The Lincoln-area retiree didn’t mind driving deep into the night. He preferred traveling with cash. And -- like most drivers -- he would pull over for police.
All that could explain how Thomas Schlender was robbed, shot and killed last week on a stretch of highway in northern Mississippi. The 74-year-old had been on his way to Pensacola, Fla., to pick up one of his dozen grandchildren from college -- a trip he’d made many times before.
He was found dead in his bullet-riddled pickup at 1:40 a.m. May 8.
“What do you and I do when we see law enforcement? We slow down and pull over to the right,” said his son-in-law, Matt Anderson. “If this vehicle came alongside, it would have given them time to open fire.”
On Monday, Mississippi authorities suggested Schlender and another motorist -- slain three nights later and about 70 miles away -- may have been victims of a police impersonator.
Why else would both drivers pull over in the middle of the night?
“The similarities lead us to believe that’s a viable scenario,” said Warren Strain, public affairs director for the state Department of Public Safety. “The fact they occurred on the side of a Mississippi highway … would lead you to believe they were on the side of the road for some reason.”
Authorities are telling Mississippi motorists to be cautious: Don’t flee, but if it’s not obvious the police officer pulling you over is a real police officer, call 911 to verify. Put on your flashers and find a lit, populated place to pull over.
And the Tate County Sheriff’s Department in northern Mississippi is telling its deputies not to overreact if a motorist doesn’t stop immediately, according to its Facebook page.
Strain wouldn’t say whether authorities have any suspects, or whether the second motorist -- 48-year-old Lori Carswell of Hernando, Miss. -- was robbed, as Schlender was.
“I’ll say we do have leads, and we’re following those leads.”
Nor would he say whether there were other recent reports of police impersonators before Schlender drove from Raymond into Mississippi a week ago.
The New Jersey native had spent decades at the Lincoln Electric System, retiring in 2000 and devoting his life to his family -- his wife, three daughters, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“He was the quintessential family man. There was nothing more important to him in his life,” Anderson said. “The grandkids are having a really, really tough time.”
He left Nebraska in his red Ford pickup May 7, ready for the 18-hour drive.
“It was just his generation -- he had a credit card available to him but he would prefer cash. When he went on a trip, he took the cash he needed,” Anderson said.
And he didn’t mind driving at night, Anderson said. If his father-in-law got tired, he’d pull over and rest, then resume his trip.
By 6:30 p.m., when he checked in with his oldest daughter, Tracy Anderson, he was somewhere between St. Louis and Memphis and hoping to hit Pensacola by morning.
At about 2:30 a.m., 911 dispatchers fielded three calls. One motorist reported a reckless driver -- in a red Ford pickup -- about an hour south of Memphis on Interstate 55. The other two reported the pickup had crashed into a center lane divider.
Troopers found several bullet holes in the driver’s door. And they could tell from the shattered glass that Schlender had pulled over to the shoulder before veering left toward the median.
Schlender’s wallet was missing, so the Panola County coroner called the most recent number on his cellphone -- his daughter’s. After the shock, Matt Anderson said, he and his wife helped identify Schlender, sending photos to Mississippi.
Officers recovered 9 mm shell casings from the side of the road and were trying to lift fingerprints from them. Schlender’s credit card has not been used since the shooting, Anderson said.
Three nights later, Carswell was shot and killed in Tunica County on her way home from work at a casino. She was discovered in the road after 2 a.m., just a few feet from her car.
And a Nebraska family – already grieving their own -- felt a sudden, tragic connection to strangers.
“We feel for the family,” Matt Anderson said. “We’re sickened that this has happened again.”