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The Nation

Public's Sniper Theories Abound, but Still No Face

There's nothing to go on, no sketch, no description. But ideas are aplenty, ranging from a loner to a Timothy McVeigh-type.

October 15, 2002|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

BETHESDA, Md. — They say the slayer is young or they say he's old; describe him as a hunter or a crazed soldier or a militant foreigner. They say he acts alone, or with a buddy, or with a girlfriend.

"A Timothy McVeigh-type," said a housewife named Caroline.

"A nut that's a sharpshooter," court reporter Harlyne Blum said, scooting across the parking lot from the gym and ducking into her car.

"A terrorist," said Arkansas tourist Jim Boyer.

Washington's suburbs have become an unwilling hunting ground stalked by a faceless sniper -- one who may have struck yet again Monday night. The public has been given no suspect; no pencil sketch; no description; no grainy video still; no hometown; no motive. Police describe a white getaway truck -- but white trucks are everywhere, idling on street corners, heaving through alleyways, wheeling past on the freeway. Aside from the maddeningly ubiquitous trucks, there is just a shadow of a killer, anonymous and mercurial.

In the absence of fact, the people of this rattled region are turning to fancy. Just about everybody has a sniper theory here in Montgomery County, which is where the shooting spree began 13 days ago. Since then, 10 people have been shot, eight are dead -- authorities were investigating whether a woman shot dead Monday night outside a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va., is the 11th victim -- and locals have adopted all manner of myth to explain the bursts of curbside death.

"Everybody is in the same bewildered state, but people have to do something," Northwestern University sociologist Bernard Beck said. "If you can say, 'Well, they're more likely to be like this than like that,' it's an attempt to make yourself feel safer."

And so amateur profilers haunt every corner shop, swapping their private visions of an unseen killer.

"I picture him as a 25-year-old to 45-year-old gun enthusiast type. The sort of fellow that would hang out at gun shows," a woman named Caroline said hours before Monday's shooting. She clutches a newspaper to her chest, watches the leaves skitter at her feet and declines to give her last name. "Just a real loser," she added tersely. "And -- you know -- working-class, I guess."

When authorities released a composite illustration of a workman's truck over the weekend, Caroline had a rush of vindication. "It fit what I imagined him doing," she said. "A not very intelligent job."

Around the corner, an Armenian immigrant named Vart Ozbenian peers out the window of his grocery. The sky overhead is a flat white; the avenue stands almost empty. A lone customer shuffles before the deli case.

"They're terrorists," said Ozbenian, 62. "It seems like they're very smart. If it were just one crazy man, he'd do something wrong. He'd kill too many people in one day, and he'd get caught. But these people are good at their killing."

It has happened time and time again: The unknown is the scariest. Darkness arranges itself into shapes, and every threatened community puts a face on its enemy -- usually projecting the fears already lurking in their midst.

It was a phenomenon noted by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose at Monday's news briefing. "Everybody is edgy," he told reporters, describing a flurry of calls that turned out to be car backfires or breaking glass. "People are hearing things."

"There are a lot of people walking around who are already scared of one thing or another," Beck said. "When something like this comes along, they already have a menu of specials to chose from. They can tie this story into the one they already know."

And so the sniper stories are thick in contradiction. A popular dispute: How many assailants lurk behind the killings?

"He's acting alone," said Dan Grainger, 26. "It would be too hard for him to have somebody with him. I think he's white. Middle-aged. Disgruntled -- you know."

"I picture him being by himself," said artist Eileen Hall.

But some witnesses have said two people rode in the white van. Because snipers often act in pairs, the idea of double gunmen has some traction.

"He's probably working with somebody else, and that's how he's escaping," said Howard Page. "Maybe he's ditching the weapon in somebody else's car."

Ranger Surplus had just one bulletproof jacket in stock among the jumble of pea coats, patches and camouflage--and an elderly woman snapped it up last week. So the clerks spend a quiet Sunday trying to cajole customers into buying a T-shirt emblazoned with a target -- and sneering about the sniper's shooting credentials. Where frightened suburbanites see a gun fanatic, these men swear they spot a wannabe.

"He's not a good shot; he's a coward," scoffed Matt Ashley III. "He should be able to fire at twice that distance."

"Yeah, he's not firing far. I bet he's in his -- mmmm, mid- to late 20s," put in a clerk named Mark.

"Naw, that's not what I say," Ashley said. "I say he's in his 30s or 40s. A kid would make it more exciting."

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