Authorities at the scene of the latest murder

After Conrad Johnson was shot in Aspen Hill yesterday, authorities at the scene found a multipage letter. (Sun photo by Doug Kapustin / October 22, 2002)

SILVER SPRING - After police pleas for a telephone dialogue, the serial sniper stalking the Washington region responded yesterday with a different statement: the killing at daybreak of a bus driver, accompanied by another demanding letter left for authorities, less than a mile from where the gunman began shooting three weeks ago.

Police answered last night with their longest televised address to the killer, saying it was not "electronically possible" to achieve what the sniper demanded of them. In a letter left at the site of the Saturday shooting in Ashland, Va., the sniper demanded that $10 million be wired to a domestic bank account and threatened further violence, law enforcement sources have told The Sun.

Yesterday's multipage letter, left at Aspen Hill's North Gate Park, repeated Saturday's demands, officials said.

"We remain open and ready to talk to you about the options you have mentioned," Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said last night. "It's important we do this without anyone else getting hurt."

Moose then instructed the sniper to call authorities to obtain a toll-free number he could use in the future, and offered to set up a post office box to be used for communications if that would make the sniper "feel more comfortable."

"You indicated that this is about more than violence," the chief said. "We are waiting to hear from you."

The killer claimed in the Saturday letter - which had similarities to another note left by the sniper - that he has unsuccessfully attempted about six times to contact police, only to be thwarted by phone lines jammed by tipsters, according to law enforcement sources. Police have verified some of those calls by checking their logs.

Earlier in the day, Moose revealed one reason why police are so desperate to maintain contact with the killer. The letter left behind at Saturday's shooting, he said, contained an alarming threat: "Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time."

The disclosure of this threat and yesterday's killing further raised the stakes in the cryptic dialogue taking place between police and the killer - partly on the public airwaves - over satisfying the killer's demands.

Those demands, meanwhile, have taken many by surprise. There were many theories about motives of a sniper who has now killed 10 and wounded three, but few expected he was driven by a quest for money.

"He had our attention after the first day," said one law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Why ask for money now?"

Bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, of Prince George's County was shot in the torso at 5:56 a.m. as he stood on the top step of his commuter bus at a bus staging area on Grand Pre Road in the Aspen Hill area of Silver Spring.

Police had not confirmed a ballistics match with the sniper's previous shootings, but they had other evidence for a link: About 1 p.m., they found the killer's latest letter in the park adjacent to the scene, a law enforcement source said.

The killing and the letter marked the sniper's return to Montgomery County, where he launched his attacks on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3 with five fatal shootings. Since then, the sniper had killed four others and injured three, but skirted the site of his initial crimes, going as far away as Ashland, 100 miles south of Washington, for Saturday's shooting.

Yesterday's resurfacing of the killer just outside the nation's capital renewed an intense manhunt in the Washington suburbs, with hundreds of police clamping down on the morning rush hour with roadblocks and street closings. A weary Moose told reporters that police had "no vehicle lookout to share, no person lookout to share."

The sniper's return also rekindled intense fears in the metropolitan area - fears that were heightened by Moose's late-afternoon revelation of the threat against children.

That disclosure intensified a daylong debate over the decision by Montgomery County to open schools yesterday, albeit on the "code blue" high alert. The decision contrasted with the Richmond area, where 11 school districts, with a total of 150,000 students, canceled school yesterday after meeting with authorities who had knowledge of the threatening letter.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said county leaders had decided not to follow the Richmond area's lead yesterday morning because they "have utmost confidence in the investigative team conducting the work being done here" and did not believe that only children were now at risk.

Moose agreed, seeking to quell alarm about the killer's threat against children by pointing out that the killer's diversity of targets has put everyone, not just children, at danger.