By By Del Quentin Wilber and Stephen Kiehl and Scott Shane
Oct 15, 2002 | 3:00 AM
FALLS CHURCH, Va. - A woman was fatally shot last night in a parking lot outside a Home Depot store here, prompting police investigating a string of sniper killings to swarm the area and stop traffic on major roads in the hopes of capturing a gunman who has terrorized the Washington suburbs for two weeks.
The victim, who was not immediately identified, was loading packages into her car about 9:15 p.m. on the lower level of a parking garage on Arlington Boulevard. She was accompanied by a man who appeared to be her husband, witnesses said.
"The poor woman just got out with her carriage and everything in it," said Zuhair Massoud of Vienna, Va., who was in the checkout line of the Home Depot when the shooting occurred. He said he saw her lying next to a dark-green Jeep.
Police were looking for a cream-colored Chevrolet Astro van with a ladder rack on top and a burned-out left rear tail light.
"The question in everybody's mind is whether this shooting is related to the others," said Fairfax County police Chief J. Thomas Manger. "It's too early to tell. But we're investigating with that in mind."
Police flooded the Seven Corners shopping center and began questioning drivers traveling along the major thoroughfare. A bloodhound and its handler ran along Arlington Boulevard.
Directly across from the shopping center, police cordoned off Willston Center, an adult education facility, and the surrounding lawn and soccer field. The school and fields offer a clear view of the parking garage where the woman was shot, and police appeared to be considering the possibility that the gunman might have fired from there.
About 11:30 p.m., police with guns drawn approached a gold Dodge Ram van parked near Willston Center, pulled a man out, handcuffed him and led him away. No further details were available.
Officers briefly chased a white van on Route 50, but it proved to be the wrong vehicle, law enforcement officials said.
Officers were questioning drivers of every car traveling on Arlington Boulevard and stopping all white vans and trucks on the Capitol Beltway. On the George Washington Memorial Parkway, police funneled traffic into a single lane, slowing cars to a crawl as officers shined flashlights in windows.
A clerk at the Barnes and Nobles bookstore across the parking lot from Home Depot said a customer heard the shot and alerted other shoppers, many of whom ran from the store. Police kept shoppers inside the Home Depot until 11 p.m., questioning them about what they saw.
Melba Lazo, 30, manager of a Wendy's in the Seven Corners shopping center, answered the phone last night and said she and the other mostly Spanish-speaking staff members were holed up in the restaurant - shaking, scared and dazedly watching what seemed to be hundreds of blue-and-red police lights flashing in the windows of the empty dining room.
"Everybody is scared in here," she said, in halting English. "I called my husband. He said to close the store, but my boss said to stay here. There are a lot of police with guns. I just want to go home to my family."
Members of the Montgomery County police sniper task force rushed to the scene, and at least nine helicopters were circling Northern Virginia and Washington looking for a van.
The shooting came on a day of promise and confusion, as the investigation turned for a time toward a couple in Baltimore. Even as word came of the new killing in Virginia, Baltimore investigators were questioning a 38-year-old former Marine about the sniper attacks and were holding his girlfriend on charges that she shot him early Saturday. But late last night police released the man from custody.
Police spokeswoman Ragina C. Averella said officers released the man "because we didn't have enough evidence to charge him with a crime."
With a dozen federal and local police agencies furiously investigating the string of sniper shootings, detectives have questioned a number of people who were later discounted as suspects, law enforcement officials said.
"This one was no more significant" than the others, one official said.
Montgomery County police have said that they do not want to limit their investigation into the sniper shootings, which began Oct. 2, and had left eight dead and two wounded in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia before last night.
Yesterday, residents of suburban Washington expressed continued anxiety about the stealthy attacks, after a weekend lull in the shootings.
Montgomery County police Chief Charles Moose said that his investigators were "making progress," but added: "People are edgy. People are hearing things. Things that that may normally be overlooked or routine are certainly getting a higher response from people in their anxiety."
'Not America I know'
President Bush said the "cold-blooded" attacks have made him sick to his stomach. "I weep for those who have lost their loved ones," the president said. "The idea of moms taking their kids to school and sheltering them from a potential sniper attack is not the America I know."
Police have offered few details about their investigation. Among the evidence that police have discovered is a tarot card with a taunt for police scribbled on it: "Dear Policeman, I am God," which was found near a Bowie middle school where the sniper critically wounded a 13-year-old boy.
Police also discovered a shell casing near the school, and have linked the other shootings using ballistic evidence, most of it bullet fragments they have traced to a single weapon, a .223-caliber rifle.
Authorities have been aggressively publicizing their search for two white vehicles that were seen at some of the shooting scenes - a white box truck and a white Chevrolet Astro van.
So far, the trucks have proved elusive. That public appeal for help - which included the creation of a composite sketch of a white box truck - might be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for potential witnesses.
After the next shooting, experts say, witnesses might miss an important clue and instead focus on an innocent - and extremely common - white vehicle driving near the scene.
For example, after a fatal shooting in Fredericksburg, Va., on Friday morning, at least one witness told police that he saw a white van driving away from the scene. He told reporters that he noticed the van because police had been publicly searching for white vehicles.
"It's the power of suggestion," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore. "The next time something like this happens, [witnesses] will be looking around for the white Chevy Astro van and they will neglect an alternative vehicle."
Weapon ruled out
In Baltimore, police and federal agents scrambled all day to either connect or clear the former Marine and his girlfriend. Last night, they searched the man's house in Red Lion, Pa.
Forensic experts had already tested one of the man's assault rifles, discovered during a search of the woman's house in Baltimore County, but the test results ruled it out as the sniper's weapon. Police found several other weapons in the house, including a shotgun and handguns. They also discovered a manual for snipers, police sources said.
Baltimore police were initially suspicious of the man after finding him wounded in his white Astro van in West Baltimore on Saturday morning. Police found a note in the van proclaiming "Gihad in America," apparently a misspelling for jihad, or "holy war," sources said.
In Friday's shooting in Fredericksburg, Va., a witness told police that she saw a man and woman driving a white van near the gas station just before the shooting.
Police were led to the couple about 3 a.m. Saturday after receiving reports of a shooting in the 800 block of Hollins St. in West Baltimore. When officers arrived, they found Michael L. Swift III, 38, wounded in his right side, sitting in the drivers seat of his van, police sources said.
Later that day, police arrested Swift's girlfriend, Staci M. Burgess, 34, of Halethorpe, on charges of attempted murder. Police said the shooting stemmed from a "domestic argument," and that Burgess had shot Swift in a rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore. Swift then drove his van several blocks away and called police, sources said.
Swift was treated at a city hospital for a superficial wound and released, police sources said.
By late last night, what had appeared to be intriguing circumstantial evidence, turned out to be a dead end.
Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Tom Bowman, Johnathon Briggs, Gail Gibson, Allison Klein, Rona Kobell, Erika Niedowski, Dennis O'Brien, Tom Pelton, Eric Siegel, Tanika White, Laurie Willis and Kimberly A.C. Wilson contributed to this article.