Man believed to be sniper closer than we thought

October 26, 2002|By ROB KASPER

Like many households in the Baltimore area, ours reacted to the news of the arrest of the suspected sniper and his accomplice with a "Whew!" - and a "Yikes!"

The "Whew!" was a sigh of relief that after three weeks of sniper shootings, we could now resume our everyday chores without keeping a wary eye on nearby cars or jumping when the gas pump clicks.

The "Yikes!" was the stunning realization that John Allen Muhammad, the Persian Gulf war veteran who is the prime suspect in the rampage that left 10 dead and three wounded, had been in Baltimore in the middle of this killing spree, camped out at a busy city intersection half a mile from our home.

According to a story in yesterday's Sun by Jamie Stiehm and Del Quentin Wilber, Muhammad spent part of the waning hours of Oct. 7 and the early morning hours of Oct. 8 at a Mobil gas station and cluster of shops at 28th and Sisson streets in Remington. He tried to get some food at the Subway sandwich shop, which is adjacent to the Donut Connection. He bought some junk food at a nearby 7-Eleven, and slept for a few hours in his car in the parking lot. He was questioned by a curious Baltimore City police officer who, after running computer checks on his driver's license and car tags, sent Muhammad on his way.

When I read this I thought "that guy was at my doughnut stop." In other words, it hit close to home. For me, and I suspect for many Baltimore residents, the news of Muhammad's stop in our city made me feel that my personal geography had been invaded.

That intersection at 28th and Sisson is familiar turf. I have driven through it on countless occasions, running errands, ferrying kids. For a time, it was known in our household as "alligator corner," a reference to the mural that artist John Ellsberry painted on a long wall along the south side of 28th Street. When our kids were small and strapped in the car's back seat, they would stare with wide-eyed wonder at the three, long, green gators with gleaming white teeth lounging at the intersection. Then the stoplight at 28th Street would change, and the toothy gators and danger would fade away, or so we thought.

Several years ago, that doughnut shop averted a crisis at our neighborhood swimming pool. It was 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning, herds of kids and their parents were gathering at the Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis Club for a swim meet, and, thanks to my foul-up, there were no doughnuts at the concession stand. Quickly, I raced up the Jones Falls Expressway, turned off at 28th and returned a few minutes later with dozens of doughnuts for the carbo-craving masses.

The juxtaposition - between the memory of the shop as a spot that provided doughnuts for hungry kids and this week's news that it was a spot where an alleged sniper had lurked - was jarring.

In my mind, 28th and Sisson is a crossroads, one of those places in the city that feels familiar even if you just are passing through. For me, 28th Street is a leg in the route to Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, or to the Saturday morning Farmer's Market in Waverly, or a few years back, a way to get to a ball game at Memorial Stadium.

Sisson Street also has been part of many routine journeys. Turn left, and you are in front of the city drop-off center, the place you tote your bottles and cans if you miss the recycling truck. Turn right, pass over the rails carrying the Amtrak trains, and soon you end up on Howard Street. There, I would get the car washed, and one night last week, I bravely pumped my own gas at the Amoco station, telling myself I had nothing to fear, but jumping when the tank filled and the pump loudly shut off.

I am still wondering why Muhammad showed up at this intersection. Its proximity to I-83, the Jones Falls Expressway, was probably a factor.

Yet, according to my way of thinking, the sniper was not going to come to Baltimore. The sniper's activities were largely confined to Virginia, Washington and its suburbs. People from the Washington suburbs don't usually find their way to Baltimore. If they do, they tend to show up at ball games or harbor nightspots, not in Remington. Or so I thought.

I appear to be wrong about that and about many theories and stereotypes I have formed over the past three weeks.

The fear and anxiety that washed over Baltimore in the past three weeks was minuscule compared to the worry and pain experienced by those in the Washington area, who lived closer to the victims of the shootings. Yet the news that the alleged sniper was in our midst, if only for a few hours, makes me feel very lucky, like a great cloud of evil has passed in the night, barely missing us.

As happens after you had a brush with the bizarre, I find myself welcoming a return to normality. This weekend, I look forward to sitting in the stands of high school football games without giving a second glance at the parked cars facing the field. I anticipate parking in large, wide-open shopping center lots, and taking my usual pokey pace straight to the store door, not my recently adopted hurry-up, zig-zag route.

Yesterday morning on my way to work, I stopped at the Donut Connection. The workers at the doughnut shop and its adjacent Subway shop, were cheerful. Business was brisk.

The clerk who handed me my 12 glazed called me "hon." It felt good. After a week that turned conventional wisdom upside down, it felt like I was reclaiming some turf.

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