Federal, state and local investigators work with a Maryland county
department--used to calmer times--as leads keep pouring in.
Lisa Getter, The Los Angeles Times
In calmer days, police used the card table at the headquarters of
the Montgomery County Police Department to cut birthday
cakes. But now the table--and every other available piece of
furniture in the two-story brick building--has been taken over by the
nearly 200 federal, state and local investigators who are in a
desperate race to find the killer who is shooting people at random
in the Washington, D.C., area.
Before last week, this police department had just two squads
dedicated to homicides and other major crimes, 18 officers in all.
But in one deadly day, the number of murders this year jumped from
20 to 25--and a sleepy bedroom-community police
department found itself inundated with work, leads and help.
Since then, the elusive sniper has killed another man on a street
corner in Washington, shot a 43-year-old Virginia woman as
she was loading packages into her van and critically injured a
13-year-old Maryland boy who likes math. Wednesday night, he
struck again, killing a 53-year-old engineer at a gas station in
Virginia near a Civil War battlefield.
After Monday's shooting of the schoolboy, Montgomery County Police
Chief Charles A. Moose formally asked the federal
government for help, citing a federal law that allows the Justice
Department to investigate local crimes involving serial killings.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft immediately vowed to keep the federal
So many agents from so many agencies have flooded the command center
at police administration headquarters that some
are working while standing.
"I've seen people in this building I've never seen before," said
Officer Derek Baliles, a department spokesman.
There is no room for more tables and chairs. Phone lines have been
added to handle the crush.
But Moose remains in charge, appearing several times a day on live
television to brief the media and taking advice from the
more experienced hands around him. "It would be much more difficult"
if his 1,074 officers had to handle the case on their own,
the chief acknowledged.
The department isn't even fully staffed. A banner outside proclaims,
But for a low-crime department, the chief and his investigators have
earned the respect of the outsiders.
"It's his show and I have 100% confidence in him," said Gary M.
Bald, the FBI special agent in charge of the Baltimore regional
office. Bald, like dozens of other federal agents, has been involved
in the investigation since day one.
The FBI showed up last Friday with its own computer system, which is
operating 24 hours a day. "They rolled the system in on
wheels," Baliles said.
As tips pour into the department, which has set up a special phone
number to handle the calls, officers entered them on a
standardized form, which is then typed into the FBI's Rapid Start
computer program. The FBI used the same case management
program after last year's terrorist attacks.
"It's very effective," the FBI's Bald said. "It helps prioritize
tips and track leads."
So far, more than 8,000 tips have poured in, of which at least 1,600
have been ruled worthy of further investigation. "They've
provided forms for us," Baliles said. "We're copying and copying and copying."
The FBI has also provided agents, helicopters and a geographical and
psychological profile of the killer, which is constantly
evolving. "From my experience generally, profiles are never
complete," Bald said. "They're a work in progress."
Agents from the Secret Service and U.S. Marshals Service are also
providing help, acting as investigators, uniformed security or
just plain administrators.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has lent about
100 agents to the investigation--as well as five Labrador
retrievers trained to sniff out gunshot residue.
"Agents are developing leads. Forensic examiners are working on the
case. Our ballistics identification network is working on
this," said Mike Bouchard, the ATF special agent in charge of the
Baltimore regional office.
ATF agents are trying to see whether any of the ballistic evidence
taken from the shooting victims matches any other shooting
across the country, Bouchard said. The ATF national lab is in
Rockville, not far from the police command post.
On Monday, ATF agents went to the hospital where the boy who was
shot was taken, to get the bullet fragments that surgeons
had removed from his chest, then hurried them back to the lab for
testing to see whether they matched the other Maryland
shootings. They did.
Investigators believe the sniper is using an assault or high-powered
rifle that shoots .223-caliber bullets, rounds so deadly that
they can penetrate bulletproof vests.
Their only known lead so far is a witness account of a six-wheeled
white truck seen speeding from one of the early crime
scenes. Police are trying to find out who owns similar trucks in the
Washington area, what companies use them and who is
licensed to drive them. And they are combing through jail and prison
records, trying to see whether anyone who was recently
released fits the killer's profile.
The federal help has given the local investigators needed rest,
Moose said. "Each investigator is now able to spend a little more
time with his thoughts, a little more time to process information."
How difficult is this case? "It's difficult enough that we haven't
got the person," the ATF's Bouchard said.
If the killings go beyond the Washington area, the FBI could end up
in charge of the whole probe. "If it goes multistate, across
the country, that's bigger than we can handle," Baliles said.