There’s a serial sniper with a wild trigger finger on the loose in Phoenix. The attacker has been randomly shooting at drivers since August, firing bullets and projectiles at cars, trucks, and buses zipping by on major Arizona highways.
So far, the only injury involved a 13-year-old girl, whose ear was sliced two weeks ago by glass shards after a bullet struck the windshield of the SUV she’d been riding in.
But hysteria surrounding the rogue shooter reached a fever pitch this week with news of an 11th shooting—channeling jitters from over a decade ago when the Beltway Snipers, made up of a deadly duo, killed or injured 27 bystanders on highways around Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. before they were caught and convicted.
“It is just a matter of time, if this behavior continues, that we will have tragedy on our roadways,” Colonel Frank Milstead of Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) warned during a recent press conference.
The DPS has recorded at least 11 confirmed shootings since August 29 along major highways—including I-10, which runs east to west, and I-17, which stretches from north to south.
The colonel called the attacks “domestic terrorism” and appealed to tipsters to come forward. He also warned the public about the severity of the threat. “If you drive that stretch of roadway, be vigilant,” he said. “Under these type of circumstances be hyper-vigilant.”
It’s a command that Tony Rowley, aka “Bolt,” took to heart. Decked out in head-to-toe black SWAT attire and holstering a loaded 9mm pistol in broad daylight, Bolt and his teammates on the vigilante “Bolt Force” started casing a particular patch of the eight-mile stretch along the I-10 freeway, where the bulk of bullets have been sprayed over the past couple weeks.
It didn’t take long for plainclothes cops to pounce on the 48-year-old Marine, apparently mistaking him for the sniper.
“That was a miscommunication,” the black-clad crime-fighter, who is also a moving company owner, told The Daily Beast a day afterward.
“The only reason it happened is the first time we [the Bolt Force] interacted with DPS [Department of Public Safety],” Bolt said. “We usually interact with other law enforcement agencies so they are aware of us going out. But for some reason our informational meetings with the higher ranks did not get down to the street.”
All the agencies in town, Bolt said, including the FBI, the Phoenix PD, and ATF, are aware of what he and his Bolt Force teammates are up to. “We’re trying to be as transparent as we can and so they know our every move and they know what our attire is and how we go and how we patrol and our methods.
“With that knowledge they can look at us and say, ‘That’s Bolt Force.’”
In their promo video uploaded on Rowley’s YouTube account, Bolt Force’s crew patrols the streets of Phoenix to ward off would-be villains. There’s Harleigh, a superwoman of sorts who boasts about her 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol and other gear: “I carry my pepper spray and I carry my dangerous looks,” she says. “Look out, I’m pretty tough.”
Michael Battle says his gear is limited to the lethal force of a “military issued” M-9—“and these,” he grins, while flexing his bicep guns.
And then there’s J.C., who likens himself to the diplomat of the wild bunch while showing off a little levity with his skills with an imaginary whip.
Bolt says the Bolt Force—which he founded five months ago—boasts members in Arizona, Nevada, and Durban, South Africa. And they’re growing. “We’ve got so much influence and I’ve got tons and tons of people wanting to join,” Bolt said.
Already he says, his Bolt Force vigilantes—who are made up of former bounty hunters, ex-cops, and security personnel—are making their presence felt in Phoenix and building their own investigation to profile and eventually nab the sniper(s).
Arizona Department of Public Safety Trooper Tim Case thinks that Bolt Force is just trying to be a well-intentioned part of the solution in finding the sniper. “They’re just armed citizens trying to help,” he told The Daily Beast. But in this particular case, he said, the agency has asked Bolt Force to take a back seat. “We’ve advised them to stay back and let us take over the investigation.”
But another law enforcement source told The Daily Beast that Bolt Force could be mistaken as bonafide cops. “As far as these guys, they are well-intended and they have met with us, but when you see how they’re dressed anybody could mistake them as a policeman.
“Anytime you’re operating as a neighborhood watch and you want to black out and wear tactical and wear a gun the problem is where they blur the line.”
The source said the police in Phoenix don’t “sanction [Bolt] or endorse him.”
Another source who has had direct run-ins with Bolt and his team described Bolt as an “an entertainer,” perhaps referring to Bolt’s initial attempt at a career in the WWE.
“I was going to do pro wrestling for the WWE back in 2000,” Bolt told The Daily Beast. “My nickname was Flash because I was fast at digging things and ran heavy equipment. That became Bolt and it just stuck with me.”
He later became a celebrity bodyguard before he said it got boring “babysitting” millionaires who constantly got drunk and did drugs.
And what was he doing in his tactical unit get-up along the Arizona highway? “I was scouting for our locations of patrols for later on that night and I was also looking for clues,” Bolt said.
Those clues would include evidence of gunfire and anything that could help Bolt and his squad of 17 civilian crime-fighters.
Ask him point blank about the evidence on the sniper he has collected so far and Bolt is willing to show a very small sneak peek. “I wanted to see if there were any shell casings out there and also get a look at access points to the freeway where the shooter could get a good visual on vehicles,” he said.
While they mostly hit the bricks at night, Bolt—who runs the moving company Veterans Moving Service, which he says employees mostly military vets—says that keeping watch on highways around the clock may be in the works. “Right now it’s just at night, but that could change.”
And while the Department of Public Safety in Phoenix is pleading with the public to offer tips, Bolt Force is generating plenty of its own leads.
“We’ve had an influx of emails and I am hopeful Bolt Force is gonna catch this guy,” he said. “We have our own theories and our own investigation and we also have got our own tips, so we’re following up on the information we got.”
The main focus for Bolt is to try to bring the shooter to justice. “You’ve got some people that are detouring and changing their route and not even driving on the I-10,” he said. “Someone has managed to strike fear in people and, thank God, no one’s been killed yet.”
Indeed, there are some commuters who are steering clear of I-10 for now.
Star Garcia told The Daily Beast that she and coworkers at Phoenix Flooring Outlet have been taking extra precautions since a shooting occurred on August 29 near their office on 19th Avenue and I-10. Since then Garcia, 30, has rerouted and drives on side streets. “We avoid the I-10 and go the opposite direction,” she said. “This is very scary and if I’m spending more time driving on the streets—better safe than sorry.”
Joe’s Guaranteed Used Tires is directly “underneath” I-10, near where another shooting occurred. The garage owner, who gave only his first name, Charlie, is angry the shooter remains outstanding. “They need to catch that little bastard from shooting up the freeway, that asshole.”
Other Phoenix citizen are less cautious. Robin, who works at White Knight Party Rentals near 29th Avenue—two blocks from where a box truck was shot early in the morning on September 8—isn’t convinced she is susceptible to being targeted. “I don’t come that way to work but I wouldn't be afraid to drive on [I-10],” she said in a phone interview. “What are the odds?”
Meanwhile, Bolt and his crusaders are going to continue their hunt for the sniper—and their intention to do good in the community. “If someone’s car breaks down, we help them. Or if a lady falls on the sidewalk, we will get involved. It’s not just to fight crime,” he said.
“We’re citizens and the citizens support us.”
And if Bolt Force does manage to bag the shooter, Bolt says he will deliver him directly to the authorities. “If we find him we will detain him for the police,” he said. “That’s our first phone call, to contact the DPS, and they’re going to be here faster than we can get handcuffs on him.”