A time of joy 'like New Year's Eve'

Sun Staff

Montgomery County awoke yesterday as if from a terrifying dream and saw the world begin to come slowly back into focus.

Suddenly, Halloween pumpkins mattered again. And fall colors. And all the other small pleasures people savor when they're not filled with dread or steely determination to keep themselves and loved ones safe.

With the capture of two suspects in the string of sniper slayings, many in the suburban Washington county - still shaken, grieving and angry - started to trust enough to stop looking over their shoulders.

Montgomery, the state's most populous and affluent county, was hardest hit during three weeks of random killing that ended with 10 people dead and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. The shootings began and ended in Montgomery, whose police chief, Charles A. Moose, became the public face of the investigation.

Yesterday, residents said they could hardly believe they will no longer need to fear sending their kids off to school, or hear the persistent chop of police helicopters overhead, or scan area roads for a mysterious box truck sought by authorities.

If not for the arrests, Michelle Young, 41, of Olney said she would never have ventured yesterday to the Michaels crafts store in Aspen Hill, where a sniper's bullet pierced a front window Oct. 2. The shot hit no one, but five people were gunned down in the county the next day, inducing a sort of trauma in Young that caused her to avoid parking lots and listen for the wail of sirens.

"I'm so happy today," the mother of 8-year-old identical twin boys said as she stood in the Michaels lot and brushed away the beginning of a tear. "It's just been so emotional."

For three weeks, she had felt sick to her stomach every time her boys went outside. A combination of anxiety, anger and sadness left her unable to go out to buy Halloween decorations. But yesterday, she happily displayed the contents of her Michaels shopping bag - a fake spider web, candles for her pumpkins and other holiday merchandise.

"Halloween is coming after all," she said.

'A few days too late'

But for Young and other residents across the region, yesterday's relief was tempered by sadness at the fates of those for whom the arrests did not come in time.

"It was just a few days too late for the bus driver," she said, referring to Conrad Johnson, 35, fatally shot Tuesday in Aspen Hill as he stood on the top step of his commuter bus.

Driver after driver along the route stopped their buses yesterday at the site of the shooting and left flowers where Johnson was hit.

Carolina Salas, 37, a county school bus driver for 10 years, knelt, crossed herself and left a single rose. Before Tuesday, she would wave at Johnson as their routes crossed each day. Her husband drives a county Ride On bus, as Johnson did.

"I live a block away, and my kids have just been so afraid," said Salas, mother of a girl, 6, and boy, 16. "I wanted to go out and get milk and my daughter said, 'Mom, don't go. I won't drink any milk tomorrow.'"

Near the rose, flowers and candles, a neighbor left a handwritten note for Johnson: "Sir. Just wanted you to know that hopefully they have been caught. ... I feel for your family. Rest in peace, brother. God will watch over you and your family."

It was signed, "A neighbor where U died."

Even for those unrelated to the victims, the trauma left by the killings isn't likely to subside immediately. Salas, for one, said she's still wary - of what she's not sure.

"Even though I know they caught him, I still feel afraid," she said.

Other residents said they still feel uneasy. At the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Fran Brown, 85, said that when she saw reports of the capture on television yesterday, her first thought was, "Do they really have the right people?"

Whether the killers are in custody or not, Brown said she can't help but think about the murders whenever she shops in the plaza, just outside the community gates. It was in that shopping area where Sarah Ramos, 34, of Silver Spring was sitting on a bench - since taken away - outside the post office on the morning of Oct. 3. Ramos was shot in the head, becoming the sniper's third of five victims that day.

"I go down and look across and I wonder, 'Where was the shooter?'" Brown said.

Anger and outrage

For many, another bitter residue of the shootings is anger. Parents, in particular, though grateful for the arrests, are enraged that their kids were endangered, and, in some cases, left terribly afraid.

"A friend of mine said, 'Just let this guy loose with a roomful of moms,'" Young said. "Moms have been livid."

Young and other mothers said they couldn't help but react personally at the idea that someone took the streets of their neighborhoods and turned them into his own killing zone for all the world to see.

"I went through incredible moments of anger, especially when I saw children becoming afraid," said Ann Zmitrovich, a Bethesda-area mother of two.

But yesterday, she said, "People are weeping. I was hugging people spontaneously at the school."

Parents' anger was heightened by a note left by the sniper: "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time."

After the contents of the note were released this week, some families kept their children at home. Others brought them to school only to find - in the case of Tuesday morning's shooting - that teachers were stuck in massive, manhunt-related traffic jams.

Alex Millhouse, a mechanic at the Aspen Hill Mobil station where cabdriver Premkumar A. Walekar, 54. was shot and killed Oct. 3, said he's still mad that the county didn't immediately release the contents of the threatening note about children.

'They didn't want to cause panic in the streets, but there already was panic in the streets," said Millhouse, who has a 7-year-old daughter.

But he said he was relieved that he could finally tell his daughter, who has been inquiring about the sniper, that the threat "doesn't exist anymore."

Schools remained open in the county, operating under a "Code Blue" status prohibiting outdoor activities. Even after the early morning arrests, county schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast cautioned in a memorandum yesterday that "staff members should continue to be vigilant and prudent in the operation of our schools."

Prince George's County, where a 13-year-old Benjamin Tasker Middle School student was shot by the sniper Oct. 7, also remained under Code Blue.

'Like New Year's Eve'

Yesterday, the heaviness that has hung over the Bowie school finally broke. Since the shooting, the school grounds have seen an increase in traffic because many parents didn't want their sons and daughters walking to school, or even taking the bus.

Financial planner John Bertram, who has a daughter at the school, spotted Principal John S. Lloyd smiling yesterday.

"I haven't seen him smile in three weeks," said Bertram, who has been helping direct traffic at the school.

The first thing Bertram did when he arrived at school yesterday was thank the police officers who had guarded it for the 17 days since the sniper critically wounded the student.

"I hope they have a day for the police. They need to have a parade for them," he said. "I feel already 90 percent better. It's probably going to take a few weeks for people to feel normal again," said the giddy father of three. "It feels so good. I feel like it's New Year's Eve."

Lloyd noticed a change in students as they emerged from buses.

"With a high pitch of excitement, many of them said: 'Have you heard? Did you hear?' I think they're relieved, hoping there'll be some closure to the chain of events that have happened."

The school has received cards, e-mail and flowers from people around the world.

In the Baltimore region, school officials expressed relief along with caution yesterday.

"We'll probably be cautious again [today] and see how this plays out a little more," said Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker.

In Baltimore County, public schools were awaiting word from the Montgomery County Sniper Task Force on whether schools could return to normal. Since Oct. 8, county schools have had enhanced safety procedures in place that prohibited all outdoor activity except for interscholastic sports, and canceled field trips and fire drills.

In Anne Arundel County, public schools did not reduce security measures yesterday, but a change could take place today.

Using "cautious optimism," Howard County administrators also kept schools on modified lockdown yesterday, but were expected to return to normal operations today.

"It feels like a weight's been lifted from my shoulders," said school spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "Sometimes you don't realize how stressful something is until you're out from under it."

Sun staff writers Stephanie Desmon, Tricia Bishop, Gabriel Baird and Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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