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The Nation | IN A SNIPER'S GRIP

Plenty of Theories and Questions About Shooting Spree

Scene: Police had not confirmed killing is tied to others, but locals drew their own conclusions.

October 12, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — At the latest epicenter of a deadly whodunit along the mid-Atlantic coast, the fatal gunshot that police assume is the 10th in a series of sniper shootings turned every observer into a psychoanalyst.

Stranded at a Howard Johnson's motel parking lot, unable to leave an area taped off by police, truckers questioned the motive for slayings they described as a deadly lottery. The latest target in a string of shootings of people who were simply leading their lives was Kenneth H. Bridges, a 53-year-old Philadelphia man who made the fatal choice Friday morning to buy gas for his Buick.

"Why is this person doing this? Is it political?" wondered John Osborne, a veteran driver from Victoria, N.Y., who heard the shot from outside the Howard Johnson's across the street. "I just hope whoever it is lives long enough to say why he did it."

Wagging the Teamsters cap on his head, fellow trucker Dennis Shira of Youngstown, N.Y., said that was unlikely.

"I think this guy wants a confrontation. I think he's going to go down in a hail of gunfire," said Shira, 51, who makes Fredericksburg a regular stop. "This is a military guy gone bad, just from the way he's moving and operating. This guy is taking one shot and making it count."

"He's military--or something," added Alvin Evans, a trucker from Warrenton, N.C., who also waited hours in the parking lot before police would let anyone leave.

As two FBI geographic profilers touched down in a helicopter behind the Exxon station, where the nozzle of the gas pump was still in the tank of the dead man's silver Buick, residents wondered: Why here?

It's a game of cat and mouse with the police, Osborne proffered: "This guy knows the area."

Thinking of the 13-year-old boy wounded Monday in Prince George's County, Md., after officials opted not to let the initial seven shootings force the closing of schools, Shira agreed.

"They said they had the kids protected," he said. "I think he did it just to show them they're wrong."

Along Interstate 95, northbound drivers had plenty of time to get philosophical. Within an hour of the shooting, police were stopping white vans heading from the Fredericksburg area toward Washington. Just south of the Capital Beltway, which encircles Washington, a line of black-clad police officers in ski masks--standard attire for police SWAT teams--stood in the traffic lanes in the driving rain. They were searching for a Chevrolet Astro van that had been seen by mechanic Bruce Bingham, a self-described "Chevy man" who works in a Mobil station across the street from the shooting site. But they looked into the windows of all the passing vans used by the thousands of construction contractors in the area, in at least one case pulling a driver out, guns drawn.

They stopped Fords and GMs as well, and box trucks and vans. While southbound commuters slowed to gape, northbound drivers were mired in bicycle-speed traffic for hours on the main north-south route that links Florida and Maine. Carpool lanes were shut down, permitting groups of police on motorcycles and in cars to speed up and down the highway.

At day's end, despite having stopped hundreds of vehicles, no gunman was found. Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles A. Moose and Spotsylvania County, Va., Sheriff's Office spokesman Maj. Howard Smith, two officials divided by 60 miles but united by eight slayings, expressed optimism in the same words: "I am not frustrated."

But Fredericksburg residents were.

"It's just too close to home--a gas station that we frequently use," said Patrick Hernandez as he looked across the street at the victim's car, its license plate covered by cardboard to protect the owner's identity while police sought to notify his family.

"I've talked to some people who are scared to come out. They don't want to be around windows."

Police, who took evidence from the shooting to a laboratory run by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, could not confirm Friday that the shooting was linked to nine others, seven of them fatal, in the last 10 days. But irate locals drew their conclusions: The gunman had now struck in their area twice--the first time a week before, injuring a woman in a parking lot outside a crafts store.

"It's made people pretty angry about what's happening," said Hernandez, a soldier stationed at nearby Ft. Lee, Va.

By noon the reporters had arrived, nearly matching the more than 100 officers from the county sheriff's office, the state police, the FBI, the ATF and its Virginia counterpart.

Behind the Exxon station, divided by yellow police tape that lined U.S. 1, stood perhaps three dozen TV satellite trucks. Some lined up to take down the stories of witnesses and bystanders such as Joseph Drennan.

Drennan had picked Friday to move and was meeting with his movers at a restaurant at 9:23 a.m. when a middle-age man came running from the Exxon next door.

"He was hunched down like he was under fire," said Drennan, an attorney who practices in Alexandria.

"He was shouting, 'Someone was shot at the gas pump.' "

As Drennan phoned 911, plates clinked as diners dropped their utensils and hit the ground, where they remained for the next 10 minutes or so, when sheriff's deputies and ATF agents arrived. When he awoke that morning, Drennan said, he had hoped the rain would keep the gunman at bay.

Bingham, the mechanic, was standing in front of the Mobil station across the narrow highway when he heard a loud bang.

"Somebody just got shot," he told his boss.

"No, that's just a backfire," said station owner Raja Abilmona.

But Bingham, a 21-year Marine Corps veteran, was certain.

" 'No, somebody just got shot,' " Bingham recalled saying. "I said, 'There's a white van right there,' and it took off."

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