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Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 09:35 GMT
Snipers bring fear to Washington
Chief Police Charles Moose
Charles Moose: Dealing in cryptic messages

The saddening reality of modern American life is that multiple shootings seem to happen virtually every other month.

The narrative has become all-too-familiar: a gunman goes crazy, fires upon his family, friends or colleagues and then turns the weapon on himself. End of story.

So when first reports drifted through the newsroom in early October that five people had been shot dead by a gunman on the outskirts of Washington, it failed to create much of a stir.

John Allen Mohammed, aka John Allen Williams,
John Allen Mohammed was arrested in connection with sniper attacks

That the slayings had occurred on our very doorstep, in the normally tranquil community of Montgomery County, certainly added a new twist, and a grim fascination. But we thought the story would be over as quickly as it began, with homicide turning to suicide.

I well remember my first conversation with London. Five shootings was fairly routine. If the death toll rose, we agreed to speak again.

One of the more shameful aspects of the news business - and I'm to blame as much as anyone - is that we tend to deal in numbers rather than lives and personalities.

A crime less ordinary

It was only when we were in a taxi, rushing towards Montgomery County, that we began to sense the shootings were far from ordinary.

On the car radio we listened as a breathless reporter, who had just extracted the first scraps of information from police, began to tell a remarkable story.

Of how one of the victims had been shot mowing the lawn; how another, a taxi driver, had been filling up his tank with petrol; and how a third had been slain at a bus-stop.

One image was particularly vivid. A silver people mover - a modern-day symbol of American suburbia - splattered with blood.

As far as the police could tell, none of the victims was related in any way, and no witnesses had seen the gunman. There was another compelling detail.

It seemed all of the victims had been killed with a single bullet.

A sniper was at work.

Terrifying times

For the next five weeks, the Washington sniper came to dominate our lives. All of us had to confront the eerie possibility of being lined up in the cross-hairs of a sniper's rifle.

Did life here come to a halt?

FBI agent holding up bullet
Victims were killed by a single bullet

Of course not. Following 11 September and the anthrax attacks, the residents of Washington have learnt to contain their fears. But it was terrifying nonetheless.

For young children, the school run became a sprint. After a 13-year-old boy was shot in the chest outside his school in Bowie, Maryland, I watched the next morning as young toddlers dashed from yellow school buses into their classrooms, many too young to understand why.

Others were driven to school by wary parents, acting as human shields, a barrier between the sniper and their children. Grown men cowered in their cars while filling up with petrol.

Others descended on a gas station that had draped an orange tarpaulin over its force-court.

White van drivers became the target of our suspicions.

After all, by now we had all become amateur sleuths, the authors of a wide array of theories. Was this the work of terrorists? Was a lone psychopath responsible? And what was the motive? A lust for blood? A craving for attention? Money?

Nobody could really tell.

Cryptic messages

Then there were those bizarre coded messages from Police Chief Charles Moose, who looked and sounded more like a preacher than a policeman.

They were cryptic and confounding. In the blur of events, it seemed we were becoming the unwilling extras in some absurd Hollywood B-movie.

Then there were the false alarms. I well remember the scenes outside a petrol station on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, just 15 minutes from what we hoped would be scene of the final shooting, the car park of a steakhouse in a town called Ashland.

Two men had just been apprehended in a police sting operation.

One was driving a white van. The white van had temporary plates on it. Very suspicious. One of the men was making a call at an outside pay phone without leaving his vehicle.

Law enforcement officers perform a spot check of a white van
White van drivers became the target of suspicions

And all this, not long after Chief Moose had asked the sniper to get in contact.

Under rain-speckled skies, policemen seemed triumphant. One said that a "hot suspect" was in their hands.

That turned out to be adrenaline-soaked over-optimism. The two innocent men had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Finally, after another killing - this time the victim was a bus driver preparing for his morning run - two men were arrested, after one of them had bragged about carrying out a murder in Montgomery, Alabama.

It was the crucial break in the investigation. Two individuals were taken into custody. The killings came to an end.

The whole saga provided telling insights into post-9/11 America, a country torn between dread and desire: a nation longing to return to how things were, but worried that will never be possible.

It reminded us how vulnerable we have become; of how easy it is now to spread terror through once-tranquil communities; and spoke of future dangers to come. If nothing else, the alleged snipers have provided a blueprint for terrorists of how to spread panic through the capital of the world's only superpower.

I well remember spending breakfast with a family in Montgomery County the morning after the suspects were taken into custody.

There was a palpable relief.

A real burden had been lifted from our shoulders. The psychological siege was over. But it was a feeling that seemed very temporary and very fragile.

The parents were asking: what's coming next? So is much of Washington.

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See also:

25 Oct 02 | Americas
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