in Los Angeles
Police in California were last night interviewing associates of a 34- year-old unemployed plumber in an effort to establish why he stole a tank and rampaged through the streets of San Diego, leaving a trail of crushed cars and toppled telegraph poles in his wake.
Inquiries were also under way to find out how Shawn Nelson, who was seen laughing and staring wildly from the tank's turret as he trundled around the city, managed to commandeer the 57-ton vehicle from a nearby armoury operated by the California National Guard.
Nelson, a former US army tank crew member who had served in Germany, was later shot dead by police.
Motorists watched in amazement as Nelson, who was reportedly angered by a recent break-up with his girlfriend, careered around at up to 40mph through a quiet residential neighbourhood, flattening 40 cars and knocking down fire hydrants, which sent giant fountains spouting skywards.
Last night treadmarks from the vehicle could be seen leading up to a 1983 Cadillac - now reduced to the height of a suitcase.
The 31ft-long M-60A3 tank carries an anti-aircraft gun, a machine-gun and 105mm cannon but, according to the National Guard, but was not armed with shells.
A witness said Nelson seemed intent on damaging public property, raising suspicions that he may be yet another example of an angry American male, motivated by hatred of government.
No bystanders were hurt, although more than 5,000 residents were left without power after the tank mowed down electricity pylons.
The tank cut a swath of destruction for 25 minutes, pursued by 20 police cars in California's oddest chase since O J Simpson took off in his white Bronco. Then the tank crashed into a central reservation on a freeway, ripping off one of its treads.
Nelson, long-haired and in civilian clothes, was shot dead by the police after four officers boarded the tank and cut through its hatch with bolt cutters.
A police spokesman said that they repeatedly shouted at Nelson, but he failed to respond to their orders to come out and tried to restart the engine.
The smart, modern city of San Diego contains several military bases, so it is not unusual to see tanks on the streets.
But as one resident put it: "We don't expect them to attack us."
Jennifer Pinell, 15, was in the family minivan when Nelson rumbled towards them. "He threw back his head," she told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "He was laughing and his eyes were bulging out of their sockets."
Nelson is believed to have broken a lock on the outside of the vehicle, before starting it up, crashing through the armoury gates, and taking off.
Neighbours said he had been drinking since his romantic split, and acting strangely.
He reportedly had serious financial problems, so much so that his water supply was cut off on the day before the rampage. He had been talking about trying to commit suicide.