Jason Brian Dalton had been driving for mobile ride company Uber for only a short time, according to his own account, but he was already alarming passengers. Late Saturday afternoon, he picked up a customer for a short ride; passenger Matthew Mellen said that Dalton’s reckless driving so terrified him that he practically leaped out of the car.
Six hours later, six people were dead after police said Dalton opened fire at three sites across Kalamazoo in a series of attacks that left authorities scrambling to discern a motive.
Even after the bloody spree came to an end, authorities and Uber riders said Dalton appeared to continue looking for passengers around Kalamazoo.
The latest mass shooting to strike a U.S. city unfolded with no apparent connection between the alleged shooter and his victims, who included a high school senior and his father looking at cars and a mother of three standing in front of her apartment.
Authorities in Kalamazoo, a city of 75,000 two hours west of Detroit, plan on Monday to charge Dalton, 45, who was arrested hours after the final assault, with six counts of murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and six counts of felony with a firearm.
They are also investigating reports that Dalton looked for passengers between and after the shootings, a possibility that is sure to intensify debate about the safety of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
The shooting may also thrust gun control back into the forefront of the presidential race as candidates stake out positions on President Barack Obama’s recent moves to restrict access to weapons and end the string of shootings that has marked his time in office.
“These weren’t sudden explosions,” Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeffrey Getting said of the attacks. Speaking to reporters, Getting said the victims “appear to have been chosen at random because they were available.”
It was the 42nd mass shooting of the year, according to Mass Shooting Tracker, which compiles public reports of violence.
On Sunday, police identified those killed as Mary Lou Nye, 63, of Baroda, Michigan, near South Bend, Indiana; Mary Jo Nye, 60, of Battle Creek; Dorothy Brown, 74, of Battle Creek; Barbara Hawthorne, 68, of Battle Creek; and father and son Richard Smith, 53, and Tyler Smith, 17, both of Kalamazoo. At least two other people were wounded.
The victims appeared to have been caught during ordinary moments: visiting a restaurant or a car dealership, keeping an eye on children outside.
According to Getting, the spree began about 6 p.m. when a woman was fired upon multiple times outside the Meadow Townhomes complex in Kalamazoo. The woman was “severely injured,” Getting said, but is expected to survive.
Tammy George, 45, thought the sound was fireworks. But when she opened her door, she found her neighbor lying on the ground, shot and bleeding.
“Find my kids!” the woman beseeched George, fearing for her children, who had been playing at an adjacent playground.
The woman, who had moved in recently and whose name George did not know, told George that the gunman had asked from his car “if she knew so-and-so.” When she said no, he opened fire.
George said the man also asked children in the playground if they knew a certain person. He moved on when they told him no, she said.
About 10 p.m., about eight miles to the southwest, the gunman appeared outside the Seelye Automotive Group, a car dealership in Kalamazoo. There, police said, he killed the Smiths as they sat in their car.
Gary Pardo Jr., the son of a neighbor, said suspect Jason Dalton was a nice guy but was occasionally a ‘hothead.’
“They were at the car lot, just looking at cars as fathers and sons do,” said Robin Buchler, superintendent of Mattawan Consolidated Schools.
Tyler, a senior at Mattawan High School, was about to turn 18, Buchler said. He was attending a vocational school for marketing in the mornings and regular classes in the afternoons.
“He was just a really nice guy, very involved student,” Buchler said. “He had an easy smile.”
Fifteen minutes after that attack, the gunman opened fire at a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant, killing four. A 14-year-old girl was wounded; Getting said that she was “seriously, gravely injured” and that it was not clear whether she would survive. At least some of the victims appear to have been in a vehicle when they were shot, according to local reports.
Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley said the attacks appeared to be “completely and totally random.”
“This is your worst nightmare, where you have somebody just driving around randomly killing people,” Paul Matyas, undersheriff of Kalamazoo County, told a local television station.
Authorities identified Dalton, who has no criminal record, with help from video from the car dealership and restaurant. They spotted his car pulling out of the parking lot of a downtown bar and arrested him at 12:30 a.m. without a struggle. It was not immediately clear whether he had been inside the bar.
Getting said a semiautomatic handgun was recovered from the car.
The shooting is not being investigated as an act of terrorism. Officials said that a search of Dalton’s home outside Kalamazoo, where he lived with his wife and two children, produced evidence that suggested he acted alone.
Neighbors described Dalton as a normal guy.
James Bloch, who lived next door to the family for 17 years, was friendly with Dalton, who he said enjoyed working on cars in his spare time.
“The guy must have flipped,” Bloch said. “He never was in that state of mind, ever. There was no sign of depression.”
Gary Pardo Jr., the son of another neighbor, said Dalton was a nice guy but was occasionally a “hothead.”
Bloch said Dalton had once taught auto body repair at a local community college. He later worked for Progressive insurance company. Jeff Sibel, a spokesman for Progressive, said Dalton left the company in August 2011.
An account from an Uber customer may provide clues to Dalton’s mental state on the day of the shootings.
In a phone interview, Mackenzie Waite said that Mellen, her fiance, was picked up by an Uber car - a silver Chevy Equinox driven by Dalton - about 4:30 p.m. for what was supposed to be a short ride. Halfway through the trip, the driver picked up a phone call on his Bluetooth. Mellen couldn’t hear what was said, but the driver began acting strangely.
He blew through a stop sign, sideswiped a car, starting driving in (and) out of the other lane of traffic. My fiance was just pleading with him to stop.
Mackenzie Waite, whose fiance was picked up by the Uber driver suspected in six slayings
“He blew through a stop sign, sideswiped a car, starting driving in (and) out of the other lane of traffic,” Waite said. “My fiance was just pleading with him to stop.”
Mellen, in a separate interview, said that Dalton acted normally even while he drove erratically, refusing to stop. “He was like asking me, ‘Don’t you want to get to your friend’s house?’ “ he said.
When the car slowed down, Mellen jumped out and called 911. He sent authorities the picture of Dalton he had received after hailing the ride on Uber’s mobile app.
Waite said Uber did not immediately respond to her fiance’s message. Police didn’t call back until 6:30 p.m. to ask Mellen for a description of the driver and the car, she said.
An Uber spokesman confirmed Dalton had been working with the company and said he had passed a background check. The person declined to say how long Dalton had been driving for Uber.
“We are horrified and heartbroken at the senseless violence in Kalamazoo, Michigan,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said in a statement. “We have reached out to the police to help with their investigation in any way that we can.”
Sara Reynolds, 25, of Kalamazoo said Dalton gave her and a friend a ride on Valentine’s Day. She described him as “shy and awkward” and said he didn’t seem threatening.
“He said he had just started driving just a couple days prior to our ride, and he already had some bad reviews,” Reynolds said. “I asked him why and he said it was because his car was acting up while he was doing bar runs. But he mumbled it like he didn’t want to talk about it.”
Dalton apparently was looking for riders after the last shooting.
Carmen Morren, 21, was at a bar with her boyfriend when she summoned an Uber at 11:13 p.m. - about an hour after the last shooting.
A driver whose profile matched Dalton’s responded. The app said he was 10 minutes away and was heading to pick her up. She canceled the reservation shortly after that when she realized the driver would arrive before she was ready to leave.
“I said, ‘Hang on a second. Let me finish my drink,’ ” Morren said. A few minutes later, she hailed another Uber ride and got a different driver.
“It was by the grace of God we canceled,” she said.