Woman who called 911 on Illini staffer describes scene
FRANKLIN — Marin Lowder felt like she was watching a "bad thriller movie."
She was driving right behind a pickup truck that was beside a sport utility vehicle on Interstate 74 in eastern Champaign County late Saturday afternoon when she saw something she had never seen before in real life.
The driver of the truck was pointing a gun at the SUV to his left.
"I heard my mom say from the back, 'Oh my God. He's going to shoot him.' His arm is fully extended out his window with a very large handgun pointed directly at the driver of the SUV," Lowder recounted in an interview with The News-Gazette on Tuesday.
"It was the scariest thing I've ever witnessed in my entire life," said the 24-year-old woman from Franklin.
Even retelling the tale three days later had Lowder's voice trembling and her nose running as she choked back tears.
Lowder was the woman who called 911 about 4 p.m. Saturday after seeing the driver of the pickup, a member of the University of Illinois football staff, point the gun at the SUV.
Matthew Sinclair, 31, of Savoy, the pickup driver, later told Urbana police that he was just joking with co-workers who were in the SUV next to him.
The incident resulted in felony weapons charges — and late Tuesday, the former Illini linebacker being placed on administrative leave from his $80,000-a-year position as the team's assistant director of player personnel and relations.
Sinclair and his colleagues were headed back to Champaign from West Lafayette, Ind., after Illinois ended its 20-game Big Ten losing skid by beating Purdue on Saturday.
Lowder and her passengers were not entertained.
"I slammed on my brakes and said 'I have to call 911,' and that's what I did. You don't know, if he does shoot, what are we going to do? Everything is running through your mind," she said.
Foremost in her mind was gratitude that her 3-year-old son was not in the car.
Her day had started many hours earlier, when she and her 56-year-old mother left their Morgan County hometown southwest of Springfield headed for Lafayette, Ind., a trip of about four hours. They met up with Lowder's 41-year-old cousin in Lafayette, and after attending a gymnastics meet, the trio headed back to Franklin to start the Thanksgiving holiday early.
Having departed Lafayette about 90 minutes earlier, Lowder said she wasn't exactly sure where she was when the women noticed the pickup and the SUV in what appeared to be an interstate game of cat and mouse.
All three of the vehicles were headed west, and Lowder said they were the only ones in the vicinity at that time.
As she passed the dark-colored SUV, her mother commented that it looked like a government vehicle because of its license plates. Inside was at least one man in a suit.
"Not 10 minutes later from the back seat, Mom said, 'Marin, be careful because these cars are acting really odd,'" she said.
The pickup was close enough for her to see duct tape on its right side. The driver, a front-seat passenger and a back-seat passenger were all men.
The mother pressed the daughter to slow down.
"These guys are doing odd things, like a little bit of road rage," Lowder said.
The pickup was in the lane ahead of her when the SUV passed her and then squeezed in between her car and the truck.
The two vehicles went back and forth across the lanes for what Lowder estimated was a mile before meeting up next to each other.
That's when the gun came out, producing what Lowder thought was an odd reaction on the part of the SUV driver.
"They didn't slam on brakes, they didn't swerve and they continued to cruise along the side of the truck as far as we could see," she said, explaining that due to her flagging speed and being on the phone, she didn't have the best view.
"I was so shaken. My leg was shaking uncontrollably. It was really difficult for me to drive. It was so traumatic. I was trying to do the right thing and answer the questions for the dispatcher while staying calm," she said.
Lowder said she kept on driving but had yet another surprise when the SUV driver took the same exit (Lincoln Avenue in Urbana) as the driver of the pickup who had just pointed the gun.
"I'm thinking, 'Why is he exiting after a man pointed a gun at him?'" she said.
Lowder said she has played the experience over and over in her head many times since Saturday afternoon. She estimated that 30 seconds may have elapsed from the time she saw the gun come out of the window to the time it went back in the truck.
She also guessed that she was on the phone with the police dispatcher for about 5 miles, for "a good five minutes."
"It wasn't like I even thought I was doing the right thing. I called the police because I thought I was going to witness a murder," she said.
Lowder, a saleswoman whose car serves as her office, said in the immediate aftermath of what she saw, she was afraid to even stop for gas.
"Who would think that in broad daylight on the interstate, a nice-looking vehicle passes you and to think they're armed and willing to point a gun at someone? In my job, I travel as a pharmaceutical representative. It's put a whole new aspect on driving and making sure I'm aware of my surroundings," she said.
She took Monday off to compose herself before hitting the road again for work.
Lowder said she could barely comprehend that the men might have been joking.
"Especially in today's world, that is no excuse. There are so many tragedies, that it is sickening that they were joking. I wish I had peace of mind. This has played back in my mind, my cousin's and my mom's, even this morning. We're together for the holiday. At a time when you only want to enjoy one another, it's a whole different story.
"Something to be thankful for is that we're alive," she said.