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The Nation

An Army of Police Hunts Elusive Prey

A sniper picks his lone quarry, fires from as far as 500 yards away, then vanishes into a crowd.

October 13, 2002|Stephen Braun, Lisa Getter and Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — No one has reported seeing the Washington Beltway killer in lethal action. No one can be certain of seeing him flee. He is more hunter than sniper, investigators say, a proficient rifleman intimate with suburban Washington's nimbus of highways and malls. He picks out his lone quarry, fires from as far as 500 yards away, then vanishes on planned escape routes.

For 10 days, as the gunman stalked 10 victims in a metropolis of 5 million people, killing eight and wounding two, an unprecedented army of 200 detectives bolstered by hundreds of local patrol officers and federal agents has fanned out through Washington's panicked suburbs. Northern Virginia authorities said Saturday that ballistic tests confirmed that Friday's victim also was killed by the same sniper. Kenneth H. Bridges, a 53-year-old Philadelphia businessman, was felled by a distant shot at a gas station just off the highway near Fredericksburg.

Investigators have amassed evidence from dozens of witnesses, sifted through nearly 10,000 tips, logged thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay -- all in the futile search for a human cipher. In suburban Montgomery County, Md., where five victims were slain in a 16-hour spree 10 days ago, teams of detectives have spent hours pulling stacks of purchase orders and registration records at gun shops, trying to find a paper trail on the killer.

For all police know, there is so much more they do not. Except for several spent shells and bullet fragments and a cryptic calling card apparently left by the killer at one shooting site, physical evidence is meager.

Victims seem chosen by opportunity, not by design -- shrouding the killer's motives. And stunned witnesses have offered a chaotic fog of observations, forcing hesitant investigators to operate mostly on theories, uncertain even whether they are pursuing one or two suspects.

"He chooses his victims with no discernible motive other than the kill," said a senior law enforcement official working with the task force. "This is what hunters do."

The card was drawn from a Tarot deck embossed with the skeletal symbol of death. A message scrawled on it, "Dear Mr. Policeman, I am God," has been analyzed by experts who conclude that it came from the gunman.

But beyond the spectral card left near the Prince George's County, Md., schoolyard where a 13-year-old was wounded, police have almost none of the crucial physical evidence -- license tags, receipts, clothing -- they desperately need to zero in on the killer's neighborhood.

"He's basically turning the region into his personal shooting gallery," said James Alan Fox, an analyst of serial murders and a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "And he's enjoying it."

Although investigators have spent recent days interviewing scores of Virginia motel guests in Manassas and Four Mile Fork on the possibility that the killer may have been a transient who rented a room, officials suspect the killer is more likely a Montgomery County resident with business or relatives in Virginia.

"A spree like this usually starts in a community they know," one official said. "The small circumference" of the initial killings suggests the sniper lives somewhere in Maryland, the official said, then shifted to Virginia when police activity threatened his ability to move about freely.

Still, investigators have tried to take care not to narrow their focus. On Friday, hours after Bridges was killed, deputies detained Hobert Epps, 36, an Athens, Ga., man who wandered up to the yellow crowd control tape separating police from news crews.

Epps, a ruddy, barrel-chested man with a thick mustache, said he was searched, then taken to a motel room where investigators grilled him about his interest in the case. "They told me I fit the profile" of a suspect in the case, Epps said.

At one point, Epps said, police scrutinized his face, comparing it with a small, grainy photograph that appeared to have been magnified from a video camera. After several minutes, Epps said, he was freed.

Virginia authorities declined to say whether police were using any photos of suspects in the killing spree. But other officials said that local detectives and federal agents have been reviewing hours of video surveillance tapes shot from cameras overlooking crime scenes in Maryland and Virginia.

Late Saturday, the police task force released its first sketch of the elusive white box truck spotted more than a week ago by witnesses at suburban Maryland murder scenes. A similar sketch was also being readied showing a second white Chevrolet Astro van reported in the vicinity of the Friday slaying.

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