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Suspected sniper shooting reported at Home Depot in Virginia

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- A woman was killed outside a Home Depot store Monday night, and police were trying to determine whether the shooting was related to the sniper spree responsible for eight deaths in the region in the past 12 days.

"A female has been shot and killed," said Fairfax County Police Lt. Amy Lubas. The woman was felled by a single shot at about 9:30 p.m., authorities. All the other deaths were also caused by one shot.

A police spokesman said roads were being closed in the area, about 10 miles west of Washington, D.C. The Maryland task force investigating the sniper attacks was conferring with Fairfax authorities to see if Monday's victim was the sniper's ninth.

Virginia State Police said they were on the lookout for a white Chevrolet Astro van, last seen traveling east on Route 50 from Falls Church. Interstates 66 and 95 are nearby. Witnesses at some of the earlier shootings said a white van or truck left the scene.

The Home Depot is in the Seven Corners Shopping Center, a 450-thousand-square-foot strip shopping center with a parking garage.

The body of the victim lay under a sheet is in the parking lot in front of the Home Depot, on the first floor of a two-story structure, 30 yards from the store entrance.

Kristin Reed, a supervisor at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the sprawling strip mall, said six employees were locked inside the store with an FBI agent.

"Cops and cops and more cops," Reed said of the scene outside. "There's a lot of people walking around."

Reed said no one heard the shot inside her store. But "a customer had just walked outside, then came back in and said 'I think I heard a shot.'"

The federal agent in the bookstore "hasn't said anything to us. He was on the phone with someone," she said.

Earlier Monday, the longest lull yet in the Washington sniper's killing spree brought little relief as jittery residents flooded police with calls upon hearing car 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.

Authorities in Baltimore, meanwhile, seized a white van and found an assault rifle, sniper manual and ammunition similar to the .223 bullets used in attacks that have killed eight people and wounded two others, WBAL-TV reported.

MSNBC reported that a tarot card was found in the van and a sign on the dashboard read "Gihad in America." A tarot card was also found at one of the shootings.

The van's owner was being questioned by police Monday night.

"At this time, the task force believes this is not related to our sniper incidents," said Louise Marthens, a Montgomery County police spokeswoman.

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."

Monday was Columbus Day, a holiday for the many federal workers in the Washington area. By midday, 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.

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.

Also, Moose said people can now write as well as call with their tips. He gave an address: P.O. Box 7875, Gaithersburg, Md., 20898-7875.

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 the 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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