Chief caught in `delicate dance' during hunt

Moose handled demands of media and snipers

October 27, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROCKVILLE - On the morning that it became apparent a skilled marksman was on the loose, Charles A. Moose, the police chief of Montgomery County, was putting on his dress uniform to attend an officer's funeral. Instead, he found himself at a Mobil gasoline station, struggling to piece together clues in the third bizarre killing in less than 24 hours.

As victim after victim mysteriously fell - shot down seemingly out of nowhere - Moose's puzzlement turned to grim disbelief, aides say. By the end of that day, Oct. 3, six people were dead, and Moose had become one of the most famous law enforcement officers in America.

For the 49-year-old chief, the intensely public manhunt that ensued posed extraordinary challenges. Suddenly, a man whose department handled 19 homicides last year was commanding a task force of more than 1,000 state and federal investigators, under the unforgiving glare of hundreds of reporters, all the while dancing a delicate and dangerous minuet with his quarry.

"When the communication started developing between the shooters and the police, he had to perform," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University. "He had a very narrow line to walk. He didn't want to misspeak, which would have shut off communications, enraged them even more and inspired more killings. So he was walking a very delicate line, and I think he did a terrific job."

At times, Moose seemed a man of contradictions. He holds a doctoral degree in urban studies, yet he made grammarians cringe with his less-than-elegant turns of phrase. He won the hearts of local residents when a tear trickled down his cheek after a 13-year-old boy was shot, but drew complaints from law enforcement experts for showing too much emotion, perhaps emboldening the shooter. He lashed out at the news media for reporting the sniper had left a macabre tarot card - a fact leaked by investigators. Yet, he was artfully manipulating the news media to get his message to the killer, whom aides say he likened to "a ghost."

"Watching his news conferences, I've said to myself, `That's Chief Moose,'" said Derrick Foxworth, assistant chief of police in Portland, Ore., a department Moose ran before coming to Montgomery County in 1999. "He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he doesn't mince words."

As the drama unfolded, critics wondered aloud if Moose was merely the public face of the investigation while his federal partners, Gary M. Bald of the FBI and Mike Bouchard of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, ran things behind the scenes. Some even suggested that the federal government take over the inquiry - a suggestion rejected by President Bush.

Publicly and privately, however, the authorities say Moose played a central role. His department was the lead agency, start to finish, they say, and just as important, of Moose, Bald and Bouchard, Moose was the one who had practical experience in investigating violent crime.

Moose was well aware of the criticism, but he ignored it, his aides say. If he ever had doubts that he and his team would crack the case, he did not show them. "He never displayed any doubt that he would solve it," said Dee Walker, an assistant police chief in Montgomery County. "His concern was how long it would take, because this was an active killer. The longer we took, the more people died. The pressure was mounting with every incident."

At the same time, Walker said, Moose was acutely aware that he was the focus of the sniper's attention. "We recognized that there was a nexus between the media scrutiny and the actions of the sniper," she said. "It became a very delicate dance, an exhausting undertaking."

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