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IN A SNIPER'S GRIP

Bus Driver's Slaying Carries Mark of Sniper

A massive dragnet after the dawn shooting fails to find a suspect. The killer threatens children and reportedly issues a demand for $10 million.

October 23, 2002|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

ASPEN HILL, Md. -- A single gun blast killed a suburban Maryland bus driver Tuesday, signaling that the Washington-area sniper may have returned to his terror-stricken starting place, and police confirmed a dire new threat from the gunman to the region's young.

Investigators continued a dialogue with the rifle-wielding killer even as they combed for evidence and tried to track him down. Urging the killer to stay in contact, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose recited a menacing passage from a letter found last weekend near a restaurant in Ashland, Va., the site of one of the attacks.

" 'Your children are not safe anywhere at any time,' " Moose read.

The unspecified threat played a role in a spate of school closings in and around Richmond, Va., on Monday and Tuesday. Moose said he revealed the passage because of the "concerns of the community."

Late in the day, the police chief emerged to read another missive to the gunman. In the cryptic exchange, Moose told the killer that police had "researched the options you stated" but found they were "not possible electronically."

(The Washington Post reported that the letter listed half a dozen calls that had been ''ignored" by operators at the task force command center. The letter writer claimed that "five people had to die" because "incompetent" workers had hung up repeatedly on him. The letter demanded $10 million, according to sources quoted by the Post and Associated Press.)

Police were awaiting the results of ballistic tests to see whether Tuesday's shooting could be linked to the previous attacks, which have killed nine and wounded three over the last three weeks. But the killing bore the sniper's distinctive signatures: a solitary gunshot, a forest hide-out, a stealthy escape through a massive police dragnet. No one reported seeing his face or his gun; no one reported seeing his getaway vehicle.

Ashen-faced investigators conceded the obvious during a news conference soon after Conrad E. Johnson, 35, was pronounced dead at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. The sniper's skill at stalking human prey, killing from a distance and eluding a massive manhunt has left the entire Washington region at risk.

"We have not been able to assure that anyone -- any age, any gender, any race -- about their safety with regards to this situation," Moose said. The sniper, he added, displays "a clear willingness and ability to kill people" at "different times, different days and different locations."

The attack came at dawn Tuesday, almost exquisitely timed and placed to maximize dread. Johnson was cut down inside his bus just before 6 a.m. as it idled halfway between the sites of two of the first assaults.

Within minutes, hundreds of county police and Maryland state troopers swarmed over highway ramps and clamped down on side streets all around Washington's Beltway. Brandishing shotguns, pistols and rifles, they scanned the faces of male drivers and stopped scores of white vans -- the type of vehicle witnesses had seen at previous sites.

But the police were relying on sniper alerts more than a week old. After interviewing scores of neighbors on Tuesday, investigators had no new witness reports to radio to the roadblock officers, no fresh descriptions of an escape vehicle. The four-hour dragnet came up empty.

The failure to apprehend the killer has magnified pressure on law enforcement officials, who are trying to reassure the public even as they concede their inability to protect them.

"We're doing everything in our power to keep people safe, collect evidence, use any strategy to get this person off the street and get this person indicted," Moose said.

But he and other authorities were forced to wave off growing reports that the FBI and other federal agencies would take a more prominent role in the probe. Federal officials are researching gun-related statutes, one official said, but the homicide cases remain the responsibility of Maryland and Virginia police jurisdictions -- seven agencies so far.

"The circumstances have not changed," said Gary M. Bald, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office, who heads a team of federal agents. "This continues to be a joint investigation. It's a situation where each of the agencies are bringing their expertise to these cases."

Officials close to the investigation said federal officials already have had a primary role in decision making on police matters, but share that status with Montgomery County officials.

"We've got more than half of the homicides in this case, and that's not something you just push aside," one county official said.

The Times has also learned that the CIA offered to help out the FBI on the sniper case -- but that aid has so far been limited.

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