Manhunt for sniper is now largest of its kind
Site of Saturday's shooting was outside the killer's predicted 'comfort range.'
ROCKVILLE, MD. — To an anxious public accustomed to seeing brutal crimes wrapped up in an hour on TV crime shows, the search for the sniper terrorizing the greater Washington area seems painfully slow.
Critics say there have been errors, leaks, and miscommunications that may have confused the public and exposed too much of the investigation and its resources to the sniper.
But in the world of law enforcement, this investigation represents the most rapid convergence of resources to find a killer ever with support reaching all the way to the Pentagon. And as the manhunt tests whether an effort crossing so many jurisdictions and egos can be coherent, officials close to the investigation say they are optimistic that glitches are being worked out.
"I remind you of the talent and skill we have in this investigation.... As we learn things, we adjust and improve," said Charles Moose, Montgomery County Police Chief, Friday in response to critics. Because the first attacks on Oct. 3 occurred in that county, Chief Moose officially leads the probe.
In fact, the failure to catch the sniper so far, experts say, has more to do with the difficulties inherent in this kind of case than with law-enforcement lapses.
Since Oct. 2, nine people have been killed and two wounded in sniper attacks in the Greater Washington area.
The investigation now involves more than 1,000 local, state, and federal officers, ranging from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to US Park police, Secret Service, US Marshals, and postal inspectors. All this manpower brings obvious advantages.
"The downside is all the bureaucratic issues that come up, the territorial issues and the professional jealousies simmering," says Greg McCrary, a former FBI profiler now with Behavioral Criminology International, a consulting firm in Fredericksburg, Va. "All things considered, things seem to be going about as smoothly as could be expected."
Within minutes of what appeared to be a new sniper attack in Ashland, Va., Saturday night, FBI investigators and members of the sniper task force based in Rockville were rushing to the site.
At the same time, D.C. police 80 miles to the north quietly began to block key points of entrance and exit across the city. Virginia state police covered the highway exits. Before a driver at full speed could reach city limits, police were shining bright lights into every car, van, or truck trying to pass them.
"I don't think any local criminal investigation has been done on this scale before. It's very unusual to have this level of manpower and resources for this type of event," says Tod Burke, criminologist at Radford University in Radford, Va.
At press time, this 12th victim was alive one of three to have survived.
Historically, sniper cases have been tough to solve, and this one is proving especially baffling. Early on, investigators noted that the random selection of victims doesn't fit the pattern of past serial killers. The recent lull in the shooting doesn't fit the pattern of so-called spree killers. And, if the weekend's shooting turns out to be linked to the Washington shootings, the site is outside what profilers had predicted would be the killer's "comfort range."
Even before Moose wrote to US Attorney General John Ashcroft to ask for help in solving these cases, federal agents were already on site.
Within hours of the first shootings, FBI and ATF officers were working crime scenes. Federal agents were flown in from all over the country, given maps and local cellphones and radios set to the same frequency. They set up offices on the ground floor of Montgomery County police headquarters in Rockville, then moved to a command center in a nearby building.
While Moose still officially heads the investigation, federal agents are already taking the lead in organizing and analyzing the evidence and assigning leads. The FBI set up its "rapid start" system that logs and cross-references all leads on computers. Tip lines are now manned with federal investigators.
Other agencies bring their own particular skills. Ballistic evidence is rushed to state-of-the-art ATF crime labs just a minute down the road from task force headquarters. There, analysis of bullets or shell casings that often take days or weeks are often turned around in hours.
"Clearly the response times they are getting on [ballistics tests for] this investigation shows that they are getting the highest priorities possible on this," says Steve Sigel, a member of the board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.
The Secret Service has experts skilled at scoping out likely sniper sites. Postal inspectors bring experience from their lead role in complex cases such as the 18-year Unabomber investigation.
One of the biggest challenges for the new task force has been managing the parallel investigation being aggressively pursued by the news media. The leaked description of a tarot card found at the site of the Oct. 7 schoolyard shooting embarrassed task-force officials. So did the announcement by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the armed forces would be providing surveillance support to the investigation a controversial commitment of military forces to a domestic law-enforcement operation. Task force officials have refused all official comment on the resources or strategy being deployed in this investigation.
"They're not releasing a lot of information to the media, but the danger of having all these organizations involved is that it's easier to have a leak," says Mr. Burke, an expert on cases involving serial shooters.
"It's going to take a lot of time and thought to solve this case," he adds. "If they were doing a bad job, you'd be hearing more from disgruntled officers."