OPINION: Atlanta’s roads were already dangerous. Now add bullets

The eastbound lanes of I-20 were closed for more than three hours on Feb. 25, 2021, after a man was found shot inside his vehicle in downtown Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
The eastbound lanes of I-20 were closed for more than three hours on Feb. 25, 2021, after a man was found shot inside his vehicle in downtown Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Traditionally, those navigating Atlanta’s highways had a bevy of nonverbal tools to let other motorists know they’re driving like jerks.

There was the horn, the incredulous stare, the brake check or, in drastic cases, the bird. But these days, you’ve got to be crazy to employ any of these.

Sure, highways have always been dangerous, with drivers speeding, tailgating, texting and driving drunk. Some are even doing all at once. But there’s another danger on the asphalt — gunplay.

So far in 2021, there have been at least 26 cases of a driver shooting at another on metro Atlanta’s roads. Seven people have been killed in the midst of that rolling carnage and at least a dozen have been wounded. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution crime reporter Alexis Stevens at first compiled the list, although I found several others, and, I’m sure, she’ll find even more.)

This is happening as the city of Atlanta is dealing with a plague of gun violence. So far this year, shootings are up 35% compared to last year and, as of Tuesday, there have been 52 homicides. Somehow, it seems as if street racing and murder have co-mingled.

Drivers have always been hot-headed, and incidents of road rage are nothing new. What does seem to be unusual is the frequency of highways being closed down as murder scenes. Police increasingly are pulling up to vehicles smashed into guardrails and finding a gunshot victim bleeding out.

A double shooting in the southbound lanes of I-85 in Midtown Atlanta left one man dead and wreaked havoc on the commute on Feb, 10, 2021. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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A double shooting in the southbound lanes of I-85 in Midtown Atlanta left one man dead and wreaked havoc on the commute on Feb, 10, 2021. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

It happened again this week when Mayco Rodrique, 37, was shot to death on Ga. 400 early Monday. Details are sketchy but Atlanta investigators believe the man was a passenger in a car when someone in another vehicle fired shots.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why this is happening. A few months ago, a couple of readers contacted me to ask if a serial killer was roaming the roads. I dismissed it and still kind of do. Police say there is no pattern in the shootings — no similarities in the cars, descriptions of suspects, or weapons.

I surmise that it’s a mixture of volatile ingredients: testosterone, gasoline and gun powder. Road rage. I say testosterone because there’s no sign that anyone of the female persuasion is opening fire, although three women have been wounded.

It’s believed rush-hour traffic is a culprit in drivers blowing their stacks. It is frustrating when throngs of people want to get somewhere in a hurry, all at the same time. But that hasn’t seemed to be the case. Just six of the highway shootings occurred during rush hour, all of those occurring in the afternoon rush.

Thirteen of the 26 cases occurred between 11 p.m. and 5:45 a.m., a time when the roads are usually clear.

One of my hunches is that with COVID-19, the roads were emptied and drivers started to see what their motors could do. Last year, we did a story about the huge spike in people getting ticketed for driving in excess of 100 mph. Now that their fellow drivers have ventured back, some of those speed demons are miffed that other vehicles are clogging the lanes and limiting their acceleration.

It is not uncommon these days to putter along at 65 mph and see a couple of cars blaze by, playing cat-and-mouse as they dangerously tailgate and weave their way through traffic.

Or perhaps it’s “deindividuation,” the psychology theory that other humans become anonymous when we are encased in thousands of pounds of metal and glass, making us more aggressive and antisocial when behind the wheel. It’s certainly an explanation for the behavior of people on Twitter.

A man was shot to death inside a car on I-85 in DeKalb County on Jan. 21, 2021, prompting an investigation that closed the interstate for hours. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
A man was shot to death inside a car on I-85 in DeKalb County on Jan. 21, 2021, prompting an investigation that closed the interstate for hours. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The stories of people getting shot are numerous and have occurred all over the metro area, in Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Douglas and Paulding counties, as well as in ”safe” places like Decatur. More than half of the cases occurred in Atlanta, although to be fair, police there did a pretty good job digging up as many such cases as they could for me. I’d wager there are more cases out there in the other jurisdictions.

I-20 seems to be the most perilous corridor, with 10 shootings and two deaths.

Andre Blair was driving a dark stretch of I-20 a few miles west of downtown in early April when he heard something hit the door behind him.

“Then my leg started feeling funny,” he said this week in an interview. “I realized, ‘My car just got shot up.’ Then my back started feeling funning. That’s when I got worried.”

He pulled over and called 911. He’s on the mend now.

So, why’d it happen? Blair says he doesn’t have a clue. He didn’t notice any tailgating nor did he cut anyone off. He didn’t even really notice who did it, other than a red car passing him. Perhaps the guy shot at him because Blair has a nice ride, a BMW X5. Who knows?

Very few of these cases are solved. Often, it’s dark, it happens fast, the cases are usually random, witnesses often don’t know what is happening, and the crime scene is fluid with hundreds of cars flying by.

One recent case that was solved happened In Coweta County when Amari Franklin, a Clark Atlanta University student, was shot the morning of April 20, driving home on I-85 from her overnight job at a food factory. A man wearing a ski mask pulled alongside and started shooting. Franklin was hit in the back and was able to pull over and call 911.

Deanthony Clark, 22, was later arrested and charged with her shooting. It turns out, police say, that Franklin absent-mindedly cut off Clark in the company parking lot when they were leaving their shift, so he followed her to the highway and allegedly shot her.

She is paralyzed but told Channel 2 Action News, “I will walk again.”

A few days later, on April 25, Bridgette Ohiembor, a 22-year-old nurse from Dayton, Ohio, was visiting friends in Atlanta and headed to a nightclub. She was sitting in the backseat of her buddy’s SUV on the Downtown Connector when a vehicle came on strong behind them, flashing its lights and getting right on their tail.

Her friend switched lanes to let the hurried driver in the black Lexus SUV pass. He switched lanes, still on their rear. Her friend switched again. The other driver did too.

He pulled alongside. They heard a gunshot and Ohiembor felt pain. She’d been shot in her hip.

Southbound traffic on I-85 in Midtown is shown at a standstill following a fatal shooting on the interstate, according to Channel 2 Action News. (JOHN SPINK / jspink@ajc.com)
Caption
Southbound traffic on I-85 in Midtown is shown at a standstill following a fatal shooting on the interstate, according to Channel 2 Action News. (JOHN SPINK / jspink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / jspink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink / jspink@ajc.com

“It didn’t hit bones or arteries, so I was lucky,” Ohiembor told me. “At first, it was physical pain. Now it’s painful mentally. It changes things when you get shot. I’m as innocent as you get. And I got shot.”

The bullet was removed and she’s going to mail it to Atlanta police. “I hope there’s a fingerprint on it,” she said.

Ohiembor said the incident has altered her mindset.

“If I’m at the grocery store and there’s one banana left, I’m going to be like, ‘Take it,’” she said. “People are getting crazy.”

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