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IN A SNIPER'S GRIP

Killer Escalates Sense of Control

His demand for money surprises experts, but his chilling threat to harm children does not.

October 23, 2002|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It was a gut punch to an entire region: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

But experts in criminal behavior said it was not unexpected that the Washington-area sniper would make such a threat, given that he has shown a pattern of trying to escalate his sense of power and control over the community he is terrorizing.

The real surprise Tuesday, said behavioral psychologists, was another statement made by the sniper: a demand for money. They said such a demand was virtually unheard of in similar cases of multiple killings.

"It's extraordinary," said James Alan Fox, an authority on homicide at Northeastern University in Boston. "I can't think of any others like that. People in these cases usually have more of a psychological or political agenda."

"This would be unexpected compared to the 20 serial killers I've seen," said Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a New York University psychiatrist. Lewis cautioned, however, that the public knows so little about the sniper that it is hard to draw a clear picture of the person, his motives and his intentions.

The chilling caution on children's safety, as well as the apparent demand for money, came in a letter left at the scene of the shooting outside an Ashland, Va., restaurant on Saturday. That was the most recent before Tuesday's fatal assault on a bus driver in the same Montgomery County, Md., suburban area where the attacks began three weeks ago today.

Sources in the probe told Associated Press on Tuesday that the note, described as lengthy and poorly worded, suggested the killer wants $10 million.

"We have researched the options you stated and found that it is not possible electronically to comply in the manner that you requested," Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said in a Tuesday night statement to the letter writer. "However, we remain open and ready to talk to you about the options you have mentioned."

And he added: "You indicated that this is about more than violence. We are waiting to hear from you."

It is not uncommon for serial killers to leave notes, often taunting police or boasting of their skills in evading authorities. Notes in past cases have also threatened children. The self-named Zodiac killer, who stalked Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sent letters laying out plans to detonate a bomb under a school bus, even drawing diagrams of his planned device. No such attack took place.

But several criminal behavior experts said they could not think of a case where someone had killed several people and then began demanding money.

Some specialists said the demand probably had less to do with the money itself than with the pleasure of manipulating authorities.

"This person is enjoying the terror he's creating. This may just be a move to intensify that," Fox said. "It may have something to do with just his being in charge -- we don't know."

Clinton R. Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler and hostage negotiator, said killers can evolve over time, and it is possible that the sniper would in fact turn "to some form of extortion, like a person who threatens to put ground glass in baby food."

The demand for money is only one way in which the sniper differs from other serial killers. Where repeat killers often show a predilection for a particular type of person -- young blond women, for example -- the person stalking the Washington region has chosen a variety of victims.

Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, said the letter and other communications to police led him to three conclusions.

First, the sniper is probably not part of organized or international terrorism. "Al Qaeda doesn't leave its phone number, and it wouldn't claim to be God," Levin said. A tarot card left at an earlier shooting reportedly included the words "Dear Mr. Policeman, I am God," and the Ashland note contained a telephone number apparently designed to facilitate communication with police.

Second, it is unlikely that the sniper is working with a partner, as about 25% of serial killers do. "It would be unprecedented for a team of killers, like friends, to be communicating with the police or the media," Levin said.

"They're too busy communicating between themselves. Their killing spree is intended to enhance the bond between them. I've racked my brain to remember just one case of a team of serial killers who have sent messages to the police or media, and I can't think of one."

Finally, "this killer is more interested in what happens in the aftermath of his murders than in the murders themselves," Levin said. "Very few serial killers use a firearm. Most use their hands and get off on their victims suffering. This one distances himself from the victim but enjoys the cat-and-mouse with police." Fox saw the sniper's threat against children as part of an escalation of his sense of control over others. "It's a general announcement of how much power he has. It's not a surprise that he ... is articulating it."

Levin ventured that the best way to find the killer would be for police to release the text of his letter and hope that someone recognizes the writing style.

That strategy worked in the Unabomber case, when the language used by Theodore J. Kaczynski was recognized by his brother after the bomber's 35,000-word treatise was published in two newspapers. But it was no help with the Zodiac killer, who wrote more than 20 letters to newspapers and was never found.

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