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Legwork, Missteps on Sniper's Trail

A grueling investigation by a task force of 2,000 finally turns on a suspect's mistakes.

October 27, 2002|Stephen Braun, Judy Pasternak and Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writers

ROCKVILLE, Md. — The faces were always there, their gazes unavoidable.

For three weeks, police detectives and federal agents searching for the deadly Washington sniper were haunted by the grainy photographs left on a white mat board inside their command post. The faces belonged to the victims, placed as a silent shrine in full view of every weary investigator who approached the nerve center of the task force's suburban Washington headquarters.

They were there to goad the searchers on, bringing the victims to life for hundreds of investigators who knew them only in death. But the faces also mocked the investigators.

"It kept eating away at us when a new face went up on that board," said Montgomery County, Md., Assistant Police Chief Dee Walker. "But all that time, it kept a little fire lit in the backs of our minds. That's what kept a lot of us going, remembering who we were there for."

Even after John Allen Muhammad, 41, and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, were arrested Thursday in the murder spree that turned everyday life in the Washington suburbs into a landscape of surreal dread, those 13 faces -- 10 dead and three wounded -- remained as a grim reminder of the sniper's ability to kill and kill again.

The largest serial murder manhunt in recent memory took three nerve-racking weeks to track down a roving team of killers whose rampage around Washington's Beltway deviated from any of the standard criminal patterns known to veteran investigators. Despite throwing 2,000 officials into the breach, the investigation was repeatedly stymied by suspects whose moves were as jumbled as the trash-littered back seat of the blue Chevrolet Caprice that police say they transformed into a rolling sniper's nest.

At times, the dragnet was racked by missed opportunities and infighting. A Baltimore policeman questioned the two men but turned them loose because he had no way of recognizing them. A Virginia sheriff agonized over a witness' suspicion of a 1990 Caprice; the report, which did not jibe with stories of white vans and box trucks, ended up being filed away. Federal agents rushing to search for clues after one shooting were momentarily held off by local police. Even one of the killers left a letter berating the police for "incompitence" after he was hung up on six times by tip-line operators who could not winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Officials at the center of the massive operation and on its fringes, however, came away from the manhunt impressed with the task force's ability to run down even the most obscure leads and keep nearly two dozen suspects under 24-hour surveillance at the same time.

But for all the massive government resources, overwhelming numbers and sheer persistence, the investigation turned on the suspects' own missteps, which gave investigators the final critical links to close in on them.

"These guys failed at pretty much everything they did," said one senior federal law enforcement official on the task force. "They were hard to come to grips with because they were only efficient at two things: killing and getting away. And eventually, they failed at that."

Leads Still Turning Up

Even with the suspects held in a Baltimore detention center, authorities said their investigation continues to turn up new leads. Among them:

* Federal forensic experts are analyzing a laptop computer that was found inside the Caprice seized when the two men were arrested at a rural Maryland rest area on Thursday. Investigators hope to learn more about the pair's motives by downloading the computer's files.

* Law enforcement officials now suspect that a Sept. 14 rifle shooting at a Montgomery County shopping center was a prelude to the killings that began on Oct. 3. Task force officials had earlier said ballistics tests of bullet fragments found after the wounding of a liquor store employee there were inconclusive. But a senior federal official said Saturday that "we're pretty sure it's the work of the same guys."

* FBI officials in Philadelphia said Saturday that Nathanel O. Osbourne, a Jamaican national who was co-owner of the Caprice used by the sniper suspects, had been arrested in Flint, Mich. Investigators want to know if Osbourne had any role in aiding Muhammad and Malvo.

Despite frustration about failing to end the murder spree sooner, federal agents and police detectives who worked inside the massive law enforcement hierarchy chipped away with every available resource, improvising when nothing else worked.

Montgomery County police officers were told at morning roll calls to approach people at 7-Elevens and ask if they had information or knew witnesses. FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms negotiators carefully crafted public communiques used by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose to appeal to the killers -- attempts to quell the killers' homicidal urges while federal agents worked behind the scenes to swab their letters for fingerprints and DNA samples and tap the pay phones they used.

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