Killer's low profile frustrates police

Crisis: Despite a large-scale search, the sniper has managed to remain practically invisible to authorities.

October 12, 2002|By Greg Garland and Josh Mitchell | Greg Garland and Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

After the Washington-area sniper apparently struck again in Virginia yesterday, hundreds of police officers set up one of the biggest dragnets the region has ever seen.

Major highways were shut down. Dozens of white vans were searched. Yet, the gunman seems once again to have eluded police.

How is he doing it?

One of the most tantalizing elements of the serial-sniper case has been the killer's seeming invisibility. After 11 long-range shootings that have left eight dead, there are only vague descriptions of white vans or trucks that the sniper might be traveling in. And despite helicopters, bloodhounds and 200 detectives on the case, the killer's face remains a mystery.

Perhaps most alarming is that experts who have worked for the military or police as sharpshooters say no special skills are required to do what the sniper does and get away with it.

William "Bart" Bartholomew, a retired sniper for Baltimore County's SWAT team, said someone shooting a victim from a distance of 100 to 150 yards, hiding in a van or behind trees, isn't likely to be immediately spotted by witnesses.

"Your attention is drawn to the person who is bleeding to death," said Bartholomew, who lives in Idaho. "You can have 100 people at one location, and all 100 sets of eyes are going to go to the person who fell."

Most people tend to look at their immediate surroundings for where a shot might have been fired - not 150 yards away, Bartholomew said. So, it is fairly easy for the shooter to slip away or drive off unnoticed, he said.

"Believe it or not, it's easier to get away in an urban environment than in a rural environment," said Bartholomew.

Bartholomew said nothing indicates the shooter is a trained sniper. "There's a lot of difference between someone who can pull the trigger and hit a target at 150 yards and someone being an experienced sniper," he said. "I don't think this guy fits the mold of a trained, skilled marksman. I think it's somebody who probably wants to fit that mold."

Stuart Meyers, president of Operational Tactics Inc. in Gaithersburg, said he, too, thinks the shooter is a "sniper wannabe" who relishes the attention his deadly attacks get from the media.

Meyers' company trains law-enforcement and military personnel around the world and does corporate security work.

"What he's doing is he's murdering innocent people and he thinks he is a sniper, and the media is blowing it up," he said.

That doesn't mean the killer isn't planningd methodically. Meyers said that the Washington-area sniper seems to be planning effective escape routes when he selects an area to target for a shooting.

Snipers, generally defined as skilled military shooters who spot and pick off enemy soldiers from a concealed place, are often the subject of fascination for many would-be sharpshooters, war buffs and a subculture of weapons fanatics. On the World Wide Web, for instance, dozens of Internet sites detail a sniper's routine and his methods.

"Welcome to the clandestine world of the sniper," one Web site begins. "Please, at this point be under no illusion, not everyone can become a good sniper, however, with practice, commitment and intuition you will be able, when asked, to pick up a sniper weapon and use it competently."

The site promises to deliver a "Home Study Advanced Rifle (Marksman) Course," with a seven-section syllabus. Topics include "camouflage and concealment," "stalking and stalking exercise" and "live firing."

Sniper books are also popular and available in abundance. Paladin Press, the Colorado-based publisher that has been criticized for selling books on building mines and committing murder, has more than two dozen books and videos for sale on the subject of sniping.

Investigators have refused to speculate on the Washington-area killer's weapons proficiency and how he might have learned it. But Richard "Bo" Dietl, who earned 80 awards in a 16-year career as a New York City police detective, said he does not believe that the shootings were the act of a well-trained sniper.

"The fact of the matter is, ... it doesn't take a tremendous skill to learn how to shoot one of these guns," said Dietl, who runs a security company, Beau Dietl & Associates, in New York. "It's just like if you go to a carnival [and play the games]. It's not that the person is skilled. From a hundred yards away, it's pretty easy to hit someone in the chest or full body. ... This is not a sniper, it's just someone with a sniper-type rifle."

Dietl said he believes that the shooter is an adolescent who might be trying to emulate a character in a video game. He also said he believes that the shooter has an accomplice.

"You're looking at a cross-section of victims, black, white, Indian - there's no connection with the victims whatsoever," he said. "I think the motive comes out of these sick video games. It's couple of young adolescents that are not very popular, and now they have everybody in the world looking at them. It's a game to them. They may even have a death pact together."

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