Killing rekindles fear in Montgomery Co.

Latest Aspen Hill attack brings sniper back north, to where bloodshed began

October 23, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

The crack of gunfire at dawn brought home a chilling truth yesterday for Montgomery County residents: The sniper's route of terror had come full circle as he returned to this affluent suburban community.

"We were just starting to feel a little better because the guy was going south," said Jimmy Akca, a mechanic at the Shell gas station in Kensington where a young nanny was killed in the early hours of the string of shootings that started three weeks ago.

But with yesterday's brazen shot that killed a bus driver preparing for his daily route, Akca and others said they feared that the sniper had doubled back from recent attacks in Virginia and put Montgomery County back into his scope.

"It's all going back to where it started," Akca said. "Is he going to follow the same route? Is he going back to the same gas stations?"

Yesterday morning, authorities had not conclusively linked the early morning shooting of bus driver Conrad Johnson in Aspen Hill to the string of sniper attacks, but they acted on the assumption that it was. It would mean that half of the sniper's 14 known shootings were in Montgomery County.

The first shot was fired into a Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill, less than a half-mile from where Johnson was fired on yesterday as he stood in the open door of his bus. The shot Oct. 2 shattered a window at the craft store on Georgia Avenue. No one was hit, but 45 minutes later the sniper claimed his first victim - a 55-year-old man at a Wheaton grocery store.

The next morning, in a two-hour span that covered a two-mile radius, the sniper killed four more people in the heart of Montgomery County as they went about the most ordinary of activities - pumping gas, mowing a lawn, vacuuming a minivan - at gas stations and strip-mall shopping centers.

Across the Washington area, suburban residents responded by reordering their daily lives to minimize the risk of becoming a target. They kept their children inside, skipped outdoor fall festivals, and drove to the city to buy gas or groceries.

The killings throughout the region have put suburban communities on edge. But in Montgomery, where the shootings began and where six have died, there seems to be an acute feeling of fear.

Schools in the county have operated on lockdown status for most of the month. Field trips were canceled along with sports practices and games and any other outdoor after-school activities.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose urged residents to go about their daily lives yesterday, even as he relayed an ominous line in a note the sniper is believed to have left at a shooting scene Saturday night in Virginia: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has gone to each of the victims' funerals in past weeks, has called the sniper attacks perhaps the "toughest challenge" for his county.

The evidence of that is widespread.

The fall ritual of Friday night football and the suburban mainstay of soccer practice have yielded to empty fields. At Starbucks shops from Silver Spring to Rockville, patio tables and chairs were yanked inside. The busiest outdoor location has been in the parking lot at county police headquarters, where television news crews have camped out for weeks.

To Amy Spiegel, 45, of Washington, the empty parks and vacant playgrounds remind her of the year she spent living in Israel about 15 years ago. In the Middle East, she said, she learned to always watch for unattended bags and to scan her surroundings.

She has resisted those habits in the wake of the sniper attacks. But at the Home Depot store on Cherry Hill Road in Silver Spring, she said, the instinct came rushing back as she worried about protecting her 3-month-old son, Micah.

"I'm not going to bend down low for me, but I [will for] him," Spiegel said, explaining how she leaned over to protect her son. "And I bent down, and I said, `I'm just doing it for him.' "

Wary residents say it is impossible to stop wondering what could be next.

At the Aspen Hill Exxon near yesterday's shooting, 38-year-old mechanic Danny Roark said he can't keep the fearful thoughts from playing out in his head: "I could be a target. I don't think I am a target. But do you think the other victims thought they were targets?"

With some 875,000 residents who earn among the highest incomes in the country, Montgomery County is not the kind of place where people are inclined to stand still or abandon their typically busy daily schedules.

Many who have changed their routines in the past weeks said they did so reluctantly.

"I don't want to be held hostage by some maniac, and though I am trying to be more careful, I'm not willing to hide," said Larry Fischel, 51, who lives in Takoma Park and manages the Zaruba Gallery jewelry store in Rockville's Congressional North shopping center.

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