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The Nation | SEVEN CORNERS, Va.

Distance Offers Sniper Safe Haven

Providing an element of surprise and a chance to escape, a shot from afar also confuses witnesses.

October 20, 2002|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

SEVEN CORNERS, Va. -- Distance is the Beltway killer's lethal edge.

Firing from hundreds of yards away, he remains a phantom to victims and witnesses. Distance provides the element of surprise and the luxury of escape, a cloaking remoteness that has emerged as the most frustrating obstacle for investigators struggling to catch the serial murderer before he kills again.

When the gunman shot his 11th victim Monday night, Ligia Baldivia knew in an instant where the shot came from. The sonic crack echoed out of a darkened school parking lot close to her first-floor apartment.

"I didn't know it was from this guy until the next day," she said. "It was so loud, everybody around here heard it."

But across U.S. 50, a noisy six-lane highway, sniper task force detectives were convinced that the fatal shot had been fired from inside a Falls Church, Va., Home Depot garage. For two days after FBI analyst Linda Franklin was felled near her car, investigators thought the gunman had finally made a critical mistake, surrendering the safety of distance to kill close up.

Then investigators discovered that a primary witness had trumped up a tale that Franklin had been shot from only 40 yards away, and they shifted their focus to the parking lot 100 yards across the highway. It was a return to the painstaking long-range searches that have strained police manpower and complicated evidence-gathering for 18 wearying days.

The gunman's ability to murder from long distances has forced investigators to expand their crime scenes by hundreds of yards and bogged them down in a tedious hunt for what might be left behind. It also has distorted the sound from the sniper's high-powered rifle, making it hard to know where the shots are coming from.

"We're now at the point where we go out on each new case knowing we have a remote crime scene we have to deal with," one investigator said. "That doesn't make it any easier to solve."

Task force officials say the rifle-wielding assailant has fired each of his 11 solitary shots from a distance of 150 to 500 yards. Using high-velocity .223-caliber ammunition, the sniper has tended to fire closer to the 150-yard range in most of the shootings, investigators believe. He has killed nine people and wounded two, and authorities were investigating a Saturday night shooting in Ashland, Va., as possibly connected.

But in at least two cases, one official said, the bullet's trajectory showed it was fired from so far away that police are still uncertain exactly where the gunman hid.

Distance "makes it hard for us in several ways," said Douglas F. Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney who heads a team of prosecutors in the five Maryland murders.

"You have fewer witnesses because the sniper isn't seen," Gansler said. "The witnesses focus most of their attention on the victim because that's the only part of the crime they see. And you end up having to deal with two crime scenes -- where the victim was hit and where the shooter fired from."

If his penchant for targeting people from long range signals a thirst for killing as sport, as some police and serial murder experts say, it also shows a deep sense of caution.

"The farther away you are, the greater the chance you escape undetected," said Peter Gagliardi, a former federal firearms official who now works as a private forensics consultant.

Investigators believe that, in some instances, the killer may have fired from inside a vehicle -- which could contain valuable crime scene evidence such as powder burns and spent shells. On Saturday, police forensics teams examined a white box truck after being tipped by a cleaning crew that found a shell casing inside. The rental vehicle had just been returned to an agency near Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Some task force members are exploring the possibility that the killer's vehicle was moving as he fired -- a difficult feat that suggests an accomplice as driver.

Firing from afar confuses witnesses because, as a bullet travels a long trajectory in a split second, the sound of the gunshot is distorted by "traffic patterns in the street, wind, noise and rain. Sound travels funny," said Gagliardi, a former head of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in New York who now is a vice president at Forensic Technology in Washington.

The result is echo, distortion and the mistaken impression that a bullet was fired from one direction when it actually came from another.

That confusion is magnified by the fact that the sniper fires only a single round. "When you have only one shot," Gansler said, "it doesn't give witnesses a chance to use a second shot to tell its direction."

A remote firing site also complicates the search for evidence by giving the gunman time to clean up the evidence around him before he flees.

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