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5 killed in Md. suburb; gunman still at large


SILVER SPRING - A tip about a white truck was the best lead police had last night in a string of brazen, sniper-style shootings in the heart of Montgomery County that left five people dead and swept the suburbs with a wave of fear.

The shootings yesterday morning and Wednesday night - carried out with deadly accuracy with what police say may have been a high-powered rifle - set off a huge manhunt and threw the county into high alert as police urged motorists to stay off the roads, schools shut students in classrooms and parents driving children home had them crouch in their seat.

The shootings occurred within a few miles around Wheaton and along the county's busy thoroughfares. Killed were a 55-year-old Colesville man outside a grocery store; a 39-year- old Abingdon, Va., man mowing the lawn at a car dealership; a 54-year-old Olney cabdriver refueling his taxi; a 34-year-old Silver Spring cleaning woman sitting on a bench near a post office; and a 25-year-old Silver Spring woman vacuuming her car at a gas station.

A witness saw two men speeding away from the post office in a white box delivery truck with black lettering and a damaged rear lift gate. Police said the truck was probably an Isuzu. Hundreds of state, city and county police, as well as FBI and other federal agents, were pulling over white vans and trucks across the state last night, without finding suspects.

To police and residents alike, every aspect of the shooting spree was chilling: the apparent randomness with which victims were selected; the daring of choosing such public places for the attacks; and the precision of the hits, each apparently with a single shot.

"We have someone who, so far, has been accurate in what they are attempting to do," said Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose. "We feel like we have a skilled shooter, and that heightens our concern."

The incidents began, police say, with a single, puzzling shot that gave no hint of the carnage to follow. At 5:20 p.m. Wednesday, a bullet hit the lighted number over one of the cash registers at Michaels craft shop on Georgia Avenue. At first, workers thought it was a power outage; then they saw the bullet hole in the window.

A clerk was ringing up a purchase at the time.

"I would have been No. 1," she said.

Officers searched displays of flowers and ribbons for hours, looking for the bullet. As far as police know, it was the only one to miss its target.

About 45 minutes later, James D. Martin, 55, of Colesville, was gunned down in the parking lot of a new Shoppers Food Warehouse on Randolph Road in Wheaton. Police were reviewing tapes from surveillance cameras.

The violence resumed early yesterday, when James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, of Abingdon, Va., 39, was shot while mowing the lawn outside Fitzgerald Automotive in the 11000 block of Rockville Pike.

An employee heard a loud bang around 7:40 a.m. - loud enough to cause him to drop to the ground - then saw Buchanan running along the rear fence before he fell, said Al Briggs, the dealership's service director.

Briggs drove up soon after and ran over to Buchanan's bloodied, unconscious body. He said he knew immediately that the man wasn't going to make it, but told him help was on the way.

"The whole time this morning I was hoping against hope it wasn't him," said Rob Smith, the dealership's service manager, a friend of Buchanan's.

The dealership gave video from surveillance cameras to police.

About a half-hour later, Premkumar Walekar, 54, of Olney was refueling his taxi at a Mobil station at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue, as he does almost every day.

Alex Millhouse, a mechanic there, was sitting at a pay phone when he heard what sounded "like a double explosion, like a car backfiring." He saw Walekar clutching his left side, with blood streaming. By the time he reached him, Walekar was slumped against a van.

Millhouse and fellow mechanic Warren Shifflet watched as a woman from the van administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before an ambulance arrived. "She was shaking," Shifflet said.

It seemed as if the shot had come from a strip mall across the street, said Millhouse, though "it was so loud, it sounded like it was right here."

Some 25 minutes later, Sarah Ramos, 34, of Silver Spring was sitting on a bench outside the post office near the large retirement community Leisure World when she was struck.

Hairstylist Suzy Cooper, 57, was in the back of Images, a nearby beauty shop, when she heard a noise. "In a way I knew it was a shot, but then I thought, 'No, it wouldn't happen around here.'"

When Cooper stepped outside, she saw Ramos sitting motionless on a metal bench in front of a nearby restaurant's plate-glass window. Above the woman's head was a quarter-size bullet hole surrounded by a spider web of cracks. Beneath the bench was a pool of blood.

Cooper said members of Ramos' family later said she had been waiting to be picked up for her housecleaning job. "When I saw her, it looked like she was still waiting for somebody," Cooper said.

For hours, detectives interviewed shopkeepers and searched the plaza parking lot and nearby bushes for evidence. They walked to Georgia Avenue to determine whether a shot could have come from there.

"We've talked to 100 people, and for every one who says it came from far away, there is someone who says it came from a short [distance]," said Detective Mark Zifcak.

The shopping plaza, usually full of elderly people in cars and motorized carts, was quiet as detectives searched an area of the parking lot cordoned off with yellow tape.

"People here at Leisure World are staying closer to home," said state Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, who lives in the 7,000- person community. "It's a very bone-chilling thing."

While police were investigating near Leisure World, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring, was felled while vacuuming her minivan at a Shell station at Knowles and Connecticut Avenue, near Kensington's "Antique Row."

Mechanic Jimmy Akca assumed that an air bag had exploded when he heard a loud noise near the coin-operated vacuum. But when he stepped outside, people were yelling, "Call 911!"

"She must have been about to vacuum the driver's side. It looked like she was about to open the door because was she under the door," Akca said.

By late morning, police said the five fatal shootings were related, and the county plunged into high alarm. Police dispelled initial fears that the shootings were racially motivated by stating that the first and last victims were white, but had little to offer on a possible motive.

The county school system put all schools under lockdown, keeping students away from windows and telling parents that they could pick up their children only after showing identification. Early in the afternoon, police and school authorities decided to send children home at the usual time.

Life in the normally traffic-congested area slowed as many residents stayed home or took back roads, stunned by the thought that they'd frequented the same locations that were targeted. Dentists' offices and beauty parlors reported widespread cancellations; businesses saw sharp drop-offs; contractors working on homes quit early, afraid of being in the open.

Juana Garcia, 59, of Aspen Hill, felt sorry telling her mother to stay inside. "It's a beautiful day," said Garcia, leaving the store near where Martin was killed. "But it's a very bad day."

Moose urged residents to "continue with life" but remain alert. "Each moment that passes without a further incident, I say a small prayer," he said.

For the county, the shootings represented crime of nearly unprecedented scale. In 1976, five members of a Potomac family were bludgeoned to death by William Bradford Bishop Jr., a State Department diplomat who has never been found. But such violence is foreign to the county, which had 20 homicides so far this year and 19 last year.

"Our homicide rate has just increased by 25 percent in one day," Moose said.

The shock was especially strong because Montgomery County considers itself a retreat from the high crime, and high vigilance, of nearby Washington.

"We consider ourselves safe and secure - manicured lawns,'" said Rep. Constance A. Morella, who represents the county.

Sun staff writers Andrea F. Siegel, Julie Bykowicz, Jamie Smith Hopkins and Kimberly Wilson contributed to this article.

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