When road rage leads to gunfire from the stranger beside you

Star-Telegram photo illustration
Star-Telegram photo illustration Image sources: Thinkstock

As an ordinary late January afternoon ushered shoppers in and out of the Kroger parking lot in Bedford, strangers Sam Smith and Bryan Valadez, bound together by the randomness of side-by-side parking spots, pierced the daily routine with a horrifying confrontation.

Smith, a 28-year-old husband and father of a young daughter — with a second child born just weeks following his funeral — lay sprawled on the asphalt, blood streaming out of his motionless body riddled by multiple gunshots, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s report.

Minutes earlier, Smith and Valadez engaged in an argument over a door ding to Valadez’s truck, according to Bedford police. It quickly spiraled into an illogical, testosterone-fueled showdown. Valadez, who was in the driver’s seat of his truck — and who later told police he and Smith both threatened that they had guns — misinterpreted a sudden movement by Smith as reaching behind his back for a firearm. Police discovered later that Smith did not have a gun.

“I know my nephew,” said Jimmy Wood of Northlake, Smith’s uncle. “He’s not going to say he’s got a gun if he don’t have a gun. He will whip your ass real quick though, and he won’t stop until you’re on the ground and say you’ve had enough.”

Valadez, 27, wasn’t in it for an old-fashioned fistfight. A licensed handgun carrier, he grabbed the pistol beside him and through the rolled-down window pulled the trigger — more than once, police said.

Bedford police have given his case to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, which is preparing to present it to a grand jury.

“This is such a unjustified tragedy,” said Alishia Smith, Sam Smith’s widow. “My husband didn't deserve to die over anything as petty as a small dent in a car door. Our children now have no father over something so small. It is such a monumental loss.”

Parking spot photo
This parking spot at a Bedford grocery store was where a man was gunned downed in January, apparently over dinging someone else’s car door. Lee Williams leewilliams@star-telegram.ccom

Five months later, on June 25, as Dylan Spaid merged from an entrance ramp onto Interstate 20 in south Arlington, he nearly collided with a black BMW 535i, setting off an unimaginable chain of deadly events.

Spaid, 19, was not happy and flipped off the driver of the BMW, Spaid’s girlfriend, Kristana Huggins, said. The driver sped up and pulled alongside Spaid. The passenger’s side window was rolled down and a single shot was fired, hitting Spaid in the head, killing him.

Huggins, who was in the front passenger seat, grabbed the wheel and tried to steer the pickup to safety before crashing into a tire shop. The killer sped off, heading east on I-20, and remains at large.

Kristina Huggins talks about the Arlington road rage shooting incident that killed her boyfriend Dylan Spaid, June 25. Huggins was injured in the resulting crash, and shares her feelings about Dylan, and her thoughts about guns in cars.

“He rolled down his window and the driver of the car just pulled out a gun,” Huggins said. “Dylan looked at it and he got shot. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’”

What just happened was another frightening, seemingly random encounter involving impulsive rage that led to a deadly shooting, an incident that criminal justice experts and psychologists who study the causes of violence say is a sobering commentary on society and the accessibility of firearms.

As murder rates in Texas continue to be at their lowest point over a 20-year period, these rage-of-the-moment encounters — differing, for instance, from premeditated or gang-related violence — are making people more cautious about how they react to aggressive drivers, and how they interact with strangers in public places, whether in a parking lot or a crowded checkout line, for fear of incurring bodily harm, or even being killed.

“I’ve seen it in my research and in my practice,” said psychologist Alan Lipman, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C. “It’s extremely rapid, lower brain, impulsive, ego-driven reactivity, and if you add in alcohol or drugs and weapons, sometimes even without, one minute you’re standing in a parking lot, five minutes later your life has changed for the rest of your life, or maybe your life is over.”

While law enforcement does not document crimes specifically as “road rage” or “impulsive rage” the way they do, for example, “hate crimes,” there is general agreement, and concern, by police and experts on violence that while the frequency of random rage incidents might not necessarily be spiking, the societal triggers and the chance that a firearm will be involved are indisputably on the rise.

“There used to be a huge divide between going through a situation and thinking, ‘Boy, I sure would like to kill that guy,’ which is kind of a natural human deal, and actually making it happen in the moment,” Fort Worth defense attorney Greg Westfall said. “The truth is, I think the overarching deal is that the practice of resolving disputes short of violence or some kind of a real crescendo of emotion, is dead.”

Disorders of rage

Society is certainly more aware of instances of impulsive rage, because the news media can easily broadcast video of encounters, such as recent instances aboard airplanes, recorded by citizen journalists with a constant finger on the record button of their cellphones.

