VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - In the middle of October last year, as the sniper shootings reached a fever pitch in the Washington region, a person claiming to be the sniper placed calls to a suburban police dispatcher and a small-town priest.

Both the dispatcher and the priest took the stand yesterday in the trial of John Allen Muhammad, and they described the very different ways they reacted to the mystifying calls - one curt and the other compassionate.

The first call came to Rockville police dispatcher Amy Lefkoff on Oct. 15. A 16-year veteran dispatcher, Lefkoff had been handling hundreds of calls about the sniper shootings, even though the Montgomery County police were leading the investigation, not Rockville. She was working alone that morning when police believe Lee Boyd Malvo called.

"Good morning," a male voice said. "Don't say anything. Just listen. We're the people that are causing the killing in your area. Look on the tarot card. It says, 'Call me God. Do not release to the press.' We have called you three times before, trying to set up negotiations. We have got no response. People have died."

Lefkoff interrupted and said, "I need to refer you to the Montgomery County police hot line," according to a tape of the call played twice in court yesterday, while Lefkoff sat on the stand. Her voice continued on the tape: "We're not investigating the crime."

The line went dead.

Looking weary yesterday, Lefkoff explained: "I was bombarded with phone calls. They were just pouring in, and every call I got related to that. I was very busy and I was just going through the motions with that phone call. I know what he said wasn't what people normally were saying."

On the evening of Oct. 18 last year, the Rev. William Sullivan received a call at the rectory of his parish in Ashland, Va. Police think Malvo placed the call and then handed the phone to Muhammad, who spoke to the priest for several minutes and referred to the killing of Linda Franklin three days earlier at a Home Depot near Falls Church, Va.

"He said she shouldn't have died, all these people didn't have to die," Sullivan testified yesterday. He said the caller then instructed him to find some paper to write down a message. Sullivan, who was in the kitchen, grabbed the only paper handy - his grocery list.

The caller told the priest to write down: "Mr. Policeman: Call me God. Do not release to the press." They were the words on the back of a tarot card found where a boy had been shot a week earlier. The message had been widely reported at the time.

"I said the police already know this," Sullivan testified, "and he said, 'You tell the police this.' And I said the police already know this. I said they will find the person, don't be anxious. And the conversation didn't get any better than that."

Sullivan has not been able to definitely link the voice to Muhammad's. During the two-minute call last October, Sullivan said his goal was to calm down the caller. But he did ask the person on the phone why he was calling him.

The answer, according to Sullivan: "Because I can call a church, and I know it's not going to be traced."