Dr. Dabbs – Grand Theft Armor: The San Diego Tank Fiasco

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Tanks are just cool. Tearing about the desert in one of these bad boys is a feeling of power like no other.

In what seems a familiar refrain, Shawn Timothy Nelson never was quite right. Born on 21 August 1959, Shawn was the second of Fred and Betty Nelson’s three boys. He attended James Madison High School in San Diego.

This is Shawn Nelson. Sadly, he seemed to come from the factory broken.

In 1978, Shawn enlisted in the US Army. After his training was complete, he was posted to Germany as an armor crewman. Two years later he separated from the military with an honorable discharge for “multifaceted disciplinary problems.”

The vast majority of the junior soldiers with whom I served were solid, hard-charging young studs. They were drawn to military service out of a desire to give back, a lust for adventure, or a need to earn money for college. However, a few of them just weren’t wired correctly. Shawn Nelson seems to have fallen into that category.

For a time, Shawn Nelson’s life looked like it might turn out OK. However, eventually, everything just kind of fell apart.

Once he left the military, Shawn trained to become a plumber. After he married Suzy Hellman in 1984, Shawn started his own plumbing business. By all accounts he was fairly successful. At some point everybody needs a plumber.

An Interesting Piece of Humanity

Shawn knew how to exercise the US legal system. He got into a fight with a hospital security guard in 1990 and subsequently sued the hospital. His mom died at the same hospital the following year, and he sued them again for that. In 1993 all of his cumulative legal assaults were consolidated and promptly dismissed. This experience left him bitter and angry.

Shawn and his wife actually lived in Clairemont, California, a subordinate community within San Diego proper. His weird behavior earned him no small amount of local notoriety. Nelson frequently cut his grass in the middle of the night, and he eventually excavated a twenty-foot hole in his backyard searching for gold. By all accounts his efforts bore no fruit. His property was cluttered with mechanical detritus and refuse. The cops responded to his home nine times in 1994-1995. These calls ranged from allegations of domestic violence to a claim that his work van had been stolen. Throughout it all, his neighbors knew of him but no one actually knew him.

Shawn Nelson also struggled with addiction. He mixed alcohol and methamphetamines regularly, causing his behavior to become more and more erratic. In 1991 Suzy moved out.

In the end, Shawn Nelson was just dealt a bad hand. How he responded to his spate of ill luck, however, was unconventional to say the least.

In June of 1994, someone stole Nelson’s van with all his plumbing tools. Now deprived of the means to do his job, his business cratered. Along the way, he had a motorcycle accident and suffered a painful spinal injury. By 1995 he was unemployed.

Now unable to pay his bills, the bank foreclosed on his house and the utility companies cut him off. He was finally served with an eviction notice. By this time he had found a new girlfriend, but she saw the writing on the wall and left as well. Nelson began alluding to suicide. The man was clearly at the end of his rope.

I’ve been down on my luck before–most all of us have–though I cannot say I have ever sunk quite as low as Shawn Nelson did. Of course, I never dug a twenty-foot hole in my backyard looking for gold, either. In response to such sordid circumstances, some turn to God, while others might seek out government assistance. By contrast, Shawn Timothy Nelson just went insane.

The Army National Guard

The Army National Guard answers to the Governors of the individual states. In times of crisis, these citizen soldiers can be activated to deal with civil unrest or national disasters. Upon the orders of the President, they can be federalized for national service as well. The National Guard makes up 14.8% of America’s total military force.

The Army National Guard sports some pretty cool toys nowadays.

Back when I was young and dinosaurs roamed the plains, the National Guard was legit one weekend a month and two weeks each summer. It was a great way to make money for college without much risk of deploying someplace to get shot. Not so anymore. After 9/11 we got our money’s worth out of those guys. A good friend with whom I was commissioned commanded in combat at the company, battalion, and brigade levels as a National Guard officer. As you might imagine, he has an exceptionally long-suffering wife.

The National Guard typically trains on the same gear to the same technical standards as their active duty counterparts. Sometimes that works out better than other times, but Guard guys can indeed do some pretty high-speed stuff. In many cases, local National Guard armories will maintain small numbers of combat vehicles onsite for training purposes. I also suppose they could roll out the local Bradley or M1 Abrams in response to civil unrest or something similarly horrible, though I have never heard of that actually happening. 

The Mississippi Army National Guard rivals the land armies of many modest nation-states.

