BALDWIN, Wisc. — “Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.” That’s how Sidhil Kumar described the sounds that first alerted him that something serious was happening.
Kumar was driving a 2012 Peterbilt east along I-94 in Wisconsin. He had entered the US at the Pembina/Emerson border crossing and had refuelled in St. Cloud, Minn. Friday, Aug. 1 was rapidly drawing to a close, as the clock was just about to come up on midnight. Until that point, the trip from Trappers Transport in Winnipeg had been uneventful. Kumar had done this run before—hauling a 53-ft reefer full of frozen French fries from Manitoba to St. Johns, Mich.—so he thought he knew what to expect. He was planning on stopping for the night in either Menomonie (about 40 miles up the road) or Black River Falls, depending on where he could find space, but he didn’t get that far.
At that point in the night, traffic along the busy highway was light. Kumar, whose truck is limited to 62 mph, was cruising in the right lane. Everything was perfectly normal. That’s when he first spotted the red or maroon car.
“It was in front of me for a while—a few minutes,” said Kumar in an exclusive interview with Truck News.
“There was a white car as well, but this maroon car slowed down. It looked like it was going to take an exit, so I moved to the left lane because I didn’t want to slow down. Exit 16 was very close to me. This car was in the right lane, but I didn’t see the car. I couldn’t see it. When I went to the left lane, I guess the car came up to the normal speed and was driving parallel to me. I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was quite normal. I just passed it when I had enough space to move over.”
Kumar, however, quickly found a reason to start paying closer attention, even though by then it was too late.
“I heard something like hammering on my cab. Like somebody was beating on the cab with a hammer. It was several shots. I know about bullets. I have a gun licence. But I never expected this: that somebody was shooting at my truck without any reason.
“There was no expectation. There were a number of gunshots—I’d say 15 to 20. It was like tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Then a stop. Then tat-tat-tat-tat. Then stop, then three, four or five shots again. Then stop, and again shots. It felt like non-stop for 10 or 15 seconds, like somebody hammering at me. It was a mixture of bullet shots and hits. I know they fired more than 15 bullets at me. Maybe 20.
“I didn’t realize exactly what was happening to me. It was like somebody standing behind my cab beating on it. I thought maybe some crazy people got behind my truck when I stopped for fuelling and they’ve been standing there for one-and-a-half hours. My truck has only one berth, so there was nothing to fall down from the upper berth. The luggage compartment was secured. There was nothing that could make that sound.”
Curious about the noise and wanting to stop and determine the cause, Kumar spied an exit. He didn’t take it, but he pulled over just past the off-ramp calculating there would be more room on the side of the road there than on the regular highway shoulder.
“I didn’t shut down the engine. I just applied my parking brakes and went to the cabin. I saw my (sleeper) cab window was down. It looked like somebody shot it—glass everywhere. I realized it was not the safest place to park, so thought let’s go someplace else, like some rest area or a truck stop or take another exit. I thought let’s go. So I immediately started driving again.
“I was picking up my speed. I was in the right lane and another truck driver, an American female truck driver, she put her cab lights on and was waving her hands at me like park, park. She was talking on the radio, ‘You have a fuel leak.’ I put my back lights on and looked what was happening to my trailer and I saw the fuel going out like a fog because my fuel tanks were full. There were 50 gallons of fuel there in my reefer tanks. I came to realize later these guys shot my fuel tank and made a hole, so fuel was coming out and spreading everywhere, covering the cars behind me.”
Including the white car Kumar noticed before all the shooting.
Even though she couldn’t be aware of exactly what happened to cause the fuel leak, the woman who flagged Kumar down pulled her rig over, parked it on the side of the road and got out. That gave Kumar the confidence to know the road was safe enough to pull over himself.
“She ran at me and asked me what happened. I said I realized I was shot, but I didn’t realize the fuel leaked. I gave my phone to her to call the cops: 9-1-1. At the same time, I went to disconnect my tractor and trailer because there was a heavy fuel leak and I didn’t want, if it caught fire, to take my truck too.”
Kumar pulled his truck ahead, laid out his safety triangles and within minutes, an assortment of officials had arrived, including highway troopers, firefighters and officers from the St. Croix County sheriff’s office. Kumar said the firefighters were able to plug the fuel leak, but there was still a flood of diesel on the road.
By that point, Kumar and the other driver had become the centre of attention.
“The cops were very good. They came and asked me if I was safe. They talked to me. They also had a very good witness, the female driver. They interviewed her as well. They asked for my licence. I’m a trusted traveller, so I have my FAST Card. They took my FAST Card, so they know I’m not a criminal. They took my ID and kept it for an hour. I stayed there for over two hours because there were lots of things to do. They took one statement from me,” he said. “Everybody was taking reports from me. They asked me for my truck insurance, my truck documents. Everything was in order. After noting down everything, they gave it all back. They were good. They told me, ‘You were lucky.’”
