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Constant Vigilance Is Watchword Around Capital

The hamlets of Virginia and Maryland were seen as havens, but a sniper has changed all that. 'I keep looking behind my back,' one man says.

October 13, 2002|Megan K. Stack and Chuck Neubauer | Times Staff Writers

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — It was a leafy fall day, a lazy collection of suburban vignettes just slightly askew.

There were dusty pumpkins in the wood chips of the town square -- but no children ventured forth. Playing fields stretched brilliant under a low sky -- but no cleats pounded the grass. Shadows gathered on the greening stones of the Confederate Cemetery -- but no sightseers wandered among the graves. With a killer on the loose, the vast swaths of towns and fields that spill out from the nation's capital stood unnaturally quiet Saturday.

"People are scared to come out the house," said farmer Albert Pitts, who displayed a harvest of cucumbers, melons and string beans to a few shoppers in this old brick town. "I'm halfway scared just standing here. I keep looking behind my back."

He pointed toward a distant treetop.

"You see that? He could be right up in there and we'd never know it. He could kill us standing here." Pitts frowned into the ground. "I don't feel safe at all."

With no discernible motive, with nothing but a handful of bullets and a daunting cloak of invisibility, an anonymous gunman has managed to send slivers of terror through a sprawling community of 5 million people. Fear has settled over the old killing grounds of the Civil War battlefields. Tension laces the crannies of rundown urban outskirts. Men, women and children have been stalked at filling stations, strip malls and a schoolyard. The killer has struck time after time, only to slip through the grasp of the law. And it's anybody's guess where the bullets will strike next.

"You know, I'm standing in line at the supermarket, and I left my 13-year-old out in the car," Sue Schumann said. "And all of a sudden it dawned on me how stupid that was. Why did I leave my daughter in the car?"

The fear began like a pinprick on a remote corner of the map, far from the rolling forests of northern Virginia. When the sniper rampaged through Montgomery County, Md., with his rifle, felling six people in two days, the threat was vague -- a distant menace; somebody else's problem.

The sense of security was quick to melt. The shooting deaths have been sprinkled in an erratic pattern around Washington. The roving sniper shoots, and having shot, moves on. If the goal is widespread terror, the tactic is flawless.

"It's just tragic," said Fairfax police officer David Sharp, "how this guy is affecting the area."

In the traditional order of things, the streets of Washington are supposed to be the dicey, seamy and sometimes murderous venues. The sleepy hamlets of Virginia and Maryland flourished because they promised wooded deliverance from intercity perils. When darkness fell, workers hopped onto the Metro and slipped across the Potomac or up Massachusetts Avenue.

The sniper has managed to turn Washington inside out. The deaths have formed a ring around the city, rattling nerves by trespassing an imaginary sanctuary.

"This is a bedroom community -- it is no stranger to violent crime but it is not frequent," Vienna police Lt. Mike Miller said. "No one likes to feel threatened anytime they step out on their porch just because they step outside."

The killer has roamed deep into Virginia, breaching the Rappahannock River where Interstate 95 plunges into the South and following I-66 to Manassas, where the extended dormitories of Washington are pushing west in a flurry of construction. Near the glades where people shoot deer, rabbit and squirrel, somebody has turned neighborhoods into hunting grounds and put people in the cross hairs.

Along the wall of the Stafford sheriff's office, a jumble of pamphlets tells the tale of a tranquil county. McGruff the Crime Dog's safety quiz. Warnings against reckless driving, and driving drunk. Safety tips for river recreation.

In dozens of speed-trap towns and crime-free hamlets, men and women who cut their teeth on dope busts, drunk drivers and house robberies wait in heady anxiety for the sniper's next move.

They know the risk: To capture one of modern history's most perplexing serial killers would be the pinnacle of any career -- but if the killer evades detection again, the chagrin will be profound.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Lt. Bryant Halstead of the Stafford County sheriff's office. "I don't want him to come here. On the other hand, I'd like the opportunity to apprehend him."

A short stroll from car door to shop entrance has become an exercise in willpower -- and in geometry. Shoppers peer around, looking for hills or trees that could conceal a sniper. Gas station attendants arrange hulking trucks to shield their pumps from passing traffic. Jogging trails through the woods are nearly empty.

"I feel a sense of vulnerability that I usually don't have," apple farmer Kathy Reid said. "It's sad."

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