|How a killer’s diabolical methods and terrifying effect have launched an investigation like no other, with new methods and armies of cops on the case. A look behind the police-tape lines|
|By Amanda Ripley Washington|
Posted Sunday, Oct. 13, 2002; 10:31 a.m. EST
Pay attention, profilers have long warned, to a serial killer’s first strike. The first of the bullets that strafed the suburbs of America’s capital last week sliced through the air over a drab strip-mall parking lot in Aspen Hill, Md., and cracked a nickel-size hole in the front window of a Michaels craft store. It then arched through a leafy display of silk autumnal bouquets, zipped behind the head of a female cashier and pierced a hole through the lamp over the register of lane No. 5. Emerging on the other side, it whizzed over a Christmas ornament display and finally ricocheted off a shelf of “Inspiration for the Heart” mini prayer books. Unlike every shot to come, the bullet hurt no one.
The bullet fragments, lying there on the store floor, not far from a selection of bride and groom wedding-cake figurines, communicated the theme of this diabolical case: no matter how upscale the neighborhood, no matter how comfortable the surroundings, you too could be a target. Here, among the endless rows of supermarkets, party stores and gas stations, not unlike the other strip malls that crisscross the U.S., a malicious hunter—or hunters—has taken position in the natural habitat of contemporary Americans. And incredibly, each time, despite busy, well-lit streets, no one noticed the shooter. As it turns out, the suburbs, with the camouflage of hedgerows, neon signs and anonymous traffic, make a better shooting gallery than a dark alley.
But if the randomness of the crime is rare, it has been met with an equally ground-breaking counterattack. Because the crime scenes ring the nation’s capital—and because this area was so recently scarred by terrorist attacks—little has been spared in the search for the killer. Says Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan: “Everyone rushed forward to help us that first day. I don’t think that would have happened before 9/11.” An estimated 1,000 people are working on the case, including Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms units, U.S. Marshals and state police. One kindergarten-through-second-grade school in Montgomery County was alternately watched over last week by police, Secret Service agents and the FBI. The feds have donated premiere ballistics forensics investigators. The FBI. is creating animated 3-D computer-graphic displays to reconstruct the crime scene and help calculate the sniper’s position, in hopes of jogging potential witnesses’ memories. And federal law-enforcement sources tell TIME that the bureau has asked the Pentagon to search its records for recently discharged GIs who went through sniper school. The schools teach snipers to work in tandem—one as the spotter, the other as the shooter.
For the police, the P.R. challenge alone has been a dizzying challenge. Investigators had to carefully weigh their obligation to keep the public informed and calmed while knowing that they were also talking to the killer. At each of the 50 or so press briefings since the first shooting, officials have agonized over what effect public statements may have on the shooter. Hopefully, Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose told TIME, “Nobody ever has to live with the fact that maybe something they did kept this person or these people out there any longer than they have been.” In one week, Moose handled almost three times as many murders as his department usually sees in a month.
Meanwhile, regular folks have awkwardly adapted to the presence of a sniper in their community. After a 13-year-old boy was shot in the stomach walking into school on Oct. 7, events were unilaterally canceled: field trips, all outdoor school sporting events, four homecoming celebrations, even sat exams. Park rangers have been spotted monitoring soccer fields—the de facto town squares for Montgomery County’s affluent families. From the backseat of a Fairfax, Va., woman’s car, a 5-year-old who has been newly forbidden from riding his bike asks, “Mommy, will it hurt if I get shot?” At the scene of the first, victimless shooting, employees now walk zigzag across the parking lot. They still take smoke breaks, but now they stand pressed up against cement columns, trying to act nonchalant.
The day the shootings began on Oct. 2, it took several hours for the bewildered Michaels employees to realize they might be part of something bigger. That’s when they heard that a middle-aged man had been gunned down walking through a Shoppers Food Warehouse parking lot, a little over two miles away. Not only did the killer brazenly fire in the waning daylight hours of rush-hour congestion; he shot James Martin right across from a police station.
