CrimeThe Uber Killer: The Real Story of One Night of Terror
On a Saturday evening in February, a 45-year-old Uber driver and father of two named Jason Dalton got into his car, left his home near Kalamazoo, Michigan, and began shooting people. But the strangest, most unfathomable thing about the night that Dalton killed and killed again is what he did in between.
JASON DALTON began this particular Saturday—February 20, 2016—by doing nothing at all unusual. While his wife of 20 years went out with their 15-year-old son and their 10-year-old daughter, Dalton, 45, took their German shepherd, Mia, for a walk, then ran errands for a couple of hours with a friend, Brian. Afterward, he told Brian he might take a nap, then go to work. Dalton was an insurance loss adjuster in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but less than two weeks earlier he had also started doing some driving for Uber in his off time. The Daltons were doing fine, but he liked the idea of making some extra money. The plan was to take his family to Disney World.
It looked like another ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man in an ordinary part of America. Except that on this day, for reasons that Jason Dalton would later struggle to explain, Kalamazoo would be terrorized by a man driving around town and shooting people, apparently at random. And the person doing the shooting would turn out to be an Uber driver named Jason Dalton.
As different as one mass shooting may be from another, we have become primed to expect certain patterns. First, the violence. Then, the explanation. It’s never a sufficient explanation, of course, but generally, within a day or two, we learn of some kind of motive or circumstance that acted as a trigger. Whether radical Islam, anti-cop vengeance, suicidal depression, or virulent misogyny, an explanation swiftly emerges to help us understand. And then we wait to hear about all the warning signs that were missed, the clues that, if only recognized or heeded at the time, could have prevented this bloodshed.
But what if one day a man became a mass killer and there were no real clues at all about why in the life he’d lived beforehand? Could such a person exist? In the aftermath, as everyone struggled to comprehend the chaos Jason Dalton had caused, that was exactly what those closest to him suggested was the case. Brian, the man whom Dalton would characterize to the police as his best friend, said that during the hours they spent together that day, Dalton had been “a little more quiet” than usual, enough that Brian asked if anything was wrong. Dalton said no. He remembered Dalton asking him if he was interested in driving for Uber as well, but Brian told his friend he was too busy. Nothing about those hours gave Brian any hint what was coming.
Afterward, Dalton’s wife, Carole, and his parents hired a lawyer to speak for them, and the lawyer’s message was that they were baffled: “They’re thinking like everybody else, Why?… Certainly they’ve looked inward as a family to see whether there was anything that would have been an indicator that Jason was capable of something like this, and we’ve got nothing to offer.”
The lawyer also shared this: Two days before it happened, Carole did notice that her husband seemed a little down and had asked him about it. He told her that he was just tired from all the driving.
That’s all she had. He was tired.
WHEN DALTON went out that afternoon to pick up Uber fares in his silver Chevy Equinox, he also brought along the family dog, Mia. His first fare of the day, a female college student, refused to get in the car because of Mia, but the local man he picked up just after 4 P.M., Matt Mellen, was okay with it. Mellen thought it a bit weird, but it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, so he figured maybe they’d just been for a walk. “And I like animals,” Mellen explained. “Doesn’t bother me.” So he got in the front passenger seat. Mellen was headed from the edge of downtown Kalamazoo to a friend’s house to pick up his car, which he’d left there after a birthday party the previous night. He and Dalton even chatted a little to begin with. Small talk. Nothing unusual.
After they’d driven a short while, Dalton received a phone call. He was using Bluetooth, so Mellen could hear the call, though he wasn’t really paying attention and wasn’t even quite sure if the voice he heard was male or female, adult or child. Anyway, they didn’t talk for long.
That was when the universe abruptly shifted.
“He hung up,” said Mellen, “and he floored it. He hammered the gas pedal. He just started driving crazy.”
Later, there would be much speculation about this phone call, the call that seemed to set Dalton off. For a while, the popular assumption was that the caller must have been his wife: Their relationship must’ve been failing, and an incendiary moment must have enraged him. And as it turned out, the call did indeed come from her phone—but it wasn’t Carole on the line, it was their son. Dalton had called a little earlier as she and their children were sitting down to eat at Wings Etc.; their son had answered (he was playing games on the phone when his father called) and they chatted about his drivers’-ed class. Then—the call that came during Mellen’s journey—Carole had asked their son to call back to check whether Dalton wanted them to pick up some food for him. What might have seemed like a crucial moment was actually a brief, banal call from his teenage son about a chicken dinner.
Whatever the real trigger, Dalton’s behavior became unhinged. He sped into an oncoming-traffic lane, blew through a stop sign, and violently sideswiped a Ford Taurus. But, as he did so, he reacted as though nothing had happened.
“Dude, you hit that car!” Mellen shouted at him. “You just hit that car!”
“I didn’t hit anything,” Dalton replied, with eerie calm, and accelerated onward.
“I was like, ‘Bullshit!’ ” says Mellen. “And then I was just, like, pleading for him to stop the vehicle so I could get out.”
But Dalton wouldn’t stop. He shot through some more lights and repeatedly swerved onto the wrong side of the road. In the back, Mia got down on the floor and hid. And yet the whole time, Dalton showed no outward signs that anything unusual was happening.
“I was, ‘Please just let me out! Please just let me out!’ ” says Mellen. “And he was, ‘Well, don’t you need a ride to your friend’s house?’ I was, ‘Not anymore! Let me out! Let me out!’ And he refused to let me out.”
By then, they’d passed the correct turn, so Mellen started indicating other houses, saying that’s where he had to go: “Pointing out random houses so he would slow down.” Finally, halfway down a quiet stretch of Iroquois Trail, Dalton slammed on the brakes and asked again where Mellen’s friend lived; Mellen took advantage of the moment to leap out. “The worst ride I’ve ever had in my life, that’s for sure.”
Kacey Black was having a cigarette with her husband outside their house on the corner of Iroquois Trail, enjoying the fine weather, when, amid the loud screeching of Dalton’s braking and acceleration, they saw Mellen tumble out of Dalton’s car. Dazed, Mellen told them what had happened. “I was, ‘Am I having a mental breakdown? Did that really just happen? What the hell was that? What the fuck just happened?’ ” Black called 911, describing the silver Chevy SUV, and an Uber driver throwing out a passenger, but she didn’t feel they grasped the extremity of what she’d seen. “They basically just blew me off,” she says. “They said, ‘Okay, well, we’ll report that.’ They sounded like they didn’t even believe me.”
