CHESAPEAKE, Va. - They did not duck and hide when they pumped gas or look over their shoulders warily while walking to the grocery store. But residents of Chesapeake - near Norfolk and Virginia Beach - will decide the fate of the teen-age suspect in the sniper shootings that terrorized residents of Maryland and Northern Virginia in October.
"It is still Virginia - you were scared even here," said Phyllis Maiorino, 45, who runs Phyllis's Phollies Hot Dog Stand in front of Chesapeake City Hall, across the lawn from the courthouse where 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo is to be tried in November.
Along Chesapeake's waterfront and strip malls and in the pristine municipal complex where the courthouse is located, residents of this sprawling suburb of about 200,000 are talking about a Fairfax County, Va., judge's decision Tuesday to move the trial here despite objections from city officials.
Many complain about the traffic and parking problems the trial will probably bring to their quiet community, while others wonder whether the change of venue - requested by defense attorneys - will really make a difference.
"They're going to get him no matter where he goes," declared Nicholas Rigdon, 19, a retail clerk, as he left the courthouse yesterday.
Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, 42, are suspected in 20 shootings around the country and accused in 10 Washington-area deaths.
And while Chesapeake residents might not have felt imminently threatened by the shootings, they were not wholly removed from the impact even here, 200 miles south of Washington.
Worried for others
In Chesapeake - the safest city of its size in the state, according to tourist literature - they watched the sniper saga unfold in the media. They worried when the killing path appeared to veer south after a shooting in Ashland, near Richmond.
Several area residents said yesterday that they had family and friends in the Baltimore-Washington area and feared for their safety.
Penelope Blalock, 63, of the Western Branch section of Chesapeake, said her sister, who lives in Manassas, Va., knew a sniper victim shot at a gas station.
Yesterday, as Blalock left jury duty at the Virginia Circuit Court where Malvo will be tried in the Oct. 14 fatal shooting at a Home Depot parking lot of 47-year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin, she wondered whether someone she knows could be in the jury box.
"My husband said before I left this morning, 'I might be on that trial,'" she recalled.
A town in transition
Chesapeake's large municipal complex in the Great Bridge section of town is home to the courthouse, city hall, the city jail, a library and elementary school, and several other government buildings. It is surrounded by a residential community of tree-lined lawns.
After one day of media coverage, tensions were high in the complex.
One woman - who would not give her name because she is a court employee - glared at a camera crew and a newspaper reporter as she took long drags from a cigarette in front of the courthouse.
Inside the courthouse, trial attorney Randolph D. Stowe said, "Parking is tight in the best of circumstances. I wish you weren't coming here."
Chesapeake, formed 40 years ago, has no real downtown or urban core and still is in transition from what was rural county land. At 353 square miles, it is about the size of Cecil County, Md., and is the 13th-largest U.S. city by land area.
Shadow of Navy base
It is across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, home of the world's largest naval base, and has a strong military connection.
Yesterday, town officials welcomed home a resident, a military officer who was a prisoner of war in Iraq, with a Parade of Heroes and Ceremony of Celebration.
The city's municipal buildings are new in response to recent rapid growth, but the small-town feel remains.
Just around the corner from the courthouse, on Albermarle Drive, Bob and Judy Ferguson run a self-service vegetable stand from the front lawn of 20-acre Gee-Haw Farm.
There they raise mules and chickens, keep bees and harvest vegetables next to a small office park along a busy suburban strip.
"I can walk two blocks and get anything," Judy Ferguson said, pointing to the road. Then, turning around, she added, "But if I go this way, we have deer and pasture."
She and her husband said they have not spent much time thinking about the sniper trial but are willing to serve on the jury because it is their civic duty.
Others say they have been paying close attention to media reports - as defense attorneys feared in Fairfax - and have made up their minds.
Chesapeake on the map
Mark Tejchman, 45, says he wants to be called for the jury. "I would love to pronounce him guilty," he said, while shopping in the frozen food section of FarmFresh Grocery Store in a plaza near the court.
But he also points out the positives that could come from the trial and the media exposure, including the economic boost of hundreds of outsiders staying at local hotels.
"It will put Chesapeake on the map," he said.