whenever crime occurs and doubly so in freeway shootings. Killings rarely happen, but injuries often do. They’re all preventable.

Don’t engage. Keep calm. Drive away.

Stay alive.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]