In my home state of Mississippi, our National Guard includes Armor, Artillery, Aviation, Engineers, Maintenance, Quartermaster, JAG, and Special Forces units. We even have an Army band. That’s a whole lot of heavily armed rednecks. Don’t screw with us. I’m not kidding.

The Crime Involved a Tank

Nothing takes it to the next level like a 57-ton Main Battle Tank.

Shawn Nelson’s local National Guard armory housed an armor unit. Contained therein were several M60A3 Main Battle Tanks. The local motor pool was surrounded by an eight-foot chain-link fence topped with triple-strand barbed wire. Permanent party personnel typically went home around 1800 hours. They diligently locked the gate behind them as they left.

17 May 1995 was a Wednesday, and the Guard guys were working late for some reason. At 1830 Shawn Nelson drove his derelict van through the open gate and parked near the tanks. Shirtless and ill-kempt, he broke the locks securing three different tanks before he got one to start. By 1845, however, it was game on.

Now here’s something you don’t see every day. The cops were helpless to stop Shawn Nelson once he got his stolen tank spooled up.

Nelson was an experienced tank driver. He crashed the gate with the turret traversed backward and the gun secured in the travel lock. For the next 25 minutes, he wreaked utter chaos in and around San Diego.

One resident later stated, “He didn’t go down the center of the street…It seems he just wanted to get the utilities and cause as much damage (as possible) without hurting people.”

Over the course of some six miles, he took out traffic lights, power poles, fire hydrants, and bus stops. In so doing he cut power to 5,100 households. Along the way, he also crushed forty vehicles including at least one motor home. Throughout it all, miraculously, no one was injured.

The Weapon Was a Tank

The M60 Patton was quite a capable machine in its day.
This is the M85 .50-caliber machine gun. In trying to shorten the action so it would fit inside the commander’s cupola designers kind of ruined the gun. It was not popular with the tankers with whom I served.

The M60A3 Patton was 31 feet long and could reach speeds of 45 miles per hour. The tank was powered by a Continental AVDS-1790-2 V12 air-cooled, twin-turbo diesel engine. It was armed with a superb 105mm M68 main gun along with a 7.62x51mm M73 coaxial gun and an M85 .50-caliber machine gun in the commander’s cupola, both of which kind of sucked. More than 15,000 of these vehicles were produced.

This is an early M60 with the optical range finder. The lenses are mounted in those armored bulges on the sides of the turret.

Like all military weapon systems, the machine evolved over time. The M60A1 was equipped with an M17A1 optical rangefinder that used a pair of lenses set on the sides of the turret to accurately determine range. This binocular periscope device rode in the two bug-eyed knobs on the exterior of the turret. With these two lenses focused on a target it became a simple mechanical exercise in geometry to determine the range. The later M60A3 included a laser rangefinder. I worked alongside M60 tanks early in my military career and found them to be more than adequately intimidating.

Nothing Lasts Forever

There’s just nothing in the arsenal of the San Diego Police Department that is going to put a dent in one of these.

The authorities were in a bit of a quandary. Though bereft of ammunition, this was still a 114,000-pound armored vehicle. The cops didn’t have anything that would touch it. The Governor supposedly considered requesting armed tank or attack helicopter support. In the end, Shawn Nelson took care of the problem himself.

READ MORE: Dr. Dabbs – The Raid on Camp Bastion

In his enthusiasm to crush pretty much everything in sight, Nelson ran his pilfered tank up onto a concrete traffic barrier, wedging it in place. While trying to extricate himself he threw a track. Now the tank was immobilized.

It’s pretty tough to get into one of these monsters if the guys inside don’t want you to.

The tank was in combat lockdown with the sundry hatches secured. Four extraordinarily brave San Diego PD officers mounted the thrashing vehicle and managed to get the commander’s hatch open using bolt cutters. Throughout it all Nelson tried to throw the officers clear by violently working the remaining track.

The cops had no idea whether or not Nelson was armed. Once they finally got the hatch opened they shot him in the right shoulder. He died on site. The coroner later reported that he had been intoxicated at the time. Here’s a video of the final moments.

The Aftermath for Shawn Nelson

This was still freaking California, so naturally folks took issue with the way the cops ended Nelson’s rampage. Only in the Land of Fruits and Nuts would four cops be brave enough to leap onto a rampaging tank and then have citizens complain that they did it wrong. The lawyers naturally got involved, and the State of California was forced to pay out $149,201 (about $273,000 today) to cover damages. Wow.

