Drivers of white vans, trucks face suspicion, stares, stops by police

Sightings of vehicles frighten many people

October 21, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Drivers of white vans with ladder racks or beat-up box trucks have found they need an alibi. Painters, plumbers, caterers and computer installers have been stopped and searched simply because police think they might be using the same type of transportation as a sniper on a killing rampage.

With few other clues to share with the public, law enforcement authorities throughout Maryland and Virginia continue to receive reports from the frightened masses who see white Chevrolet Astro vans and Isuzu trucks as a threat and reason to call police.

Those traveling in the vans and trucks - even many miles from police roadblocks near the most recent attacks in Virginia - say they face police stops and motorists' stares.

After Saturday's shooting of a 37-year-old man in Ashland, Va., about 90 miles south of Washington, police, fearing the sniper had struck again, weren't taking any chances. They quickly set up roadblocks and appeared to be stopping all vehicles - not just white vans or trucks - heading north or south on Interstate 95, away from Ashland.

But law enforcement authorities paid particularly close attention to white vans. One white van with a ladder on top was stopped and surrounded by law enforcement authorities outside of the roadblock area about 10:30 p.m. It was in the northbound lanes of I-95, just south of Woodbridge, about 60 miles north of Ashland.

Driving a white van has become a liability for many - prompting fearful stares and suspicion.

Taunted

One man who drives an unmarked white Astro van said schoolchildren taunt him.

"You just don't know what I've been through," said Robert Drake of New Carrollton, who works as a trash collector in Washington and part time in cleaning businesses in Laurel. "Kids getting off the school buses yell "Sniper!" and then run away. ... I guess you can't blame them. They don't know."

But he can't avoid the stigma. He's been eyed by police. And, Drake said, "At work when I pull up, they say, `Here comes the sniper.'"

"I'm going to switch cars," he said. "I have a white pickup I'm going to drive until they catch this guy."

In Burtonsville, the Dunkin' Donuts store on Route 29 is filled weekday mornings with people in a hurry: lawyers on their way to Washington, school-bus drivers between runs, delivery people on cell phones getting their next assignments. With a huge parking lot and easy access to major roads, it's a noisy, vibrant shop.

Friday was no different. Then a white van with a ladder on top made a right into the lot and coasted into a space that seemed just a little too distant for someone making a coffee run.

The shop went quiet. Hands went to pockets and purses for cell phones. A man in line muttered the first three letters of the Virginia license plate.

The van sat. Customers watched, moving up to whisper their order, but never taking their eyes from the plate-glass window.

Finally, the driver popped out and sprinted to the shop, where he was met by a wall of stares.

He grinned self-consciously. The room exhaled. Rush hour resumed.

Sterling Cobb, a computer technician from Laurel, was stopped four times in a week by police in Washington - twice in one day - while driving one of his company's white Astro vans.

"You've got people who look at you funny, like, `Is he the shooter?'" said Cobb, whose van was searched each time police stopped him. "The stigma is that any of us could be the shooter."

`Be ready'

Even those who haven't been stopped by police are prepared for it. Steve Bryant, a sales associate at Stevens' Battery Warehouse on Ritchie Highway in Pasadena, knows it's only a matter of time until police pull over the company's white 2000 Ford E150 van.

The store has to deliver batteries near Andrews Air Force Base this week. Bryant guesses that that is when they will be stopped.

"I tell the other guys here to be ready, be prepared," said Bryant, whose uncle is a police officer. "I warn them that they'll be cuffed and maybe tossed around a little bit."

Other employees aren't worried, because the van lacks a roof rack, Bryant said. "But I tell them that it doesn't matter," he said. He gestured to the van, which has small spots of rust on the left rear bumper. "This is close enough."

Sales not affected

Despite witness descriptions that have, at times, focused on the Astro van, the publicity has not adversely affected sales of the popular commercial vehicle, said Lou Tringali, sales manager at Win Kelly Chevrolet in Clarksville. Most buyers opt for white, he said.

Delbert Lair, owner of A to Z Repairs in Cockeysville, has two company vans that fit the description of the sniper's vehicle. But he travels mostly in the Baltimore area and hasn't been pulled over or received too many funny looks - not that he'd blame anyone for looking twice.

"I've looked at a bunch of white vans myself," said Lair. "You look to see the blinker, the color, whether they have a silver rack. I've been twisting my head."

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Amanda J. Crawford, Lisa Goldberg, Candus Thomson, Tom Bowman and Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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