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Sniper Task Force Rolls on Shooting

A man is wounded by a single shot that 'came out of nowhere' 80 miles south of the capital.

October 20, 2002|Stephen Braun and David Willman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — An interstate highway traveler was seriously wounded Saturday night in the parking lot of an Ashland, Va., steakhouse by a single long-range gunshot -- circumstances similar enough to the suburban Washington attacks to prompt sniper task force investigators to rush to the crime scene.

Sheriff's officials in Hanover County, Va., and residents who live near the crime scene said the unidentified victim, a 37-year-old man, was struck in the abdomen as he emerged from the restaurant and walked to his car with his wife. Police said the man was out of surgery in critical condition at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital in Ashland, a highway transit town about 80 miles south of Washington in the Richmond suburbs.

Racing their squad cars down highway ramps, police shut down traffic along Interstate 95 from the Washington Beltway to Richmond, searching for an unseen assailant. As helicopters darted overhead and the strobes of police cars lighted clogged roadways, Virginia state troopers and Hanover deputies went car by car, searching for anything out of place. Police had little to go on because, authorities said, no one saw the assailant or any vehicle leave the scene.

Police said the victim appeared to have been shot from a darkened tree line behind the restaurant about 100 feet from where he walked toward his car. The Washington-area sniper, who has killed nine people and wounded two over the last 18 days with expertly aimed solitary rifle shots, has struck his victims from a similar distance and usually near a major highway.

A sniper task force was on its way to the scene, said Montgomery County, Md., Police Capt. Nancy Demme.

If the Ashland shooting is connected to the 11 others that have terrorized the Washington area, it would represent new breaks in the sniper's established pattern. The incident would extend the gunman's rampage more than an hour south of his Beltway killing ground and mark the first time he has struck on a weekend. It also would mark the longest lull between shootings; his last attack was on Monday.

Ashland Police Chief Frederic Pleasants Jr. cautioned late Saturday night that police had no immediate evidence suggesting that the Beltway killer had struck in Ashland. "We do not have any description of a suspect, witness or vehicle at this time," the sheriff said.

But Maryland State Police Sgt. William Vogt said troopers were on the lookout for a white van with a ladder rack -- the familiar suspect vehicle that sniper investigators have sought since a slaying at a gas station just over a week ago in Spotsylvania County, Va.

Pleasants noted grimly that the unexplained shooting didn't fit the rural county's low crime patterns.

"This is an unusual incident for the community, someone being shot in this way for no reason," said Pleasants, who added that the county's most recent gunshot incident occurred in February.

Federal forensics experts who reached the scene within two hours of the shooting joined police in scouring woods behind the restaurant. Virginia State Police helicopters aided the search, shining bright beacons of light down into the trees.

In the other shootings, firearm analysts typically took at least a day of ballistics tests before they were able to tell whether the fired rounds were the .223-caliber bullets linked to the sniper's high-velocity rifle.

Pleasants and Sheriff's Lt. Doug Goodman said the victim was an out-of-state traveler who had pulled off I-95 with his wife to fill up his car with gas and have dinner at the Ponderosa steakhouse. As the couple walked from the restaurant after dinner, Pleasants said, the man's wife "heard a sound, but didn't relate it to a gunshot. Her husband took about three steps and then collapsed in the parking lot."

Victor Johnson, a night clerk at the Hampton Inn across the street from the Virginia restaurant, said people heard only one gunshot -- the hallmark of the Beltway sniper.

"They kept saying it's only one shot," Johnson said. "There was no altercation or anything. They said it just came out of nowhere."

Ashland, with about 6,000 residents, is a favorite stop for travelers along I-95. It is just off the highway north of Interstate 295, a bypass of Richmond and Petersburg.

Raymond Loving, who owns a Texaco station about 50 yards from the steakhouse, told CNN that a woman came into his gas station and said someone had been shot in the parking lot.

"She didn't see anything. She just heard a loud boom," Loving said.

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