Elusive sniper frustrates police

SPOTSYLVANIA — Minutes after a serial sniper struck his 10th victim in as many days, police choked off exit ramps, northbound Interstate 95, secondary roads and bridges.

But they were too late. The sniper had vanished into the rainy, gray morning.

As some wary Fredericksburg-area residents briskly zigzagged into stores Saturday and gas pumps near Interstate 95 remained mostly vacant, authorities conceded the sniper’s lightning-quick attacks — every other day last week — pose a daunting challenge.

The multistate dragnet includes a search for a white box-style truck, depicted in a composite sketch released Saturday by the FBI and Montgomery County, Md., authorities, and a white minivan, possibly a Chevrolet Astro, which might be connected to Friday’s slaying near Fredericksburg. Even as authorities singled out those vehicles, they urged the public not to exclude other suspicious activities or vehicles.

Robert Ressler, a retired FBI profiler, said Saturday the assailant and possibly an accomplice are likely scouting potential target areas and mapping alternative escape routes between shootings. The three most recent attacks occurred on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, each one after authorities had publicly confirmed a link with prior shootings.

“In between, they’re plotting and planning where they’re going to go,” Ressler said.

Although four of the shootings have occurred within a few hundred yards of a highway interchange, Ressler believes the sniper could be using back roads, possibly escaping south before heading back north. “It would be really fatalistic for them to get on 95” given the bolstered presence of state troopers and other patrols, he said.

The most intense police presence after Friday’s shooting was concentrated on I-95 and portions of U.S. 1 north of Fredericksburg to Washington, but state police said vehicles also were stopped to the south.

Authorities would not detail their response plan, finalized on Thursday. But police said they are monitoring roadways north and south of Fredericksburg, and that state troopers will call for backup before questioning vehicle occupants during traffic stops.

Investigators also would not discuss the possibility of a decoy — that a white minivan that some witnesses reported seeing speeding toward I-95 after Friday’s shooting might have been meant to draw witnesses’ attention away from a shooter positioned in woods or in another vehicle.

As the reward topped $500,000 Saturday, including a $50,000 donation from Spotsylvania officials, authorities said they had received more than 2,000 tips about Friday’s shooting — about 40 calls per minute, Spotsylvania Sheriff Ronald T. Knight said.

Authorities would not specify what ballistic evidence linked Friday’s slaying of Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, to the shootings that have now claimed eight lives and left two people wounded in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

At least one bullet fragment from Bridges’ autopsy was flown to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms laboratory in Baltimore for testing. Bridges, a married father of six who was traveling on business, was felled at 9:35 a.m. at an Exxon gas pump along U.S. 1 near I-95 by a single shot to his left, upper back.

Authorities have not said from which direction or what distance they believe the shot was fired.

Smith also would not discuss the possibility, reported by The Times-Dispatch on Saturday, that investigators have a video image of a white male being sought in connection with the shootings.

Kiran Krishnamurthy is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The assailant previously has used .223-caliber bullets, likely fired from a high-powered rifle, but police would not discuss the ammunition used in Friday’s shooting.

A man who was questioned by police near the Exxon on Friday said investigators made him remove his baseball cap and compared him against an image that they told him came from video surveillance from the scene of one of the shootings.

The man questioned Friday — with sandy blond hair, a mustache and a stocky 5 foot 9 inches — acknowledged he bore a slight resemblance to the wallet-sized photo he was shown.

FBI officials confirmed the bureau’s anti-terrorism task force is involved in the probe, as are other facets of the agency. The serial shootings are part of President Bush’s daily FBI briefings.

“We have a very open mind. Everyone does,” said Mike Foster, the FBI’s supervisory special agent in Fredericksburg.

“To me it is terrorism,” Sheriff Knight said, “I’m certainly not going to stand here and say it’s al-Qaida or anything like that. … It is striking terror in people’s hearts.”

Spotsylvania Commonwealth’s Attorney William F. Neely said he planned to pursue the death penalty when and if an arrest is made.

State police stopped dozens of vehicles between Friday night and Saturday morning in their search for a white van, which was described as possibly having two occupants.

Smith would not say whether police are looking for two men, or a man and a woman. On Friday, investigators searched an area plumbing company that had reportedly been visited by a man and woman who were acting suspiciously. Smith declined to comment on any searches.

Gov. Mark R. Warner on Saturday pledged to provide state police any resources they request, and said he is also working to provide additional funds for Spotsylvania, which has 99 officers in a county that covers about 400 square miles.

Friday’s shooting followed an apparently random series of attacks that started in Montgomery County, Md., when five people were killed in about 16 hours in the midst of routine chores — pumping gas, shopping, mowing grass — on Oct. 2 and 3.

A sixth person was killed in Washington the night of Oct. 3. The next day, a Spotsylvania woman was wounded outside Spotsylvania Mall, near I-95. On Monday, the Maryland schoolboy was wounded. A Maryland man was killed Wednesday night in Manassas, followed by Friday’s slaying in Spotsylvania’s Massaponax area.

Smith said he was notified of the latest link at 8:30 p.m. Friday, about four hours after a helicopter carrying evidence took off from the Exxon scene. He bristled at a suggestion the public should have been notified of the connection sooner than Saturday morning. Smith said he did not believe the 13 1/2-hour delay impeded the probe because authorities already had told the public they were investigating the shooting as if it were related to the others.

Schools were expected to continue last week’s precautions and police presence today.

Kiran Krishnamurthy is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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