A time of joy `like New Year's Eve'

Montgomery residents begin to exhale after arrest of sniper suspects

October 25, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County awoke yesterday as if from a terrifying dream and saw the world begin to come slowly back into focus.

Suddenly, Halloween pumpkins mattered again. And fall colors. And all the other small pleasures people savor when they're not filled with dread or steely determination to keep themselves and loved ones safe.

With the capture of two suspects in the string of sniper slayings, many in the suburban Washington county - still shaken, grieving and angry - started to trust enough to stop looking over their shoulders.

Montgomery, the state's most populous and affluent county, was hardest hit during three weeks of random killing that ended with 10 people dead and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. The shootings began and ended in Montgomery, whose police chief, Charles A. Moose, became the public face of the investigation.

Yesterday, residents said they could hardly believe they will no longer need to fear sending their kids off to school, or hear the persistent chop of police helicopters overhead, or scan area roads for a mysterious box truck sought by authorities.

If not for the arrests, Michelle Young, 41, of Olney said she would never have ventured yesterday to the Michaels crafts store in Aspen Hill, where a sniper's bullet pierced a front window Oct. 2. The shot hit no one, but five people were gunned down in the county the next day, inducing a sort of trauma in Young that caused her to avoid parking lots and listen for the wail of sirens.

"I'm so happy today," the mother of 8-year-old identical twin boys said as she stood in the Michaels lot and brushed away the beginning of a tear. "It's just been so emotional."

For three weeks, she had felt sick to her stomach every time her boys went outside. A combination of anxiety, anger and sadness left her unable to go out to buy Halloween decorations. But yesterday, she happily displayed the contents of her Michaels shopping bag - a fake spider web, candles for her pumpkins and other holiday merchandise.

"Halloween is coming after all," she said.

`A few days too late'

But for Young and other residents across the region, yesterday's relief was tempered by sadness at the fates of those for whom the arrests did not come in time.

"It was just a few days too late for the bus driver," she said, referring to Conrad Johnson, 35, fatally shot Tuesday in Aspen Hill as he stood on the top step of his commuter bus.

Driver after driver along the route stopped their buses yesterday at the site of the shooting and left flowers where Johnson was hit.

Carolina Salas, 37, a county school bus driver for 10 years, knelt, crossed herself and left a single rose. Before Tuesday, she would wave at Johnson as their routes crossed each day. Her husband drives a county Ride On bus, as Johnson did.

"I live a block away, and my kids have just been so afraid," said Salas, mother of a girl, 6, and boy, 16. "I wanted to go out and get milk and my daughter said, `Mom, don't go. I won't drink any milk tomorrow.'"

Near the rose, flowers and candles, a neighbor left a handwritten note for Johnson: "Sir. Just wanted you to know that hopefully they have been caught. ... I feel for your family. Rest in peace, brother. God will watch over you and your family."

It was signed, "A neighbor where U died."

Even for those unrelated to the victims, the trauma left by the killings isn't likely to subside immediately. Salas, for one, said she's still wary - of what she's not sure.

"Even though I know they caught him, I still feel afraid," she said.

Other residents said they still feel uneasy. At the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Fran Brown, 85, said that when she saw reports of the capture on television yesterday, her first thought was, "Do they really have the right people?"

Whether the killers are in custody or not, Brown said she can't help but think about the murders whenever she shops in the plaza, just outside the community gates. It was in that shopping area where Sarah Ramos, 34, of Silver Spring was sitting on a bench - since taken away - outside the post office on the morning of Oct. 3. Ramos was shot in the head, becoming the sniper's third of five victims that day.

"I go down and look across and I wonder, `Where was the shooter?'" Brown said.

Anger and outrage

For many, another bitter residue of the shootings is anger. Parents, in particular, though grateful for the arrests, are enraged that their kids were endangered, and, in some cases, left terribly afraid.

"A friend of mine said, `Just let this guy loose with a roomful of moms,'" Young said. "Moms have been livid."

Young and other mothers said they couldn't help but react personally at the idea that someone took the streets of their neighborhoods and turned them into his own killing zone for all the world to see.

"I went through incredible moments of anger, especially when I saw children becoming afraid," said Ann Zmitrovich, a Bethesda-area mother of two.

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