Mellen also called 911 as he headed down the road to retrieve his car. He had to tell the story three times as he was transferred to different jurisdictions, but each time he clearly identified the man as an Uber driver. “I just wanted to report it,” he told them, “because I don’t want somebody to get hurt.”
Back home, Mellen called his fiancée, and at 5:33 she posted a warning for their friends on Facebook about an Uber driver named Jason, using his Uber photo:
“Attention kzoo peeps!!! This uber driver named JASON drives a silver
Chevy Equinox is NOT a safe ride!… Despite Matt pleading with this
driver to pull over he refused.… He was acting completely normal
throughout all of this erratic driving!!… Hoping this man will be
arrested or hospitalized soon if he has a medical condition causing
After Mellen escaped from his car, Jason Dalton sped home. When he arrived, he went inside and drank a glass of water, then went down to the basement and prepared his guns, filling up the magazines. By the time he set off back out into the world, he was carrying a loaded Glock 9-mm semi-automatic pistol and he was wearing a bulletproof vest under his jacket. Around the time when he headed back onto the Kalamazoo streets, Dalton also called his wife. He wanted to swap his damaged car with a Hummer they owned, but that was parked at his parents’ house (they were away for the winter in Florida) and his wife had the keys.
When her phone rang, she was in the parking lot of Sam’s Club with their kids, loading up the car. Their son answered and relayed the message; Carole said she’d meet him at her parents’ house.
But Dalton didn’t go straight there. Instead, he accepted a new fare.
After Jason Dalton was captured, the word coming out of the jail was that he had in some way acknowledged his role in the murders. He was variously described by police as “quasi-cooperative,” “pretty matter-of-fact,” “a hard read,” “polite, meek, and mild,” “very even-tempered,” and “not upset about anything.” But he was also said to have shown little emotion or remorse, and the clear impression was that he had offered nothing close to an explanation. As the local under-sheriff, Paul Matyas, put it: “He’s not particularly saying.”
Two days later, when the public finally got a look at Dalton—on live video streamed from the jail to the courtroom as the charges were read to him, a process that took nearly ten minutes—it was hard to read anything at all on his face. Blank? Stoic? Dazed? Eerily composed? Any could describe how he seemed. He spoke only one substantive sentence, after the judge asked if he had anything to say.
“I would prefer,” he said, “just to remain silent.”
This silence left everyone in limbo. But the fact that nobody could say for sure why this had happened hardly stopped people. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Internet has given everyone the means to fill it.
And so over the next few days, all of the following explanations would be offered, often with great conviction, to explain what Jason Dalton had done: mental illness, family breakdown, withdrawal from antidepressants, “maybe a spooky demon possessed him,” he’d been fired, he was a sleeper agent activated by a phone call, he was coming down from meth, he was sexually frustrated, he was disappointed by Marco Rubio’s poor showing in New Hampshire, it was a primal expression of free will, it was being a fat man denied his lunch break, high levels of lead in his blood, Chantix anti-smoking pills, Big Pharma, grief over the death of Justice Scalia, a brain tumor, elevator music, money problems, and Beyoncé’s halftime performance at the Super Bowl. His behavior was said to be, variously, the fault of Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, liberals in general, too many guns in America, too few guns in America, Uber in general, Uber’s lax hiring policies, Uber’s low pay rates, Mossad, and the Illuminati.
Do something that seems unfathomable, then sit there and say nothing, and a nation’s splintered psyche will be imprinted upon you.
DEALLEN BLACKBURN, an 18-year-old high school senior, lives in the Meadows townhomes in northeast Kalamazoo. He’d spent most of that Saturday outside, until his girlfriend, Maci, messaged him, asking if he wanted to come hang out at her place in downtown Kalamazoo. He did, so sometime after 5 P.M., she called an Uber to pick him up.
By mistake, Maci initially entered the wrong pickup point—the Meadows townhomes admin office, rather than DeAllen’s address—and so after a while Dalton called her. (It was her name on the Uber account and, subsequent events would suggest, she was the passenger Dalton thought he was picking up.)
“He was like, ‘Hey, I’m lost, can you help me out?’ or whatever,” Maci would recall. “So I gave him directions.” Then, she said, he went silent for about ten minutes. “I was, like, texting him repeatedly. I was, ‘Okay, did you find it?’ or ‘Are you lost still?’ ”
Dalton’s silver car can be seen on the security cameras circling the estate from 5:33 onward, trying but failing to find DeAllen. By chance DeAllen’s guardian, Amy, actually saw Dalton in his vehicle during this period when she went out to her mailbox. She didn’t realize he was there for DeAllen, or she would have said something, but she did notice how on edge he seemed: “He was really aggressive. He’s sitting kind of by the trash can and as I’m coming forward he’s, like, a crazy look in his eye, and as I’m approaching, he stepped on the gas and almost runs into me. My first intent was to throw up the finger—thank God I didn’t.”
Meanwhile, Maci continued to text Dalton. At 5:40 she wrote, “All good?”
Dalton didn’t reply. It was right then, as he looped one more time around the Meadows, that he spotted a 25-year-old woman who was leading five young children, including her daughter, across the grass to the playground. Dalton rolled down his window and asked if she, as she later recalled it, was “Maisie or Misty.”
The woman said no—in fact, her name was Tiana Carruthers—and Dalton momentarily drove off. But then he turned the car around again and headed back. Still sitting in his car, he took out his Glock semi-automatic and pointed it at Carruthers through the driver-side window.
DeAllen was still waiting for his ride when he heard gunshots, out of sight but somewhere nearby.
Maci, meanwhile, was typing out one more text to Dalton: “Are you close?”
In the days afterward, a few scattered news articles purported to offer insight into the mass murderer Jason Dalton. Potentially meaningful details were seized upon and imbued with far more significance than they deserved. Neighbors were quoted saying that Dalton sometimes fired guns out the back of his house. An old insurance co-worker contacted the police and said that when they worked in the same office nearly 15 years earlier, Dalton would get upset when he was challenged by clients. One time he yelled and hung up on a customer, and then paced around his desk. More suggestively, a man named Mark Cottingham, who owned a nearby business, Visions Car & Truck Accessories, detailed a disconcerting interaction with Dalton over a repair the previous September: At times Dalton seemed to have unreasonable anger, but other times he was all sweetness. To Cottingham, it almost seemed like Dalton had a dual personality.
