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No Shortage of White Trucks

The type of van linked to the sniper is everywhere. It is the case's most widely known clue but presents challenges to authorities.

October 19, 2002|Lisa Getter and Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Just after Kenneth H. Bridges was gunned down while pumping gas at a Virginia Exxon station, customers at the Waffle House next door noticed a white van moving in traffic. At the same time, at least three white vans were parked in plain sight at a nearby Denny's.

Just before cabdriver Premkumar A. Walekar was killed at a Maryland Mobil station eight days earlier, workers saw white vans and trucks near the spot where police think the sniper stood.

"There's contractors, painters, delivery trucks, people stopping to get stuff from the store," said Warren Shifflet, who runs the Mobil repair shop. "We told the police we saw them there all the time."

In the hunt for a sniper, it is everywhere and nowhere, the phantom white van the killer possibly uses to escape, the most widely recounted detail in a case where evidence is scant. Police officials have released composite drawings of a light-colored Chevrolet Astro and Ford Econoline as possible getaway vehicles. Motorists now look with suspicion -- even fear -- at such vehicles, which have many industrial uses and often are outfitted with the ladder rack police also say is a possible feature.

On roads around Washington, police sometimes approach the vans with guns drawn, handcuffing occupants until they are cleared of suspicion.

Yet if the white van has captured a new status in public anxieties, it represents a daunting challenge for police trying to solve the series of sniper attacks that have killed nine people and injured two since Oct. 2. Washington and neighboring states are home to more than 100,000 white vans that are similar to the police descriptions, according to vehicle registration data and information from manufacturers.

In other words, the most widely known police clue may amount to little more than a needle in a haystack of highways: "They're basically very, very common," said Scott Miller, vice president of Market Facts Motor Research in Detroit. "For a very long time, there's been very minimal style changes. It could be a 10-year-old model and people wouldn't know the difference."

Frustrations in the investigation were underscored Friday, when Virginia authorities filed charges against a Falls Church, Va., man accusing him of "knowingly and willfully making a materially false statement or representation to police," said Julie Hersey, a Fairfax Police spokeswoman. The misdemeanor charges are punishable by as much as six months in jail and a possible $1,000 fine.

Matthew M. Dowdy, 37, initially told police investigating Monday's fatal shooting at a Home Depot that he had seen the shooter, his car and the weapon. But police later determined Dowdy made up the story, which included an account that the sniper fled the scene in a cream-colored van.

Adding new questions about the getaway vehicle, authorities late Friday seized a white box truck that had been found at a Virginia car rental agency with a shell casing inside. Investigators were working to determine the caliber of the casing.

"It is unknown if the truck is at all related to this case," said Montgomery County, Md., police spokesman Derek Baliles.

Even when the model used in a crime can be verified, the information is sometimes of limited use. Motor vehicle records typically do not identify a vehicle's color, said Dan Seiler, a private investigator and retired Maryland state trooper.

Moreover, widespread publicity about a white van could cause people to focus on the wrong vehicle at a crime scene, Seiler said. "One of the first problems you have is when you have a lookout for a vehicle like this, people start seeing them everywhere."

Indeed, some witness accounts suggest that a white, six-wheel box truck with writing on the side may be a key to solving the crimes. Such a truck was reported near shootings Oct. 3, when four people were gunned down in suburban Montgomery County in a span of 2 1/2 hours.

The sightings of the white box truck at the early scenes in Maryland could be useful, because the public at that time was not conditioned to look for such a vehicle, possibly adding credibility to those accounts.

Witnesses described a truck with weathered white paint, black or purple lettering on the side, a roll-up rear door and damage to the back bumper that could have come from backing into something. Its engine was loud, suggesting the truck was old. Isuzu was cited as a possible manufacturer.

An American Isuzu spokesman said there are 10,727 registered Isuzu box trucks in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

Bernie Schmitt, one of the managers of Fitzgerald Auto Mall on Nicholson Lane in Rockville, Md., said police took a copy of a surveillance tape from a camera that was facing the road Oct. 3, the morning the sniper killed four people before 10 a.m. The dealership is around the corner from where landscaper James L. "Sonny" Buchanan was shot while mowing the lawn at another Fitzgerald dealership, and possibly on the road the sniper took to his next stop.

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