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Drive-By Blowgun Attacks in Washington Area Baffle Officials

Crime: At least 19 people have been hit by 4-inch darts. Police don't know who's responsible or if the assaults that started last month are linked.

July 25, 2002|LISA FACKLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — If they thought their worst summer predators were mosquitoes or deer flies, residents of Washington and a neighboring suburb have been in for an unpleasant surprise.

At least 19 people have reported being struck by 4-inch steel blowgun darts in a series of attacks that began last month and, so far, has left authorities stymied. Seven people have been treated for injuries at hospitals, including one man who required surgery on his abdomen, authorities said.

The culprit is still on the loose, police said, and beyond a few shaky leads, there is little evidence linking the bizarre incidents and no indication whether there is a single perpetrator or several.

Blowguns are illegal in California and Massachusetts, although they are sold legally elsewhere over the Internet, in sporting catalogs and at gun shows. Under California law, making, selling or possessing a blowgun is a misdemeanor.

If captured, the culprit in the Washington area faces charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, police said. And if convicted, the shooter could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on each count if the person is over age 18, said Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Many of the victims suffered superficial injuries, authorities said. Some came forward only after hearing news reports of other attacks. In at least one case, the dart missed its intended target. Police in Washington and Prince George's County in suburban Maryland--where four of the attacks occurred--are investigating. Authorities are asking witnesses and patrons of gun shows to come forward with any evidence, such as home videos, that may show the perpetrator buying or using the weapon.

District of Columbia Police Chief Charles Ramsey has announced a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

For tips leading to arrest and indictment, a community group, Crime Solvers, is offering an additional $1,000 reward.

Accounts of the circumstances in the incidents vary wildly.

Some victims reported seeing a white Cadillac around the time they were struck, while others said they saw a white Chevrolet. One man who was hit in the elbow while walking on the side of the road said he saw a blowgun poking out the window of a white van, police spokeswoman Cpl. Diane Richardson said.

The most recent victim, a 10-year-old boy hit around noon Friday, suffered minor injuries but said he saw a man with dreadlocks, who appeared to be in his late teens, driving a black car near the scene. He did not see the man use the blowgun.

Because the darts are small and silent, they are more discreet than other weapons and make determining the source more difficult, said Washington police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile.

All darts collected in the recent spate have been similar in size and made out of sharpened steel piano wire, Gentile said.

The darts have been tested at an FBI crime lab for traces of harmful substances, although the test results were not available.

Standard blowguns, which cost as little as $12, can be fired accurately from as far as 100 to 200 feet, said blowgun dealer Dianna Vann of Lake Stevens, Wash.

The guns are operated by loading a dart into the mouthpiece and exhaling forcefully.

News reports dating as far back as 1976 tell menacing tales similar to recent attacks. Though the weapons can inflict potentially lethal wounds, serious injuries are uncommon, officials and dealers said.

In Maryland, one hunting store owner said he refuses to sell blowguns.

''They're fine in the jungle, maybe to shoot monkeys out of the trees, but I don't feel there's a need for them here,'' said Jim Riffle, who has owned the Bay Trading Post for five years. ''They create more problems than they do good.''

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