BOWIE - The sniper who shot seven people late last week trained his sights on children yesterday, police say, critically wounding a 13-year-old boy outside a Prince George's County school and propelling area residents - already highly anxious - to a whole new level of fear.
Police said last night that bullet fragments recovered from the boy shot outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie and other evidence were enough to link the shooting to eight others late last week in Montgomery County, Washington and Fredericksburg, Va., which killed six and seriously injured one.
The boy was shot moments after being dropped off at school by his aunt, police said.
As was the case last week, yesterday's shooting appeared to have been carried out with a single shot and from some distance, possibly from behind trees near the school. No one among the handful of people outside at the time reported seeing the gunman, police said.
A surgeon at Children's National Medical Center in Washington said the bullet struck the boy in the torso and broke into fragments, damaging organs and narrowly missing his heart. The boy was listed in critical but stable condition last night.
Even before authorities had confirmed a link between the shootings, yesterday's attack at the school heightened, by several notches, both police determination to catch the sniper and local angst - verging on terror - about where the shooter might strike next.
If there was any consolation to be found in last week's attacks, it was that they had not involved children; yesterday, that small comfort was gone.
"Today, it went down to the children," said Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose, showing signs of emotion and frustration after days on the case. "All of our victims have been innocent and defenseless, but now we're stepping over the line. Shooting a kid, it's getting to be really, really personal now."
Added Montgomery County State's Attorney Doug Gansler: "We now have a deeper insight into the level of depravity of this killer. We're dealing with a man who is willing to hunt and murder an innocent 13-year-old in cold blood."
Like last week, area schools responded to the shooting by locking students in their classrooms, keeping them away from windows, and canceling all outdoor and after-school activities. Last week, these were merely prudent precautionary measures. Yesterday, officials had real reason to believe that students' lives were in danger.
"The fear has ratcheted up quite a bit," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
For most of the day, parents were left hoping that the latest shooting was "only" an act of schoolyard aggression. While police urged parents to leave their children in school yesterday, hundreds swarmed to Benjamin Tasker to usher their children home.
"What I truly believe is that my children need to be with me, just for our peace of mind," said Alan Burroughs, whose son is in seventh grade there. "There is evil on this Earth, and it seems to be concentrated in this area."
With the sniper's arrival at the schoolyard's edge, President Bush for the first time weighed in to express outrage at the "cowardly and senseless acts of violence" and to pledge federal support in finding the killer.
"Laura and I send our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families," he said.
Yesterday's shooting greatly intensified police efforts to find the gunman, or gunmen, with Prince George's County police joining the hundreds of officers already on the case and Moose asking U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for more help from the FBI.
The reward for information leading to the arrest of the sniper was increased to $160,000. Calls to police included several sightings of a white truck similar to that seen leaving the scene of one of last week's shootings, but police provided no information on any possible new clues.
"We intend, hopefully, to have him very soon," said Prince George's County police Chief Gerald Wilson. "We want him."
Police say yesterday's shooting occurred at 8:09 a.m., just after the boy's aunt dropped him off outside the large, yellow-brick school. She saw her nephew drop his bag at the school wall and then, as she started to drive away, heard a gunshot and the boy screaming her name, police said.
The woman, a nurse, rushed her nephew to Bowie Health Center, a nearby clinic that had opened minutes before. Doctors there stabilized the boy before he was flown to Washington by helicopter.
Dr. Martin Eichelberger, a surgeon, said the boy was unconscious when he arrived. During more than two hours of surgery, doctors removed nonessential portions of the boy's stomach and pancreas. The youth's recovery hinges on whether his damaged lung will allow him to breathe and whether he starts bleeding again, the surgeon said.
"We're happy with how he's doing at this point," said Eichelberger. "I'm optimistic that what we've done for him will permit him to go on."