It is an ordinary section of sidewalk in an ordinary suburban street, save for what’s planted into the curb-side grass: a tiny wooden cross decorated with a motif of interlocking horseshoes and a flowerpot with bright but drooping purple and yellow flowers.
The modest memorial marks the spot where Pak Ho was killed two weeks ago. A 34-year-old simply out for a walk, he was the second target of a gunman who remains at large after a spree of random shootings in Houston that has left residents worried and police mystified.
The attacks began at 7pm on 17 February, police said, when a man in a dark SUV pulled up next to a pedestrian walking along a dual carriageway in a residential area of Missouri City, 15 miles south-west of downtown Houston. The driver got out and tried to open fire but his gun jammed, allowing his intended victim, a 21-year-old student, to escape.
Then, six miles north and half an hour later, Ho was gunned down. At around 10.30pm, a 25-minute drive east, another man was shot in the buttocks but managed to flee. Later that night, about 1am, a 50-year-old man waiting at a bus stop a mile north of where Ho died was shot several times, but survived.
Five days later, also in Missouri City, a man taking an early-morning Sunday stroll was attacked by someone who got out of an SUV, walked up and started shooting, hitting his target in the arm and abdomen.
Police believe the same person is responsible for all five incidents and have not been able to establish a motive. Each time, they believe, a light-skinned black male in his thirties driving a dark-coloured SUV, probably a Jeep Cherokee, approached a pedestrian and began shooting without saying a word.
“They heard a bang and came out here. It sounded like a pop-pop-pop. My son-in-law ran out here and the guy was lying in the street. He just shot him and drove off. No interaction or anything,” said a 62-year-old who answered the door at the house closest to the murder scene and gave her name as Bridget. “My daughter does not want to be here any more.”
Police held a press conference last week to appeal for help, but do not have any suspects. “We’re working on leads right now. To our knowledge he hasn’t struck again. I’m not sure whether he went underground because of all the media blast or what,” Missouri City detective Andrew Robb told the Guardian. “I wouldn’t call it ‘serial’ but it’s unusual where there’s not many witnesses to it. I don’t know why he’s doing it, so it’s one of those whodunnit type things right now.”
The student who escaped when the assailant’s gun jammed told ABC-13 that a “black-coloured Cherokee approached me. He kind of stopped back a little far and I was guessing he had car problems because the front of the lights were off so I didn’t pay any attention to it … He ran towards me with a gun and he just pulled the trigger. When he pulled the trigger it started clicking. Then he started hitting the gun and then thats when I took off.”
Last week a school in Missouri City with a playground that faces a street decided to keep children inside during recess and PE as a precaution.
“I think as time goes by, citizens will get back to their normal routine, unless another incident happens. But we have additional patrols out there so we’re trying to protect our citizens as much as we can,” Robb said.
James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, said that shootings of this kind are uncommon.
“When you have that kind of drive-by shooting, random victims, it’s generally for basically the thrill, and with thrill killings like that you tend to have perpetrators that are younger than their 30s,” he said.
“He can intend to bring the city to its knees and wreak havoc by shooting at random because the thing about random shootings such as this is that anyone could be a victim at any time and any place which makes it particularly frightening … In situations when serial killers often do target a certain kind of people, the rest of us feel we’re immune which reduces the level of panic.”
In 2003 and 2004, drivers along highways in Columbus, Ohio, were terrorised by 24 shootings by a sniper that left one woman dead. A mentally ill man, Charles McCoy Jr, was convicted. Ten people were killed and three injured by two snipers over three weeks in the Washington DC area in 2002.
“The longer a person like this continues shooting and not being apprehended, they get a sense that they’re invincible,” Fox said.
Bridget, whose daughter and son-in-law heard Ho’s shooting outside their house, said that she doubted local residents would change their habits in the wake of the attacks. “I don’t think so. People walk dogs here all the time. A lot of people walk here after work,” she said.
The street is quiet, tree-lined and filled with large, neat single-storey houses, with a communal pool, but she said that previous violent crimes in the run-down surrounding area had also made the family consider moving.
A sign at the entrance to the street reads: “CRIMINALS BEWARE. Patrolled by police officers in unmarked vehicles.” Broken glass litters the parking lot in the adjacent, bunker-like Thrifty Food Store.
Inside, E Syed served customers through a small opening in a cashier-style window. Originally from Pakistan, he said he had heard about the shootings but seemed philosophical about them, sounding resigned to the idea that occasional outbursts of violence, however bizarre, are a fact of life in a tough part of a big city.
“This neighbourhood is not so great,” he said. “This area is the ghetto. There are all kinds of people. You have to look after yourself. You walk like them, talk like them, you don’t get bothered.” For a few people last month, though, it seems as if their very ordinariness was exactly what made them targets.
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