Promising clues, but no clear look at suburban killer

After Monday shooting, witnesses able to describe gunman, weapon, vehicle

Not enough detail for sketch

October 17, 2002|By Gail Gibson and Del Quentin Wilber | Gail Gibson and Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The Washington-area sniper's most recent strike appears to have left police with the most promising clues yet, including descriptions from witnesses of a Soviet-style assault weapon, the shooter and the getaway van, but officials said yesterday that they still could not put a face on the killer.

Without enough detail to create a composite sketch to show the public, the long standoff continued between the serial sniper terrorizing the suburbs around the nation's capital and hundreds of federal agents, state police and local detectives working to solve a case attracting worldwide attention.

The most detailed accounts of the sniper, who has killed nine people and wounded two, came from witnesses who were outside a Falls Church, Va., Home Depot store Monday night when the latest victim, Linda Franklin, 47, was shot in the head as she and her husband loaded packages into their car.

Police officials said yesterday that one witness told police the shooter stepped out of a light-colored van and fired one shot at Franklin, stepped back into the vehicle and drove away.

The witness gave police an exceedingly detailed description of the weapon - an AK-74, a high-powered, Russian assault weapon that can fire the .223-caliber bullet recovered from many of the shooting scenes.

"The witness firmly believes this is the weapon," Montgomery County Police Capt. Nancy Demme told reporters.

"But we have to keep in mind that weapons are interchangeable, like vehicles. They could pick up another weapon."

The AK-74 expels shell casings after each round is fired. But police would not say whether they discovered a shell casing at the scene.

So far, police have acknowledged recovering one shell casing from the sniper's rifle in a wooded area near a Bowie middle school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded.

If police did not recover a shell casing at the Home Depot, the sniper might have fired the AK-74 in such a way to expel the shell into his van or he might have picked up the casing before fleeing.

Partial license number

Witnesses who were at the busy Seven Corners shopping center Monday night also offered other key details, describing a white Chevrolet Astro van with a burned-out left taillight that was seen leaving the shopping center.

The witnesses also offered at least a partial license plate number.

The accounts also suggested that the shooting Monday night was the most brazen and closest-range of the attacks so far, with the gunman as close as 30 yards from his victim.

But witnesses offered different descriptions of the gunman - and a possible accomplice - though each account described the assailant as a man.

Vague descriptions

The witness who told police he saw the rifle said he could not see the sniper's face, police officials said. One witness told the Associated Press that the driver of the van appeared to be dark-skinned or Middle Eastern, but police did not confirm that account.

"There are a couple of people who believe they saw a man shoot," Demme said. "Unfortunately, distance and darkness and perhaps adrenaline have made them unable to give a clear composite that we can disseminate."

Police do not plan to create a composite sketch of the van seen fleeing Monday's attack. The witnesses "seem to think that it's closer to what we already have out in terms of vans," Demme said. "So there's nothing that [police] could do that would create another composite."

Investigators have released only the scantiest information about evidence collected from the sniper crime scenes in Northwest Washington; in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland; and in Prince William, Spotsylvania and Fairfax counties in Virginia.

It is rare that investigators release specific details, such as the witness account of an AK-74 being used by the gunman. But some criminologists said police could benefit by getting such details about the case to the public.

A composite sketch or detailed description of the shooter could make a potential informant far more likely to come forward than just a general plea for information about drivers of white minivans, said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University.

Public needs details

"Do they really expect that some spouse or friend or neighbor is going to turn in somebody just because they drive a white van and enjoy hunting?" Levin said. "There's only one way for the public to help here, and that's to have a number of different pieces of information."

In their hunt for the mysterious sniper, police must rely heavily on accounts from witnesses - information that criminal justice experts caution can be spotty and unreliable or colored by details they have heard from other people or the media.

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