One investigator even got on the phone with Kumar’s dispatcher and explained the situation to her, after Kumar had made the initial phone call, reporting what had happened. Kumar spoke with numerous people from Trappers including the company’s safety team.
“Everybody was upset because it had never happened in their history. They’ve never had the experience of somebody shooting their truck.”
While Kumar spent more than two hours on the side of the road, the other trucker was allowed to go after about 30 minutes. Kumar said that in the confusion and chaos that happened, he didn’t get a chance to really talk to her.
“I don’t know her name. I met her, but we didn’t get much time to talk or exchange numbers or that kind of thing because of the circumstances. She called the cops and was busy with the cops. She had the courage to stop. Otherwise she could have just told me, ‘You have a fuel leak’ and went away. Somebody else would have done that, but she stopped with me.”
Around 3 a.m. Saturday, police officials informed Kumar they were going to tow his truck to the impound yard so they could continue their investigation. They also told him to grab his bags before having an officer drive him to a local hotel. Kumar wasn’t finished telling his story, though. He had to give another, more detailed statement from his hotel room later that day.
On Sunday morning, Kumar received a call saying he could reclaim his truck, even if it wasn’t ready to drive.
“I had a flat tire. I had a leaked fuel tank, so my company sent mechanics—a tire guy and a reefer mechanic with a new tank. When the tire guy replaced the tire, they found a bullet inside the tire. The same thing with the reefer tank. When they replaced the reefer tank, they got a bullet.”
In total police in Wisconsin found nine bullet holes in Kumar’s truck. It wasn’t until he got to Canada when he realized they hadn’t found them all.
“I was shot nine times—well actually 10 times. The cops counted nine, but when I stopped at the Canadian border, the Canadian Customs inspector found one more shot. They flattened my trailer tire. They shot my door of my cab—one shot that was actually supposed to hit me. They shot at the window at an angle that goes directly to the driver’s seat, but I was very fortunate. That bullet hit the window frame and the aluminum was so strong that even though it’s pierced, it stopped it. That was supposed to really hit me. I was so lucky.
“One shot was high, I don’t know where they aimed, but it went into the cab cover—there was a hole. Two shots pierced the reefer. One shot in the landing gear and one shot made a hole in the fuel tank. There is one shot in the tire and one shot in the DEF tank. The DEF tank is on the right-hand side, so maybe they mistakenly thought it was the fuel tank they were shooting at. The last shot I found at the back of my trailer. It looked to me like they slowed down and shot when I passed. They took the last shot at the back of my trailer, then they took the exit and were gone. Because they knew there was an exit ahead.”
While Kumar didn’t see the red or maroon car leave the highway, or even notice anything about who was in the vehicle, he has some ideas about what happened. He believes there must have been at least two, or more likely three people in the car. He also thinks they knew how to shoot and had some familiarity with trucks.
“I guess there were maybe three people, because a driver cannot shoot me while driving because of the air turbulence. When you are travelling beside a big semi going 105 km/h, there is turbulence, so he cannot safely shoot me, especially at night while being safe. He shot my cab. He shot my window. This cannot be done left-handed or one-handed. If he had a passenger, the passenger cannot shoot as well because he has the driver on his left-hand side. It’s not easy for him to shoot me from the right side. The shot came, maybe, from the back seat—somebody sitting in the back seat on the left-hand side. I think there were three or more people,” he said.
“I’ve heard of truckers experiencing one shot or two shots, breaking the window and they’re gone. This is not like that. This is somebody who really wanted to kill me.
“The angle of the shots—if you look at the one shot at the window, it would have seriously injured me. To shoot me like that from a car to a truck, it’s not that easy. A car is too low for a truck. I’m on the other side, so to target me, it’s not easy. So the guys who were shooting at me were really, really good shooters. And at night, you cannot differentiate between a reefer and a dry van, and the shooters, they knew there was a diesel tank just behind the trailer they were shooting into. It’s hard to see at night. They know much about trucking. These guys know much about a truck. They didn’t realize I had a DEF tank on my right-hand side. They misunderstood it was a fuel tank and were shooting at that. They blew my tire. Ten shots hit me. They are very good with the guns, and they know much about trucks.
“They shot the passenger side. If any passenger was on the seat, they might have got a shot. The bullet went into the truck. It pierced the door and went into the truck. Luckily, I didn’t have any passenger or co-driver or somebody sleeping at my berth, they could have been seriously injured or died. It’s like they really wanted to make some serious thing. It wasn’t a funny shooting—somebody randomly shooting a truck, breaking some glass and panicking. If they wanted to panic me, they could easily do that because it’s hard shooting this way. They could easily shoot the windows, but they didn’t shoot at the windows. It was something very serious.”
While Kumar is convinced that the gunman (or gunmen) were highly skilled, St. Croix County sheriff John Shilts offered a different perspective on the shooting.
