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Where Death Was Dealt, a Wary Sense of Relief

October 25, 2002|Lisa Getter and Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writers

ASPEN HILL, Md. — School bus driver Jacqueline Young hurried home at midday to turn on the news about the sniper, hoping she could soon tell her riders that life had returned to normal.

Warren Shifflet, an auto mechanic who watched one of his customers bleed to death from a sniper's gunshot wound, fantasized about getting "ahold of these guys -- and I'm not the only one who feels that way."

And Kenny Walters, a middle-school student, looked forward to playing basketball outdoors once again, happy that the sniper "can't kill nobody else."

News that police may have solved the series of sniper murders drew sighs of relief Thursday from a public that had endured three weeks of terror.

But relief mixed with wariness as residents struggled to accept the idea that they could resume the routine acts of life without fear of a sniper's bullet.

The startling turn of events, just days after the sniper's warning to parents that their children were not safe, left some almost numb.

"It's not like an instantaneous reaction," said Mohinder Gill, a service station owner who recalled how pigeons flew off their perch on a wire almost as soon as he heard the gunshot this month. "People are still waking up to what has happened."

It was in this modest, working-class section of Montgomery County -- an enclave of apartment complexes, shopping centers and bustling roadways -- that the sniper episode exploded into public consciousness with five fatal shootings over the night of Oct. 2 and the next morning. And it was here, in Aspen Hill, that the last victim was killed Monday.

During the three-week spree, shootings spread an ever-widening circle of fear, grazing the District of Columbia and moving south through Virginia. Because the victims were killed while doing everyday things like pumping gas and loading groceries, the public's sense of vulnerability became more acute.

Until Thursday. Suddenly, pictures of suspects and reports of arrests interrupted what many had thought would be one more day under a sniper's shadow.

In Spotsylvania County, Va., 60 miles south of the first murder spree, some residents expressed their relief.

"We feel great," said Raja Abilmona, who owns a Mobil station across the street from where motorist Kenneth H. Bridges was gunned down pumping gas Oct. 11. "We feel sorry for the victims' families first, but we feel very, very relieved for our customers. Hopefully, it will be over."

Federal agents showed Abilmona pictures of the suspects Wednesday night, but neither looked familiar, he said.

To the north, in Fairfax County -- where FBI analyst Linda Franklin was shot outside a Home Depot -- the widely shared release of tension was accompanied by a residual caution.

"What I hear is great relief," said Paul Regnier, a Fairfax County public schools spokesman. "But people are still concerned. Are we sure? They're wondering if we've got this nailed down."

The school system, the metropolitan area's largest, is looking forward to the return of outdoor recess and sports events.

In Manassas, Va., where Dean Harold Myers was killed pumping gas at a Sunoco station, more people seemed to be going out Thursday night.

"The mood is much better -- guests, as well as the people that work here," said James Rybinsky, host at the Olive Garden restaurant, noting that business seemed to have jumped more than 10%. "You're not glued to the radio and TV. You're not worried that someone else is being shot."

Karen Pumphrey, a teacher at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md., embodied the mix of memories and emotions that greeted news of the arrests.

It was early Oct. 7 when she thought she heard someone bang at the front door of the school building. She went outside and saw one of her 13-year-old students on the ground, screaming. He was a smart kid, at the top of her science class. But she thought at first he was fooling around.

"He was holding his stomach, writhing around. I said, 'What is wrong with you?' He said, 'I'm shot.' I said, 'Where?' He said, 'In my stomach.' I said, 'You'd better not be kidding me.' " Within seconds, the boy's aunt returned in her car and rushed him to the hospital.

On Thursday, teachers were "euphoric" at word of the arrests, she said. She said a lot of her students hadn't heard the news. "Tomorrow's going to be a different story," she said.

Principal John Lloyd said school was "great" Thursday. He said he couldn't even count how many students stopped him as they got off their buses in the morning to ask if he had heard the news.

"If there was one, there were a hundred," he said.

Many residents of the Washington area could say they had patronized a particular store where tragedy struck, or had been unnervingly near the scene of a slaying.

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