A man charged with killing six strangers between picking up rides for Uber pleaded guilty to murder on Monday in Michigan.
Jason Dalton’s surprise move occurred as lawyers and a judge planned to pick a jury in Kalamazoo County court. There was no deal for Dalton: He pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder, and he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance for parole.
“I’ve wanted to do this for quite a while,” Dalton told a judge.
He answered “yes” to a series of questions, admitting that he shot eight people at three locations in the Kalamazoo area in 2016. Four women, a man and a 17-year-old boy were killed.
After Dalton’s arrest, police quoted him as saying a “devil figure” on Uber’s app was controlling him on the day of the shootings. He was found competent to stand trial and last week dropped an insanity defense.
Defense attorney Eusebio Solis said he advised Dalton not to plead guilty. But he said his client wanted to spare families more grief during a trial.
But none of the shootings appeared to be connected to fares. Uber officials acknowledged the company received complaints about Dalton’s erratic driving that day, and said that company policy is to contact the driver when alerted to unsafe driving. But they would not say whether anyone at the company spoke to Dalton.
Dalton, meanwhile, appeared briefly in court by video link and was charged with six counts of murder, which carry a mandatory life sentence. A judge denied bail for the 45-year-old former insurance adjuster, who Kalamazoo police Det. Cory Ghiringhelli told the court had admitted to investigators “that he took people’s lives.”
The admission seemed only to deepen the mystery of what was behind the killings of six people with no apparent connection to the gunman. Police and prosecutors acknowledge a motive may never be fully known.
“This is a terrible moment in the community. We face violence like any other community does but nothing on this scale,” said Kalamazoo County prosecutor Jeff Getting. “We’ve lost six people, we have a 14-year-old girl clinging to life, we have another victim who is recovering, thankfully, … we have a high school that’s lost a classmate.
“And no one understands why it happened.”
An Uber passenger said he called police to report that Dalton was driving erratically more than an hour before the shootings began.
Matt Mellen told Kalamazoo television station WWMT that he hailed a ride around 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He said Dalton introduced himself as “Me-Me” and had a dog in the backseat.
Mellen sat in front. About a mile into the trip, Dalton got a phone call, and when he hung up, he began driving recklessly, blowing through stop signs and sideswiping cars, Mellen said.
“We were driving through medians, driving through the lawn, speeding along, and when we came to a stop, I jumped out of the car and ran away,” Mellen said.
He said he called police and that when he got to his friend’s house, his fiancée posted a warning to friends on Facebook.
Since Dalton’s arrest, several people have come forward to say that he picked them up for Uber in the hours after the first attack. The Associated Press could not confirm those accounts.
Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said Uber is cooperating with law enforcement officials, and he believes the company will “help us fill in some timeline gaps.” Investigators are particularly interested in communication between Dalton and Uber, as well as customers he might have driven, the sheriff said.
Uber said Dalton passed a background check and became a driver on Jan. 25. He had given about 100 rides, the company said.
Saturday’s attacks began outside the Meadows apartment complex on the eastern edge of Kalamazoo County, where 25-year-old Tiana Carruthers was shot multiple times but survived. Fuller said Carruthers sensed trouble when Dalton pulled up outside her apartment and put herself between his car and several children for whom she was caring, telling them to run to their nearby home.
Getting, the prosecutor, dismissed the idea that Dalton was seeking a particular person at the complex. He said Dalton called Carruthers by a different name only “to get her attention” before opening fire.
A little more than four hours later and 15 miles away, a father and his 17-year-old son were fatally shot while looking at cars at a car dealership.
Fifteen minutes after that, five people were gunned down in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Four of them died. Initial reports indicated that 14-year-old Abigail Kopf also was among the dead after being shot once in the head, but then she squeezed her mother’s hand. She remained hospitalized in critical condition Monday night.
Questions about motive and Dalton’s frame of mind are “going to be the hardest to answer for anybody,” Fuller said.
“In the end, I ask people, because I keep hearing this question of why, ‘What would be the answer that would be an acceptable answer for you?’ They have to think about it for a moment, and they say, ‘Probably nothing.’
“I have to say, ‘You are probably correct.’ I can’t imagine what the answer would be that would let us go, ‘OK, we understand now,’” the sheriff said.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
January 7th, 2018