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Promising clues, but no clear look at suburban killer

Juvenile DelinquencyHighway and Road DisastersHomicide

The Washington-area sniper's most recent strike appears to have left police with the most promising clues yet, including descriptions from witnesses of a Soviet-style assault weapon, the shooter and the getaway van, but officials said yesterday that they still could not put a face on the killer.

Without enough detail to create a composite sketch to show the public, the long standoff continued between the serial sniper terrorizing the suburbs around the nation's capital and hundreds of federal agents, state police and local detectives working to solve a case attracting worldwide attention.

The most detailed accounts of the sniper, who has killed nine people and wounded two, came from witnesses who were outside a Falls Church, Va., Home Depot store Monday night when the latest victim, Linda Franklin, 47, was shot in the head as she and her husband loaded packages into their car.

Police officials said yesterday that one witness told police the shooter stepped out of a light-colored van and fired one shot at Franklin, stepped back into the vehicle and drove away.

The witness gave police an exceedingly detailed description of the weapon -- an AK-74, a high-powered, Russian assault weapon that can fire the .223-caliber bullet recovered from many of the shooting scenes.

"The witness firmly believes this is the weapon," Montgomery County Police Capt. Nancy Demme told reporters.

"But we have to keep in mind that weapons are interchangeable, like vehicles. They could pick up another weapon."

The AK-74 expels shell casings after each round is fired. But police would not say whether they discovered a shell casing at the scene.

So far, police have acknowledged recovering one shell casing from the sniper's rifle in a wooded area near a Bowie middle school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded.

If police did not recover a shell casing at the Home Depot, the sniper might have fired the AK-74 in such a way to expel the shell into his van or he might have picked up the casing before fleeing.

Partial license number

Witnesses who were at the busy Seven Corners shopping center Monday night also offered other key details, describing a white Chevrolet Astro van with a burned-out left taillight that was seen leaving the shopping center.

The witnesses also offered at least a partial license plate number.

The accounts also suggested that the shooting Monday night was the most brazen and closest-range of the attacks so far, with the gunman as close as 30 yards from his victim.

But witnesses offered different descriptions of the gunman -- and a possible accomplice -- though each account described the assailant as a man.

Vague descriptions

The witness who told police he saw the rifle said he could not see the sniper's face, police officials said. One witness told the Associated Press that the driver of the van appeared to be dark-skinned or Middle Eastern, but police did not confirm that account.

"There are a couple of people who believe they saw a man shoot," Demme said. "Unfortunately, distance and darkness and perhaps adrenaline have made them unable to give a clear composite that we can disseminate."

Police do not plan to create a composite sketch of the van seen fleeing Monday's attack. The witnesses "seem to think that it's closer to what we already have out in terms of vans," Demme said. "So there's nothing that [police] could do that would create another composite."

Investigators have released only the scantiest information about evidence collected from the sniper crime scenes in Northwest Washington; in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland; and in Prince William, Spotsylvania and Fairfax counties in Virginia.

It is rare that investigators release specific details, such as the witness account of an AK-74 being used by the gunman. But some criminologists said police could benefit by getting such details about the case to the public.

A composite sketch or detailed description of the shooter could make a potential informant far more likely to come forward than just a general plea for information about drivers of white minivans, said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University.

Public needs details

"Do they really expect that some spouse or friend or neighbor is going to turn in somebody just because they drive a white van and enjoy hunting?" Levin said. "There's only one way for the public to help here, and that's to have a number of different pieces of information."

In their hunt for the mysterious sniper, police must rely heavily on accounts from witnesses -- information that criminal justice experts caution can be spotty and unreliable or colored by details they have heard from other people or the media.

"Obviously, sometimes you can get valuable information from people," said Elizabeth F. Loftus, a psychology and criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine. "The danger in public information is if it's wrong, it can contaminate and change the information in people's minds who do have credible information."

Write it down first

Police in the sniper case appeared to be sensitive to those problems. Demme urged anyone who finds himself in a position to be a witness in the case to first write down everything he can remember before talking to anyone, advice that Loftus said banks often give to their tellers who could find themselves as witnesses to robberies.

The investigation has left area residents fearful and investigators frustrated as the gunman continues to elude capture. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III took the rare step this week of asking President Bush to authorize the use of sophisticated military spy planes to help search for the sniper from the skies over Washington.

Although the federal role in the case has steadily grown, Justice Department officials said the investigation still was a state-level serial homicide case.

"There is huge frustration on all parts that we haven't caught anybody," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman. But Corallo said federal authorities have been "really happy with the level of cooperation they're seeing."

"They have been very impressed with how quickly the task force came together and how well it's working," he said. "The usual territorialism has been nonexistent."

Reconnaissance planes

That appeared evident in the military's quick authorization of the use of a four-engine reconnaissance aircraft that has flown counter-drug operations over Central America and peacekeeping missions in the skies above Haiti and Bosnia.

One defense official said the planes, of the RC-7 Airborne Reconnaissance Low variety, are expected in the area in the "near future," although he could not be certain of a date. While the plane will be operated by military personnel, law enforcement officials will analyze the information.

The RC-7 Airborne can operate in all weather, day or night. Operating from onboard work stations, crew members use a variety of sensors and radar systems. They can zoom in on a moving vehicle and produce an image with up to a four-inch resolution. Their infrared systems can detect heat sources, such as a car or a human body. And they can transmit live videotape to the ground.

The Pentagon will not say how many of the aircraft will be on loan to law enforcement.

On the ground in Falls Church, Va., business was slow to return to normal for shoppers and store workers at the Seven Corners center. Although investigators were gone, stores remained unusually empty; sales clerks said customers were staying away because of the shooting.

Store closing early

Naaman Shaban, manager of the Dollar City store, said business was so slow that he planned to close early for the second day in a row.

"Especially after dark -- which is when we are usually the busiest, now we are dead," Shaban said.

For Shaban's staff, the Monday shooting came unsettling close to home. Store worker Tamisha Mark, 16, closed the store at 9:10 p.m. Monday and then walked across the shopping center parking lot to a family's nearby apartment.

When she reached her front door, Mark said, her mother heard a gunshot. The family rushed inside and watched the nearby events unfold on television.

"I'm always nervous when I walk, but I'm even more nervous right now," Mark said.

Said one co-worker, Rema Shaban: "You never expect it to happen where you are, and when it does, it's sickening."

Sun staff writers Julie Bykowicz, Tom Bowman, Laura Sullivan and Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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