Witness' account of sniper proves false

Police say he misled them about rifle, van

possible link to terrorism eyed

October 18, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber, Gail Gibson and Laura Sullivan | Del Quentin Wilber, Gail Gibson and Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The most detailed and promising lead yet in the serial sniper attacks dissolved yesterday as officials said a potentially critical witness intentionally misled them, leaving detectives with scant clues in their hunt for the shadowy killer terrorizing the Washington suburbs.

Police said a citizen's detailed description of a gunman wielding a Soviet-style assault rifle and escaping in a cream-colored van after Monday night's killing of a 47-year-old woman in a suburban Virginia shopping center had proved false, dimming hopes for a quick capture.

Left with no apparent motive for the attacks and few promising clues to the sniper, investigators redoubled their efforts on existing leads and at the crime scenes. Dozens of federal agents returned yesterday to Falls Church, Va., near the site of Monday's shooting, where they stopped cars to examine tire treads.

Investigators also looked more closely at the possibility that the sniper killings could be linked to international terrorism, with FBI agents planning to question al-Qaida prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to determine any possible links to the sniper. The killer's seemingly random, single-shot killings - nine in all - have reshaped everyday suburban life.

A federal law enforcement source confirmed the plan to interview al-Qaida detainees. Officials have said repeatedly that they do not believe that there is such a link, but investigators say they have not ruled out any theories as fears about the sniper shootings have spread well beyond Washington.

There was some relief yesterday - the sniper did not strike for a third day in a row, the longest stretch without gunfire since the shootings began Oct. 2. But police also were facing the grim reality that the killer could remain elusive unless there is another shooting that might lead to his capture or yield new clues.

After Monday's killing outside a Home Depot store, police had expressed guarded optimism about detailed accounts from witnesses at the busy Seven Corners shopping center. Police said one witness described having seen the shooter fire a Soviet-style AK-74 assault rifle within 40 yards of the victim, then flee in a cream-colored van with a burned-out left tail light.

But after interviewing other witnesses, authorities said yesterday that the man's account was unreliable and should be disregarded. The witness, who has not been identified, could face charges for making false statements to police, though some experts cautioned that most false witness reports are the result of human error.

"The information provided by one of the witnesses at the scene of the shooting in the Home Depot, describing a cream-colored van with a malfunctioning taillight, is not credible," said Fairfax County police Chief J. Thomas Manger.

Manger said the man's description of the sniper's rifle as an AK-74 also was "not reliable."

The reversal came as police have taken extraordinary measures - from creating geographic profiles to drawing composite sketches of suspicious vehicles to highway dragnets - to solve the sniper attacks in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

In spite of the profiles, the deployment of roughly 1,000 officers and approval of the use of military spy planes, the sniper remains free and investigators concede that much remains unknown, including whether the shooter is acting alone.

Investigators have given no indication that they are any closer to understanding the sniper's motivation today than when the killings began. But as the case has unfolded, detectives have begun to form a handful of theories based on the killer's targets.

His most consistent characteristic has been to target people doing everyday activities, such as pumping gas, mowing a lawn, going to school or shopping at suburban commercial centers. But another curious element in several of the shootings has been their proximity to Michaels crafts stores, a common fixture in many suburban shopping centers.

So far, three people have been shot at or near a Michaels. Police do not know whether it is a coincidence or an intentional pattern, but it has prompted them to look at perhaps the most puzzling gunshot of all: the killer's first, fired Oct. 2, less than an hour before his murderous rampage began.

That bullet smashed through a Michaels store window at 5:20 p.m. in an Aspen Hill shopping center in Montgomery County. It hit no one - the only shot fired by the sniper that did not.

A law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said a handful of detectives working on the case theorize that the bullet had special significance, perhaps representing a message from the killer.

"It's possible it was a signature of some sort," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Maybe he was delivering a bullet that police would always be able to match up to his soon-to-be committed crimes."

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