RICHMOND, Va. - Desperate to continue a cryptic dialogue they've established with the serial sniper stalking the Washington region, police urged the killer yesterday to contact them again - specifically, in response to a threatening letter he wrote demanding a large sum of money, law enforcement sources told The Sun.
The letter, found at the scene of the sniper's most recent shooting, is one of the few clues left for investigators, who swooped down yesterday on two gas stations just outside Richmond in a vain effort to capture the elusive gunman. Although police were hopeful the killer had been at that location, their only arrests were of two men who later proved to have nothing to do with the shootings.
The sealed, multiple-page letter was left in the woods behind the Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Va., where a 37-year-old man was shot Saturday night in an incident authorities linked yesterday to the sniper. The note included a phone number for police to call to discuss the letter's demands, law enforcement officials said last night.
In the hostile letter, the killer threatened extreme violence. He also demanded money, officials said.
But by the time investigators had found and processed the letter, the appointed time for the call had passed, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose used a hastily called televised news briefing Sunday evening to urge the author of the letter to call the number given in the note. Investigators routed the phone number to a police location so that when the killer dialed the number it would ring on a detective's desk, officials said.
Yesterday morning, officials said, a 30-second phone call came to police headquarters: a voice so garbled that police couldn't understand it. They later surmised that the voice was a tape recording, officials said.
Police traced the call and raced to an Exxon station near Richmond, 10 miles south of Saturday night's shooting, sources said. There, at 8:30 a.m., three heavily armed officers rushed a white Plymouth Voyager van parked beside one of the station's pay phones and arrested the man inside.
Shortly after driving him away in a cruiser, police arrested another man talking on the phone at the Citgo station across the street.
About 10 a.m., Moose appeared briefly on television to respond to the sniper's communications. "We are going to respond to a message that we have received," he said. "We will respond later. We are preparing our response at this time."
The arrests at first looked very promising: Witnesses of the sniper's previous shootings have described seeing white vans fleeing the scenes, although vans of different makes from the Voyager.
But by midafternoon, investigators had determined that the two men - a 25-year-old Mexican and a 35-year-old Hispanic, both undocumented workers - had nothing to do with the shootings and turned them over to immigration authorities.
The fruitless arrests left police in roughly the same position they'd been in at the day's start: trying to establish contact with the sniper. At a late afternoon news briefing in Rockville, Md., Moose made another plea directed at the person who had called earlier in the day:
"The person you called could not hear everything you said. The audio was unclear, and we want to get it right," Moose said. "Call us back so we can clearly understand."
The intense effort by police to establish clear communications with the sniper signaled a major shift in the investigation into the string of shootings that has killed nine, seriously injured three and gripped Maryland, Virginia and Washington with fear for nearly three weeks.
Two weeks ago, when police received a message from the sniper in the form of a tarot card with "I am God" scribbled on it, at the scene of the shooting of a 13-year-old boy at a Bowie, Md., middle school, they made no attempt to respond explicitly to that message by television.
After the Saturday letter, however, police have apparently decided they must respond directly over the airwaves. In seeking such an exchange, the ante has been upped significantly, said Delores Craig-Moreland, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University.
"The whole conversation is dangerous, in that you don't know the meaning he will take from the things you say," Craig-Moreland said.
In a reflection of the heightened tension, schools in Richmond and four surrounding districts were closed yesterday - a more drastic step than was taken in the Washington area, where most schools stayed open but in "lockdown" mode. Eleven Richmond area school districts will be closed again today.
The especially high security comes as a shock to Richmond, which had assumed that it was well south of the sniper's range.
"This is a very peaceful place; I wasn't frightened" about the sniper, said Maritza McIntyre, a resident of Henrico County who pulled into the Exxon station where the arrest was made. "I had no idea he would even come to Richmond."
Residents had high hopes that the two morning arrests, accompanied with optimistic reports from police, had provided a swift resolution.
"I didn't realize how excited I would be [about a resolution of the case] until I saw the news [of the arrest] this morning. I was elated," said Ashland Mayor Angel LaComb.
Keith Underwood, the service manager at a car dealership adjacent to the Exxon, watched as cruisers filled the dealership lot and the three officers approached the van. After an officer shouted into the van for the man inside to unlock the passenger door, Underwood said, "they swung the passenger door open, swung the sliding door open, and pulled the guy out and set him on the ground."
Moments later, after the news media had congregated in the Citgo station across the street, an officer approached the man talking on the phone there and took him away in his cruiser, said Eliasar Morales, a janitor at the station. Police shooed the media away from the Citgo lot and proceeded to search it thoroughly, going so far as to lift manhole covers to look underneath them.
Investigators concluded the men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and turned the pair over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, officials said.
Also yesterday, another promising lead proved fruitless: Tests determined that .223-caliber shell casing found in a white truck left at a rental agency at Dulles International Airport last week was not linked to the high-powered rifle police believe the sniper is using.
The shootings began Oct. 2, when a man was shot dead in the parking lot of a Montgomery County grocery store. The next day, five more people were killed, four in Montgomery County and one in Washington.
Six more shootings have followed, in and around Fredericksbug, Va., in Bowie, near Manassas, Va., in Falls Church, Va., and finally in Ashland.
Most if not all have been carried out from some distance, most have been either at gas stations or store or restaurant parking lots, and all have struck their target with a single shot.
Investigators - numbering in the hundreds - have expressed no solid theory on the sniper's motives. An anxious public, meanwhile, has ventured speculations attributing the shootings to everything from a vengeful loner to foreign-based terrorism.
The Saturday letter's demands for a large amount of money may help investigators form a more narrow picture of the shooter and his motives. While this may pose a greater risk for the sniper, it's not necessarily surprising that he would leave the letter for police, said Craig-Moreland, of Wichita State.
"It is not that unusual for a person who has committed these kinds of flamboyant crimes to be seeking some kind of audience. And the audience that's most appealing in some ways is law enforcement."
Staff writers Laura Sullivan, Gail Gibson, and Kimberly A.C. Wilson contributed to this article.