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Dialogue With Police Heightens Sniper Mystery

Serial killers have long shown an interest in communicating with authorities. The gunman may get a thrill out of staying ahead.

October 22, 2002|Jonathan Peterson and Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON A hand-scrawled note. A taunting letter. A chilling signature left at the scene of the crime.

The unpredictable sniper who has terrorized the Washington area with a random series of fatal shootings now shares at least one trait with other notorious killers: He has gotten in touch with his police pursuers.

The startling development may provide the most revealing look yet into the mind of the elusive gunman who has killed nine and wounded three since Oct. 2, criminal experts said Monday.

"All of these things are designed to maximize the killer's feeling of power, superiority, relative to the community and the police," said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, alluding to the bizarre calling cards, notes and taunting messages that serial killers sometimes leave behind.

The Washington-area sniper may get a thrill out of communicating with police, perhaps enjoying the added attention even as he stays one step ahead of his pursuers, experts said. The dialogue also may give him a feeling of power as he forces law enforcement authorities to address him with respect and care.

Some serial murderers may simply take pleasure in taunting the cops: "The killer is saying in effect: 'See, I'm better than you,' " said Robert Castelli, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and is a former investigator for the New York State Police.

Washington-area police revealed little on Monday about what the sniper was saying but publicly acknowledged that he may have tried to reach them in a garbled phone call. In an extraordinary moment Monday afternoon, Montgomery County, Md., Police Chief Charles A. Moose tried to speak directly to the killer.

Looking calm and stern, Moose peered into the television cameras and recited the same message twice: "The person you called could not hear everything that you said. The audio was unclear and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand."

The first signs of a conversation emerged on Sunday, when Moose, during a news briefing, told an unidentified person to "call us." In an earlier appearance on Monday, the chief announced cryptically: "We are preparing our response at this time."

The phone call followed a note on a tarot card believed left by the sniper after he shot a 13-year-old boy in front of his school: "Dear Mr. Policeman, I am God."

Some believe it is no coincidence that the sniper may have tried to reach Moose, out of the scores of law enforcement personnel involved. Since the shootings began, the earnest, sometimes short-tempered police chief has, thanks to his frequent television appearances, symbolized the investigation.

"A lot of the time, perpetrators will want to establish communication with that [visible] person," noted Reid Meloy, a criminal profiler in San Diego.

Serial killers have long been fascinated by symbols of authority. Jack the Ripper sent bloody clothing to a London newspaper and contacted a local citizens committee.

In Northern California, the Zodiac killer sent eerie letters to the press taunting detectives about his shootings. "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz mailed notes to the New York City police and to one of the city's leading newspaper columnists, Jimmy Breslin.

Thomas Lee Dillon, who was convicted of five sniper killings in Ohio from 1989 to 1992, once mocked his pursuers in a letter to the newspaper: "You could interview till doomsday everyone that Jamie Paxton [the victim] ever met in his life, and you wouldn't have a clue to my identity."

Some said Monday that killers who contact the police might be driven in part by an urge to confess. But others maintain that the taunting aspect and the thrill of the contest between hunter and hunted are more typical incentives.

"Knowing the personalities of these individuals {mdash} they are much too psychopathic and narcissistic to have any remorse or regret about what they're doing," Meloy said.

The desire to communicate may increase with time, adding to the gratification of the killings like a high-wire balancing act: "At some point in time it has to move to the next level, because it's just like a narcotic," said Arnett Gaston, a clinical psychologist and member of the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland. "You build a tolerance level and need to move to the next level."

A memorable example is the self-named Zodiac, who may be responsible for 37 deaths in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s.

"The police shall never catch me, for I am too clever for them," the killer wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969. The writer went on to boast that "as of yet I have left no fingerprints behind me contrary to what the police say." He even revealed some of his operational secrets, saying that he coated his fingertips with airplane cement to hide fingerprints and that he had bought his "killing tools" by mail order so they would be hard to trace.

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