Murder Mystery: Wild Shot
The car veered off the freeway, bounced across the access road and struck a utility pole before coming to rest in an empty field. Headlights glowed in the darkness, picking up glints from snow falling soft and heavy. Inside the car, 21-year-old Judy Danielak slumped over the steering wheel, her long dark hair hiding a bullet hole above her right ear.
The last people to see Danielak before she was shot were colleagues in the pressroom at the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, where she was an intern for United Press International (UPI). Her professors in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) journalism program had recommended her for what was a plum job for any aspiring reporter: covering the 1979 session of the state Legislature for UPI, at that time a major news agency rivaling the Associated Press. The job was “fabulous,” Danielak told her family and friends.
On Feb. 6, 1979, Danielak filed her stories with UPI, then began the drive home to the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, Ark., where she lived with her husband. It started to snow — by the following morning 10 inches had fallen — so she chose to take the interstate instead of her usual route on Arkansas 107. About 15 minutes later, her car was found in the field near the Lakewood exit on I-40. Danielak died three days later; she never regained consciousness.
“Judy was a friendly person with a great big smile,” said former classmate Steve Brewer, who wrote for UALR’s newspaper, The Forum, in 1978, while Danielak was news editor. “Everyone who knew her or worked with her was shocked by her death.”
When Danielak died three days after being shot, North Little Rock police had no suspects and few leads, but had discarded a couple of early theories. The first was that someone in another car traveling in the same direction had pulled alongside Danielak, then shot her through the passenger window. But a driver who had seen Danielak’s car leave the interstate said there were other cars around, so that theory was scrapped. Police next theorized that she was hit by a “stray shot.” That, too, was quickly ruled out.
“It looks like it was just a person — whether he was on drugs or just mean — shooting at traffic, and the unlucky shot just hit her,” a North Little Rock police detective told the Arkansas Gazette. “It’s got to be an indiscriminate shooting.”
When reports surfaced a day after Danielak was shot that two motorists in Little Rock and North Little Rock had reported being fired upon in late January, central Arkansas area residents worried that a sniper was roaming the area.
Residents grew even more anxious after someone shot at three vehicles traveling on Interstate 30 near Benton on Feb. 9, the same day Danielak died. In two cases, the bullets didn’t penetrate the cars. In the third, a 9-year-old girl riding to a gymnastics meet was grazed by a bullet that shattered the car’s window near where she was sitting. The same .22-caliber gun was used in that and the other shootings on Feb. 9. In all the cases, no one saw anything or anyone. In Danielak’s case, no one knew she had been shot until hospital X-rays revealed a bullet fragment in her head. Police said the bullet came from a large-caliber pistol, possibly a .38.
Later in February, the flurry of freeway shootings ended as quickly as they had begun. Danielak was the only fatality, and her death remains a mystery. The final theory was that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of a random shooting — or a wild shot.