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IN A SNIPER'S GRIP

A Day Fear Reached a New Level

Montgomery County, Md., residents are doubly alarmed. Sniper drama started there, and it is where it appeared to have returned.

October 23, 2002|Megan K. Stack and Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writers

ASPEN HILL, Md. -- Alfred Love woke up to the clatter of his telephone -- and a sick sense of deja vu. His neighbor had news: another sniper attack in Montgomery County, this one right at the foot of the hill.

By daybreak their apartment complex was hemmed with police tape. Love couldn't get to work; when his niece told him flatly she was too afraid to go to school, he didn't have the heart to force her.

"It started here, and now it's back," he said glumly. "To tell you the truth, I think he lives here."

Nowhere has the sniper's stark campaign of psychological warfare been so keenly felt as in Montgomery County. It was here that an unknown gunman kicked off a bloody rampage through two states and the nation's capital, and it was to Montgomery County that he appears to have returned.

People here are cranky from worry; weary of sitting around indoors; sick of the wail of sirens and the thrum of news helicopters overhead. Maybe the worst part is that they're getting used to it. Or maybe it's that they believe, almost every one, that the killer lives among them.

"Everybody feels trapped," said Mario Villalta, a 16-year-old student who missed class Tuesday because police cordoned off his apartment complex. "We can't go anywhere, and everybody's angry. The teachers say they'll catch him, don't worry, but we don't believe that."

For miles around, the sniper has clamped a vast region of 5 million people into a state of suspended terror. Commuters spent Tuesday morning trapped in endless lines of vehicles as police hunted for the elusive killer among the roadways -- to no avail. Phone lines jammed as police chiefs, school superintendents and county officials debated whether to keep schools open. Then, as the day drew to an end, parents sped to pick up their children with the echo of a threat playing in their heads: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

Normalcy was just starting to creep back to Montgomery County. People were beginning to relax a little, were laughing through tightened throats and reminding themselves that there's no point in hiding. In the 20 days since a bullet tore through the front window of a nearby craft shop, the surrounding community has passed through drastic mood changes.

These people watched while an invisible gunman cut down four of their neighbors in less than 24 hours. Then the carnage spread -- into the capital, east to a neighboring Maryland county, then deep into the Virginia countryside. And the people of Montgomery County came to the quiet conclusion, fed by profilers and by common sense, that the sniper is hiding in plain sight, in their midst.

"After the lull, everybody thought he lives here in the area, but he'll travel around to kill in other places," said a 31-year-old mover who declined to give his name. "People were starting to relax."

This bedroom town of dipping hills and gated complexes was still deep in slumber when 35-year-old Conrad Johnson was shot to death on the steps of a commuter bus. Neighbors have seen the drivers lingering down there so often they hardly notice them anymore as they drink their coffee and fill out crossword puzzles, passing the scraps of time between their routes. In retrospect, like the other victims, they were easy targets.

"I'm so frightened I don't like to come to work anymore," said Concepcion Cortes, an El Salvador native who waited for his bus behind the shelter of a sidewalk newspaper box. "But what can I do? Everybody has to work."

Wastes Three Hours

Bent on getting to work in Gaithersburg, Nicholas Cardenas wasted three hours driving into traffic jams, then executing nimble U-turns to circle back. Try as he might, he couldn't get through. Finally, in desperate need of a bathroom, he gave up and headed back to where he began -- a few blocks from the scene of the dawn shooting.

"Next time I hear this on the radio, I'm just going to stay home," he said. "It's not worth it."

For businesses like Shipley Plumbing in Maryland, the police roadblocks are expensive quagmires of missed appointments, wasted fuel and lost hours. "It's devastating my income," owner Ron Shipley said. "I've just got trucks idling. I've got customers asking: 'Why didn't you get here?' "

Time is passing. Fall is flaming red and orange in the woods; trees weep dead leaves over empty sidewalks and the bite of winter has stolen into the air. The ground of Aspen Hill is soft underfoot with fallen pine needles. The craft shop window that caught the sniper's first bullet has been mended; the panes are bright with painted leaves and pumpkins.

"You could throw a bowling ball through the shopping centers around here without hitting anybody," said the owner of a flower shop at the edge of an Aspen Hill cemetery. Terrified of being targeted next, she refused to give her name and asked that the name of her business not appear -- but she couldn't control her anger at the mention of the sniper.

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