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Killer's Specter Haunts D.C. Suburbs

Sniper: School security is tightened. A taunting message from attacker is reportedly recovered.


ROCKVILLE, Md. — Life proceeded under the shadow of the gun in the Washington metropolitan area Tuesday as investigators searched for an elusive sniper and thousands of students returned to locked classrooms and school campuses patrolled by police.

The rifle-wielding assailant laid low after a six-day rampage that left six dead and two wounded. But a day after critically wounding a 13-year-old boy Monday, the unseen sniper still managed to alter lives throughout the region, spurring public officials to dramatically tighten school security and urge residents to report any suspicious activity.

Authorities said they were examining whether the shooting of a liquor store employee three weeks ago was connected to the recent cases, but they otherwise reported no significant progress Tuesday. "We will catch him, there's no question, and he'll be brought to justice," Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening vowed. "We're not going to allow one individual to disrupt our education, to disrupt our lives, to disrupt our economy."

But routines were repeatedly thrown into chaos and conducted in fear. Parents flocked to schools with frightened children in tow. Shopping centers reported thinning traffic. Worried that their customers could be targets, coffee shops shut down outdoor seating throughout the region. Tipsters called by the score, flooding police dispatchers with more than 400 new leads deemed credible. Police flagged down dozens of white trucks, the type of vehicle described by a witness, and confronted drivers, school visitors, pedestrians--anyone who seemed out of place.

Already strained by the widening manhunt, police forces in the Maryland suburbs--where most of the shootings have occurred--spent much of the day responding to false alarms that sometimes required hours to put to rest. Backfire from a dump truck on a Montgomery County highway caused a flood of jittery calls during the morning rush hour. A phantom sighting of a man with a gun sent dozens of Prince George's County officers combing a wooded area for hours in the afternoon, emerging finally without a suspect.

Still, there was some investigative movement. Prince George's County Police Chief Gerald Wilson said that a shell casing recovered Monday near Benjamin Tasker Middle School, where the 13-year-old was shot, was being analyzed by firearms agents.

And Tuesday night, police sources confirmed to local media outlets that the sniper had left a taunting message for authorities outside the school.

"Dear policeman, I am God," the message said. Police said it was found on a Tarot card, part of a deck used in fortune telling, and is known as the Death card. It was spotted in a wooded area about 150 yards from the school entrance, where police found the shell casing and a matted area of grass that suggested the gunman had laid in wait.

The message, first reported Tuesday night on Channel 9 in Washington, was the first known communication from the sniper, police sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The police chief was noncommittal.

"I can't confirm that," Wilson said. There's "nothing I can say in regards to that."

The student who was shot remained hospitalized in critical but stable condition at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, where doctors said his prognosis was promising.

Federal ballistics experts also said they had conducted tests on bullet fragments recovered from a shooting last month in a Montgomery County shopping center--nearly three weeks before the start of last week's killing spree. In the Sept. 14 incident near Silver Spring, a liquor store employee was wounded by a single rifle shot as he walked in a parking lot after closing.

Michael Bouchard, special agent in charge of the Baltimore office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said tests on the fragments from the Silver Spring shooting proved inconclusive--but, he was careful to add, "we are not ruling out that shooting as being linked."

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose and other officials declined to discuss specifics of the case, but an investigator familiar with the incident said, "We're looking at any case that has similarities, I can tell you that."

According to Arnie Zelkovitz, the owner of the liquor store, he and an employee had locked up the store after 10 p.m. and were out in the parking lot when they heard a gunshot. The employee fell and Zelkovitz said he saw a small bullet hole in the man's back. Doctors who treated the wounded employee repaired damage to the man's kidney, liver and colon and removed several fragments that appeared to come from a rifle round, Zelkovitz said. The wounded man is now recovering at home, Zelkovitz said.

Both men were interviewed last week by detectives, Zelkovitz said, adding that police told him that they were looking into the possibility of a link.

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