But if Dalton had really been a man on the edge—a swelling river of anger about to burst its banks—you’d have expected 30 similar stories to follow, and 30 more after that. And they didn’t. Taken all together, it was pretty thin stuff.
There was one fact, though, that seemed pretty damning on the surface, and seemed to speak to Dalton’s state of mind that day. The errands he had done in the early afternoon with his friend Brian involved visiting three gun stores. At one of them, Dalton bought an $85 black tactical jacket, which had a chest pocket designed for hiding a handgun. What clearer sign could there be of premeditation, of a man planning a mission, equipping himself?
For one thing, it wasn’t at all unusual for Dalton to spend his Saturdays at a gun store—he was a regular customer, often with Brian. (Brian, who, it should be noted, is a volunteer sheriff’s deputy.) Guns were one of Dalton’s hobbies. And at the store where he bought the jacket, Southwick’s, the way the owner described Dalton’s demeanor that afternoon was a poor fit for someone gearing up for a homicidal rampage: “He was smiling and joking around, and he did a one-armed hug to my manager and told him to have a good day.” And while eyebrows would be raised over news reports that Dalton owned 16 guns, that’s not particularly unusual around here. Or in many places. (It was recently estimated that each gun owner in America has an average of eight guns.)
Even the tactical jacket itself turned out to be one more false lead. It was widely assumed that he wore this jacket during his killing spree—but his wife later found it in their house, still in the bag from the store, its tags on, apparently unworn.
WHEN TIANA Carruthers saw the gun, she shouted at the kids to run, and tried to do the same. As she did, she was shot four times. The first bullet hit her in her left arm. The second bullet hit her in her right leg. One of the last two bullets broke her other leg, and the other went through her buttocks and lodged in her liver. As Dalton sped off, he knew that he had just killed someone. Nobody could survive that many gunshots.
Somehow, Dalton was wrong. “I just remember just shooting and shooting,” Carruthers said. “I tried to move but I couldn’t move. After I realized he wasn’t going to stop shooting, I just pretended like I was dead already.” Some of Dalton’s shots missed. Seven bullets went into the house behind her, four of these going through the wall, stopped only by the clutter in a closet a few feet from where three teenagers were playing NBA 2K15.
When the neighbors found Carruthers, she was on the ground, wedged between the curb and the back wheel of a truck, and she couldn’t feel her legs. She told them that the man who had done this was heavyset with blue eyes and had a dog in the back of his car. And that she had never seen him before.
As the 911 calls came in from the Meadows, one of the dispatchers recognized the similarity between the description of the vehicle this shooter had been driving and the one reported by a distressed Uber rider an hour earlier; the dispatcher even called Matt Mellen back for more details. Mellen repeated that the man’s name was Jason, and this time he sent the photo from his Uber receipt to the dispatcher’s private phone.
But somehow, amid all the chaos and violence to come, this connection seems to have been overlooked or ignored. Evidently no one involved grasped the implications of this information—that if Jason Dalton was an Uber driver, police could easily locate him with Uber’s help. Instead, an opportunity to end the violence before it escalated came and went.
Tracking down people who knew Dalton over the years, you find the opposite of what you’d expect: The better they knew him, the more baffled they are. Andrew Jamieson was close with Jason Dalton for over ten years and the best man at his wedding. He met Dalton at a party when they were both 18, and they bonded over cars: “He was the guy that I used to see on the cruise strip in his black Camaro, and I was the guy he saw in the green ‘69 Charger.” Dalton invited him over to his parents’ to check out his car and they became fast friends.
I asked Jamieson what they’d do apart from car stuff.
“Chase girls,” he said. “Go to the beach. Go to clubs. Basically just doing stuff that guys do. Going to the drag strip. Going to Silver Lake Sand Dunes. Going dirt-bike riding.”
In middle age, the two men drifted apart—no real reason, just jobs and families and kids. The last time Jamieson saw Dalton was a year earlier. He didn’t seem much different. “A little grayer,” said Jamieson. “A little heavier.”
Jamieson was finding all his memories of Dalton unpleasantly prodded by recent events, and it was only adding to how unexpected this was. One memory in particular: He and Dalton used to talk about when people went crazy. “Not murders, necessarily,” he clarified. “But we knew people that seemed a little off—like, ‘Oh yeah, someday you’re gonna see that guy in the news for doing something insane.’ We would always use the term ‘go postal.’ He didn’t really like them.”
Dalton hurried home as fast as he could and prepared his guns: “He stated it was like he wasn’t even himself, like it was an altered reality.” He said that it was the Uber app that made him get his gun, and made him put on the bulletproof vest.
And now…Jamieson is at a loss. “I just can’t put my finger on it. I stare into space like I’m going to get the answer, but it’s just not there. It truly doesn’t seem real. That Sunday morning, my phone was blowing up all morning. I didn’t know what people were talking about. They said, ‘Dalton…’ I was, ‘What about Dalton?’ I turned on the news and there he was. I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me…’ ” He shook his head. “If this becomes common, we’re all in trouble. I mean…Jason? He was a wuss.”
JASON DALTON had just shot a complete stranger four times. This is what he did next.
He raced away at great speed, to his parents’ house. Just down the road from the Meadows, he went through a red light at about 80 miles an hour and, for the second time in two hours, sideswiped a car. There was something wrong either with the Uber app itself or, more likely, with the way Dalton was using it, because soon after he had arrived at the Meadows townhomes the app had registered that he had his passenger on board, and so it began recording his route. That is also why, a little later, Maci would get a receipt that showed Dalton circling the estate, then driving to his parents’ house; she was billed $7.31 for the phantom journey.
At his parents’ house, Dalton hid the damaged Chevy Equinox in the garage. When his wife arrived, though, he discovered that the Hummer wouldn’t start and so instead he took his parents’ black Chevy HHR, which she had been driving.
