The Places He Has Been

Wherever the sniper strikes, Walter Starling follows with this message: 'Thous Shalt Not Kill.'

October 21, 2002|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

Walter Starling is running out of signs.

"Maybe it will end at 12," he says. "I only have 12 signs."

Wherever the sniper strikes, Walt Starling follows.

At a power vacuum at a Shell station in Kensington, where Lori Lewis Rivera was murdered, a roadside memorial marks the spot. Forty bouquets. Two American flags. And taped to the vacuum, one "Thou Shalt Not Kill" sign.

On the lawn behind Fitzgerald Auto Mall in nearby White Flint, where James "Sonny" Buchanan was gunned down, a note says, "Sonny, there was so much I wanted to say, so much I should have said. `I am sorry.' May you rest in peace. K." Pinned on the same telephone pole: a "Thou Shalt Not Kill" sign.

At the Leisure World Plaza in Silver Spring - home of the Joy Luck Cafe and 99-cent hamburgers at Burger King - the glass window has been replaced at the Crisp & Juicy carryout restaurant. Salvadoran immigrant Sarah Ramos was shot and killed sitting on a park bench at 8:37 a.m. Oct. 3, the sniper's third victim on a day in which he would kill five. Flowers came soon after, as did Starling and his bold red sign.

It is here that Starling began what would become a tour of duty. This, after all, is his own neighborhood.

When he pulled up in his Jeep Cherokee, red signs and tape in the back seat, the first person he saw that day was his sister, who uses the post office at Leisure World. He does, too. So do his parents. In the faceless suburban architecture that has been the sniper's killing fields, there are human faces: mothers and sisters and old people and a woman who signed her name "K" and wanted to apologize, at last, to a man nicknamed Sonny.

Staying two, three days behind the crimes, Starling set out to follow in the footsteps of the sniper. It has been hard keeping up; the macabre scorecard keeps changing. His Jeep has logged more than 300 miles already. He started with 12 signs - which, he was delighted to learn, do not smudge in the rain.

"I don't see any difference between doing this," he says, "and visiting someone in the hospital."

Like so many people, the former radio traffic pilot from Gaithersburg has been drawn into this story. He is curious. He has theories. He feels slightly paranoid. He watches his back when he pumps gas. He notes every parked cop car along Interstate 95. He notes every passing white van. Like so many of us, Starling is affected by these crimes -except he's on a mission, part spiritual errand, part amateur investigation.

Thou shalt not kill - but someone keeps breaking the commandment. Starling wants to know who and why and, really, how. He wants to be close to the story, and putting up his red signs certainly brings Starling very close.

Just inside Washington, the intersection of Kalmia Road and Georgia Avenue is home to a 24-hour laundromat and assorted other businesses ($15.99 special on pedicures at Laura's Nails). The spot smells like the nearby China Hut restaurant. "For Pascal" says a note pinned to a pot of drenched, purple flowers. Pascal Charlot, 72, was shot dead here near the bulk-rate dry cleaners. The "Laundromat Open 24 Hours" sign is wrapped with a "Thou Shalt Not Kill" sign.

Starling was here.

And he's back to scope out where the sniper could have positioned himself. It's Tuesday, Oct. 15, nearly two weeks after the shootings began but less than 24 hours after the most recent killing. Starling - married, father of two grown kids, pilot, writer of news copy for a Washington TV station- walks about 200 yards from the crime scene. In scrub brush, Starling checks the ground for shell casings, spent beer bottles, tarot cards. He likes the spot for the shooter; it's secluded and far enough away from the intersection yet with a clear shot.

He uses his "Thou Shalt Not Kill" sign as a marker. "See it?" Red marks the spot where Pascal Charlot fell. It looks far away, but 200 yards is within range given the sniper's suspected weaponry and ammunition - a common .223 cartridge shot from a hunting or assault rifle possibly equipped with a scope. Yes, this could well be the spot, Starling believes. He gets back in his Jeep to head south into Virginia, to three more murder sites. The Jeep feels particularly safe.

What brings Starling to these scenes? A scolding, of sorts. He was at a Baltimore-Washington Methodist conference Oct. 4 in Columbia when Bishop Felton May issued a challenge. "We've lost our nerve," Starling remembers the bishop saying at the revival. He urged folks to make their own mark on the world, to put "Thou Shalt Not Kill" posters at crime scenes.

Starling thought his first stop, in his neighborhood near Leisure World, would be his last.

"I thought that would be it," he says.

But it was far from over.

Nearly two weeks later, Starling is still using his days off to follow the killer's path. After, all Starling knows the highways well; he spent 25 years as a traffic pilot. He knows exactly where he's going.

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