Several federal agencies aid Maryland's search for sniper

WASHINGTON - Federal law enforcement agencies are taking a major role in the investigation into the shootings of eight people in the Washington area as local police scramble to track down more than a thousand leads.

Using the federal Serial Killer statute, the Justice Department marshaled more than 200 agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as mobile crime labs and criminal profilers to help identify and hunt down the killer.

Federal officials emphasized yesterday that they were present only to assist local police, not to take over the investigation, even though their equipment and expertise have quickly become indispensable to local authorities.

Federal agents have been assisting since late last week. But Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose formalized the partnership Monday afternoon with a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft and spoke with him on the phone yesterday.

"This situation has the attention of our law enforcement leaders to the highest level," Moose said. "I find that very comforting as a citizen and community member in Montgomery County."

Ashcroft told Moose that his "heart went out to him," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman.

"[Ashcroft] said, 'If there's anything else you can think of that we can do to help, call me,'" Corallo said.

Ashcroft had met earlier in the day with President Bush in the Oval Office as he attended the daily intelligence briefing in which the president typically hears about developments in the war on terrorism.

At the meeting, Bush asked Ashcroft and FBI officials what "specific steps" they had taken to assist local authorities in the sniper case, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Bush "emphasized the importance of making sure we do everything we can do to help," McClellan said.

An FBI spokesman said yesterday that there is nothing indicating in any way that the sniper could be a terrorist associated with a foreign power or organization such as al-Qaida.

The Serial Killer statute has been used only about a dozen times since it was enacted in 1998. The statute formalizes the process by which federal officers and agents assist local police, sharing their tools and skills without taking over the investigation.

"It clears up what we call the Hollywood problem - the image of the FBI swooping in and saying, 'it's our case now,'" Corallo, the Justice spokesman said. "This just says [local police] wanted us here and we are here to help and assist in any possible and appropriate way."

The FBI said it has sent out some of its best criminal profilers to try to develop a picture of who the sniper might be, gleaning tidbits of information from patterns such as the time of day the shootings take place, where they take place and who he or she targets.

The profilers compare the patterns against databases of serial killers and other violent criminals to see what else they can learn about the shooter's habits and personality.

The FBI has also offered its helicopters and several dozen agents to help man command posts and track down leads flooding in through a telephone tip line. The bureau connected to the tip line a computer program it developed called Rapid Start that instantly queries, organizes and prioritizes the information as it comes in.

Meanwhile, the ATF has assigned chemists and forensic experts to the case, along with more than 100 special agents who are known among federal law enforcement professionals as savvy neighborhood canvassers.

The ATF, which has some of the country's most extensive weapons information and expertise, has brought out its explosive-detection dogs to help in pinning down where the shooter fired from.

The agency has also been helping local police develop a geographic profile that might tell investigators where the killer lives or works.

Also being employed is the ATF's mobile crime lab, where technicians can analyze bullets and shell casings at the scene, rather than waiting days for the items to be sent to crime labs.

Such casings and bullets can be cross-checked against the ATF's databases of ballistic evidence from other crime scenes at the agency's national lab in Rockville.

On Monday, the president directed the federal Department of Education to work with local schools to help provide counseling and guidance to students and teachers, adding to the growing list of federal agencies involved.

Since late last week, Secret Service agents have been assisting local police. The service brings a unique expertise - its job is to prevent gunmen, including snipers, from shooting those it guards, chiefly the president, said Brian Marr, a Secret Service special agent.

"We're in the business of protecting the most powerful man in the world," Marr said. "So we have various units dedicated to protecting against this exact scenario taking place."

Federal officials say the FBI, ATF and other federal agencies, such as the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, will continue to help out until the killer is caught.

"It's a trying time," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "and the president wants to make the resources of the federal government available to help the community."

Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.