Tipsters sit back, observe arrests after calling police

Capture off Interstate 70 was set in motion by watchful citizens

Search for the Sniper

October 25, 2002|By Michael Stroh and Jason Song | Michael Stroh and Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Larry Blank eased off Interstate 70 west of Frederick and into the rest stop where he works as a custodian. It was just before midnight Wednesday. The parking lot was dead - just two other cars. He chose the space next to a blue Chevrolet Caprice. The car, he noticed, had New Jersey tags.

Yesterday afternoon, as he stood outside his Hagerstown home surrounded by cameras, the 52-year-old custodian would marvel at how close he came to the two men sleeping inside, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, believed to be responsible for the sniper shootings that have terrorized the Washington, D.C., area.

Blank says he didn't notice the men, although his duties include looking for snoozing drivers in the rest area, which has toilets, picnic tables under some trees and a playground. Nor, he says, did the Chevy set off alarm bells in his mind, even though police had just broadcast an alert for people to watch for the car. With work to do, he scurried into his office for the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift.

About 45 minutes later, Blank perked up when he heard a sudden rise in chatter on his police scanner and realized police were blocking the interstate's westbound lanes. As he left the office to investigate, he saw a familiar white van driven by a man who often stopped on his way home. The man waved him inside.

The man had just called 911 on his cell phone after spotting the Caprice, he told Blank, and police were on the way. The pair were told not to leave the van and to lock the doors.

Vicky Martin, the 911 dispatcher in Frederick County who took the call, contacted Maryland State Police at 12:47 a.m. and began questioning the men. How many cars were in the lot? Where was Blank's car? She can't remember a more important call in her 17 years as a dispatcher. "You didn't have time to react," she said yesterday.

As Martin talked, police and members of the sniper task force raced to the rest stop and quickly set about blocking the westbound lane. A trucker was quietly instructed to park his rig in the entrance ramp to prevent any more cars from entering the rest stop, which is at mile marker 42 near Myersville.

Trucker Ronald Lantz, who pulled his rig into the rest stop shortly before 1 a.m. on his way home to Ludlow, Ky., says he and another driver were told to block the rest-stop exit.

For the next two hours, Blank waited with the motorist - whom police did not identify because he is considered a material witness. Quiet by nature, Blank said the conversation was sparse. The van driver wondered how long he would have to wait to return to his home out of state and sleep.

There was another worry. "We had to use the bathroom," said Blank.

As the time ticked by, the two men saw movement in the woods. The sniper task force was gathering its forces. Finally, at 3:19 a.m., police rushed the car and found Muhammad and Malvo sleeping. The two were pulled out of the car and arrested without incident.

Blank and the van driver barely got a glimpse of the suspects, who were enveloped by a swarm of officers. "There were helicopters, police cars everywhere," Blank said. Soon after, as reports of the arrests filtered out, passing trucks honked their approval.

"It was really scary, I'll tell you that," Lantz, the trucker, said yesterday on a talk show on WLW-AM radio in Ohio.

Lantz said that last week he and 50 other truckers gathered to pray for the sniper's capture. The meeting, he said, took place only 20 miles from the Myersville rest stop. Lantz also told the talk-show host that he was the one who tipped off police. But police say the man in the van was the first to call.

Police will soon have to consider such quandaries as they decide how to divide the $500,000 reward money. For his part, Blank says he's not upset that he wasn't the first to connect the Caprice to the sniper killings.

"I'm glad I didn't, because he may have shot me in the face," he said. "I played a very small part."

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