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Experts Are at a Loss on Profile of Sniper

Investigation: Another shooting at a gas station may be seventh fatality in the seemingly random attacks, but police say that it's too soon to tell.

October 10, 2002|FAYE FIORE and JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Is he a hunter gone mad? A schizophrenic with delusions of a direct line to God? A military marksman waging urban warfare on his countrymen? A terrorist? And whoever he is, is he working alone?

The science of U.S. law enforcement has had ample experience with murder, but the sniper who has terrorized the greater Washington area for a week, killing six and wounding two with single-shot precision, is confounding at least 195 of the nation's finest.

And Wednesday night, investigators were seeking to determine if the sniper had struck again.

Police reported a man was shot to death at 8:18 p.m. at a service station north of Manassas, Va., 30 miles southwest of Washington.

"We have an adult male who was pumping gas who is deceased," Prince William County Police spokesman Dennis Mangan said. "And that, at least on its surface, fits the pattern we've been seeing."

But Mangan cautioned against making a firm link to the other shootings.

"It's still in the earliest stages of investigation," he said. "We don't know exactly what we have yet."

The victim, whose identity was not released Wednesday night, was standing beside the gas pump when he was hit, Mangan said. If a link is established to the other killings, it would be the third shooting to occur at a gas station.

Virginia State Police said two men were seen driving away in a white vehicle after the attack. A Maryland witness told police last week he saw two men in a white truck or van leaving the scene of a shooting outside a post office.

Dozens of police officers descended on the area, checking nearby motels and blocking traffic around the shooting scene. They were joined by investigators from the sniper task force who were dispatched from their Montgomery County, Md., headquarters, as were agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Cpl. Rob Moroney of the Montgomery County Police Department, which is coordinating the investigation, said it was "too early to speculate" about whether this shooting is linked to the others.

There have been frustratingly few clues in the attacks. The latest is a Tarot card inscribed, "Dear policeman, I am God," found near a shell casing 150 yards from the Maryland middle school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded Monday.

Voicing the challenge faced by investigators struggling to solve the series of crimes, Clint Van Zandt, a retired FBI official and an expert on criminal psychology, said: "I am a profiler, not a soothsayer. He is motivated, he is focused, he is reasonably intelligent for a predator. He is psychopathic and has no appreciation for the pain and consternation he is causing."

A sniper as serial killer is not unprecedented, but cases that leave so little evidence and follow no pattern tend to stump even the best detectives, who now are turning to everything from psychological work-ups to combing blades of grass on their hands and knees.

With 1,600 "credible" leads and precious little hard evidence to go on, experts are attempting to build a profile of a killer who has managed to strike and vanish eight times in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia--areas already under an unprecedented level of security since last year's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Most serial killers prey on a particular type of victim--women, gay men, prostitutes--at a particular kind of site--lovers' lanes, freeways, bars. But this one seems to have made a pattern out of randomness. His victims--black, white, Latino and Indian--have ranged in age from 13 to 72. He has no apparent personal contact with his prey, shooting people he likely has never met from distances that prohibit so much as a look into their eyes. His only consistent calling card is his weapon.

Except for a nighttime slaying of an elderly man on a Washington street corner and, if it is linked, this latest shooting, the killer has kept banker's hours--a shooting spree in the mornings and afternoons late last week, off for the weekend, then back at 8:09 Monday morning.

Every tidbit of information has been seized upon by experts and lay people alike as a possible window into the mind of a maniac. Still, no single portrait emerges.

The chilling efficiency of the shootings and swift escapes has raised questions about whether the killer has had military or police training. His weapon of choice--linked in six of the eight shootings--is not the run-of-the-mill rifle Boy Scouts use to shoot tin cans, nor the .30-caliber model popular among hunters, but a .223-caliber known for high velocity and pinpoint accuracy at 500 yards.

"The weapon itself is indicative of a person on a power trip," said Robert Ressler, a criminologist and former FBI profiler. "It's a macho, civilian version of the military M-16. It appeals to the gun nuts and the paramilitary types, a favored symbolic expression of the authority and power these people are trying to obtain."

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