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Around Beltway, Jittery Residents Try to Go About Their Lives

Although the sniper picks victims at random, he prefers unobscured targets. 'This man has me very scared,' one woman, standing alone outdoors, says.

October 14, 2002|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

ROCKVILLE, Md — ROCKVILLE, Md. -- In a morning's fading minutes of darkness, fear's measure is taken in a head's swivel, a sudden glance, an awkward crouch, the staccato of advancing footsteps. For suburban Washington's earliest risers, the first wave of commuters heading out alone, these are the dangerous hours.

They are human marks, and they know it. The unseen killer who has confounded police for 11 days by selecting his prey at random is given to one telling characteristic: He aims at unobscured targets. Like deer idle in a clearing, 10 victims stood alone and stationary the moment before they fell.

As dim horizon diffuses over the suburbs, the solitary emerge in the gathering pale sunlight. They sit at bus benches and huddle at curbsides. They skitter toward convenience stores and fidget in gas station pump bays. Some try to stay in motion. But soon enough, entropy takes hold. They stand. They wait.

At 6 a.m., Chris Swepson, 39, is pumping gas at an Exxon station in Bethesda, Md., south of the circular freeway that winds around the nation's capital. He is alone at the pump, exposed under a glaring fluorescent panel.

Four of the killer's human prey have died standing between their cars and an open pump. Swepson did not want to stop. But his Chevrolet Cavalier does not travel on prudence. He sets the pump handle on automatic, allowing the gas to course freely into the fuel tank. The slow click of the pump nags at him until he grabs the handle and clamps it down as tight as it can go.

"I was down to a quarter-tank," he says, staring at the advancing numbers on the pump gauge. They seem endless. "Come on, come on."

He is a carpenter; a big man with a forked beard. A cigarette smolders in one hand; he ignores a warning about smoking posted near the gasoline pumps. It is the other peril that worries him.

Driving out from his home in Riverdale, Md., he wondered whether he was being watched from the highway's edge. Traffic was thin on the Beltway, but as he drove, Swepson found himself gazing toward the dim tree line at the roadside. He tried to imagine what a high-powered rifle barrel looked like in the darkness, wondered whether it might glint in the passing headlights.

"He could be out there in the bushes and I wouldn't know it until it's too late," he said.

In recent weeks, Swepson has been working on the upper floors of a 14-story office building under construction in the center of Bethesda, a thriving commercial center on the Metro subway line. When the killing started, Swepson felt secure at work. But as the tension rose, he found himself brooding, even up on the 14th floor while he and a crew of carpenters installed rows of wooden columns.

"See, we work right on the edge," Swepson said. "First, you say, 'No way he's going to find me up there.' But this guy's a marksman. You figure if I can see the whole city ... then someone down there can see me too."

When the pump finishes, Swepson racks up the handle and walks briskly to the cashier's glass-enclosed station. Only a single lightbulb glows faintly at the back of the store. The cashier works in near darkness.

"Business is bad," he says with a shrug. "If it's not so bright in here, maybe people won't be so scared to come in."

Several blocks away, the day's first subway commuters are bustling toward the long escalators that carry them down to the Metro. Some scurry. It is too early for them to be late. It is the fear. They will be safe down in the tunnels. But when they emerge on the other end, the fear builds again. At Friendship Heights, a subway stop within the Washington city limits, commuters leaving the station have been seen ducking down and dashing away in a crouched position, as if in an imaginary line of fire.

Rain pelts down as the sun rises, maintaining the morning's gloom. In Rockville, to the north, Yvonne Ibon waits under a strip mall awning, holding a mangled umbrella. A cafeteria worker, she is waiting for her regular ride from a friend.

"It's safe away from the road, don't you think?" Ibon asks. "This man has me very scared."

In fact, she is a perfect silhouette, highlighted as she stands in front of a garish red neon sign: "WHILE-U-WAIT EYEGLASS REPAIR." Traffic flashes along Rockville Pike, a highway ribbon of shopping malls and industrial parks; one of the first victims died while mowing grass near this road. White vans and white trucks, the killer's reported vehicles of choice, pass by, too numerous to count.

"My goodness," she says, noticing the neon. Ibon sidles away just as her friend's car glides into view in the parking lot. "I think maybe she picks me up at home tomorrow," Ibon says. There is no trace of humor in her nervous laugh.

Several blocks away, Margaret Gelin, 70, is pecking at the buttons of an automated teller. Shrouded from the rain in a bright yellow rain slicker, she works at the machine, facing away from the traffic until she can fish out her cash.

"At my age you get fatalistic," she says. "I worry more about my grandchildren."

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