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Waves of fear, disbelief spread

Schools locked down and barricaded their driveways. Merchants shut stores early. And shopping centers and gas stations, normally for people on the go, were brought to a standstill by police cars and yellow crime-scene tape.

From its bloody epicenter in Montgomery County, yesterday's stunning burst of five random killings sent waves of fear and disbelief through schools, offices and stores from Northern Virginia to the Pennsylvania state line.

"It's a little frightening. What can you say?" asked Linda Swanson, a librarian at the Kensington Park branch, less than two blocks from the Shell gas station where a woman vacuuming her van became the final victim.

"We were told not to go out for lunch or run any personal errands, for our own protection."

As word spread that police were looking for two suspects in a white truck, so did fear.

Schools in eight jurisdictions, including Baltimore's suburbs, locked their doors and canceled after-school activities.

Carroll County's commissioners cut short their weekly televised meeting at the urging of their emergency manager. Rumors spread about more shootings in Mount Airy and Towson.

And vigilant citizens in Howard County reported more than 50 sightings of white trucks - just like the one the suspects were driving.

"Whenever I see a [white truck] - even a post office van - I jump," said Jose Fernandez, whose Howard County home sits near the Montgomery County border.

No one ever expected this, not in the comfortable middle-class suburbs outside the Capital Beltway. Montgomery County had just 19 murders last year and a median family income approaching $100,000.

More than half the adults have college degrees, and they send their children to the best public schools in the state.

But in the tidy streets around the gas stations and shopping centers where their neighbors were gunned down, county residents wondered why this violence found their quiet communities.

"That's just too close for me," said Lisa Lewis, 34, as she picked up her children from Wheaton High School. She had to present photo identification before the school released her children. She didn't mind.

"We're going to sit inside the rest of the day," she said.

Though they declared themselves scared, Kevin Rizkallah, Ricardo Medrano and Mike Leffel, all 18, couldn't stay indoors. They hung out in the Shell parking lot in the afternoon - Medrano had already been over twice before - because horror and curiosity go hand in hand.

"Nothing like this has ever happened right down the street from our house," said Medrano, who has lived in the area for half his life.

Meanwhile, in the Aspen Hill shopping center next to the Mobil where a taxi driver was killed, Nick Boosalis sat in his empty restaurant and pondered closing early.

Usually the Cactus Grill, a Tex-Mex restaurant, fills its 85 seats at lunch. Yesterday, just a handful of customers made it in.

"I just walked up and down the shopping center," Boosalis said. "All the stores are basically empty. No one feels like shopping today."

Stores and restaurants were also mostly vacant at the three-level White Flint Mall in the Rockville area. But several shoppers said they wouldn't let fear keep them away.

"It takes a lot to scare me," said Jim Perkins, 51, a Vietnam veteran who was carrying a Williams-Sonoma bag. "What they want is to scare you and to make you deviate from what you normally do. I don't let that happen."

Cezar Liwanag's children told him to stay inside, away from the crazy killers, but he put his golf clubs in his car and headed out around noon.

"I want to play," said Liwanag, 68, an Aspen Hill resident for 25 years. "I don't think they'll be going to the golf course."

"Golfers are tough people," said Mary Welter, manager of the Sligo Golf Course in Silver Spring, which had all its usual players. "They're more interested in whether they find their balls than whether they get shot."

On a day like no other for Montgomery County, the shootings didn't deter some residents from living their lives as usual. Gas stations were busy - even the Mobil where the taxi driver was shot had customers.

"You've got to get gas, no matter what," explained Urias Rodriguez, pumping gas at the Shell station across the street. "Life keeps going.

"I hope they catch 'em - I really hope they do," added Rodriguez, a systems analyst who came home early from Falls Church, Va., to pick up his children from school. "We definitely hope this is it."

When the shooting began Wednesday evening at Michaels arts and crafts in Aspen Hill, store employees calmly called police and then went back to their jobs. The bullet smashed through the front window and skimmed a light fixture.

Customers shook their heads, then kept shopping. The store remained open until its usual closing time, 9 p.m.

"No one knew what was coming," said Tom Clary, a spokesman for the store.

Yesterday, when it became clear the shootings were linked, officials across Maryland reacted with swift measures, shutting school children indoors, sending police officers to monitor roads and trying to temper the fright factor with fact.

"There's no reason to panic," said Pfc. Denise Walk, spokeswoman for the Howard County Police. No incidents were reported outside Montgomery County.

Still, when a lockdown was announced at Hampton Elementary north of Towson - about 40 miles from the killings - some teachers asked pupils to huddle under their desks because that is how lockdowns are practiced.

In Howard County, Officer Mark A. Perry stood outside Reservoir High School as kids streamed from the building during dismissal. "I'm here basically just to keep my eyes open," he said, surveying the lot.

But his presence didn't have a calming effect on Alison and Nicole Shipley, twin ninth-graders worried about their parents who work in Montgomery County.

"It's scary," Alison said. "I get goose bumps thinking about it."

Schools in Washington and Baltimore, Carroll, Prince George's, Frederick, Montgomery and Howard counties secured all the doors and brought everyone indoors, while still trying to maintain a normal schedule. Most, including those in Baltimore, eventually canceled after-school activities.

A pickup truck and sedan blocked the entry to Georgetown Preparatory High School, near the shootings on Rockville Pike. Students had to get their parents' permission to leave school on their own.

At Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, about five minutes from the shootings, administrators announced news updates during class changes. Some teachers tuned their TVs to the live coverage.

"I didn't feel like I was in immediate danger," said Eileen Meyer, 17, a senior at the school. She left school at 1:30 p.m. with several friends and drove to her home. They ordered pizza.

Meanwhile, police were stopping white vans and trucks.

Carol Alderson, who works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, wasn't about to get in her car:

"I drive a white van, and I think my husband will come pick me up because I'm not going to drive it home tonight."

Rumors and false reports of shootings kept the public on edge in a way most haven't felt since Sept. 11, 2001.

"What kind of world do we live in where people get shot just mowing their lawns?" wondered Margaret Piece of Laurel.

Sun staff writers Emily Benson, Mary Gail Hare, Laura Loh, Jonathan D. Rockoff and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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