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Inside The Sniper Manhunt

12 minute read
Amanda Ripley/Washington

Pay attention, profilers have long warned, to a serial killer’s first strike. The first of the bullets that strafed the suburbs of Washington last week sliced through the air over a drab strip-mall parking lot in Aspen Hill, Md., and cracked a nickel-size hole in the front window of a Michaels craft store. It then arced through a leafy display of silk autumnal bouquets, zipped behind the head of a female cashier and pierced a hole through thelamp over the register of lane No. 5. Emerging on the other side, it whizzed over a Christmas-ornament display and finally ricocheted off a shelf of Inspiration for the Heart mini prayer books. Unlike every shot to come, the bullet hurt no one.

The bullet fragments, lying there on the store floor, not far from a selection of bride-and-groom wedding-cake figurines, communicated the theme of this diabolical case: no matter how upscale the neighborhood, no matter how comfortable the surroundings, you too could be a target. Here, among the endless supermarkets, party stores and gas stations, a malicious hunter–or hunters–has taken position in the natural habitat of contemporary Americans. And incredibly, each time, despite busy, well-lighted streets, no one noticed the shooter. As it turns out, the suburbs, with a camouflage of hedgerows, neon signs and anonymous traffic, make a better shooting gallery than a dark alley.

But if the randomness of the crime is rare, the counterattack has been groundbreaking. Because the crime scenes ring the nation’s capital–and because this area was so recently scarred by terrorist attacks–little has been spared in the search for the killer. Says Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan: “Everyone rushed forward to help us that first day. I don’t think that would have happened before 9/11.” An estimated 1,000 people are working on the case, including Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) units, U.S. Marshals and state police. One kindergarten-through-second-grade school in Montgomery County was watched over alternately last week by police, Secret Service agents and the FBI. The feds have donated premier ballistics forensics investigators. The FBI, using software originally designed for movies such as Star Wars, is creating animated 3-D computer-graphic displays to reconstruct the crime scene and help calculate the sniper’s position, in hopes of jogging potential witnesses’ memories. And federal law-enforcement sources tell TIME that the bureau has asked the Pentagon to search its records for recently discharged GIs who went through sniper school. The schools teach snipers to work in tandem–one as the spotter, the other as the shooter.

For the police, the p.r. challenge alone has been dizzying. Investigators had to carefully weigh their obligation to keep the public informed and calmed while knowing that they were also talking to the killer. At each ofthe 50 or so press briefings since the firstshooting, officials have agonized over what effect public statements may have on the shooter. Hopefully, Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose told TIME, “Nobody ever has to live with the fact that maybe something they did kept this person or these people out there any longer than they have been.” In 16 hours, Moose encountered almost three times as many homicide reports as his department usually sees in a month.

Meanwhile, regular folks have awkwardly adapted to the presence of a sniper intheir community. After a 13-year-old boy was shot in the stomach walking into school on Oct. 7, events were summarily canceled: field trips, all outdoor school sporting events, four homecoming celebrations, even SAT exams. Park rangers have been spotted monitoring soccer fields–the de facto town squares for Montgomery County’s affluent families. From the backseat of a Fairfax, Va., woman’s car, a 5-year-old who has been newly forbidden from riding his bike asks, “Mommy, will it hurt if I get shot?” At the scene of the first, victimless shooting, employees now walk zigzag across the parking lot. They still take smoking breaks, but now they stand pressed up against cement columns, trying to act nonchalant.

The day the shootings began, Oct. 2, it took several hours for the bewildered Michaels employees to realize they might be part of something bigger. That’s when they heard that a middle-aged man had been gunned down walking through a Shoppers Food Warehouse parking lot, a little more than 2 miles away. Not only did the killer brazenly fire in the waning daylight hours of rush-hour congestion, he shot James Martin right across the street from a police station.

Just 5 miles away, James (Sonny) Buchanan was mowing a patch of grass near the clogged Rockville Pike artery the next morning when a bullet ripped open his chest. Five miles northeast and half an hour later, Premkumar Walekar crumpled to the ground, murdered while putting $5 worth of gas into his cab. His daughter, watching the live bulletin on TV, recognized the American flags in the back window of his cab and rushed with her mother to the scene, where they identified him. Two miles away, unaware of the rippling circle of violence, Sarah Ramos was killed while sitting on a park bench, waiting for a ride. A witness reported seeing a white van with two occupants screech out of the area. Police began frantically stopping white vans, but a little more than an hour later, Lori Lewis Rivera was struck down while vacuuming her minivan outside a Shell station. At 9:20 p.m., about a 5-mi. drive from the last shooting, Pascal Charlot, 72, was cut down with a shot below the neck as he crossed the street.

The victims were carrying out the banal tasks of everyday life, their last unremarkable moments juxtaposed with the killer’s lightning brutality. Officials speculated thatthis could be a terrorist attack but searched in vain for any overt political message. The victims, if they were lined up side by side, would roughly resemble a random sampling of the Washington metropolitan area. They were white, black, Hispanic, Indian, male, female. There was a government analyst, a landscaper, a housekeeper, a nanny.

The first shooting that broke the killing pattern–flimsy as it was–came the next day in a parking lot in Spotsylvania County, Va. The shooter had deviated by about 70 miles from the epicenter of the other attacks, spurring speculation that he was rebelling against hypotheses that he must live in Montgomery County. The shooting also left the woman injured but alive. And it took place in front of another Michaels store. Desperate for a motive, police contacted Michaels headquarters in Texas for reports of disgruntled employees. But the return to a Michaels craft store may have been sheer coincidence, since there are 40 of them in Maryland and Virginia.

