Spy planes to hunt sniper

Rumsfeld approves use of high-tech surveillance

Police `confident' of arrest

Monday night shooting in Va. is linked to others

October 16, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber, Stephen Kiehl and Tom Bowman | Del Quentin Wilber, Stephen Kiehl and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Sophisticated military spy planes typical of those used to hunt down al-Qaida terrorists in the Middle East will soon fly over the Washington region to help federal and local authorities find a serial sniper terrorizing the suburbs, authorities said yesterday.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved the unusual request for the aircraft, which contain high-tech surveillance and communications gear that can track people from miles away, said a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since federal law strictly limits the extent of military involvement in domestic law enforcement, military pilots will be accompanied by federal agents who will relay information to authorities on the ground. The planes may use sensors to detect gunfire, officials said.

Detectives hope the aircraft will improve communications among agencies investigating the shootings and aid police when they swarm to catch the sniper after he strikes. Federal agents and local police made the extraordinary appeal for military assistance after dragnets in the wake of two recent shootings failed to catch the sniper.

The latest, on Monday night at a Home Depot parking garage in Falls Church, Va., claimed the life of an FBI employee, identified as Linda Franklin, 47 - and produced undisclosed evidence that had some police officials seeming upbeat about progress in the investigation.

"There was some additional information we were able to get from last night's scene, and I am confident that information will lead to an arrest," Fairfax County police Chief J. Thomas Manger said yesterday. "We're still in the process of interviewing witnesses and evaluating what we have."

A motive has not been determined in the 11 sniper shootings, nine of them fatal. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said yesterday that a possible terrorist link has not been ruled out.

"Under these horrific circumstances, you don't want to draw premature conclusions," he said. Regardless of whether the attacks are the work of terrorists, he said, "The community is terrorized."

In the wake of the attacks, officials have postponed school activities, field trips and outdoor events across the region.

In the latest cancellation, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to issue an executive order today barring hunting in Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The ban came at the request of officials in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where many residents have been racked by anxiety since the attacks began Oct. 2.

Yesterday, police linked the sniper through ballistic tests to the killing of Franklin, who was shot in the head Monday night as she and her husband loaded packages into their car about 9:15 p.m. outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church.

As in the other shootings, Franklin was felled by a single shot, fired from a distance.

Law enforcement officials said they do not believe that Franklin, an analyst with the FBI, was targeted because of her job. Franklin has worked since 1998 for the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center in Washington and was recalled yesterday by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as a "dedicated employee."

Franklin, a breast cancer survivor whom friends called courageous, had two grown children and was awaiting the birth of her first grandchild.

After the shooting, witnesses reported seeing a light-colored van with a burned-out left tail light leaving the scene. Police noted the similarities between that van and another seen leaving a fatal shooting in Fredericksburg, Va., on Friday.

"Certainly, there potentially is some nexus" between the two vans, said Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose.

After the most recent two shootings, police swarmed the area, setting up roadblocks to inspect suspicious vans as helicopters hovered overhead. Officers stopped several vehicles but did not catch the killer.

Manger, the Fairfax County police chief, said witnesses provided police with the license tag numbers of several cars seen near the Home Depot around the time of the shooting.

Progress in the case has been difficult to measure, and police have declined to discuss most clues and leads.

Police have collected bullet fragments in many of the shootings, enabling them to link the attacks to the sniper. They recovered a shell casing and a taunting note scribbled on a tarot card near a Bowie middle school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded last week.

Several of the shootings, including Monday night's incident in Falls Church, occurred near Michaels craft stores. Michaels has turned over company records to investigators.

Army officials are combing through records of current and former officers with sniper training who might be in the Washington area, law enforcement officials said. Police have focused much of their energy on the search for the elusive vans and a white box truck spotted during some of the sniper's first attacks.

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