“A truck is big. We’re not exactly sure just how close the vehicle was to the truck when the individual would have begun firing,” he told Truck News.
“When we’ve got something the size of a tractor trailer rig, if you’re each in your own respective lanes, what do you have—six feet in between you? In that sense you don’t necessarily have to be a great shot. It’s like the old adage ‘couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn.’ In this case it’s similar, but it’s a truck.
“Now you start putting in the factors—the size of the targets, the rates, the movements, the distance apart. My suspicion is they were quite close together when the individual fired the shots, in which case he’s literally aiming for the side of a barn.”
Shilts said the description of a “red or maroon car” doesn’t give his investigators much to go on although they checked the local area that night and found one car that matched the description. It turns out, however, its owners had an alibi and there was no evidence they were involved.
He added that ballistics evidence offers the best chance of catching whoever shot Kumar’s truck, as the bullets and shell casings recovered are 10 mm, which isn’t an exactly common size of ammunition.
“Probably about 10 or 15 years ago there was an upsurge in that particular calibre for handguns. Actually, law enforcement began to use it for a bit, but that was short-lived. You don’t see too many of them anymore. In that sense it’s unique but there are plenty of them out there. It’s not to the point of being rare,” he said.
“Now it becomes a situation where we wait to see if we recover a unique weapon such as a 10 mm and maybe we can match up any ammunition that is with it or see if we can find that particular weapon,” he said.
According to Shilts, the shooting was out of the ordinary for this part of Wisconsin, and that there is no history of truck hijackings in the county.
“This is extremely unusual for us,” he said. “We are actually a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul. To that extent, it is not uncommon for you to see that in the more populated metropolitan areas. But for our area it is very unusual. The last [truck shooting] I can remember was probably 15 years ago. It ended up being bad blood between a couple of people who knew each other. This appears to be completely random. Certainly the number of shots shows, at least in my opinion, an intent to do harm. I wouldn’t categorize it as a joy ride or a pot-shot. Nine rounds is a lot of rounds to shoot.”
As to why it happened, Shilts said there really isn’t an obvious reason.
“We thought: Is it something because of this particular company? Is it because it’s a Canadian truck? Is it something because of an ethnicity issue with the driver? But when you take all those factors into account and the time of the day, and the fact there was really no exchange before hand, it really doesn’t seem like something that was thought out. It looks to be a reaction. I’m presuming this person perceived that this truck or driver somehow infringed on their driving down the road. I don’t understand why anybody else would do something like this. Who knows?”
Kumar ran through a similar list of questions as to why it happened, and like Shilts, he can’t come up with an answer.
“It’s something random that happened, but when they shot at me, they really wanted to kill me and blow the tractor for some reason. Maybe they don’t like Canadians because anybody can see it’s a Canadian truck. Some trucks have Winnipeg, CA, but my truck has big bold letters saying Winnipeg, Canada, so anybody can tell in an instant it’s a Canadian truck. That could be a reason. Even at night it’s also possible that they can see I’m originally East Indian. They can see the guy is not white because even at night you can see there is a different shade between a white driver and a non-white driver. That could be a reason also. Who knows?”
While the Trappers mechanics repaired the tire and tank they didn’t repair the bullet holes and they weren’t able to fix the blown-out window.
“When the cops impounded the truck, they put something to cover the window, so they taped it—evidence was written on the tape—and I put some duct tape on it. A broken window was not anything related to my safety driving. It was only 800 or 900km, so it was only one day of driving. So I took permission from my company, I took permission from the cops, and they told me if anything happened, if DOT or anybody pulled me over because of the broken window, I could give them their card and have them call, so I was safe. I don’t think anything would happen with me at the border crossing because everybody knew and it was nothing related to the safety of my driving.”
Despite having his truck released on Sunday, Kumar didn’t cross back home into Canada until Wednesday. Arrangements had to be made for the load, and closures due to the August civic holiday slowed things down.
When he got to the border, both US Customs and Canada Customs insisted on doing thorough inspections and on documenting what happened. The Canadian inspector was the person who found the 10th bullet hole. When Kumar told his story to the US Customs inspector, the inspector told him “‘You go and buy a lottery ticket. If you don’t buy one, give me your birthday and I’ll play the numbers.’”
Kumar’s immediate plans involved taking the truck to the insurance company and getting back on the road. He said he had no intentions of letting this incident stop him from driving.
“I’m good. I told my company I am good to go there tomorrow, but in a different truck. It will take some time to fix it.
“I don’t have any problems to go the same place again, because I know it’s not somebody targeting me personally. There is no reason for some American guys to be targeting me, or that they’ll shoot me again. We have more than 110 trucks. Most of them go to the same place.”
While he told his company he’s ready to be back on the road, there was (at the time of the interview) a message he hadn’t delivered. Kumar is married with a wife and a family.
“They’re not in the country. I didn’t tell them,” he said quietly.
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