Fear shadows everyday activities

Unpredictable shootings keep people inside, wary

October 08, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon and Julie Bykowicz | Stephanie Desmon and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Gwen Freed kept scanning the parking lot of the Bowie grocery store. She would eye those who drove by, and those who slowed, even if it was just for speed bumps. There wasn't much to look at, though.

The shopping center, minutes from the middle school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded as he was dropped off for classes yesterday, displayed only a fraction of the bustle of a typical weekday morning. Freed, a part-time church secretary with three grown children, nervously slipped into a spot near the front row.

"Normally if I come down here, the parking lots are packed," she said. "It's a little strange. I'm just going to go to the store and go home - and stay home."

The terror of a gunman on the loose grabbed hold of yet another community yesterday, on a cloudless morning that was supposed to provide a clean break from last week's apparently random sniper shootings in Montgomery County, the District of Columbia and Spotsylvania County, Va.

Gunshots felled their victims as they went about the daily business of life - getting gas, mowing the lawn, going to the grocery store. Yesterday, it was a child on his way to school.

"We have a level of fear we're not used to," Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose told reporters.

A report of a second shooting, at the Wal-Mart on Crain Highway in Bowie, proved to be false. Still, there was a heavy police presence at shopping centers up and down U.S. 301 - in some places two and three cars cased the lots - and police helicopters buzzed overhead.

It made for an atmosphere of caution and apprehension.

"You don't know where it's coming from," said Ira Ostrowski, a vocalist for the U.S. Naval Academy Band who was pricing lumber at Home Depot. "It could be anybody. Sitting in traffic I was thinking: Could that guy have a gun?"

The police calmed Larry Hurley's fears a bit. "But I'm still concerned enough to be glued to the TV," he said. Hurley was selling pumpkins at an outdoor Behnke nursery stand at Bowie Town Center, not far from the site of the middle school shooting. A small television set was tuned to the local news, and since there were no customers, he had plenty of time to watch.

At lunchtime, the Whistle Stop food court nearby was nearly deserted.

Fewer than a dozen people lingered inside. No one sat at the metal tables outside.

One diner, Renee Latimore, 33, of Bowie, nervously glanced out the food court's large panes of glass as she ate.

"You are a little paranoid, of course," she said. "He could be walking around here right now, just as casual as anyone else."

She said the shootings have unnerved her so much that she refused to get gas until she absolutely had to Saturday.

"Let me tell you, I was on `E,'" she said. A friend, who had also delayed refueling for as long as possible, accompanied her to a local gas station. "We parked opposite each other to watch both directions on the street the whole time."

Lisa Banting was filling her tank at a Bowie Mobil Station, with her two children - 2-year-old Brianna and 5-month-old Skylar - in the back seat yesterday. The Annapolis mother had gone to Bowie to shop at Target. As soon as she heard the latest news, she got back into her car and headed home.

In Silver Spring, people were still shaking their heads at what happened there last week.

Martha Holmes, a local medical technologist and minister, said it wasn't far from her mind as she pulled into the filling station. "I prayed," she said.

TerriAnn R. McDonald, a free-lance public relations writer from Olney, traveled a path much like the shooter's Thursday. She thought about going to the post office where one killing happened, considered vacuuming her car where another woman was killed doing the same less than an hour later and was unable to get gas at the Aspen Hill Mobil because - though she didn't realize it then - someone had just been killed there.

Yesterday morning, she was thankful for her good fortune and much calmer after a weekend of quiet. Then came another frightening shooting.

"You start to let your guard down and think, `OK, it's over,'" said McDonald, a 36-year-old mother of two.

So as she went about her life on what she called "my strip" yesterday, the places she gets gas, stamps, dry cleaning and more, she scouted out wooded areas and tried not to stand still outside for too long.

She said she felt a little silly. But a little scared. She couldn't help thinking, as she ran her errands, "that's the exact same thing they were doing when they [the victims] were hit."

Sun staff writer Ariel Sabar contributed to this article.

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