Just five miles away, James (Sonny) Buchanan was mowing a patch of grass off the clogged Rockville Pike artery the next morning when a bullet ripped open his chest. Five miles northeast and half an hour later, Premkumar Walekar crumpled to the ground, murdered while putting $5 worth of gas into his cab. His daughter, watching the live bulletin on TV, recognized the American flags in the back window of his cab and rushed to the scene, where she identified him. Two miles away, unaware of the rippling circle of violence, Sarah Ramos was killed while sitting on a park bench, waiting for a ride. A witness reported seeing a white van with two occupants screech out of the area. Police began frantically stopping white vans, but a little over an hour later, Lori Lewis Rivera was struck down while vacuuming her minivan outside a Shell station. At 9:20 p.m., about a five-mile drive from the last shooting, 72-year-old Pascal Charlot was cut down with a shot below the neck as he crossed the street.
The victims were carrying out the banal tasks of everyday life, their last unremarkable moments juxtaposed with the killer’s lightning brutality. Officials speculated that this could be a terrorist attack, but everyone searched in vain for any overt political message. The victims, if they were lined up side by side, would roughly resemble a random sampling of the D.C. metropolitan area. They were white, black, hispanic, Indian, male and female. There was a government analyst, a landscaper, a cleaning lady, a nanny. The first shooting that broke the killing pattern, flimsy at it was, came the next day in a parking lot in Spotsylvania County, Va. The shooter had deviated by about 70 miles from the epicenter of the other attacks, spurring speculation that he was rebelling against talking-head hypotheses that he must live in Montgomery County. The shooting also left the woman injured but alive. And it took place in front of another Michaels store. Desperate for a motive, police contacted Michaels headquarters in Texas for reports of disgruntled employees. But the return to a Michaels craft store may have been sheer coincidence, since there are 40 of them in Maryland and Virginia.
FBI profilers began working on the case, and, at the ATF’s suggestion, geographic profiler Kim Rossmo stepped in. “Random crimes aren’t random, not in the mathematical sense,” says Rossmo, a former Vancouver police official. After studying about 4,000 criminals, Rossmo is convinced that most criminals operate a predictable distance from where they live and work. They are constantly juggling the competing urges to attack in a convenient and familiar locale and to go unrecognized. That means they tend to pick hunting grounds midway between the places they know best. When a criminals’ stats are plugged into an algorithm Rossmo has developed using his theory, it creates a rainbow-hued map, with the crime scenes in lime and yellow zones, the perpetrator’s likely home in bright red or orange, and the least productive places to look in indigo. It’s a tidy treasure map, but Rossmo concedes his program won’t find a killer by itself. “There are only three ways you can solve a crime: physical evidence, eye witnesses, or a confession.”
After 48 hours without a shooting, Moose appeared on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, at a press briefing to reassure the public. He promised to “greatly increase” police presence at area schools the following day, though he couldn’t guarantee officers at every building. The next morning, an eighth-grade boy was shot in front of Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md. At a press conference, Moose struggled for composure. “I guess it’s getting to be really, really personal now,” he said.
The boy, whose name has not been released, had just been dropped off by his aunt, less than 20 feet from the school door. Driving away, she heard a loud sound and turned around to see her nephew on the ground. His science teacher, Karen Pumphrey, walked out to find the boy lying on the ground, grimacing in pain. “I’ve been shot,” he told her. “Are you kidding?” Pumphrey asked, accustomed to her student’s practical jokes. Suffering from injuries to the spleen, stomach, pancreas, lung and diaphragm, his condition is critical but stable.
Frantic parents streamed back from work to pick up their children from area schools. As protective police helicopters hovered, residents shut themselves inside. Says Sherri Long, whose daughter Staci is a student at Tasker: “People who needed to get prescriptions waited. We’ve got tapes due back at Blockbuster and we’ll just pay the fines.”