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The Nation

Caution the Watchword as Sniper Sought

Crime: As the hunt goes on for a sharpshooter who has killed six, residents try to carry on life as usual--though it isn't usual at all now.

October 06, 2002|FAYE FIORE and ARIANNE ARYANPUR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Matt Olsen's soccer team has 13 girls, a baker's dozen, and every one of them showed up to play Saturday morning in their blue shirts and shin guards. It looked like any other glorious weekend on the grassy field at Oakland Terrace Elementary School here in the Washington suburbs. Except for the police cars posted along the sidelines.

As the hunt continued for a sharpshooter who is killing innocents with chilling precision, the people of Montgomery County pretended to carry on life as usual when it wasn't usual at all. Late Saturday, police confirmed that a seventh person had been targeted in random attacks by a skilled marksman whose victims crossed lines of gender, race and age.

All were struck down by someone with no apparent regard for day or night or location. Until late Saturday, the linked shootings were all within a 20-mile radius in suburban Washington. Five people were killed in Montgomery County, a sixth on a street corner in Washington. Confirmation of a seventh victim late Saturday indicated the shooter had broadened his sights: authorities said a woman shot in the back Friday in Frederickburg, Va., about 80 miles from suburban Washington, was a victim of the same shooter. She survived the attack.

The settings seem haphazardly chosen. On Saturday evening, police still had no profile of a killer to offer.

The slayings left Montgomery County on edge. On Saturday morning chores were dispatched with a watchful eye. A grocery store manager pumped gas just after dawn, making sure the pump was between him and a clear shot from the street. An elderly couple out for a morning constitutional in the park ducked into a shopping mall to get off the streets. A mother offered to pick out a pair of homecoming shoes so her daughter wouldn't have to go out. A high school junior drove to the full-serve island at the gas station, paying extra for the reassurance of not having to get out of her car.

Here, they are struggling to make sense of a situation that is in the heart of their neighborhoods and beyond their control, on the fringes of a capital city debating war, across the river from a Pentagon still rebuilding.

The soccer field where Olsen's team plays sits about a mile from the Shell service station where Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was shot dead Thursday morning while vacuuming her minivan. Parents conferred before allowing their children to play outside on the breezy autumn day. They decided to go ahead with the game, but at 10 a.m. the coach called police and asked for protection.

"Do you just stay home?" Olsen, a federal prosecutor in Washington, asked as his players devoured their postgame snacks. "These girls are 8 years old and there is definitely a psychological cost to saying we aren't going out today because there is a bad man out there shooting people."

Parents were careful not to say too much in front of their children. What was there to say, anyway? Someone with a high-powered rifle and expert marksmanship is shooting people in the course of ordinary life--a cabdriver fueling up at a Mobil station, a woman sitting on a bench in front of a business, a man on a lawn mower, another man walking in a parking lot.

So residents in this county pumped gas, walked dogs, shopped and peered over their shoulders, unsure precisely what they were looking for. A figure lurking in the distance? There are 873,000 people here. A white box truck? There are more than a million registered vehicles in suburban Maryland.

After all, it is a white box truck that delivers cigarettes to the Wheaton Shell station that Trevor Wetzlaff manages, several blocks from the Shell where bouquets and U.S. flags now sit. And with all the publicity, would the killer be foolish enough to still be driving one?

"I'm looking for something out of the ordinary, something out of place, but I'm not sure what," said Wetzlaff, whose business has dropped by half since word of the killings got around. "I think people are just nervous about being at a gas station in general. Everybody who comes in talks about it."

Outside Wetzlaff's glass office, Debbie Skolnik filled the tank of her black Acura, squinting to keep the sun out of her eyes. The prices are higher than the station she usually patronizes, but somebody died there, so she avoided it.

"I've been watching, looking," said Skolnik, a librarian at Suburban Hospital in nearby Bethesda, where two of the victims were taken. "I've been in every place in Montgomery County that killer struck. Now I have to think, 'Where am I going to get gas? Which station might be safer than another?' "

The string of random killings has been made worse by the thought of terrorism--a theory police have not ruled out. Some people confessed they'd feel slightly relieved if it turned out to be just one nut with military-style training acting alone. No matter who is behind it, though, it felt like terrorism just the same.

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