Saturday, September 12, 2015

Route 66's Blue Phantom

In hosts of minds, today, are impressions that the word "eerie" means nothing except convenience to makers of crossword puzzles. There are gulfs of the unaccountable but they are bridged by terminology ... Probably vast holes of ignorance always will be bridged by very slender pedantries. ~ Charles Fort

In my Mysterious America, I chronicled Illinois’ Blue Phantom. Here are the highlights of that case, which I wrote about in that book, for the first time in 1983:
The blue phantom first showed up, it is said, on US 66 near Joliet, Illinois, late in May [1952]. Two drivers independently reported that someone had fired at them from a moving blue car. One of them was wounded, though not seriously. Later the same day another driver said a man in a blue automobile had taken a shot at him, this time three miles south of Lincoln on US 66.

On the afternoon of June 2nd, the phantom chose a new tactic: ambush. Edward Smith of St. Louis, Illinois, was driving just south of the Sangamon River when something hit his car. He slowed down and glanced back just in time to see a man jump from bushes beside the road, hop into a big blue car, and speed north on Route 48. Police interviewed an eleven-year-old girl who had watched the sniper make his escape in what she thought was either a Ford or Buick sedan. Highway patrolmen speculated that a .38 caliber bullet had caused the crease in Smith's back window.

By June 8th there had been ten reported shootings along central Illinois highways, including one in which the sniper's bullet shattered a windshield. State police and sheriff's deputies set up roadblocks along a 70-mile area and even employed the services of a low-flying airplane in an attempt to nab the gunman all – but to no avail. On June 10th the phantom, as if to thumb his nose at those so desperately trying to stop him, chose as his fifteenth target a Marengo squad car. Police officer Lawrence Brown, who had been patrolling the streets at dawn when the incident occurred, chased his assailant's car at speeds up to 90 m.p.h. but could not overtake it.

The same day, State Police Chief Thomas J. O'Donnell was telling reporters, “We have not relaxed our search and we are investigating every case but we are not convinced there is a phantom gunman or that any shots were fired in most of the 'shooting incidents' reported.

“We have yet to find anyone who saw a gun or who could give anything definite about the description of the sniper. On the other hand, we have a maze of vague and conflicting information that does not add up to the conclusion that one gunman is causing all these reports.”

Perhaps not. On June 9th, on Route 66 east of Springfield, William Moffit's car window was struck by a bullet fired from a dark green automobile speeding by in the opposite direction. But it is unlikely that Moffit took seriously O'Donnell's theory that nearly all the “sniping” incidents resulted from stones hitting cars or from the setting off of “torpedo” firecrackers. Neither, one suspects, did a truck driver in the Clinton area who early in the morning of June 17th saw two bullets penetrate his windshield. Police officers who inspected the holes concluded they were made by .22 caliber slugs fired from an automatic rifle. Nothing was said about stones or firecrackers.

The previous evening, in fact just a matter of hours before the Clinton incident, D. L. Weatherford had observed someone standing on a bridge on Route 121 north of Mount Pulaski. The “someone,” a man who wore khaki shirt and trousers, held a revolver and stood close to a parked blue Chrysler sedan. Weatherford did not stop to ask questions.

It was a blue Ford, however, which a Decatur couple pursued through the city the evening of June 19th after its occupant ungraciously took a pot shot at them. And at Mattoon (of all places) the same night police investigated a report from Fred Manley who said a man in a yellow Chevrolet panel truck had fired at him with a shotgun about 7:30 p.m. as he was driving on Route 16 between Charleston and Ashmore.

Near Champaign on June 24th, in what seems to have been the last appearance of the phantom sniper – or at least a phantom sniper – a man in a black sedan pulled up alongside a car driven by L. J. Wiles and let loose a volley of four shots, one of which crashed through Wiles' right window. Wiles, understandably shaken, still managed to collect his wits enough to chase the gunman's car into Champaign, but lost it in the city traffic.

The phantom was lost to history as well apparently, for that was the last anyone saw of him, or them, or whomever....





Blue Phantom drawing from Mysterious America (©Loren Coleman, 1983, 2001, 2007).

June 7, 1952: Dixon Evening Telegraph, Dixon, Illinois, Page 1

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