October 17, 2002
IN THE GLARE of the TV lights, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose's scowl seemed to deepen with each idiotic question thrown his way, to the point where you wondered if the poor man's features could ever return to normal.
This was the other day at the chief's daily news conference outside police headquarters on Research Boulevard in Rockville. Some lunatic with a high-powered rifle was going around killing people in the Washington area, and now a good part of Moose's day was spent stepping to a podium, fielding questions and replying with various permutations of: "Sir, as this is an ongoing criminal investigation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that."
God, what a charade the whole thing is.
In a perfect world, we would have none of this nonsense, of course.
In a perfect world, Moose would lean into the bank of microphones and say:
"Good morning. I have absolutely nothing to report. We're trying to catch a real bad guy here. And if I tell you what we know about the bad guy, the bad guy may find out and change his method of operation, which will just make him harder to catch.
"So I'm wasting my time with you people. Goodbye."
But, of course, Moose will say no such thing.
If he did, the media would descend on police headquarters like a mob of torch-wielding Balkan villagers looking for the Wolfman, and nothing would get done.
They would follow Moose home at night and park their satellite trucks at his curb and set up their TV cameras on his lawn and throw their take-out pizza boxes in his shrubbery, and the poor man would get no peace at all.
So he steps to the podium day after day and listens uneasily as one self-important blowhard after another fires questions, some of them questions that would actually make you wince.
"What would you say to the sniper if he's watching?" was one of the beauties Moose took recently.
According to eyewitnesses, the chief seemed stunned that someone had actually dusted off this horrible cliche. For several seconds he was silent. Perhaps he was reassessing his decision years earlier to go into law enforcement, for surely he could never have envisioned a day when he'd have to deal with such fools.
"Turn yourself in," the chief managed at last.
If the sniper were sitting at home in front of the TV, he must have had a good long laugh over that one.
Look, we live in an age of saturation media coverage, where each of us is drubbed over the head daily with way more information than we could ever need.
But the sad irony in the sniper case is this: We hope the cops aren't telling us everything they know.
After 12 shootings, which have taken the lives of nine people and wounded two others, we hope they have some leads: a fingerprint, maybe, or a license plate number, or something more solid about the white vans we keep hearing about.
We're looking for something, something to give us hope they might catch this nut soon.
By yesterday, at least, we were hearing about eyewitnesses to the latest murder, that of Linda Franklin, the 47-year-old FBI analyst shot outside a Home Depot in Fairfax County Monday night.
The eyewitnesses have reportedly given police conflicting descriptions of the shooter, which often happens in these cases.
But maybe it's a start. Maybe we'll even see a composite sketch of the guy soon.
Now, we're also learning that sophisticated military spy planes will soon join the hunt for the sniper. These are aircraft that will fly high over the area and use advanced electronic equipment and infra-red sensors that can detect the muzzle flash of a gun.
While they're at it, they ought to fly a couple of those planes up to Baltimore, where they would see muzzle flashes just about every five minutes in some neighborhoods.
Oh, yes, if you want to hear the crack of gunfire and watch bodies drop and see chalk outlines magically appear on the cold sidewalk, this is a marvelous town for that sort of thing.
But right now the planes are needed in the Washington area, where people are so terrified of the sniper that they hide in their homes and dial therapy hotlines and watch their lives put on hold.
As I drove past deserted gas stations and parks and shopping centers in Rockville, the sky gray and depressing, I tried to imagine what it must be like living with a serial killer on the loose.
It was hard to imagine such a thing.
It was hard to imagine you could be mowing a lawn or pumping gas or putting a shopping bag in the trunk of your car, only to have a bullet come out of the air and end your life, or the life of someone you love.
It was easier to hope they catch this guy soon.
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