Police deluged with jittery calls as sniper takes longest break

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

By Stephen Manning ~ The Associated Press

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- The longest lull yet in the Washington-area sniper's killing spree fueled fear and anxiety Monday as jittery residents flooded police with calls upon hearing automobile backfire, firecrackers or breaking glass.

"Everyone is edgy," said Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, who is heading the investigation. "People are hearing things that may normally be overlooked."

President Bush said the "cold-blooded" attacks have made him sick to his stomach. "I weep for those who have lost their loved ones," he said. "The idea of moms taking their kids to school and sheltering them from a potential sniper attack is not the America that I know."

Four police squad cars rushed to a Silver Spring car dealership Monday after the window of a customer's BMW shattered when he closed the door. The man dialed 911, thinking a bullet broke the glass.

"He had no idea what happened -- he was just freaked out," said David Earhardt, the dealership's service manager.

"People hear a noise, they're going to call -- they want to put an end to this just like we do," said Prince William County, Va., Detective Dennis Mangan, whose department brought in a helicopter to search the woods before determining a reported gunshot was just a car backfiring.

Monday marked the sniper's longest break -- two days and counting -- since the killing spree began on Oct. 2. The sniper has shot 10 people in all. The eighth and latest killing came Friday morning when a 53-year-old Philadelphia man was gunned down in Spotsylvania County, Va., as he pumped gas. The killer has now gone two straight weekends without an attack.

Profilers say the long break could suggest the sniper is trying to outsmart police and change routine.

"Falling into a pattern is falling into a trap," said Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI profiler who helped investigators track killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer. "People this deep into aberrant behavior aren't just going to hang it up and call it quits. A week may go by now before they strike again, but I believe there are going to be more killings."

By midday Monday, none of the thousands of calls received by police were related to the sniper attacks. But as people went about their daily errands, many felt it was only a matter of time.

"He's luring people into being confident again," said Betty Charlton, who shopped with a friend at a Rockville shopping center.

"Every time I hear the sirens, I think there's been a shooting," said Sandra Compher of Bethesda, Md. "I wish this person were done with it, but I don't think so."

With a new regional task force operating in the Washington area, authorities can immediately shut down roads and highways at the slightest possibility of a sniper shooting.

A 17-mile section of the Capital Beltway in Maryland was closed over the weekend after a woman was shot by an unidentified attacker. State troopers kept a vigil at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River until it was determined the shooting was unrelated.

Many schools remained under lockdown Monday, meaning outdoor recess and physical education classes were canceled, and students were kept indoors all day.

In Fredericksburg, Va., a field hockey game was canceled at James Monroe High School. Monday night's rescheduled homecoming game was still on, but moved to a nearby rural county where there have been no shootings.

"I'm looking around for every white van I see," said Richard Spears, who was mowing grass at the school. "It makes you a little leery."

Composite drawings of the white box truck that the killer is believed to be using have "yielded good results," Moose said.

Federal and local investigators refuse to discuss any details of the manhunt. But they have logged some consistencies: the killer favors suburban gas stations; takes down each victim with a single bullet; and, judging from a tarot card left at one of the shootings, appears to enjoy taunting police. It read: "Dear Policeman, I am God."

"I think this person is waiting for an opportune moment," said Navy chaplain Jane Vieira, who mailed a letter Monday at a Rockville shopping mall. "He is taking precautions. This guy isn't stupid."


On the Net:

Montgomery County Police Department: http://www.co.mo.md.us

Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: http://www.atf.treas.gov


Associated Press writers Angela Potter and Justin Bergman contributed to this report.

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