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5 Shot Dead in Suburban D.C. as Fear Spreads

Crime: The seemingly random killings unfold over a 16-hour span. Police in Maryland are looking for two suspects in the sniper attacks.

October 04, 2002|LISA GETTER, VICKI KEMPER and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KENSINGTON, Md. — Five people were shot to death Wednesday and Thursday in a series of seemingly random attacks that shocked the middle-class suburbs of Washington, sending police swarming onto streets and highways in a frantic search for a small white cargo truck carrying two suspects.

The shootings occurred within a 16-hour period that started Wednesday night and continued into the morning rush hour Thursday, spreading alarm through an enclave of bustling shopping centers and quiet neighborhoods of Montgomery County, Md., about 10 miles north of the White House. As the drama unfolded, school officials kept children indoors and frustrated police appealed to the public for help.

The victims--three men and two women--each were killed by one bullet, possibly fired at some distance by a skillful, elusive shooter, police said. The killings all occurred within a few miles of each other. The victims--a mix of ages, races and sexes--died at the scene or on their way to the hospital, police said.

"We do have someone who has so far been very accurate," said Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose. "We feel like we have a skilled shooter. That does heighten our concerns."

The shooter or shooters remained at large Thursday night, despite a massive dragnet in which white trucks--the type of vehicle described by a witness--were pulled over all day long throughout the Washington area. Police from Montgomery County and neighboring counties, and Maryland state police, were aided by the FBI, the Secret Service and other agencies.

"I am absolutely convinced that someone saw something," Moose said, urging members of the public to call in with tips. "This is not some lightning bolt from the sky. Someone knows."

Asked whether investigators were considering the possibility of terrorism, the chief said: "We are not closing any avenue. We are a large suburban community adjacent to the nation's capital. We understand what that can mean."

From each crime scene came stories of people gunned down during the most mundane acts of suburban life:

About 6 p.m. Wednesday, James D. Martin, 55, was hit by a bullet in a grocery store parking lot. James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, was shot about 7:40 Thursday morning while pushing a lawn mower behind an auto dealership. About half an hour later, Premkumar Walekar, 53, a cabdriver who had just bought a lottery ticket, newspaper and pack of gum, was killed while pumping gas.

Less than an hour after that, Sarah Ramos, 34, was shot while sitting on a bench in front of a chicken restaurant near the Leisure World retirement community. Just before 10 a.m., Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, a nanny, was gunned down while vacuuming her employers' maroon van at a service station. She was married with a 3-year-old daughter.

The very randomness of the shootings rattled the normally upbeat community: "All these things done were things that we do," said Judy Laurenson, who came to pick up her 4-year-old son from pre-school after hearing about the rampage. "We all vacuum our cars. We all get gas. We all go shopping and mow our lawns. We could have been there

One witness told police he saw a white van with two occupants racing away from one of the crime scenes--a shopping center near Leisure World. Soon after, law enforcement officials announced that they were looking for a "white cargo van"--later amended to a "white box truck"-- with black lettering on the side and a damaged rear gate, possibly manufactured by Isuzu or Mitsubishi.

Throughout the tense day, police stopped small white trucks--"too many to get an accurate count," according to one official--and at one point closed a section of Interstate 95. The public inundated emergency phone lines with tips.

Law enforcement officials were proceeding on the assumption that the killings were related, that the victims were randomly selected and that the shooter may have fired with skill at some distance, possibly from across nearby parking lots.

"We're all concerned," Moose said at one point. "We're all fearful. We don't know what we have at this point." Officials later said that the county's murder rate had increased by 25% in only 20 hours.

According to police, the spree began with a shot into a Michaels craft store on Wednesday night, the only bullet that did not hit someone. Instead, it came blasting through the front window, passed over the head of a cashier, ripped through an advertising sign and ricocheted off a metal rack that holds books of inspiration.

"At first I thought I broke a piece of glass," recalled Ann Chapman, 43, the cashier. "It sounded like an M-80 going off in here. It went like 'Pow!' I thought it was the light breaking. There was smoke and everything."

About 40 minutes later, Martin was shot in a parking lot as he walked toward a Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery store.

But it was not until Thursday morning that police considered that a grim pattern was taking shape.

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