In The Line Of Fire

As suburbanites worry about becoming the sniper's next victim, one man asks, 'Was I the first?"

October 16, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Rupinder Oberoi didn't need to watch CNN yesterday afternoon to make the connection, although the television news was on all day in the living room of his parents' Linthicum apartment. He didn't need to read the disturbing lead story in the folded-up newspaper down the hall, either. The details of Monday night's shooting - the 12th in a series that has left nine dead and two wounded in suburban Washington - are eerily similar to his own.

One shot.

One victim.

One bullet.

No witnesses.

No motive.

No evidence.

A suburban shopping center.

Easy access to major roads.

A line of trees in the distance.

Those details were all Rupinder, who is 22 and goes by his college nickname, "Bennie," needed to hear. He was shot Sept. 14, two-and-a-half weeks before the sniper is known to have begun killing. The bullet bruised Bennie's liver, colon and kidney, and punctured his intestines. Though ballistics tests are inconclusive, investigators have not ruled out a link to the shootings that came later.

For his part, Bennie has believed his shooting to be part of the pattern since the morning of Oct. 3, when his big brother called from New York, telling him to turn on the TV news. The sniper's attacks were now known: five already dead in 16 hours.

That morning, what happened to Bennie in September finally made some kind of sense. Only then was it clear that the bullet had shattered security, not trust.

It was 10:10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 14. The next day was Yom Kippur and Bennie's boss, Arnie Zelkovitz, would take the day off, so he was showing Bennie how to lock up his store in Silver Spring. Hillandale Beer and Wine store sits in a shopping center off the New Hampshire Avenue exit, the first exit on the Capital Beltway after it crosses Interstate 95.

That night, a young girl stood under the awning outside a dry cleaners; a cab was parked outside the CVS Pharmacy next door. Clerks from the Safeway in the corner were gathering carts in the parking lot, and down the sidewalk, outside the Ames, someone was talking on a pay phone.

Arnie locked the front door and turned around. Bennie stood on the curb, his back to the parked cars. Arnie heard a bang, like something heavy striking a tin roof. Bennie collapsed. He couldn't breathe. Arnie saw a penny-sized hole in Bennie's T-shirt, in the back, near his spinal column, but not much blood.

Police came within minutes, the ambulance took Bennie away, and bystanders told the off-duty officer first on the scene that they saw no one. Nothing.

For days, as Bennie recovered, Arnie felt terrified. His wife, Adrienne, demanded he buy a cell phone; his daughters cried; his mother told him to sell the store; his sister said move to Florida; his mother-in-law urged him to keep a list of suspicious-looking people. Every night, at dusk, he felt his heart beat faster, and some nights, he broke into a cold sweat. A few nights, he closed the store early and nearly had a heart attack one night walking across the parking lot when someone slammed shut a newspaper box.

Arnie asked himself whether the bullet had been meant for him. He could think of no one angry enough to kill him, no grudges from his past. No one had attempted to rob them. When he could come up with no explanation, Arnie began to wonder whether Bennie was not as good a kid as he had thought.

Arnie had hired Bennie a month earlier - his family wanted to buy a liquor store and he wanted to learn how to run one. He was a pleasant, easy-to-like young man. Arnie found him to be the kind of employee who picked up the Windex bottle or the broom whenever no customers were waiting at the counter or behind the Lotto machine. But how well did he know him? Really?

In the meantime, Bennie's family, who emigrated from New Delhi, India, when he was 16, gathered at the hospital from their homes in Potomac and Gaithersburg and Linthicum. They asked each other, Why would anybody shoot Bennie? He had no enemies. They ruled out a hate crime. And then they began to wonder whether there was something they didn't know about Arnie, or the shopping center that had seemed so safe.

Detectives checked out both their backgrounds and found nothing suspicious in either. The case remained a mystery.

Benny went home to Linthicum from the hospital; Arnie continued to run the store. Both men faced questions without answers.

And then, at 6:04 p.m. Oct. 2, a 55-year-old man was killed in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse a few miles away. Arnie heard about it on the news and immediately recognized the similarities.

He told a few customers about them, and Bennie told a few friends, and then someone told a news station. Then the Montgomery Gazette called, then Geraldo Rivera, then Connie Chung, Greta Van Susteren, the BBC.

Bennie speaks Hindi, Punjabi and English, and yet he couldn't find the words to say how bizarre it all felt.

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