Virginia shooting linked to 6 others

Montgomery police, ATF and FBI investigate about 700 `credible' tips

Md. man ruled out as suspect

October 06, 2002|By Scott Shane and Stephen Kiehl | Scott Shane and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Forensic experts confirmed yesterday that a Virginia woman was shot with the same weapon used in a sniper's random slayings in Montgomery County and Washington. The news came as police sifted through thousands of tips and monitored highways across the mid-Atlantic, hunting for the killer whose three-day rampage has left six people dead and unnerved usually peaceful suburban communities.

Dozens of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI were helping local police, following up on more than 700 "credible tips" called in to a county police hot line. Yesterday, officers who checked out scores of leads stood in line to report their findings to the detectives leading the investigation, said Officer Derek Baliles, a police spokesman.

ATF experts linked the nonfatal shooting next to a Fredericksburg, Va., mall to the killings in Maryland and Washington, said Maj. Howard Smith of the Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Department.

Investigators were still searching last night for a white truck with a bent rear bumper and block lettering on the side and rear - apparently one of the few solid eyewitness leads, even though the shootings occurred on busy streets.

Police took a minivan owned by the woman shot in Virginia to a Montgomery County laboratory for forensic examination, as the ATF examined the bullet recovered from the van.

The 43-year-old victim, whom police did not identify but is expected to recover, was shot in the back as she loaded packages into the minivan in front of a Michaels craft store next to the Spotsylvania Mall, less than a mile from Interstate 95.

Throughout much of yesterday, speculation swirled around a Rockville man sought for questioning in connection to the shootings. But by last night, he had been apprehended in Fairfax County, Va., and police had ruled him out as a suspect.

The shooting rampage apparently began Wednesday evening when a single shot was fired through the window of a Michaels store in Aspen Hill. No one was hit.

A spokesman for the crafts chain said company officials have no explanation for why two of the shootings took place at their stores. "We have nothing to suggest that Michaels in particular is being targeted," said Tom Clary, a company spokesman.

"We're doing everything we can to facilitate their investigation," he said, including delaying the opening of the Fredericksburg store yesterday for two hours while police searched for evidence.

Police declined to comment on a report that a .223-caliber shell was retrieved from the Fredericksburg site. But investigators, who had only fragments of shattered bullets to work with, have managed to prove that three of the Montgomery County victims and those in D.C. and Virginia were shot with the same weapon.

The bullet fragments from the other two Montgomery County shootings were so damaged that it may be impossible to get useful forensic evidence from them, said county Police Chief Charles Moose. But investigators have little doubt that all seven shootings and the bullet fired at the Michaels store are linked.

If all the bullets are .223 caliber, the list of potential murder weapons is long. Developed by the U.S. military for the M-16 in the 1960s, the .223 is still standard U.S. and NATO military ammunition and also has become a favorite of recreational shooters.

"It's one of the most commonly used rounds in the world," said Terry Aycock, manager of Valley Gun Shop in Parkville.

Although there are a few .223-caliber handguns, the round is used in more than 100 rifles, Aycock said. It is a lightweight, high-velocity round sold in a standard recreational version for $4.99 per box of 20 rounds or in a soft-point or hollow-point hunting version for $13.00 a box, he said.

Because few witnesses saw anyone fire the shots, investigators have assumed that the sniper was a substantial distance from the victims. That has led to suggestions the killer was a well-trained marksman.

But Aycock said that shooting someone from a distance of 100 to 200 yards with "a high-quality rifle with a high-quality scope" would not require military training or extraordinary skill. "If you shoot 100 practice rounds in an afternoon, you could learn to hit a human target at 200 yards."

With nerves on edge in Montgomery County, any unusual incident led to rumors that it might be tied to the shootings. When a woman fell to her death from a building in Rockville yesterday, police were besieged with inquiries but said there was no connection to the sniper attacks.

Later, a fisherman found a body with a bullet wound in rural Howard County, and Montgomery County police investigated. But an initial review of the scene showed no apparent connection to the other shootings. "Every report of a gunshot wound in the area - we are really sensitive to it," said Baliles, the Montgomery police spokesman.

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