The overarching question in these instances is why some people are so quick to lose control of their emotions and act out violently toward a stranger. The situations can turn deadly quickly when the person is in possession of a firearm.

Lipman suggests these spontaneous acts of violence are most commonly perpetrated by people who “have not learned over the course of childhood or adulthood to be able to manage quick, unexpected shifts in anger.”

These people, Lipman said, often suffer from one of two similar disorders, narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. With both, quickly heightened extreme rage is a prominent feature. So are a lack concern about social roles and norms. Lipman said they often lack remorse and actually seek these kinds of stimulating encounters so they can experience powerful rage.

The accessibility of guns to just about anyone in Texas and across the country and the increased brandishing of firearms has turned the discussion of rage crimes also into one about gun accessibility.

“Most people who carry handguns or have rifles are law-abiding citizens,” Lipman said.

But, he said, “the facts are very clear that when you have impulsive individuals prone to rage with access to weapons, they are more likely to be violent in ways that are increasingly harmful than when they don’t have weapons.

Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at Ohio State University who studies the causes, consequences, and solutions to the problem of human aggression and violence, has published two related studies: “The Weapons Effect,” which researchers first studied in 1967 and has been replicated many times since, shows the mere presence of guns can increase aggression; and “The Weapons Effect on Wheels,” which found participants in the study to drive more aggressively when there was a gun in the vehicle.

A 2012 paper by psychologists Jessica Witt, and James Brockmole explains how simply possessing a firearm makes that person more likely to suspect that others have one, too.

“That’s a lot more dangerous than ever before because of the access of guns,” Bushman said. “This is not just a mere weapons effect. This is just access of guns certainly increases aggression and violence. We do have research that shows people feel more powerful when they have a gun, feel more in control, kind of don’t mess with me, I’ve got a gun.

“And you might be more likely to cut somebody off because you have a weapon.”

Arlington takes action

Recent local instances of impulsive rage all featured guns. Two resulted in gunshot wounds and one ended in murder:

▪ On July 4, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson blamed “road rage” for allegedly backing his pickup into a woman and then pulling out an AR-15 rifle in the parking lot of Frisco’s Toyota Stadium. He was arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Damien Wilson
Dallas Cowboys inside linebacker Damien Wilson. Max Faulkner

▪ On June 29, the Star-Telegram reported a third road rage shooting in the span of four days in North Texas, this one leaving a 33-year-old man with a gunshot wound. A woman’s head was grazed by bullet fragments in the second incident after unknown gunmen fired shots in the car she was driving.

The shooting of Spaid in Arlington was the final straw for the Arlington Police Department, which soon after launched a new campaign focused on aggressive driving and road rage. Lt. Chris Cook, an Arlington police spokesman, said the department is also about to dust off a road rage hotline it discontinued in 2008 because of diminished calls. That’s no longer the case, he said.

“We have been seeing what we believe to be an increase in intensity and types of road rage,” Cook said. “The last six months, we’ve responded to multiple calls to service where someone has brandished a firearm or discharged a firearm at a moving vehicle.

“We know that people get emotionally driven up and we’re asking them to take a step back and say is it worth it that I’m going to pull a deadly weapon out to get my point across,” Cook continued. “It’s not just Arlington. We’re seeing it around the country, and it’s leading to deadly consequences.”

Gun Culture 2.0

David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University, is researching what has been called “Gun Culture 2.0,” the shift over the past few decades from the primary reason for gun ownership being hunting and recreation to self-defense.

Yamane said the jury is still out on any definitive declaration that members of the general public are at an increased risk of being victims of gunfire if caught in a road rage or other impulsive rage scenario.

“I can always come up with lots of examples where something like this [the Kroger shooting] happened, but it’s not something that I think is happening multiple times every day,” Yamane said. “It’s one of the reasons why we tend to focus in on them is because they are so exceptional. If people were getting shot over dings in parking lots every day in every major city in the United States, it would be a different sort of conversation.

“Although, with the growing number of people who can legally carry, there’s a question as to whether these types of incidents might become more and more common.”

The state of Texas is a prime example. In 2007, fewer than 300,000 Texans owned a handgun license, which requires classroom training and a proficiency. That number stands at 1.2 million today. That does not include gun owners who are not licensed to carry. And, authorities note, it is perfectly legal to transport a handgun in the glove compartment of one’s vehicle without possessing a license.

“And that is where I believe a lot of the problem is,” said Hurst-based defense attorney Lex Johnston, who represents Valadez, the Kroger parking lot shooter, who police said did have a license to carry. “You can carry legally even though you’re a hothead and you don’t have that training and experience.”