Carole Dalton’s full description of meeting her husband that evening—the last time she would see him as a free man—unveiled itself over several different accounts. The first, relayed through her lawyer, Paul Vlachos, was the most anodyne. “Carole asked what had happened,” Vlachos said, “and he said he’d had trouble with the taxi people. He said he’d contacted Uber and they were going to handle everything.” She did reveal a rather strange instruction from her husband: He told her and the kids to stay at his parents’ house and lock the doors. “She listened to her husband,” Vlachos said. “He wasn’t disheveled or acting strangely or anything at that point that would have given her any pause.”
In later versions, which weren’t released until weeks later, her husband’s behavior seemed weirder, and less benign. The “trouble” now involved a taxi driver shooting at him. Dalton fetched a loaded gun for his wife, telling her that she could not go back to work anymore and the kids could not go back to school. When she asked what he was talking about, Dalton replied, obliquely, that as soon as she saw something on the news, she’d know it related to him.
Carole also told the police that when she arrived at his parents’ house, a little after 6 P.M., Dalton was in the garage on the phone. He told her he was reporting the damaged car—to either Uber or the insurance company, she assumed.
But it appears she was wrong.
There is a strange coda to Maci’s experience with Dalton: At 6:09—nearly 30 minutes after Dalton shot someone he presumably assumed was Maci and left her for dead—he called back the real Maci. Perhaps he’d realized from her texts that she could not have been the woman he had just left on the ground.
Maci said that they spoke for nearly three minutes, and she described how the call ended: “He was, ‘Sorry, I don’t have time for this anymore. I have better things to do, and you’re just wasting my time, and I basically can’t do this anymore—you can call someone else [for a ride].’ ” Mostly, Dalton was unpleasant. “He was really sketchy and rude,” she recalled. “Like, he was extremely rude to me.”
The Daltons lived on the northwest corner of a rural junction in the Kalamazoo suburbs. Since they moved in 17 years ago, their one direct neighbor had been a machine mechanic named James Block. He was just as mystified as everyone else.
Block told me that when the Daltons first arrived, they kept to themselves, but a couple of years later, after they had a baby boy, they opened up more. Or Jason did, anyway. “He was a talker. A ten-minute conversation turned to 40 minutes, easily. He was so sociable. He would never actually let you leave.”
Block was the person who insisted that one widely circulated rumor, accepted as fact—that Dalton liked to fire guns out of the back of his property—simply wasn’t true. Sometimes it was folks hunting coyotes in the wooded land back there; other times it was actually Block himself. “I got a target thing back here so I can shoot my gun,” he said. “I mean, I got an AK-47 and stuff.” (Block, for the record, has 13 guns.)
After that terrible night, Dalton’s wife and children had moved elsewhere, but Block said that he had seen Carole several times since, when she’d come by to pick up stuff from the house. They’d talk about the kids and the dogs. Once they’d gotten everything, she told him, they were never coming back.
AFTER LEAVING his wife and children at his parents’ house, Dalton headed to the family home. At about seven that evening, his neighbor’s daughter saw the car in his driveway, idling for a few minutes with its lights on. Then it sped down the driveway, stopped for 30 seconds, reversed fast back up the driveway, then parked with the lights on for five more minutes.
Whatever was going on in Dalton’s mind, his trip there seems to have had a practical purpose. Later, when the police searched the property, they would find the Glock with which he had shot Tiana Carruthers, lying on a workbench; it appeared to have jammed. Now, as he drove away, Dalton was carrying a replacement inside his coat pocket—a Walther P99 9-mm semi-automatic. He would be needing a gun that worked, because he wasn’t done yet. Not nearly.
Still, anyone trying to understand what he was thinking may struggle to comprehend what Jason Dalton did next: He started picking up Uber fares again. And his passengers in this period didn’t notice anything about his behavior that might suggest what he’d done over the last few hours: two high-speed accidents, a cascade of bullets fired at a stranger.
At 8:02 he picked up Keith Black at his home near the Western Michigan campus and took him into the center of town. Black sat in the passenger seat and made small talk. Another passenger, later that hour, remembered Dalton singing along to the radio. At 9:21, when he picked up a fare at the Fairfield Inn, next to Cracker Barrel, and took three passengers to the Beer Exchange in town, he couldn’t get his app to start and the fare wasn’t charged properly, but he seemed easygoing enough about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. He seemed to be doing his job as though nothing had happened and nothing else would.
James Block and Jason Dalton would greet each other every morning, as Block ferried kids to school and Dalton headed to work. They had their final substantial conversation, for 20 minutes over the fence, only two days before the shootings. One of many online eruptions about the case was sparked by the discovery on Dalton’s Facebook page that he was listed as a “Progressive.” Finally, a mass shooter who couldn’t be stereotyped as some kind of a right-wing nut: Look! You liberals do it too! Then someone pointed out that Progressive was actually the name of the insurance company Dalton used to work for. After that, the default assumption seemed to be that he would turn out to be a right-wing nut after all. But that seems unlikely as well.
“He never told me if he was a Republican or a Democrat,” Block explained, though he recalled that during their last conversation, they did discuss politics. “He goes, ‘Man, look, we have a choice between Trump, Hillary, Bernie Sanders…’ He never mentioned Cruz. He goes, ‘Look at our choices!’ He was like, ‘Man, who are we supposed to vote for?’ We both laughed about it.”
TYLER SMITH was 17. He had spent most of Saturday looking for a car with his girlfriend of nine months, Alexis, also 17; in the evening, his father, Rich, a plumber, joined them to see what his son had scoped out earlier. Tyler and his father both loved cars, but they were also looking for something they could use to go into business together. There’s a strip of dealerships along Stadium Drive, and as the time neared 10 P.M., they pulled into Seelye Kia. Tyler and his father got out to look at a blue Ford pickup truck parked right by the entrance of the closed dealership. Less interested, Alexis stayed in the backseat of their Range Rover, which was pulled up next to the pickup truck with its lights on, engine running. As though the three of them wouldn’t be more than a moment.
What happened next could be seen on the showroom’s surveillance cameras from several angles. Dalton enters the frame, drives around the lot and parks in front of the dealership offices, then approaches the father and son on foot, walking past the Range Rover, apparently without seeing Alexis. He was almost upon the Smiths before they noticed him.
Dalton later said, mystifyingly, that he had gone into the car lot because he felt compelled to look at a black BMW. This is exactly how, according to the police report, Dalton explains the subsequent change of plan that actually made him a killer for the first (and second) time:
“Jason advised that he got out of his car and instead of looking at the black BMW, he shot a couple of people.”
