Living with fear for 3 long weeks

Sniper: The D.C. area starts to recover after two men are charged in the shootings that left 10 dead and three wounded.

October 27, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The first bullet smashed through the store's front window, over by the pay phone, and skimmed a light fixture inside.

No one was hurt in the Michaels crafts store in Aspen Hill. The police were called. Customers continued shopping. There was no panic.

No one knew what was coming.

It was Oct. 2 at 5:20 p.m., not yet dusk in Montgomery County.

Within the hour, the brazen sniper would claim his first victim. He would go on to shoot 13 people - killing 10 - as they pumped gas, loaded groceries, went out to dinner. He wouldn't miss again.

Speeding on and off the interstates, maybe in a white van and maybe not, maybe in a box truck and maybe not, he would terrorize a region suddenly afraid to buy cold medicine and fish food and regular unleaded. He would pick off his prey in busy shopping centers, just off highway interchanges - in the most public, and seemingly safest, of places.

So began an extraordinary three weeks, 22 days that altered life in the Washington region in ways never thought possible. People's lives were lost, leaving deep holes in the lives of those who loved them. Many more were altered in subtler ways: schoolchildren cooped up inside for fear of attack on the playgrounds, and worried there might be no Halloween; people crouching beside their cars as they pumped gasoline, getting trapped in traffic jams as police set up dragnets to catch a killer; politicians worried that Election Day would suffer a record low turnout, with voters unwilling to risk their lives to go to the polls.

"Everyone kind of mustered up some coping skills we didn't know were there," said Quintin Satterfield, a home inspector and father of eight from Wheaton who frequents many of the establishments that would become sniper targets. "This was a novel experience for everyone."

A few minutes after 6 p.m. that first night, a mile from the crafts store, James D. Martin was at the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton. He stopped to buy groceries for his church program. The crowded parking lot, across the street from the Glenmont police station, was teeming with rush-hour shoppers popping in for a few items on the way home from work.

A single gunshot rang out. Martin became the 21st person killed in Montgomery County this year.

The death of the 55-year-old federal worker, who lived in Silver Spring with his wife and 11-year-old son, received only three paragraphs in the next morning's paper.

The national media would be on the story before lunch.

Deadly rampage

At 7:41 a.m. on Oct. 3, James L. "Sonny" Buchanan Jr. was mowing the grass outside a car dealership on Rockville Pike near White Flint Mall. A 39-year-old landscaper who spent most of his life in Montgomery County, Buchanan fell from the seat of his riding mower after being hit by a single shot, again seemingly out of nowhere.

Half an hour later, Prem Kumar Walekar, 54, needed to gas up his taxicab. So the Olney man, who emigrated from India nearly 30 years ago, pulled into the Mobil station at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue, as he did nearly every day. He was shot in the chest.

"We had no idea where the shot came from," recalled mechanic Warren Shifflet, who was standing outside with a cup of coffee that morning.

The sharpshooter seemed to be picking up speed. Twenty-five minutes later, Sarah Ramos was sitting on a bench outside a post office near Leisure World in Silver Spring. The 34-year-old housekeeper was waiting for a ride when she became victim No. 4, killed instantly.

Three people dead in less than one hour. In the comfortable suburbs outside the Capital Beltway, a skilled shooter with apparently no pattern to his madness, a random, roaming, frightening sniper was on the loose. The police were just starting to realize the carnage they had on their hands. They had no idea how to stop it.

Just before 10 o'clock, the sniper struck for the last time that morning, at a gas station in Kensington. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was using the coin-operated vacuum to clean her Dodge Caravan. She, too, fit the pattern. She, too, was killed by a single gunshot.

Witnesses would be able to offer few details about the shootings to investigators. All they knew was that each shot came from far away. At the site of Ramos' killing there was one clue. A witness described a white box truck, and trucks matching the description were soon stopped all over the region.

Schools locked their doors and barricaded their driveways. Merchants shut stores early. Shopping centers and gas stations were brought to a standstill by police cars and yellow crime-scene tape.

The epicenter might have been Montgomery County, but residents there didn't corner the market on fear. Even schools in the Baltimore suburbs canceled outdoor recess and after-school activities. Rumors, soon proved false, spread about more shootings as far away as Mount Airy and Towson.

"We don't know who we're dealing with," Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose told reporters at a news conference after 11 a.m. that day.

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