A recent analysis by The Trace, a nonprofit news organization focused on gun violence, suggests road rage cases involving guns has more than doubled across the country since 2014, and that states with large numbers of concealed-carry permit holders such as Texas had a higher number of cases.

Law enforcement agencies do not specifically categorize road rage incidents, but Dallas police compiled a road rage/aggravated assault report for 2016 and 2017 for the Star-Telegram. In 2016, there were 104 offenses through July 9 compared to 114 offenses for the same time period in 2017. For all of 2016, there were 215 offenses in Dallas.

Fort Worth police did not comment specifically on road rage, but said that aggravated assault with weapons cases had climbed from 1,165 cases from January-June 2016 to 1,207 for the same time in 2017.

Alice Tripp, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association and a 20-year gun lobbyist, isn’t buying any of the gun studies that find simply possessing a gun can increase aggressive behavior, or that the accessibility of firearms makes the public less safe if caught in a road rage, or impulsive rage, encounter.

“Utter bulls---,” Tripp said. “I carry a handgun with me everywhere I go. We’ve got criminal misuse. These are not necessarily insane people, it’s criminal misuse. I don’t care if they pull out a tire tool and beat the crap out of someone, it’s criminal misuse of a tool. It could be a baseball bat, a tire tool or a big stick.”

On Sept. 1, obtaining a handgun license will become easier than ever in Texas. Backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, license fees will be lowered from $140, one of the most expensive rates in the nation, to $40, one of the lowest. And during the Legislature’s special session that started Tuesday, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, is hoping to get his proposal passed to allow Texans to carry firearms without first having to get a permit or safety training.

In 2015, Texas passed open carry laws, and a year ago, the state allowed concealed handguns to be carried on some campuses.

‘I’m still terrified’

The randomness of the encounter with the black BMW spooked Huggins, the young woman in the passenger seat when her boyfriend was shot in the head driving on I-20. And the frightening violence that ensued scarred her physically, too. She required stitches in her forehead following the crash. Those scars will heal, but the emotional pain still aches, a constant reminder of what just happened.

“I’m still terrified to go on I-20,” Huggins said. “I’m still terrified to let anybody else drive me around. I almost lost my life once and I already lost somebody. I don’t want to lose other people.”

Kristina Huggins in tears
Kristina Huggins talks about the tragedy of her boyfriend’s death, and her feelings about guns in cars. Courtesy Kristina Huggins

Huggins said she knows Texans will carry guns, and she implored those with anger issues to recognize them and leave their weapons at home. Prior to that day she said she didn’t think about who might have a gun in the lane next to her, and might they become so angry as to use it. Now it’s all she thinks about.

“It’s obvious that people will carry a gun, so ignore it [aggressive driving or behavior],” Huggins said. “Anything can happen and any person can have a gun in their car. If you’re smart enough, you won’t communicate. It’s not worth it.”

Spaid’s father, Shawn, travels Texas’ highways often for his job at Rick’s Tire Service in Grand Prairie. He said he does carry a gun, but that he has never encountered a situation in which he thought about using it, even now as episodes of dangerous and aggressive driving become more apparent to him since his son’s death.

“You drive down the road and turn on your blinker and they’ll speed up to keep you from changing lanes,” Shawn Spaid said. “Nobody cares anymore. There’s no courtesy on the road.

“Too many people just don’t care.”

Arlington police have released video of a vehicle being sought in the road rage killing of Grand Prairie teen Dylan Spaid on Interstate 20 on Sunday.

This article contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698; @fwhanna

Trouble in the skies

Impulsive rage is hardly confined to cars and freeways.

Air rage, while certainly not new, definitely draws more attention now thanks to cellphones and their video-loving owners.

One example came in April, when the removal of a baby stroller caused a ruckus on an American Airlines flight, leaving a mom in tears after a bystander who was trying to help her was challenged to a fight by a flight attendant. The incident was caught on video.

Another came in May, when three passengers aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas got into a brawl after landing at Hollywood Burbank Airport outside of Los Angeles. One passenger was arrested. And yes, it was caught on video.

Blogger Cranky Flier, also known as Brett Snyder, said the number of incidents on planes probably hasn’t increased in the past 15 to 20 years. But social media has changed the playing field.

“I don’t think human nature has changed, we just now have cameras,” Snyder said. “If nobody videos the incident, you still don’t hear about it. You only hear about it if there is a video of it.”

There are no official government statistics on the number of air-rage incidents each year, and local police reports are only filed if a passenger is arrested once the flight lands.

Andrea Ahles

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