Alexis watched as Dalton walked up to Rich and Tyler Smith and spoke to them.
“He asked them what they were looking at,” she said. “They turned around.… ‘Yeah, we’re looking at…’ That’s all the words they got out, because he pulled out the gun and started shooting. They looked at him, and they put their hands up, and they said, ‘What are you doing?’ and they fell down. That’s when I ducked behind the seat.”
According to another witness, who was driving by at the moment of the attack, even after the father and son fell, Dalton shot them some more.
Only then did Dalton try the door of the black BMW next to the bodies, but it was locked. Alexis, panicked, crouched behind the seat, could see Dalton’s shadow move over the Smiths’ Range Rover as he came back past her.
She’d left her cell phone at Tyler’s house. After waiting about 90 seconds, she leaned the front seat forward and looked for Dalton, then got out and crawled to where her boyfriend’s still body was lying on its back. She took the cell phone from his pocket, then retreated to the Range Rover. At 10:08 she dialed 911.
By then, Dalton was long gone. Whatever was guiding him, it was telling him that he had somewhere else to be.
Three weeks after the shootings, when the police released accounts of their two formal interviews with Jason Dalton during his first 24 hours in custody, it turned out that what they’d so far been implying—that Dalton had offered no explanation for his actions—wasn’t quite true. In fact, he had. Maybe they didn’t believe him, or couldn’t take him seriously. Maybe they felt that an explanation like the one Dalton had given was the same as no explanation at all. Or maybe they felt that passing on what he had said would be one further insult to his victims. Because while Jason Dalton had given an explanation, it wasn’t one that would satisfy—or make much sense to—anybody.
This is the moment in his police interrogation when he finally explained:
Dalton said if we only knew, it would blow our mind. Dalton then
explains how when he opens up the Uber taxi app a symbol appeared and
he recognized that symbol as the Eastern Star symbol. Dalton
acknowledged that he recognized the Uber symbol as being that of the
Eastern Star and a devil head popped up on his screen and when he
pressed the button on the app, that is when all the problems started….
Dalton said the iPhone can take you over. Dalton explained how you can
drive over 100mph and go through stop signs and you can just get
places.… Dalton described the devil figure as a horned cow head or
something like that and then it would give you an assignment and it
would literally take over your whole body….
A while later, he elaborated:
Dalton was asked what was different tonight from the other nights and
he said as driver partner with Uber, the icon is red and it had
changed to black tonight.… I asked him why he was carrying his firearm
tonight and he said that the Uber App literally took over his mind and
body. Dalton said that when the Uber symbol is red it is just picking
up and dropping off people, but when he recognized the symbol and
spoke what the symbol was, the color changed from red to black.
After this report was released, the headlines went around the world: variations on “the Uber app made me do it” and “the devil possessed me through Uber.” And, naturally, the assumption was that Jason Dalton was crazy, a liar, or both.
When Dalton’s full explanation finally became public knowledge, it was mostly greeted cynically, as though people saw calculation behind the crazy talk. It was a plot everyone has seen over and over on TV: the murderer who tries to avoid the harshest punishment by laying the basis for an insanity defense.
Except that the full transcript of those police interviews simply doesn’t read that way. Over and over and over, Dalton avoided giving this explanation. He refused to say, or asked to take the Fifth, in total, at least twenty-two times before he finally blurted it out. In the meantime, he was otherwise reasonably cooperative (he said he didn’t want to call anyone, that he wasn’t suicidal, that he wasn’t hungry, wasn’t on any medications, wasn’t on drugs) and answered more general questions about his life calmly and sensibly, discussing his marriage and dog and daily habits. He also definitively ruled out what didn’t happen: He denied seeing a psychiatrist or being bipolar or having any mental problems, and he insisted he wasn’t an anti-government or militia person.
“He said nothing triggered him,” the report records.
Even when Dalton finally told the police the truth as he claimed to experience it, he made it clear that he really didn’t want to. He came across less like someone trying to seem delusional than someone rational enough to know that what he was saying sounded completely insane.
AT THE START of the night, four women over 60—Mary Lou Nye, Mary Jo Nye, Dorothy Brown, and Barbara Hawthorne—and 14-year-old Abigail Kopf met up for dinner at the Cracker Barrel, then carpooled to see a performance of Chinese acrobatics on campus. Now, a bit after 10 P.M., they were back in the Cracker Barrel parking lot purely so they could split back into two parties, before heading home. By the time Dalton came upon them on foot, four of them were in one car, and the fifth, Mary Lou Nye, was in another.
The first time Dalton described what he did here, he said the only thing he remembered was the percussion of the gunshots. But the next time he remembered more, including a particularly disturbing detail: He went up to a woman in a white van and “asked her whether she could spare a dollar to make America great again.” After she declined, he shot her in the head. He said that he was about to run away, but then he heard the four women in the other car scream, so he shot them, too. He methodically described the order in which he did this: first the driver, then the rear-seat passenger on the driver’s side, then the front-seat passenger, then the rear-seat passenger behind her.
The police would quickly gain access to surveillance footage from Cracker Barrel—not as clear as the Seelye footage, but clear enough to confirm that it was almost certainly the same shooter. “They show,” Kalamazoo’s chief prosecutor, Jeff Getting, would say, “that it was done intentionally, done deliberately, without any hurry. There’s no question about whether he did this with the intent to kill somebody.”
Meanwhile, at Seelye Kia, one of the officers on the scene listened as reports came over the radio of what had happened at Cracker Barrel.
“We got a serial fucking killer going around,” he said.
The officers also discussed how lucky Tyler Smith’s girlfriend, Alexis, was to be alive:
“She should have been dead, too,” said one. “She got fucking lucky. His tunnel vision fucked him up.”
As they stood there, trying and failing to come up with anything that would make easy sense of any of this, they discussed one final haunting image from the scene. “The father falls on his son’s lap,” one said. “Like they’re almost hugging each other.”
Even at this late hour, police still had perilously little information about the shooter—all they knew about Dalton was what they could see in the security footage. Soon the public was warned to look out for an older white male driving a dark-colored Chevy HHR. Shortly after, word arrived that, in addition to the father and son at Seelye Kia, all five victims from the Cracker Barrel parking lot were dead.
