Slaying in Va. linked to sniper

Bullet fragments confirm it as 7th killing, police say

Chief: `It's a whodunit'

Va. prosecutor probably would seek death penalty

October 11, 2002|By Alec MacGillis, Del Quentin Wilber and Stephen Kiehl | Alec MacGillis, Del Quentin Wilber and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

MANASSAS, Va. -- The Maryland man shot as he stopped for gas on his long commute home Wednesday night was confirmed yesterday as the seventh person killed by a roving sniper, whose uncanny ability to disappear after his deadly attacks has bedeviled an ever-growing corps of investigators.

Police said last night that fragments of the bullet that struck Dean H. Meyers at 8:18 p.m., just after he had unscrewed the cap from his Mazda's gas tank, linked the killing to the gunman who has killed six other people and seriously wounded two in the greater- Washington area in the past eight days.

Meyers, 53, was refueling at a Sunoco station a quarter-mile off Interstate 66 on his way home from his Manassas engineering job to the Gaithersburg townhouse where he had lived alone for at least 17 years.

Police initially reported that a witness had seen a white minivan leaving the area -- a tip that was reminiscent of a sighting of a small white truck at the scene of a killing last Thursday. But last night, Prince William County police Chief Charlie Deane discounted the sighting, saying that the driver of the van had come forward and "explained away" his or her presence at the station.

This again left police scouring for clues to the identity of a gunman who has managed to strike 10 times with at most one sighting of his vehicle in flight.

"It's a whodunit at this point," said Deane. "For the region, it's a very frightening case."

Last night, Montgomery County police rushed to the scene of yet another fatal shooting, in the 3600 block of Pear Tree Court in Aspen Hill, near where two of the sniper attacks occurred. However, police said last night's killing outside an apartment building appeared to stem from an argument and was unrelated to the sniper attacks.

Meyers was the first person to be killed by the gunman in six days; the previous two victims, a woman in Fredericksburg and an eighth-grader in Bowie, survived with serious injuries.

The attack bore most of the marks of what is emerging as the sniper's signature: It was at a gas station, like two previous killings; was carried out from a distance with a single shot, like all of the shootings; and was near a major highway.

Unlike most of the victims, though, Meyers was shot in the head rather than the torso. This led some experts to speculate that the sniper was frustrated with his failure to kill the two previous victims and annoyed by target shooters' comments to the news media that his preference to shoot at the body signaled that he was not necessarily a top-rank marksman.

"He didn't kill the child, you see, and that was a torso shot," said Maurice Godwin, a criminal investigative psychologist at Methodist College in North Carolina. "With a head shot, the man is definitely dead, and that is probably why he did it."

Meyers was the first victim to be killed in Virginia, which could have implications should the gunman be caught. Maryland has a moratorium on the death penalty, while Virginia has historically been more willing to carry out capital punishment.

Paul Ebert, Prince William County's top prosecutor, said he probably would seek the death penalty in Meyers' slaying, adding that it could be classified as a terrorist act under Virginia law.

With the Manassas slaying, the shots fired by the sniper now number in double digits. In addition to the nine people hit, police say there was a shot through the window of a Michaels crafts shop in Aspen Hill on Oct. 2.

Meanwhile, the clues -- at least those the police are willing to discuss publicly, or those they believe will aid the public in possible detection -- number only half that.

The few potentially helpful details that exist have become the object of so much public speculation that they have taken on a tantalizing aura all their own:

The sighting of a small white delivery truck with black lettering on the sides and two people in the cab, speeding away from the post office near where Silver Spring nanny Sarah Ramos was killed Oct. 3.

Bullet fragments recovered from most of the victims or crime scenes that show the gunman is using .223-caliber ammunition, likely from a high-powered hunting or military rifle.

A shell casing found in the woods near a middle school in Bowie, where the 13-year-old student was shot Monday.

A tarot card found in the woods near the school, with the scrawled message, "Mister Policeman, I am God." The card, the Death card from a 78-card tarot deck, also included a written plea that police not disclose its discovery to the news media, according to the Washington Post.

The fact -- perhaps only coincidence -- that four of the shootings have occurred at, or near, Michaels crafts stores. There is a Michaels within a half-mile of the gas station where Meyers was killed.

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