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The Road to Ruin

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TO KEN HUNT, IT SEEMED AS IF THE apocalypse had come to Ashford Street. As Hunt prepared to lead a Bible study class at his San Diego home in the early evening of Wed., May 17, the electricity suddenly went off, and the sound of grinding steel tore through the neighborhood. Hunt ran into his front yard only to find a 57-ton Army M-60 tank rolling toward him. “Before I could do anything,” says Hunt, 33, “it ran right over my truck.”

The tank, belching black exhaust smoke, circled the neighborhood, crushed two more cars and rammed a van into a motor home. On Boltic Street it ran onto a lawn and stopped 20 feet from a house before it backed up and clipped a fire hydrant, sending a 50-foot geyser into the air. From there, it headed west on Balboa Avenue, a strip of restaurants and department stores, where it brought down several traffic lights and shattered a bus-stop bench.

Finally, in a scene oddly reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson chase, a phalanx of police cruisers pursued the tank south onto Freeway 163 as news and police helicopters followed overhead. After about three miles, the tank suddenly veered onto a concrete divider and got stuck in the center of the road. Police scrambled on board, opened the hatch with bolt cutters and ordered the driver—Shawn Nelson, a 35-year-old plumber with a history of drug problems and personal defeats—out at gunpoint. Nelson refused, trying instead to free the tank, which had lost one of its tracks. An officer shot him once in the left shoulder, the bullet traveling through Nelson’s body and killing him instantly. “Had he broken loose,” explained San Diego Police Capt. Tom Hall, “there would have been numerous deaths.”

In the end, 40 vehicles had been crushed in the six-mile rampage, and 5,000 people were left without electricity for a few hours. The question authorities cannot answer is why.

For years, Nelson’s odd behavior had given him a kind of modest celebrity status in his San Diego Clairemont neighborhood, three miles from the National Guard armory. In the past year, police visited his house nine times on calls ranging from reports of domestic violence to a complaint that Nelson’s van had been stolen. His yard was filled with engine parts, scrap metal and household garbage. Neighbors say he mowed his lawn in the middle of the night and spent hours in a 20-foot-long backyard pit digging for gold beneath the glare of floodlights. “He was a very friendly guy,” says neighbor Michelle Vermillion. “But we didn’t really know what to think about him.”

Nelson’s manic behavior, his family says, was caused by methamphetamine and alcohol use, a problem that began in junior high school and intensified over the past few years. “He was a guy everyone liked,” says his brother Kevin, 32. “He was no wacko.” In fact, Nelson was a bright, popular, hard-working adolescent while growing up in Clairemont. The second of three sons of Fred Nelson, a custodian who died three years ago, and his wife, Betty, who worked on an electronics assembly line, he joined the Army in 1978 and served unhappily in a tank battalion in Germany. The Army would say only that his time was marred by “multifaceted” disciplinary problems. But after his 1980 discharge, things picked up. Nelson worked for five years at Reasonable Plumbing, where he was so popular that customers asked for him by name. He married his girlfriend Susie (the Nelsons would not reveal her maiden name), and in 1991 he opened his own business in San Diego. For a while, says Kevin Nelson, it seemed that “Shawn had the world by the tail.”

But the good life began to unravel after his mother died of cancer in 1988. As Nelson’s drug use increased, his marriage suffered—and Susie finally left him in 1991. “She couldn’t take it anymore,” says Shawn’s childhood friend Tim Biers, 33. Then last June, Nelson’s van and plumbing tools—his only source of income—were stolen. His water and electricity were cut off, and a bank foreclosed on his home. Last month, in what his family said was a heartbreaking blow, his live-in girlfriend, Michelle, moved out. Two days before his rampage, he borrowed money for medicine to treat an earache. “He was just at the end of his rope,” says a friend, Linda Ahlgren.

That is the closest thing to an explanation that anyone has to offer for what happened next. Around 6:30 p.m. on May 17, Nelson drove through the open gate of the armory parking lot, broke into a padlocked tank and plowed through the fence. He seemed to be avoiding people and targeting public utilities, police say, and may also have been heading toward Sharp Memorial Hospital—which he had unsuccessfully sued for negligence and false imprisonment after he broke his neck in a 1990 motorcycle accident. Friends say he also blamed the hospital for his mother’s death.

His odyssey in the tank lasted only 23 minutes. Friends now criticize authorities for killing him. “They could have used tear gas or tried to talk him out of there,” says Ahlgren. But Captain Hall says the shooting was justified: “The bottom line was, we had to stop this guy.” Nelson’s family wishes that his destructive path had been stopped far earlier. “The man who died was only a shell of the person we loved,” says his older brother, Scott, 38. “The real Shawn died two years ago at the hands of drugs and alcohol.”

KEVIN GRAY

JAMIE RENO in San Diego