FBI profilers began working on the case, and, at the ATF’s suggestion, geographic profiler Kim Rossmo stepped in. “Random crimes aren’t random, not in the mathematical sense,” says Rossmo, a former Vancouver police official. After studying about 4,000 criminals, Rossmo is convinced that most operate a predictable distance from where they live and work. They constantly juggle the competing urges to attack in a convenient and familiar locale and to go unrecognized. That means they tend to pick hunting grounds midway between the places they know best. When a criminals’ stats are plugged into an algorithm Rossmo has developed using his theory, it creates a rainbow-hued map, with the crime scenes in lime and yellow zones, the perpetrator’s likely home in bright red or orange and the least productive places to look in indigo. It’s a tidy treasure map, but Rossmo concedes his program won’t find a killer by itself. “There are only three ways you can solve a crime: physical evidence, eyewitnesses or a confession.”

After 48 hours without a shooting, chief Moose appeared on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, at a press briefing to reassure the public. He promised to “greatly increase” police presence at area schools the following day, though he couldn’t guarantee officers at every building. The next morning, an eighth-grade boy was shot in front of Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md. At a press conference, Moose struggled for composure. “I guess it’s getting to be really, really personal now,” he said.

The boy, whose name has not been released, had just been dropped off by his aunt, less than 20 ft. from the school door. Driving away, she heard a loud sound andturned around to see her nephew on theground. His science teacher, Karen Pumphrey, walked out to find the boy grimacing in pain. “I’ve been shot,” he told her. Suffering from injuries to the spleen, stomach, pancreas, lung and diaphragm, he is in critical but stable condition.

Frantic parents streamed back from work to pick up their children from area schools. As protective police helicopters hovered, residents shut themselves inside. Says Sherri Long, whose daughter Staci is a Tasker student: “People who needed to get prescriptions waited. We’ve got tapes due back at Blockbuster, and we’ll just pay the fines.”

At the scene of the boy’s shooting, police stumbled upon a trove of clues. A matted area in the brush opposite the school suggested that the sniper had lain in wait for his victim. Police also found a tarot “death” card with the message “Mister Policeman, I am God.” The card, which may turn out to be a prank by someone familiar with the Vietnam War habit of leaving calling cards on the bodies of Viet Cong, was sent to the feds to be analyzed for fingerprints and DNA. The card, it would later be reported, also contained a request not to tell the media about its existence. “There is often an indignation on the part of serial killers at news reports about them that are inaccurate, so they start giving little hints about who they really are, what they have done,” says Jamie Greene, a clinical and forensic psychologist. “They want recognition.”

The indiscriminate shooting of strangers–and a twisted hunt for glory–has plenty of tragic precedent. But generalizations are hard to come by. Killers pick different victims and different M.O.s, depending on their motivation and mental state. In some cases, the victims fit some sort of pattern. Serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, convicted of nine murders from 1977 to 1980, has said he was trying to start a race war by shooting African Americans and interracial couples. At the other end of the gory spectrum, notorious shooters like Texas tower sniper Charles Whitman initiate one uninterrupted orgy of violence–as opposed to the methodical drumbeat of the current hit-and-run shootings. Some killers, most famously David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz, who fatally shot six strangers in New York City, make a point of communicating with the world by sending letters to police and media, which is why some experts began invoking him last week when the tarot card was found.

One of the more instructive analogies, however, may be the case of Thomas Lee Dillon. Convicted of killing five Ohio men between 1989 and 1992, Dillon drove around shooting complete strangers from afar with high-powered rifles. He saw himself as an extremely powerful person during these expeditions. And he would later tell forensic psychologist Jeffrey Smalldon that he intentionally picked random victims located across multiple jurisdictions in order to make it harder for police to find him.

Dillon also aspired to commit a crime like none other. “One of his mantras he’d repeat over and over was ‘There’s never been a crime like this, has there?’ There was an extreme preoccupation with distinguishing himself,” Smalldon says. He also had an obsession with control. “Dillon wrote a letter to the local newspaper, saying basically, You can never catch me, which indicated how very conscious he was of the appeal of operating under the radar but not too far under the radar–the appeal of having a dialogue with society and basically taunting society.” Dillon was captured in part because his best friend reported some of his comments to the FBI.

In the hunt for the Beltway sniper, one intriguing clue was a spent shell casing found outside the middle school. Like a spent slug, a casing can help narrow down the type of gun that may have been used. So far, ballistics tests have not pinpointed the sniper’s weapon. But investigators appear particularly interested in individuals known to possess a Colt AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16 infantry rifle, or a Sturm-Ruger Mini-14 rifle. Both are semiautomatic rifles, popular with target shooters, criminals and some domestic extremist groups.

As the sniper settled into a grisly staccato of killing, he returned to gas stations and targeted less populated areas, nearer major highways: he killed his ninth victim Wednesday evening while the man was pumping gas at a Sunoco station in Prince William County, Va. And he killed his 10th the next morning, with a state trooper parked just across the way, this time in Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles southwest of Washington. Police blocked off I95, stopping all northbound white vans in response to a witness report. Geraldo Rivera, stuck in traffic, began broadcasting live on Fox News from his cell phone. But the shooter slipped by once again.

So the locals braced themselves for the next live report, making whatever small adjustments they could concoct. Suburban gas-station owners began turning their surveillance cameras 180°, so they pointed toward the outlying roadways and woods. And a Virginia prosecutor, lacking a suspect, talked to TV cameras about two different ways he could try to impose the death penalty on the sniper, should he ever be caught alive. –With reporting by Melissa August, Perry Bacon Jr., Eric Roston, Elaine Shannon, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington and Amanda Bower and Jodie Morse/New York

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