Sniper Sighting Fails to Create a Clear Picture
|by Francis X. Clines, The New York Times
ROCKVILLE, Md., -- The police announced today that they had no sketch to offer the public in their hunt for the suburban sniper because witnesses who saw him kill his latest victim could not agree on details in the mayhem of the shooting scene.
Investigators confirmed that more than one witness saw the latest slaying, on Monday, but they would not disclose any details other than the fact that the sniper is male. Advertisement
"There are a couple of people who believe they saw a man shoot," said Capt. Nancy Demme of the Montgomery County police. "Unfortunately, distance and darkness and, perhaps, adrenaline have made them unable to give us a clear composite that we can disseminate."
The captain did not say, however, what partial descriptions or other new evidence investigators might be working with in their manhunt.
The search by hundreds of police officers went into a third week with the Washington region fearfully anticipating that the sniper is not finished with a rampage in which he has killed nine and wounded two others in separate single-shot attacks.
With a single rifle shot to the head, the sniper killed 47-year-old Linda Franklin on Monday night as she loaded her car at a shopping center in Falls Church, Va. Nearby witnesses said they saw the shooting and offered the police details about the sniper, who they said fled the scene in the same sort of light-colored van that the police have been seeking from his earlier attacks.
One witness identified the weapon that the sniper shouldered, about 90 feet from Ms. Franklin, as an AK-74, a high-powered Russian-made assault rifle that can fire the type of bullets used in the slayings, the police said. They emphasized that this detail might be off somewhat because slightly different rifles, like light vans, can appear so similar in the frenzy of a crime scene.
Through the day, there was a sense that the manhunt was taking a more intensive tack on the basis of fresh, substantial evidence collected but not publicly disclosed after the Monday shooting, including partial license plate data. One report was of a Maryland tag, but investigators declined to comment.
As in other periods of respite in the random assaults, news reports surfaced of individuals under surveillance, but the police emphasized they had no prime suspect to talk of. A steady run of arrests continued as agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms pursued tips and found individuals with illegal rifles, but no prime suspect.
The leaders of the local, state and federal manhunt task force were unavailable for comment as they gathered for a private strategy meeting. The elusive rifleman has baffled police in five jurisdictions across a two-state 50-mile swath of the Washington suburbs. Commanders have tightly restricted their comments to allow him no hint of their strategy.
In another measure of the sniper's effects on local life, the opening of the muzzle-loading deer-hunting season was suspended by Maryland in a four-county region where the sniper has been preying.
"We don't want our officers chasing false alarms of shots fired," explained Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening banned all recreational shooting except at approved firing ranges until the sniper is caught.
With thousands of calls to the police logged, the captain urged residents to keep calling about suspicious neighbors and "potential suspects," people suspiciously angry or absent from work routines or involved with weapons, she explained.
During the times of his repeated assaults, the sniper must so far be going unaccounted for by anyone familiar with his routine, Captain Demme said.
On Monday night, one witness talked of an olive-skinned man as a possible suspect. But the police would not confirm this, emphasizing factors like the yellowish dim light at the open-air parking garage crime scene, as well as disparities with other partial descriptions.
"The only common denominator thus far is male," Captain Demme said. "We don't have a refined description to go by."
With residents fully expecting another shooting soon, there was wide speculation that the sniper might be pursuing a new sort of gamesmanship by letting witnesses see him standing and taking aim on Monday night in the garage. In previous shootings, the gunman has shot across greater distances from perches hidden from witnesses.
His weapon can be accurate across 500 yards, say ballistics specialists who found he is using high-intensity .223-caliber bullets of the sort designed to bring down soldiers or large game on the run.
As each shooting occurs without an arrest, "the concern level and the anxiety level are rising," said Mr. Duncan, chief executive in Montgomery County, where the sniper has killed six people. Public resolve to carry on with life is growing, too, Mr. Duncan insisted.
The other three killings were in Virginia, to the south and west, enlarging the region's circle of fear.
Federal agents say they have been receiving many tips from residents alarmed about gun-owning neighbors. "Most of these are possessed legally," said Michael Bouchard, chief agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, in the hunt.
"However, some are possessed by people who shouldn't have them," Mr. Bouchard added, cautioning against alarmist reports when the individuals are questioned.
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