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Sniper Escapes After Latest Deadly Attack

Crime: The slaying at a gas station occurs just yards from a Virginia state trooper. If linked to the earlier cases, it will be the 10th; eight were fatal.

October 12, 2002|LISA GETTER, STEPHEN BRAUN and JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — The founder of a self-help organization for African Americans was killed by a sniper Friday morning, the latest in a series of public slayings that have spawned a new form of terror in the suburban communities ringing the nation's capital.

The brazen attack--the 10th in as many days in the Washington area--occurred within 50 yards of a state trooper who was working the scene of a traffic accident on the other side of a nearby highway.

A small army of law enforcement officers scrambled to seal off nearby highways in an effort to corral a white van seen speeding away with two men inside. But the van, said to resemble a similar vehicle seen at some of the other shootings, eluded authorities.

Although police said they had not determined whether the man was felled by the same person believed responsible for the previous attacks, the shooting deepened the sense of frustration and fear gripping the Washington area.

"With a uniformed trooper directly across the street, obviously we're dealing with an individual who's extremely violent and doesn't care," said Maj. Howard Smith of the Spotsylvania County sheriff's office.

Like the previous nine attacks, this one involved a single shot from a high-powered rifle. Like three of the previous nine, this one occurred at a service station. Like all but two of the previous nine, the victim died.

A spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said more bullet fragments were recovered from Friday's crime scene than from the other sniper attacks. An analysis of the ballistic evidence was expected to be released today.

Friends of the family identified the victim as Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, of Philadelphia. Bridges, a graduate of the Wharton business school, was president and chairman of Matah Network, an organization he founded in 1997 to promote black-owned business enterprises and to encourage black self-sufficiency.

Bridges, a father of six, was driving to Philadelphia on a business trip. His wife had expressed concern about his travel through the Washington area in light of the recent shootings, his friends said at a Philadelphia news conference.

"It's a real tragedy for the family, for us, for all kinds of well-meaning people," said Gregory Montgomery, chief operations officer of Matah. "A guy like Ken didn't have a bone of malice in his body."

After the shooting Friday, officials sealed off exits and entrances to nearby highways and interstates, backing up traffic for miles. Motorists waited, sometimes for hours, to get through police checkpoints on the major highways along the East Coast.

Schools imposed immediate "lock-downs" requiring all students to stay inside. Friday night football games and other weekend outdoor sporting events were canceled.

Authorities urged citizens to be extra vigilant and to report anything they considered unusual. They were particularly interested in any sightings of a white Chevrolet Astro cargo van with ladder mounts on the roof.

At the White House, the killings have become a part of President Bush's daily FBI briefing, which until now has focused almost entirely on the war against terrorism.

"The president's heart goes out to the victims of these shootings and to their families and to their loved ones," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "He understands how deeply troubling this is for the community and for people around the country."

Bush was informed about the latest shooting shortly after it happened, Fleischer said.

Officials said Bridges was shot at 9:23 a.m. while fueling his silver Buick at the Four Mile Fork Exxon station on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, about 50 miles south of Washington.

The site, near the intersection of heavily traveled Interstate 95 and U.S. 1, was just one interstate exit away from the Michael's craft store parking lot where a 43-year-old woman was shot a week earlier.

Inside the cashier's booth at the Exxon station, 35-year-old Sandra Fortune heard what sounded like a tire blowout, according to her father, Eddie Fortune of Fredericksburg.

She looked up and saw Bridges sprawled in the center lane of gas pumps. "She saw the man die," her father said.

Greg Williams was sitting in his van outside a Denny's restaurant on the other side of U.S. 1 when he heard what sounded like a gunshot or a firecracker.

"I just looked over to the gas station, and saw the man lying there," said Williams, 39, who is doing remodeling work at the restaurant. Bridges lay on the pavement near his four-door sedan, the handle of the gas pump still inserted in its side.

"Police got there real quick," he said. "I'd say within 40 seconds."

Williams, who lives in Maryland, said he is a hunter and is familiar with guns. He said he thinks the shot was fired by someone on his side of the street, perhaps near a stoplight on U.S. 1.

When he heard the shot, he immediately thought about the sniper. "I was hoping it wasn't him," Williams said.

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