This is Fort Irwin, California, home of the National Training Center. If misery was a mineral you mined out of the ground here is where you’d go to find it. I hate this place.

The following day all 28 tanks in Southern California Guard armories had their batteries removed for safekeeping. Those suckers are heavy. I suspect that was a fairly unpopular play among the tankers tasked with carrying out this edict. Because it was still California, all California National Guard tanks were eventually moved to Fort Irwin and Camp Roberts for safekeeping. I’m honestly surprised they didn’t just pass some fresh new tank control laws to guarantee that the Shawn Nelsons of the world could no longer steal tanks. Freaking California…

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  • Dave Franz August 8, 2023, 9:03 pm

    I read Will Dabbs article on the San Diego M-60 tank fiasco. As a retired Army Aviator and former tanker, I can’t imagine removing a tank’s battery pack every day. High maintenance effort. And if there was a ALERT, there could not be a rapid deployment because of the battery pack reinstall.
    DJ Franz
    US Army Retired

  • LTCArmor August 8, 2023, 6:55 pm

    Great story Will! Here’s a bit of first-hand experience with the M60A3’s weaponry. The main gun was indeed a fine rifled cannon, I must agree. I was commissioned in Armor in 1978 and trained on the M60A1RISE/Passive at Ft Knox’s Armor Officer Basic Course, I think the coaxial machine gun you mention is likely incorrect for the time period of this story. In AOBC, we were shown an M219 coax mg which our instructor told us was an improved version of the M73. Jokingly, it was supposed to make it 3 times better than the M73. The math might have said 3 x 73 = 219, but the M219 was still a major POS.
    The Army adopted the Belgian FN made M240 in 1977, which in my experience over a decade of use, was a superb weapon. So fine, someone finally got smart enough to put a buttstock and a longer pistol grip and issue it to the infantry, something I thought should have been done in 1978, but it took the Army until Dec 1995 to adopt the M240B for infantry and general use. But I digress. So, I doubt seriously, the National Guard would still have any M73/M219s on hand in 1995, when this incident happened.
    My experience with the M85 is quite different. While they may have been more prone to stoppages than say M2, the several I qualified with were sweet. They may have been a bit more finicky than M2s but take care of it, and it takes care of you. I always kept mine on the high rate of fire mode and it always worked fine for me. Once, as a new company commander we’re firing TT VI in Grafenwoehr, I linked up the first 20 rounds of all tracers. On my first night .50 engagement, it was a pretty spectacular burst on a BMP target, much, much faster than a M2 could ever be. Later, I overheard some of my soldiers talking with crewmen from another company saying, “You should have seen my CO! He made his .50 look like a fire breathing dragon. We’re going to beat your a** this gunnery.”
    It’s always good to have some fun at the range.

  • armyman1986 August 7, 2023, 10:49 pm

    I was a young National Guard trooper (31V Radio Operator/Repairman) at that very Armory from 1988-1992. At the time the unit there was the 3rd Battalion, 185th Armor Regiment of the 40th Infantry Division, CA Army National Guard. We called it “The Flaming Asshole Division”. Google to find out why…
    In 1992, I had joined the Regular Army, re-classifying as a 91B Medic. By 1995 I was stationed at the Florida Ranger Camp on Eglin AFB, FL (in a medical support role at the TMC – I was not and am not Ranger qualified). I remember the night of May 17, 1995 well because I was having a few beers at the Gator Lounge when the news report of this was played on the T.V. , to which I exclaimed, “Holy shit, that tank was stolen from my old unit!”

  • ejharbet August 7, 2023, 6:36 pm

    I bet some chip midrankers have javelins in the trunk jic

  • Frank August 7, 2023, 5:22 pm

    Are we to assume that schools, churches, sporting events, and bars are now “Tank Free Zones”?

  • Tip Tover August 7, 2023, 3:07 pm

    Another blast from the past… tanks for the memories Dr. Dabbs…

  • Viet Vet August 7, 2023, 12:54 pm

    Yes, California, say no more.

  • Dubya August 7, 2023, 12:47 pm

    In today’s world, would this be categorized and subsequently reported as “tank violence”?

  • jimboecv August 5, 2023, 10:52 pm

    Lovely. I remember the guard armory by my house growing up and wondering what kind of kit was inside the walls. M60’s and bottomless ammo…

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