For sniper tipster, small rewards

Shootings: While the 'prize money' waits to be divided up, one man takes solace in the gratitude of the public.

December 13, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - It was a letter that Whitney Donahue never expected to get.

"I have never seen anybody so brave," began fifth-grader Daniel Poffenburger. "You should get all the prize money for saving so many lives."

Donahue, a paunchy refrigerator repairman who drives a white van with a union bumper sticker on the back, may not look the part of a superhero. But to the pupils at his daughter's school, he is the man who helped make soccer and trick-or-treating safe again.

On Oct. 24, 2002, Donahue spotted the faded Chevrolet Caprice belonging to sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo at a Frederick County rest stop and called police. He stayed on the telephone with dispatchers for two hours, until police stormed the car - arresting the men and ending the three weeks of terror that had gripped the Washington area.

For that, the 38-year-old father of three could get some of the "prize money" - the $500,000 reward Montgomery County offered for the arrest and indictment of the sniper suspects.

But weeks after a jury sentenced Muhammad to death, the question of who will receive the money is far from settled. Montgomery County officials, who established the fund with help from the state and private donations, say they don't even know who will serve on the committee awarding the money. Once it forms, a move expected when Malvo's trial ends early next year, the committee will cull through the more than 60,000 credible tips that helped the investigation.

"There were so many people working so many angles from all across the country, and we want to make sure we have the best list of candidates," said Montgomery County police spokesman Derek Baliles.

Baliles, who had his own brush with the snipers after he took a call from them and was mentioned in one of their notes, expects it will take less than a year for the committee to distribute the money. Though he says the county has no official list of likely reward candidates, Donahue is not the only contender, and the money won't all go to one person.

Other names floated include Larry Blank, a rest stop custodian who helped Donahue; Robert Holmes, Mohammad's former Army buddy from Tacoma, Wash.; and William Sullivan, the Ashland, Va., priest who took a call from the snipers before the Ponderosa shooting.

Though a convergence of tips led to Donahue's call, more than just the schoolchildren who wrote him letters last year think he deserves some of the "prize." Officers who met the repairman at the scene say he was key to ending a terrifying month.

"The police officers that were there that night realized the significance of what he had done, that they were there because Whitney Donahue was observant and was willing to call police," said Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley.

As the driver of a van who travels to supermarkets from Frederick to Richmond, Va., Donahue was well aware of the sniper during last year's murderous frenzy. In the midst of the investigation, after police released a sketch of a white van thought to be the sniper's vehicle, Donahue endured glares in suburbia. Some women would run when he pulled into parking lots.

The fear was especially palpable at one regular stop - the Wheaton Shoppers Food Warehouse, where sniper victim James D. Martin was killed Oct. 2.

Then, on Oct. 24, Donahue's ears perked up when he heard police were looking for a Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey tags. Finally, he thought, something other than a white van. He wrote down the plate number.

Spotting the car

When he made his regular stop at the rest area west of Frederick about an hour later, he saw two cars parked next to each other. One was Blank's. The other was the Caprice.

"When I saw the tag, I said, `Oh, man,'" Donahue said.

He called police twice, but the connections were bad. Then, pretending to check a tire, he double-checked the plate and drove to an area with better cell phone reception. He called again, got through, and police arrived within minutes.

Soon, Blank heard the commotion on the police scanner from his cramped office, which doubles as a janitorial closet. A longtime Hagerstown resident, he had worked at the rest area four years. Other than the occasional drunk teen-ager in the bathroom or highway fender-bender, not much happened on the night shift.

As Blank walked toward the highway, he spotted Donahue's van. Donahue suggested he get inside.

For the next two hours, Donahue and Blank - known to the dispatchers as "Citizen 1" and "Citizen 2"- sat in the darkness with Donahue's cell phone. Except for a few minutes when Blank went to lock the bathrooms - and a later trip to the woods to relieve themselves - the two didn't leave the van until after the arrest. Then, as Blank finished his shift and did several interviews, Donahue slipped past the television cameras and headed home.

Teresa Donahue remembers her husband pacing around the house. In the early morning quiet of his Pennsylvania hills home, he realized what he had done. He felt great.

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