This last detail wasn’t true. In fact one of the Cracker Barrel victims was still alive. But nor was this sloppy journalism—the media and the police were simply passing on information they had received from Bronson hospital; doctors treating 14-year-old Abigail, who had been shot in the head, had called a time of death, and the body was maintained so her organs could be harvested for transplant. And then breathing and a heartbeat were detected—the type of event that people like to see as a kind of miracle, a miracle that would grow and offer succor to a shattered Kalamazoo over the next weeks as Abigail would recover sufficiently to say her first word—“pig,” because she had a pet pig—and take her first steps. Her story, accompanied by upbeat bulletins from Tiana Carruthers, became the story that Kalamazoo wanted to tell about this night.
The other story was too awful. And the closer you looked at it, the less and less sense it seemed to make.
AFTER THE Cracker Barrel shootings, Dalton went back to his family home—a journey of 16 miles—one final time. His neighbor, Jim Block, ominously heard four shotgun blasts on Dalton’s property at around 11:20. But if there are rules or patterns to shooting sprees, Dalton sidestepped them all. The shots Block heard, Dalton later explained, were just him firing into the garden shed with a shotgun. Even at the time, he recalled, he wondered why he’d just done this.
Then he got back into the Chevy HHR and drove off into the night. He left the shotgun behind, but the Walther 9-mm he’d already used to shoot seven people now contained 20 fresh rounds.
It remains the most baffling aspect of this long surreal night: Dalton, who had just slaughtered six people, the subject of a county-wide manhunt, simply resumed picking up Uber fares, once again shuttling people back and forth from bars in downtown Kalamazoo for a few dollars each, just as he might have on any other night. Only on this night, he was driving around with a loaded murder weapon hidden in his coat.
The police, meanwhile, were still struggling to make sense of what was happening. They established an emergency operations center at the Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and the key figures arranged to meet there at 1 A.M. (Chief Hadley had been sleeping on his couch when his 9-year-old daughter walked in and told him, “Daddy, your phone’s going off a lot.”) Someone was going around Kalamazoo shooting people—young, old, male, female, white, black—seemingly at random. And they had no way of knowing whether, when, or where the killer might strike again.
What no one could have imagined was that neither, it seemed, did Jason Dalton.
During his first couple of days in police custody, Jason Dalton gave various accounts of that day, and while some of what he told them matched known facts, just as often his details and chronology would be deeply muddled. But over time, a picture of why Dalton believes he did what he did builds. It was as though he knew he had murdered people, but he could do no more than watch, unable to intervene in his own actions. Or, as bafflingly relayed by the police: “Dalton told us that he is not a killer and he knows he has killed.”
It all seems to have started while Dalton was at the dog park, early in the afternoon. His Uber app beeped in a way that made him feel he was being urgently summoned, so he ran to his car and drove as fast as he could to the college campus, where the girl refused to get in his car because of the dog. Then he picked up Matt Mellen, and he described with chilling accuracy how crazily he drove, and Mellen’s panic. Afterward, Dalton hurried home as fast as he could and prepared his guns: “He advised it was scary. He stated it was like he wasn’t even himself, like it was an altered reality.” He said that it was the Uber app that made him get his gun, and made him put on the bulletproof vest. All he would say to explain why he shot Tiana Carruthers was that “it just had a hold of him.”
Parts of what Dalton was claiming did have a kind of logic or real-world context. For instance, all that stuff about the Eastern Star, which is both the symbol and name of a branch of the Masons: Dalton told the police “his grandmother was in the Eastern Star and his grandfather was in the Masons”; this turned out to be true. What’s more, Dalton’s mother would later tell the police that he’d asked her about the Masons during an unusual phone call weeks before the shooting. Dalton’s wife, meanwhile, told police that he would discuss the Masons with her. Clearly, somehow or other, this had been percolating in Dalton’s mind.
Similarly, one theme in Dalton’s police interviews was the intermittent problems he had with his Uber app. Even though Dalton himself never seemed to connect these with his improbable story of the app taking over his body, the overlaps seem evident. For instance, many of the visual cues he described sounded like standard app functions that he’d simply misinterpreted. And some of his movements that night—returning to the Cracker Barrel, with Seelye Kia along the way—appear to have resulted from a compulsion to retrace his steps from the botched fare an hour earlier.
None of this, of course, means that he truly was possessed by his Uber app. But it may mean this much: As he sat there talking to the police—lost within whatever vortices of unreality were swirling around inside his head—Jason Dalton was trying as best he could to explain what had happened to him that night.
AND SO the Uber driver carried on Uber driving. At 11:30 P.M., Jason Dalton accepted a ride request from a 19-year-old student named Nick. Nick couldn’t find the car, so he called Dalton, who said he’d been there and maybe Nick hadn’t sent him the right location. Then, at 11:58, Nick was notified that his ride was canceled, with a $5 fee. Annoyed, Nick called again.
“Oh, report it to Uber,” said Dalton. “Okay. ‘Bye.”
At 12:04, Dalton successfully picked up three friends who wanted to be taken to one of the dorms at Western Michigan University. They were surprised that Dalton didn’t seem to know where he was going—they had to direct him—and they didn’t think he was very friendly. But he got them there.
Meanwhile, Derek, a law student from Indianapolis, was finishing his night at Bell’s Eccentric Café. He’d traveled up earlier in the day with his wife and in-laws to see his wife’s stepbrother’s jam band. It was after midnight, but it was only a few blocks back to their hotel. They would have walked, but one of the hostesses told them something that made them reconsider: There was an active shooter on the loose. They weren’t that worried, but they figured they might as well be prudent and order an Uber. Seemed safest. Derek used his phone, and their ride came up: Jason, Chevy Equinox. Shortly afterward, the driver called. He said he was five minutes away and added that, by the way, he wasn’t in a Chevy Equinox—they should look out for a black HHR instead. A few minutes later, at 12:12 A.M., Dalton pulled up.
Derek got in the front, next to Dalton. His father-in-law was behind him, his wife in the middle, and his father-in-law’s wife, Sheri, was behind Dalton. Before the journey started, Sheri told her husband, “Hey, don’t say anything.” Because she thought he might. And, of course, he did.
“You know there’s a shooter situation going on?” he told Dalton.
Yes, Dalton replied, he knew that. To Derek it seemed a bit awkward, this whole exchange, so trying to make light of it, he chipped in: “You’re not the shooter, are you?”
