Truck featured on poster in sniper manhunt

Sunday, October 13, 2002

From wire reports

LICKSVILLE, Md. -- Investigators hunting a sniper responsible for 10 attacks released their first wanted poster -- composite images of a white box truck -- after authorities confirmed Saturday that an eighth death was linked to the killer.

The images are the first of any kind to be released in association with a killer who has been stalking suburban Washington areas and targeting victims apparently at random. More than a week after the shootings began, a massive task force of county, state and federal officers still won't say if they know who they're looking for, or even if the sniper is acting alone.

"We're putting information out, asking people to have their memories jogged," said police chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County, where five people were killed.

The two images, produced by the FBI based on witnesses from more than one shooting, show a flat-front white truck with a roll-up door in the back, a weathered paint job, a small dent in the back bumper and unknown dark purple or black writing on the side.

The witnesses were unable to provide the exact wording on the truck or the license plate number.

Moose said investigators are also working with witnesses to produce a similar composite sketch of a white Astro van with a ladder on the top that was reported seen leaving the scene of Friday's deadly shooting at a gas station near Fredericksburg, Va.

Asked if the separate sketches meant the sniper may be using more than one vehicle, he said it "is not our goal to make any suggestions at all. We're working with witnesses."

The images were released as the reward for information in the case reached $500,000.

As frustrated authorities try to close in on the sniper, a complex interplay has emerged among the perpetrator, the police and the press.

The sniper has been responding to police pronouncements in ways that are both respectful and taunting. It seems the killer has adjusted his tactics in defiance of police statements and strategy -- a pattern of behavior that experts believe could help lead to his capture.

When police noted that the sniper strikes during rush hour, he picked off his next victim at 9:15 p.m. When police began discussing the "geographical profile" of the targets, the shooter left a 10-mile attack zone to shoot a woman in Virginia. And when officials insisted schools were safe, the sniper shot at a 13-year-old boy in front of his school.

These shifts in tactics suggest the killer is closely following the news coverage about him, and that introduces a third player: the news media.

Police have relied on the news media since the shootings began Oct. 2 -- holding many briefings in the hope that the public will call in clues -- but they have also lashed out at journalists for reporting leaks.

"It can become a sadistic game of cat-and-mouse," said University of Georgia sociology professor Dean Rojek, referring to the killer's response to police statements he sees in the press. "There is an element of sadistic cleverness that emerges out of a psychopathic sickness." At the scene of the 13-year-old's shooting, the sniper reportedly left a Tarot "death" card, scrawling on it, "Dear policeman, I am God." The press obtained this information and disseminated it to the public, prompting police chief Moose to angrily accuse news organizations of interfering with the investigation. Yet it was a police source who evidently leaked the information, hoping it would alert the public to look for an individual familiar with Tarot cards.

"I have not received any message that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or The Washington Post or any other media outlet to solve this case," Moose angrily told reporters last week. "If they do, then let me know. We will go and do other police work, and we will turn this case over to the media and you can solve it."

Yet the police, for their part, have not hesitated to use the press for their purposes. They have labeled the killer a "coward," for example, apparently to taunt him into making a mistake.

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