Police and paramedics tended to Shawn Nelson after he was shot on May 17, 1995. (Nancee E. Lewis/San Diego Union Tribune, via A.P.)

The day a tank plowed through the streets of San Diego

On May 17, 1995, an out-of-work plumber walked into an unlocked National Guard armory, climbed inside a tank, pushed an ignition button, and rampaged through the streets of San Diego for 23 minutes.

Shawn Nelson, a 35-year-old Army veteran, aimed for maximum destruction: he drove the M-60 Patton tank over dozens of vehicles, squashing them like putty, and plowed through traffic signals and fire hydrants. Witnesses told the Union-Tribune that Nelson stuck his head above the turret and laughed. “He looked like he was having fun,” one said.

With police and media helicopters circling overhead, he stopped only after becoming stuck astride a concrete freeway divider. Officers scrambled onto the tank, opened the hatch, and shot Nelson dead. Incredibly, no one else was hurt.

Footage of the tank piloted by Shawn Nelson.
San Diego Police Department, via Discovery

Nelson, it became clear, had problems. He was broke. His parents died. His wife left him. He often binged on alcohol and meth. In the weeks leading up to the rampage, he talked to friends about suicide and his admiration for “Oklahoma,” an apparent reference to the Oklahoma City bombing.

As a dazed San Diego sought answers, commentators pondered whether Nelson was a symptom of larger societal problems: the emasculation of the American male, perhaps, or middle-class rage. But no explanation seemed satisfactory. Jerry Sanders, the police chief in 1995, offered the Union-Tribune this moral to the story: “Don’t leave the batteries and keys in the tank.”

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“Stay out of the street!” Watch police helicopter footage of the 1995 rampageDiscovery/YouTube

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