The snippets were as tantalizing as they were puzzling.
"We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided," Montgomery County police Chief Charles A. Moose said late Sunday as he opened a dramatic public conversation with the serial sniper who has spread fear across the Washington region.
Early yesterday, as the television cameras rolled and a fascinated audience watched the true crime story unfold in real time, Moose returned with another carefully scripted telegraph: Authorities had received a message and were "preparing our response."
Late in the afternoon came another plea: "The person you called could not hear everything. ... Call us back so we can clearly understand."
After 19 days of "no comments" and predictable pleas for public help, the chief investigator in the search for the mysterious sniper who has killed nine people and injured three abruptly turned the periodic news briefings yesterday into a direct chat line with the shooter.
The messages were terse and tightly controlled. Still, it was hardly a private conversation.
Moose urged news media to carry the message "clearly and often," even as he declined to answer questions about what it meant. The 24-hour cable stations quickly complied, and thousands of armchair detectives began spinning theories about what was behind the guarded lines.
"Right now we're getting these press conferences where the journalists don't necessarily know what they're about, but maybe somebody out there does," said Robert L. Thompson, a popular culture and media studies professor at Syracuse University. "Everybody seems to be invited almost, or at least be tempted, to become an amateur sleuth."
Law enforcement sources said authorities believed they were communicating with someone who might be the sniper. But experts who have studied hundreds of serial killers said such a conversation would be rare and potentially troublesome for police.
Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University, said only a few serial killings have been solved because of such communications with police or the media, most notably the Unabomber case.
Another Northeastern criminologist, James Alan Fox, said a message from the sniper "is not the kind of lead that will crack the case because the killer doesn't want to do that."
For spellbound viewers, though, the apparent dialogue between Moose and the man he is hunting made for a prime-time-worthy mystery.
"This is a miniseries, no question about it," Thompson said. "It's a docudrama about something that's being made as it's happening."
In an era of 24-hour news channels and streaming online bulletins, the media's role in developing news stories has been steadily transformed from observer to participant. In the search for the sniper, it had been apparent that authorities who spoke publicly about the case were acutely aware that they were addressing a number of different audiences - the reporters in front of them, the worried public watching at home and, potentially, the shooter.
As the public face of the investigation, Moose has chosen his words most carefully. He has repeatedly criticized the media for publishing information that in his view could hurt the case. At one point he even questioned why Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening would call the shooter a coward, apparently a move to calm what could have been an irritated sniper.
"The governor's training is not in the law enforcement field," Moose said. "I am convinced the governor will never do that again."
Beginning late Sunday, Moose cut out the messenger altogether and made clear that he was talking directly to one individual, working from a carefully drafted script that suggested the whodunit that was playing out on CNN was more chess game than cat-and-mouse.
"The message that needs to be delivered is that we are going to respond to a message that we have received," Moose said in the first of his two mysterious dispatches yesterday. "We are preparing our response at this time."
If yesterday's dialogue made the search for the serial sniper feel more like television drama than crime reporting, yesterday's events were a reminder that in real life, the case is rarely solved by the top of the hour. After the gunpoint arrests of two men near Richmond, Va., raised hopes that police had the shooter, authorities later in the day said the two men had nothing to do with the case.
"Everybody watches Law & Order or CSI, and they think they know how it really goes," said Delores Craig-Moreland, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University in Kansas who teaches a course called "Crime in Popular Culture." But she said those popular crime shows don't always reflect the reality of a complex murder investigation.
"I don't honestly believe the investigation is being influenced by that public side of it," she said. "The police have some techniques that history shows have worked again and again, and I don't think the fact that the world is watching really makes much of a difference."