Look-alike vehicles trap grandparents

Moving from Md. to Del., couple in box truck, van snagged in sniper search

October 18, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Ray and Shirley Kirk, grandparents who moved recently from Maryland to Delaware, didn't think anything of it when they loaded up their belongings and hit the highway this week, heading to their new antique shop in Harrington, Del.

There was just one problem: Their vehicles are a white box truck - an Isuzu with small black lettering and a dent in the rear bumper - and a white Chevy Astro van.

What happened next, on a deserted country road in Delaware Monday afternoon, shows how far police are willing to go as they hunt the serial sniper and how no one - not even a pair of antiques-loving grandparents - is above suspicion.

Law enforcement officials say they have stopped hundreds of white vans and box trucks in recent weeks during the desperate search for the killer. It is a daunting task to pinpoint the gunman's getaway vehicle - auto manufacturers say tens of thousands of such vehicles are in the Washington region.

For Shirley Kirk and her husband, police zeal to solve the case has become all too apparent.

"The first thing I noticed was flashing lights behind me," said Shirley Kirk, 56, who was driving the Astro van. "Police cars were moving up on me really fast."

She pulled to the side of the road to let the officers pass, as did her 59-year-old husband in his box truck ahead of her. Instead, the cruisers pulled up behind the Kirks and officers jumped out with their weapons drawn. The officers yelled for the Kirks to put their arms out the window as they slowly advanced on their vehicles.

"Then they threw me down on the ground, my face in the dirt, grabbed my arms, put them behind my back and handcuffed me," Shirley Kirk said. Her glasses flew from her face in the commotion.

"I ate Delaware dirt," the grandmother said in a phone interview yesterday.

"People were arriving like crazy," she said. Delaware State Police and FBI agents seemed to be coming from a nearby cornfield, guns drawn. They looked nervous, she said. They were sweating.

A spokesman for the Delaware State Police, Lt. Tim Winstead, confirmed yesterday that a couple owning a white box truck and white Astro van were stopped on Route 35 outside Harrington, Del., about 3 p.m. Monday. It was a joint stop, Winstead said, by the state police and the FBI, prompted by calls from the couple's vigilant neighbors.

The FBI has received more than 70,000 calls on its sniper tip line, yielding 12,375 credible leads. Many concern the white box truck and white vans that are the subject of sketches released by police.

There are plenty to go around. Ford Motor Co. says it has sold about 50,000 white Econoline vans in Maryland, Virginia and the District since 1992. Chevrolet did not return a call yesterday seeking the number of Astro vans in the area.

FBI spokesman Barry Maddox said the agency would not discuss the Kirks' stop because of the continuing investigation but added, "Normally we don't stop vehicles unless we have a suspect under surveillance."

Indeed, the Kirks said FBI agents told them they had been under surveillance for a week, after their neighbors had reported them. But the Kirks knew none of this as they ate dirt Monday afternoon.

Shirley Kirk said that after she was handcuffed and frisked on the ground, she was led to a police cruiser, where she watched police search her van. She had given them permission. She knew they would find only glassware, fabric and power tools.

"I was trying to see what they were doing to my husband," she said, "because he has a bad heart and I was worried."

Finally, the officers - more than a dozen in all - questioned her about where she was going, where she was from (Montgomery County, it turns out) and where she had been for the past 10 days, while the sniper was terrorizing the Washington area.

Then they wanted to take her home and search her house. She consented. The search took almost two hours, she said, and the officers went through every room of her three-story Italianate home and looked under every bed.

Her husband remained at the side of the road. Officers were waiting for the crime lab van to show up and check his truck for gunshot residue.

The whole ordeal took about four hours. But the Kirks have no complaints - though Shirley said she wished the handcuffs weren't so tight.

"I totally, totally understand," she said. "I am extremely grateful to them for doing what they do."

She's not angry at her neighbors, either, who have continued to phone in tips about the Kirks' movements to the FBI even after the couple was cleared.

"I feel even better about choosing this town because of my neighbors' vigilance," she said of her new home in Frederica, Del. - population 648. "We're delighted to be here."

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