Officials have mixed feelings after arrest of two suspects

Many relieved, but wish killings could have been stopped much sooner

Search for the Sniper

October 25, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - For the first time since a sniper began gunning down random citizens in their everyday routines, the three men leading the hunt for the killer found time yesterday for the ordinary themselves: They went out to lunch.

At 11:45 a.m., Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, FBI Special Agent Gary M. Bald and Michael R. Bouchard, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms walked the 100 yards from county police headquarters to Cafe Cafe, where the daily special was Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes.

Office workers and reporters stopped by to congratulate the men, who ate eggs and crab cakes across the room from a television breathlessly recounting the circumstances of the 14 shootings. "Thank you," one man said, vigorously pumping Moose's hand. "Thank you."

The chief didn't say a word, but a smile spread across his face and lit up his eyes and he nodded as if to say, yes, you're welcome.

Moose, Bald and Bouchard had come far in the past two days - from the frustrating depths of Tuesday morning, when the sniper returned to the county to kill a bus driver and threaten children, to the euphoric highs yesterday, when two wanted men were caught while sleeping in the car.

The stoic trio who struggled with the case of a lifetime even smiled and laughed a bit, though their relief was tempered by the sobering list of victims recited in the rain last night. Moose said he wished they could have stopped the killing sooner.

But there were other emotions yesterday. Moose and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan exchanged bear hugs in police headquarters before facing the public at an evening news conference.

And as Moose walked to the podium, the assembled media broke into applause. The chief grinned.

"We certainly have some good feelings today," Bouchard said in an interview.

"When these bosses leave here, they're gonna be friends for life," Special Agent Patrick Berarducci of the ATF said yesterday morning.

In the past three weeks, Moose, Bald and Bouchard have fused their lives in extraordinary ways - working together for 20-hour days, taking their meals together, crafting their messages to the killers.

Investigators, meanwhile, continued to work yesterday at the Rockville office building that has become the command center for more than 1,000 federal agents and police detectives. Some were out investigating more leads.

But many investigators left work a little early - understandable after they had worked through the previous night. One said he looked forward to watching the World Series. Another planned to make dinner for his wife.

"They've left their families behind; they've left their lives behind," said Berarducci, who works out of the ATF's Cleveland office. He has been in Montgomery County since the beginning, except for two days when he went home to be with his daughter for her surgery.

"My wife told me to get back here," Berarducci said, standing in the parking lot of the police headquarters. "Everybody takes this personally. When you hear about a shooting, you're sick to your stomach, sick for the families, sick for the victims, sick for the whole country."

The mood turned, investigators said, on Wednesday night.

Earlier in the day, officials had debated whether to release the names and photos of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who were wanted for questioning. The FBI wanted to put the information out. The ATF was reluctant, partially because Malvo is a minor.

A briefing was scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, then canceled. Muhammad and Malvo were tantalizing, but not suspects yet.

Then, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., more information poured into the command center. Agents in Alabama said Malvo's fingerprints were on a flier left at the scene of a fatal shooting. Agents searched for more evidence in Tacoma, Wash., after linking Malvo and Muhammad to a house there.

A lot of leads had come and gone. But during the night, investigators got the sense that the long, nationwide manhunt was nearing an end.

About 100 agents worked all night long to confirm it. Last night, Moose stood in the chilling rain and made it official.

"We think we put some giant pieces of the puzzle together," he said at the end of the briefing. "But there is still more work to be done."

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