JACKSON, Miss. – As they search for suspects in two highway killings, authorities in northwest Mississippi are urging drivers to use caution when approached by any vehicle with flashing blue lights.
Investigators said Monday that two people shot along highways may have been killed by someone who posed as a police officer and pulled them over late at night.
DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco says efforts are focused on keeping motorists safe while investigators chase leads that are pouring in. He said many tips involve suspicious vehicles. So far there have been no arrests.
Rasco says motorists can call 911 if they are being pulled over. He said agencies can quickly determine whether they have vehicles in the area and dispatch help if needed.
"We are telling motorists to be aware of everything around them and any time they are being pulled over to go to a safe location where there are lots of lights and where people are around, if possible, and always call 911," Rasco said Wednesday.
"Our unmarked vehicles also are not doing any traffic stops. If they spot a vehicle that needs to be stopped they will call in and we'll send a marked vehicle. We have extra patrols out to keep our citizens safe," the sheriff said.
The assistant manager of a truck stop along the interstate where one victim was found said the shootings have been a topic of discussion among the employees — many of whom must drive the stretch of highway to get home.
"Myself and a couple of other female employees here are concerned, especially for those getting off a night and driving home," Sunny Hall said.
Hall, 28, said few customers coming through the Kangaroo Express on Interstate 55 in Senatobia, Miss., discuss the shootings unless someone brings it up. Then talk turns to the precautions that law enforcement is asking people to take. The business is located about 15 miles south of where one of the shootings occurred.
Rasco and Highway Patrol spokesman Warren Strain say law enforcement agencies are not looking for any particular make of vehicle even though many tips have centered on the Ford Crown Victoria, the workhorse of law enforcement. Investigators say they are looking into whether someone posing as a law enforcement officer stopped the cars because of the circumstances of the killings, though they have no evidence to back that theory up.
"There are only two people who could tell us about that and unfortunately, we cannot talk to them," Rasco said.
Strain said the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is processing evidence.
"We have gotten hundreds of calls and each one has to get its due attention as you would expect," Strain said.
Investigators were not releasing many details, including whether they believe a single gunman is responsible or what type of weapon was used. They said at a press conference Monday that the shootings so far are linked by their general similarity — both victims were found shot to death after pulling their cars off the road late at night. Shell casings found at both scenes are being analyzed.
Thomas Schlender, 74, of Raymond, Neb., was found in his car on Interstate 55 in Panola County on May 8 about 1:30 a.m. Three days later, Lori Anne Carswell, 48, of Hernando, was found near her car on Mississippi Highway 713 in nearby Tunica County about 2:15 a.m.
Carswell had just left work from Fitzgerald's Casino in Tunica County, authorities said.
The interstate is more heavily traveled than the state highway where Carswell was found, but neither area is heavily populated. Neither car appeared to have had mechanical problems, said Strain.
Carswell's 1997 Pontiac Grand Am was found on the shoulder of the highway, but her body was found in the road near the intersection of Mississippi Highway 713 and Interstate 69. She was returning home to nearby Hernando from work, police said.
Schlender's body was found in his car, which crashed into a divider in the median. He was alone in the 1999 Ford F-150 and no other motorists were hurt. He was driving from Nebraska to Florida to pick up his grandson, authorities said.