2nd gas station killing in Va.

Phila. man likely serial sniper's 10th victim

Manhunt for shooter shuts down parts of I-95 as police search for van

October 12, 2002|By Scott Calvert, Del Quentin Wilber and Ellen Gamerman | Scott Calvert, Del Quentin Wilber and Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - A fatal shooting at a gas station here yesterday set off a huge manhunt that brought Interstate 95 to a crawl for hours, in what police say is likely the latest strike by a serial sniper terrorizing the Washington area.

In driving rain and heavy mist, the gunman somehow slithered through the police dragnet, despite the fact that the latest attack was among the most daring - the 53-year-old victim was shot a short distance from a state trooper who happened to be across the street at the time. The escape left many around the region bracing for more random killings.

Bullet fragments were being analyzed last night, but investigators said the shooting of Kenneth H. Bridges of Philadelphia as he pumped gas into his car appeared to fit a pattern that began Oct. 2 in Montgomery County.

The Washington Post, citing law enforcement sources, reported on its Web site last night that the latest shooting was "conclusively" linked to the sniper attacks.

However, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could not verify the report late last night. "We've received no confirmation at this hour," said Joseph G. Green, an ATF special agent.

Since Oct. 2, 10 people have been shot, eight fatally, in suburban Maryland, Washington and Virginia in what investigators believe is a string of violence aimed at people doing mundane tasks - going to school, mowing grass, and pumping gas.

Three previous victims were slain at gas stations.

"This shooting certainly looks similar," said Montgomery Police Chief Charles Moose, who is leading the investigation.

Yesterday's shooting happened about 9:30 a.m. at an Exxon station less than a mile from I-95. The station is a few miles from the site of a nonfatal shooting last week outside a Michaels craft store; that shooting has been linked to the sniper.

As Bridges fell to the ground mortally wounded, witnesses reported seeing two people drive off in a white Chevrolet Astro van, possibly with a ladder rack on top.

Swarms of police officers, aided by agents from the FBI and Secret Service, moved in quickly to seal escape routes. The search was the most intense so far after similar shootings near major highways, including Monday's wounding of a 13-year-old boy outside his school in Bowie.

As traffic inched up I-95 and Route 1, police pulled over white vans for searches. Scores of such vans were stopped as far away as Baltimore County; sometimes police officers approached with weapons drawn. At one point, Montgomery police were checking one white van every minute.

"Anybody who owns a white van is probably going to be stopped and questioned," said Maj. Howard Smith of the Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Office in Fredericksburg.

At an FBI news conference last night in Philadelphia, spokeswoman Linda Vizi said local residents did not expect the serial sniper slayings to hit so close to home.

"It has devastated our town," said Vizi, referring to the death of Bridges.

Bridges, a father of six who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and was co-founder of a marketing distribution company, was president and chairman of the board of MATAH Network, an organization formed in 1997 to encourage blacks to support black-owned businesses and to promote black self-sufficiency.

"The family and friends are understandably shocked and saddened by this senseless event," Gary Shepherd, a family friend, told reporters in Bridges' Germantown neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia.

FBI spokeswoman Linda Vizi said Bridges' wife was concerned because he was going to the Washington area. Vizi said Bridges was hit once in the shoulder and the bullet struck a vital organ.

Bridges' family urged anyone with information to call the FBI hotline at 888-324-9800.

The sniper saga, which has put an entire region on edge, has also attracted the attention of the White House.

President Bush is receiving daily updates, said spokesman Ari Fleischer. "And the president's going to continue to monitor this very closely," he said, "and make certain that the government is doing everything it can and should to help."

First lady Laura Bush told CNN in an interview that "what we all hope for is that we can catch whoever it is and stop this."

The case has drawn news media from around the world. Fifteen television satellite trucks arrived yesterday, and reporters were on hand from Britain, Japan and Mexico.

In a sign of the shooter's brazenness, a Virginia state trooper stood across the street working a traffic accident when Bridges was killed.

"Obviously it is a very bold individual who would do something like that," said Smith of the Spotsylvania County sheriff's office.

The trooper heard a shot, but did not see anything or anyone and raced to help Bridges, Smith said.

Smith released few details. He would not confirm where Bridges was hit - previous victims were shot in the torso or head - or whether there was only one shot fired, as in the other sniper cases. Nor would he say whether the two people spotted in the van were men.

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