Shootings leave Columbus area uneasy

School grounds searched for clues to I-270 attacks

December 04, 2003|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The window shades were drawn tight at Hamilton Central Elementary School yesterday as dogs sniffed the building's front grounds and federal agents combed through the grass for evidence of the person who fired a shot through a classroom window.

Recess was indoors yesterday, and it will probably stay that way until investigators find the Interstate 270 sniper, who has killed one person and disrupted the security and driving habits of others in the Columbus area.

"The worst part is it could be somebody who comes in here every day. It could be someone I grew up with," said Stephanie Genheimer, who runs the counter at the convenience store down the street from the school.

"I think it's somebody from here," Genheimer said grimly, as helicopters could be heard overhead, scanning the five-mile stretch of I-270 where 12 shootings have occurred on the southern outskirts of Columbus.

Only a week ago, few thought the shooting incidents stretching back to early May were related. But this week's linking of them to one or more shooters has driven home the jarring realization that someone dangerous is lurking along a route that hundreds of thousands of people use each day.

A Franklin County sheriff's investigator said yesterday that he is optimistic authorities will find the person or people responsible for the shootings, which include an incident that resulted in the death of 62-year-old Gail Knisley, who was killed Nov. 25 while riding in a vehicle with a friend. But authorities have made no arrests and say they have no suspects.

A complicating factor for aerial searches is this week's arrival of deer hunting season, with scores of hunters carrying long guns and tramping on ground where the sniper might have been. Helicopters and airplanes crisscrossed the area yesterday, and police cruisers inspected areas along the interstate.

In the meantime, area residents are adjusting - some more easily than others - to the unsettling threat along I-270. Thoughts have quickly turned to last year's sniper attacks in the Washington area. Others recall the three sniper shootings in Kanawha County, W.Va., in August and point out that they have not led to arrests.

"This is kind of scary," said Michael Pease of Grove City, Ohio, who now drives faster and keeps his head against his seat to provide less of a target for a shooter. "People are leery."

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