CHARLESTON, West Va. - Traveling to this remote capital of West Virginia is like traveling back in time.
Three people were shot to death here last week - seemingly at random and from a distance, echoing the sniper shootings last fall - and residents have responded in familiar ways. Some duck into their cars while pumping gas. Others keep their children in at night. Everyone keeps a lookout for a dark pickup truck possibly connected to the shootings.
Authorities have not definitively linked the killings, but they bear a frightening resemblance to each other, and to the sniper spree that terrorized the Washington, D.C., region in October. The Charleston shootings all occurred at night and at gas stations near major highways, and the victims were engaged in ordinary tasks - pumping gas, buying milk, talking on the telephone.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable doing this at night - that's why I'm here right now," said Lura Hodge, 52, as she filled up her Dodge Intrepid yesterday morning at one of those stations. "It appears so similar to what happened in D.C. You don't expect anything like that here. It's most always the large cities, but we've proven that's not true."
Kanawha County Sheriff Dave Tucker said yesterday that the bullets used in the three killings were fired from the same caliber and class of gun, but investigators awaited ballistics tests to determine if the shots came from the same weapon. Authorities suspect a small-caliber rifle is being used because the shots were fired from distances of up to 70 yards.
"Here you've got one murder, and nine or 10 miles away you've got another one," Tucker said. "They were head shots. That's when I called Charleston [police] and said, 'Let's get together, because we may be onto something.'"
Investigators from the sniper task force set up in the Washington region last fall arrived in West Virginia yesterday to help with the case.
The sheriff's office in Kanawha County, which includes Charleston, has set up a special response force with the local and state police, the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The first suspicious shooting occurred the night of Aug. 10. A man standing at a gas station pay phone was shot in the head. Thursday night, two people were shot and killed within an hour in towns south of Charleston, an eerie echo of the spate of rapid shootings that began the sniper crisis last fall.
During three weeks in October, 10 people were killed and three wounded in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
People here say they were riveted by those shootings but not afraid of them.
"I've lived here all my life - we don't lock our doors at night, I leave my keys in my car," said Sharon Pittmann, 58, who was holding a yard sale in a parking lot next to the Speedway gas station where one killing occurred.
Pittmann won't let her grandchildren out after dark, but she hasn't changed her own routine.
"The Lord will take care of us, whatever and whenever," said Pittman, who lives in the town of Campbells Creek. "I think this is a random thing, and, prayerfully, it won't happen again in my lifetime."
Witnesses at one of the Thursday night shootings reported seeing a heavyset white man in a dark-colored pickup truck with gold trim. A similar truck was seen near an earlier shooting, Tucker said. Callers have flooded the county's 911 center with reports of such a truck, but none had checked out yesterday.
"The public is our eyes and ears," Tucker said.
But he urged people to go about their lives. "We can't live in fear, because when that happens, our whole society shuts down. We've got to go on with our lives, just change our behavior a little bit," the sheriff said.
The killings began a week ago when Gary Carrier Jr., 44, of South Charleston, was shot in the back of the head as he talked on a pay phone outside a Charleston Go-Mart.
Then, about 10:20 p.m. Thursday, Jeanie Patton, 31, was shot from a distance of about 70 yards while pumping gas at a Speedway in Campbells Creek. The school cook was on her way home from a girlfriend's house.
About an hour later and 10 miles down the road, 26-year-old Okey Meadows was shot in the neck while buying milk at a cashier window at a Go-Mart. Authorities say he was shot from about 40 yards away. A sheriff's cruiser was parked at that Go-Mart yesterday.
"I stopped here to buy gas because I saw the police car here," said Diane Leadmon of nearby Glasgow. She said the Washington-area killings didn't scare her last year, but she's beginning to understand the fear and dread people carried with them for three weeks.
"I don't know how people coped with it," she said.
The town by no means shut down yesterday. The 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army held its annual convention in Charleston. The dogs ran at the race track. Yard sales were held on seemingly every block, and families took to the parks.
Scott Twigg, 29, played with his young niece and nephew in the shadow of the gold-plated Capitol dome. The children were visiting for the weekend and would not be kept indoors, he said. "I brought them to look at the squirrels," he said, taking comfort in the fact that the shootings happened at night and on the outskirts of town. "There are a lot of guns in this state, and all it takes is someone a little unbalanced to go out and start shooting people."
Lt. C.A. Vinson of the Charleston Police Department said that in this town, where coal mines and steel mills remain the major industries, shootings usually result from drug dealings or domestic troubles. "Around here, everybody has guns, everybody carries guns," he said. Still, only 10 homicides occurred last year in this county of 200,000.
In Charleston yesterday, Jeanie Patton's father, Larry Patton, recalled conversations about the Washington sniper shootings with his daughter last fall. "She said, ' ... That guy could be over here. They could be in West Virginia,'" Patton said in an interview yesterday. "She said, 'I'm scared to go anywhere at night,' and since they were caught, that had eased her mind to be comfortable out at night. And she became a victim."