“No,” Dalton said.
That answer, so deadpan and curt, only added to the awkwardness, so Derek doubled down.
“Are you sure?”
“No, I’m just tired,” Dalton replied. He said he’d been driving for seven hours.
After that, they chatted normally: the slightly drunken reveler from out of town and, next to him, a newborn serial killer with a loaded pistol in the pocket nearest Derek, inches away.
“I always make conversation with Uber drivers,” said Derek, “because, I don’t know, it’s just awkward when it’s quiet.” And there was nothing to raise their suspicions. “He drove very carefully.”
They were dropped off at 12:15, though once again either Dalton or his Uber app messed up, because their receipt would show that they continued to be charged as he continued, his car now empty, down Portage Street. “There’s not really much funny about this,” said Derek, “but…the guy over-charged us.”
Five days after the shootings, Carole Dalton would file for divorce from her husband of 20 years. Not as a reflection of anything at all prior to February 20, 2016, lawyer Paul Vlachos insisted, but in response to what had happened, and to life moving forward, and to protecting herself and her children. Vlachos also said that while Dalton’s parents were declining to see their son, and had gone back to Florida, Carole had visited him twice in jail.
“The second time she went in she said, ‘As you know, we’re getting a divorce…,’ ” he said. “They didn’t talk about the case.”
MARC DUNTON was out with two friends at the Central City Tap House when they decided to move on to Up And Under, more of a roughneck spot. The trip was only a few blocks, but it was cold out, so they called an Uber. They were picked up by Dalton at 12:26.
They’d heard what had been going on in Kalamazoo that night and had taken in the specifics of the police warning. They realized that Dalton and his car fit the description. Still, it’s a common car. And, anyway, Dalton was an Uber driver. Surely someone on a shooting spree wasn’t going around picking up fares.
Nevertheless, during the ride, Dunton did ask Dalton: “You’re not the guy going around killing people, are you?”
“Wow,” they remembered Dalton answering. “That is crazy. No way—I’m not that guy.”
Dalton remembered them, too. Later, he would tell the police that he felt like his passengers were mocking him; in his mind, he said, he heard one of them say, “Does he have a gun?” and “Are you gonna shoot me?”
But he didn’t shoot them. He just drove them to their destination and let them out.
During Jason Dalton’s first police interview, before he’d begun to try to explain anything, he asked if he could call his wife. But as soon as she came on the phone, he ended the call. He said he just wanted to hear her voice. Later he explained that he wasn’t sure what he had or hadn’t done, and he was afraid he might have killed his family.
For the most part during the interviews that night, Dalton appeared affectless, but there is one moment, faithfully recorded in the police report, that is eerie and sad in a different way. In between sessions with different officers, during a short interlude when Dalton had been left alone but was still being filmed, he could be heard speaking aloud to himself. The words the police believed they heard him say in the empty room:
“Sorry to you, my love.”
SERGEANT JAMES HARRISON didn’t normally work in the city, but he’d been called into town to investigate a report of a shooting—another incident entirely, nothing to do with Dalton. And as it turned out, not even a real one. Prank call. Happens. But like everyone else working in law enforcement in Kalamazoo that night, he was now on the lookout. Harrison was idling at the stoplight on the corner of Main and Michigan when he happened to turn and spotted something over his right shoulder: a black Chevy HHR about to pull out of the Up And Under parking lot.
In a bar a few blocks away, Mallory Lemieux, a student at Western Michigan, was enjoying a mother-daughter night out with several other friends: seven girls, seven mothers. Lemieux noticed her father had been calling and texting since the previous bar, so she went to the bathroom to find out what was up. A shooter on the loose, seven people believed dead. Her father told her what was right now being talked about on the news: a Chevy HHR driven by an older male. The moms and daughters decided to just hit one more spot, the Wild Bull, then call it a night. Her dad kept phoning, increasingly worried, and by now the other women were getting calls and texts too, so she summoned a cab.
At 12:33 A.M., Lemieux’s Uber request was accepted by the nearest driver, and his information came up on her phone:
Jason. Chevy Equinox.
When Lemieux saw the word “Chevy,” and Jason’s picture, she panicked. (She did notice that the Uber app was telling her, wrongly, that the car on its way was a Chevy Equinox, not an HHR, but as far as she was concerned Chevy-anything was too close.) She canceled the ride and tried to rebook a different driver.
At 12:34, her new request was accepted.
Jason. Chevy Equinox.
She canceled again. On her Uber app, she could see the car icon move right past where she and her group were waiting. Meanwhile, Sergeant Harrison trailed Dalton as he circled the Wild Bull. Harrison had no idea that Dalton was an Uber driver; there was every reason to worry that this person might be going from one Kalamazoo nightspot to another, scoping out new victims.
“I’m like, ‘Oh shit,’ ” Harrison would later tell his colleagues, “because there’s 30 or 40 [people] standing outside the Wild Bull.”
But instead Dalton headed north, then took a right turn down Ransom Street, into the quieter industrial and business district northeast of downtown. He was listening to the radio: Open House Party on 103.3 FM. There were no signs that he noticed Sergeant Harrison behind him, or the second car of Sergeant Scott Miller, who had just joined the pursuit.
At 12:38, Mallory Lemieux tried Uber one more time.
Jason. Chevy Equinox.
This time, though, she noticed something odd: The car icon was not moving toward her on the map. In fact it had stopped moving entirely. No matter. He was an older man in a Chevy. She canceled a final time.
In the days after his arrest, Jason Dalton’s court-appointed lawyer would apply on his behalf for a competency test—not (yet) to consider his mental state when these acts were committed, but merely to judge whether he had the mental capacity to understand legal proceedings. Dalton told the psychologist who interviewed him about the app, how it had taken over his body and controlled his actions. Asked whether this was possible or whether his mind could have been playing tricks on him, Dalton sounded like someone who was slowly beginning to wake up: “That’s what I’ve been trying to work through.… I guess that’s the heavy part. I believed at the time I was experiencing something. I’m not sure what that is. In the cell, it’s heavy thinking about if I was imagining those things or if they were real.”
The psychologist found Dalton competent to stand trial.
