Woman shot dead in Va.

Traffic is blocked

sniper task force on scene

Witnesses say man fired from cream-colored van

Chase leads to wrong vehicle

In Md., ex-Marine queried in the attacks is released

October 15, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber, Stephen Kiehl and Scott Shane | Del Quentin Wilber, Stephen Kiehl and Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

FALLS CHURCH, Va. - A woman was fatally shot last night in a parking lot outside a Home Depot store here, prompting police investigating a string of sniper killings to swarm the area and stop traffic on major roads in the hopes of capturing a gunman who has terrorized the Washington suburbs for two weeks.

The victim, who was not immediately identified, was loading packages into her car about 9:15 p.m. on the lower level of a parking garage on Arlington Boulevard. She was accompanied by a man who appeared to be her husband, witnesses said.

"The poor woman just got out with her carriage and everything in it," said Zuhair Massoud of Vienna, Va., who was in the checkout line of the Home Depot when the shooting occurred. He said he saw her lying next to a dark-green Jeep.

Police were looking for a cream-colored Chevrolet Astro van with a ladder rack on top and a burned-out left rear tail light.

"The question in everybody's mind is whether this shooting is related to the others," said Fairfax County police Chief J. Thomas Manger. "It's too early to tell. But we're investigating with that in mind."

Police flooded the Seven Corners shopping center and began questioning drivers traveling along the major thoroughfare. A bloodhound and its handler ran along Arlington Boulevard.

Directly across from the shopping center, police cordoned off Willston Center, an adult education facility, and the surrounding lawn and soccer field. The school and fields offer a clear view of the parking garage where the woman was shot, and police appeared to be considering the possibility that the gunman might have fired from there.

About 11:30 p.m., police with guns drawn approached a gold Dodge Ram van parked near Willston Center, pulled a man out, handcuffed him and led him away. No further details were available.

Officers briefly chased a white van on Route 50, but it proved to be the wrong vehicle, law enforcement officials said.

Officers were questioning drivers of every car traveling on Arlington Boulevard and stopping all white vans and trucks on the Capitol Beltway. On the George Washington Memorial Parkway, police funneled traffic into a single lane, slowing cars to a crawl as officers shined flashlights in windows.

A clerk at the Barnes and Nobles bookstore across the parking lot from Home Depot said a customer heard the shot and alerted other shoppers, many of whom ran from the store. Police kept shoppers inside the Home Depot until 11 p.m., questioning them about what they saw.

Melba Lazo, 30, manager of a Wendy's in the Seven Corners shopping center, answered the phone last night and said she and the other mostly Spanish-speaking staff members were holed up in the restaurant - shaking, scared and dazedly watching what seemed to be hundreds of blue-and-red police lights flashing in the windows of the empty dining room.

"Everybody is scared in here," she said, in halting English. "I called my husband. He said to close the store, but my boss said to stay here. There are a lot of police with guns. I just want to go home to my family."

Members of the Montgomery County police sniper task force rushed to the scene, and at least nine helicopters were circling Northern Virginia and Washington looking for a van.

Ex-Marine questioned

The shooting came on a day of promise and confusion, as the investigation turned for a time toward a couple in Baltimore. Even as word came of the new killing in Virginia, Baltimore investigators were questioning a 38-year-old former Marine about the sniper attacks and were holding his girlfriend on charges that she shot him early Saturday. But late last night police released the man from custody.

Police spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella said officers released the man "because we didn't have enough evidence to charge him with a crime."

With a dozen federal and local police agencies furiously investigating the string of sniper shootings, detectives have questioned a number of people who were later discounted as suspects, law enforcement officials said.

"This one was no more significant" than the others, one official said.

Montgomery County police have said that they do not want to limit their investigation into the sniper shootings, which began Oct. 2, and had left eight dead and two wounded in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia before last night.

Yesterday, residents of suburban Washington expressed continued anxiety about the stealthy attacks, after a weekend lull in the shootings.

Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose said that his investigators were "making progress," but added: "People are edgy. People are hearing things. Things that that may normally be overlooked or routine are certainly getting a higher response from people in their anxiety."

`Not America I know'

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