JUST AFTER 12:37 A.M., a few hundred yards away from where Mallory Lemieux was about to cancel her ride for the third and final time, Sergeant Harrison flipped on his lights to make what police call a felony stop. Dalton pulled over almost immediately. The two police cars pulled in behind Dalton and, after a pregnant minute, ordered the driver to put his hands out of the window. Dalton complied. At 12:38 A.M., Harrison—gun drawn, covered by Sergeant Miller, his gun also drawn—slowly edged toward Dalton’s car, then grabbed Dalton’s wrists.
“Do you have anything on you?” Miller asked, but Dalton just stared blankly ahead. Patting him down, Harrison found the pistol—“Gun!” he announced—and placed it on the roof of Dalton’s car. Then Dalton was handcuffed and Harrison led him to the police car. As Harrison searched Dalton some more, one of his colleagues walked by and gave Harrison a fist bump.
The call went out over the police radio: “One detained. Firearm on person.”
After Dalton was put in a car and driven away, the officers who remained at the scene seemed surprised, and maybe disappointed, that such a violent and terrible situation could have ended so quietly. Snatches of their conversations could be heard on the police-car audio, the officers still adrenalized as they talked through what had happened:
“He had a bulletproof vest on. I can’t believe we didn’t have a fucking gun battle out here.”
“Oh man. Could you get a better fucking backdrop? Brick building…brick building…metal building…no residential.”
“Dude, I’m gonna tell you right now, I really wanted to… [mimes firing his gun several times] I was like, ‘You fucking piece of shit.’ ”
“When he stopped here, I was like: ‘Game on.’ ”
“We would’ve fucking obliterated his ass.”
“He didn’t say a single thing when we pulled him over. I can’t believe he didn’t go out in a blaze of glory.”
They also discussed whether more bodies would be found. Somebody mentioned that officers were checking all the other parking lots along Stadium Drive.
“He’s got to have killed his wife and everything,” said one.
“I would think so,” came the reply.
As the news came through that his wife had been successfully contacted—“She’s a 14”; Kalamazoo police code confirming she’s okay—they sounded perplexed. Cops at the Seelye scene were also surprised. Clearly this was not how they had anticipated the night would end:
“He didn’t fight us? I am surprised that he didn’t want to go at it—figured that would be suicide by cop.”
“Wow. What a fucking puss.”
In the months since his arrest, there has been little sign that Jason Dalton might offer a clearer account of his motives. At a pre-trial hearing in late May, Dalton interrupted the testimony of Tiana Carruthers—who was sitting in the witness box a few yards from him and who was beginning to describe how he shot her—with a seemingly nonsensical outburst:
“No,” Dalton cried out, “they gave bags, these old people, they have these old black bags, that are called—they’re black, they’re black bags that people drive around and people look at them. It gets real bad, it’s time people look and that’s when they tell the people it’s time to get to temple.”
He then appeared to try to break free of his restraints, repeatedly shouting “Take!” at Carruthers, who had burst into terrified tears, and jabbing his right forefinger at her in a way that seemed to resemble someone firing a gun.
After that, he had to be dragged from the courtroom, his body deadweight, legs trailing on the floor. For the rest of the hearing, once it reconvened, he appeared by video link, flanked on either side by a law-enforcement official, each with a hand on one of his shoulders.
A few weeks later, a new, peculiar detail emerged—if true, an almost clichéd serial-killer precursor. Someone told the police that Dalton had once talked of “choking and killing” the family cat, then leaving it on the marital bed. Asked about this, his wife confirmed that six or seven years ago she had found their cat, Leo, dead, lying where it usually slept on their bed. She assumed it had died of natural causes.
In early June, it was confirmed that Dalton would be offering an insanity defense, though the bar for proving that Dalton was legally insane when he committed these crimes, given all the methodical acts that punctuated the day, might be a high one.
At trial, he can be convicted without us ever knowing why he did what he did. “Legally, I don’t have to prove motive,” said the Kalamazoo prosecutor, Jeff Getting. “I have to prove he did it, I have to prove premeditation, deliberation. Legally, that’s what’s important. The reality is, there’s a want to explain it, but that’s not something I have to prove in court. We’ll continue to look for explanations, but I’m not sure we’ll ever get a good enough one.”
JASON DALTON later tried to explain why he had allowed himself to be arrested without a fight. He said that he did reach to his right side for his gun when he was pulled over, but then, once again, something happened with his phone. In one police interview, he said that it beeped. In another, he said that his app turned from black to red. At that moment, he said, “he felt like he was no longer being guided.” As the report summarized, “Dalton said that was the reason he didn’t shoot the officer.”
Everyone still wants a reason. Of course we do. A reason helps us to know how to feel, helps us know where to put an experience like this. A reason reassures us that it can’t happen again. Not easily, anyway. Not often.
And maybe that kind of reason will come. Maybe more information will surface—medical, situational, ideological, biographical—that will help us understand. Experts of various kinds will be invited to explain or name Dalton’s behavior in ways he cannot. When we can’t explain something, we often pretend by finding clever words to describe it. Maybe we’ll even convince ourselves that we’ve learned what we needed to so that we can file away the horrific deeds of Jason Dalton, and move on.
That’s what we want. That’s what we demand. But when it comes to reason and motive, cause and effect, the eternal need for sense and order to triumph over chaos and entropy, we often expect too much. Maybe, more often than we can bear, the one thing we don’t want to accept is the one thing we need to: Sometimes the world fractures. It just does.
For now, this is what we do know. On each of the first 16,678 days of his life, Jason Dalton killed no one. The next day, he killed six people.
There’s one further form of testimony that might provide some insight about what was going on in his mind: a handwritten polygraph background information form he completed on his second day in custody. Yet again, the most revealing clue is the absence of clues. What shocks the most is Dalton’s respectful compliance, the way his banal, diligent attempts at honesty sit there on the page, in contrast to the barbarity that will define him forever:
Physical Condition Now: “Feel okay”
Hospital (injury, fracture, surgery, etc.): “2000–2009 stitches R Hand”
Person Most Respected: “Father”
Person Least Respected: “None”
Best Thing: “Got a job at Michigan Appraisal”
Worst Thing: “This + the consciousness of what has happened”
Self Concept: “Okay.”
How Honest: “1–10 Rating I Rate Myself a 9.”
Ever Arrested: [Dalton has ticked the “Y” box]
What For: “Just this”
Chris Heath is a GQ correspondent.