- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

A man was shot and killed at a gas station near Fredericksburg, Va., yesterday during morning rush hour, prompting police to shut down major roadways in a desperate hunt for the elusive sniper who already has killed seven and wounded two in the Washington area since Oct. 2.
Yesterday's victim was identified as Kenneth Bridges, 53, of Philadelphia. A graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, he was the father of six and co-founder of a marketing distribution company.
He was shot at 9:30 a.m. at an Exxon station in the 5300 block of Jefferson Davis Highway (Route 1) in Massaponax, a town south of Fredericksburg, as a state trooper worked a traffic accident directly across the street.
Ballistics evidence taken from the scene was being reviewed last night at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) lab in Rockville. Final results are expected early today.
But law enforcement authorities across the region spoke of yesterday's killing as one most likely carried out by the same sniper who has eluded police in Virginia, Maryland and the District for the past 10 days.
The Virginia trooper was at the scene of a traffic accident near the Exxon station when he heard a gunshot, but only saw the victim fall by the gas pumps about 50 yards away. The hose from one pump was left dangling from the tank of the man's car.
"With a uniformed trooper across the street, obviously we're dealing with an individual who is extremely violent and doesn't care," said Maj. Howard Smith of the Spotsylvania County Sheriff's Office.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked during his daily press briefing if the attacks could be connected to a terrorist group. "We don't know if it is or is not," he said. "Whatever the word you want to use to describe it, this is clearly terrorizing the people who are involved and their families."
As in two of the previous attacks, witnesses yesterday morning reported seeing a white van leaving the scene.
Virginia State Police immediately shut down a stretch of Interstate 95 and Route 1 and they began pulling over white vans after witnesses reported seeing a white Chevrolet Astro minivan with two persons driving away from the gas station.
Police closed all exit ramps from I-95 from Thornburg south of Fredericksburg northward to the D.C. line toward the end of a rainy morning rush hour. Traffic was funneled to one lane in each direction at the busy Springfield interchange where I-95 intersects with the Capital Beltway.
The roadblocks turned stretches of I-95 into a virtual parking lot, backing up traffic for miles. The roadblocks were lifted before noon, but Maj. Smith said officers continued to pull over white vans into the night.
But the dragnet was a failure. "We didn't get him," said one police official as the day wore on.
Mr. Bridges had stopped for gas before driving home after a business trip when he was shot once in the shoulder and the bullet struck a vital organ, FBI spokeswoman Linda Vizi said.
His wife had been concerned because he was going to the Washington area, Miss Vizi said.
Mr. Bridges was remembered by stunned neighbors and friends as a friendly man who was an active member of the community.
"The family and friends are understandably shocked and saddened by this senseless event," Gary Shepherd, a family friend, told reporters in Mr. Bridges' neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia last night.
About 20 friends stood behind Mr. Shepherd as he spoke, and a steady stream of people came and went at the stately three-story house hidden behind a large stone wall.
"He was the first person to welcome me when I moved into the neighborhood," said Estelle Staley, the family's next-door neighbor. "He was very friendly, very friendly."
She said she often saw him mowing the grass and playing basketball.
Mr. Bridges was president and chairman of the board of MATAH Network, an Oaklyn, N.J., organization formed in 1997 to encourage blacks to support black-owned businesses and to promote black self-sufficiency.
Bruce Bingham, a mechanic at the Four Mile Fork Mobil station on Route 1, across the street from the Exxon station where Mr. Bridges was shot, said he and others were working in their garage when they heard a loud bang that they first thought was a car backfiring.
"We didn't actually know what was going on," Mr. Bingham said. "When we looked across the street, we saw a Chevy Astro van, but we're not sure the shot came from there."
Police said other witnesses reported seeing two persons inside the white van. Police did not give details, saying only that witnesses had provided a physical description of who was in the van.
An employee at the Howard Johnson hotel, across Route 1 from the Exxon station, told The Washington Times she was driving to work when she saw the white van coming toward her on Route 1. The van made a jerking movement from the right lane to the left, which caught the employee's attention.
The employee stopped opposite the van at a traffic light where her vehicle and the van were both poised to turn left. The employee said she saw a white woman with blond hair in her 20s or 30s in the driver's seat. A man wearing a black baseball cap with blond hair sticking out from under the cap was slouched in the passenger seat, she said.
The employee said that seconds later, in her rearview mirror as the van paused in front of the Exxon station, it appeared as if its driver was "trying to make a decision." She said the van did not have a ladder rack or writing on it.
"The reason I paid attention to that particular van was because of the way [it] was acting," the employee said. "It was like she was nervous or paranoid. I said to myself, 'What's wrong with that woman? Somebody's going to hit her.'"
Moments later, the employee was standing next to her car in the parking lot of the Howard Johnson when she heard a gunshot. She did not see where the shot came from or the white van she had seen minutes before.
While officers around the area stopped and checked white vans in traffic after the shooting, Maj. Smith of the sheriff's office was careful not to jump to conclusions. "We're not certain that that van had anything to do with the shooting," he said.
Meanwhile, police in yellow slickers walked shoulder to shoulder near the Exxon station through a drizzling rain looking for evidence. Observers said they saw officers picking up several pieces of paper and placing them into small plastic evidence bags.
Not far from the Bowie middle school where a 13-year-old boy was wounded Monday morning, police found a tarot death card with the words "Dear policeman, I am God" near a bullet casing. Police declined to comment on whether they had found anything after yesterday's shooting, saying only that there had been no other communication from the killer.
Moments after yesterday's shooting, authorities in Spotsylvania issued a bulletin to local law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for the white Chevy Astro.
One reason the Astro van slipped away undetected may have been because the first officers who arrive at a crime scene make their main priority responding to the victim and getting witnesses, police said. Some analysts have suggested another possibility: The white van is a decoy, and that the sniper drives away from the crime scene in another car.
No one has actually seen the triggerman in the sniper attacks. However, police have been reviewing video-surveillance tapes from the shooting scenes. All of the shootings have been at public places, including four at gas stations.
Police have not said whether surveillance tapes collected from Wednesday night's attack at a Sunoco station in Manassas held any clues. Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, was shot and killed after paying for gas.
Police believe the bullets used in the attacks are .223-caliber, the ammunition used in the AR-15, a popular weapon among hunters, recreational shooters and others. The AR-15 is the civilian version of the standard M-16 military assault rifle.
A former federal government official who also is an expert in firearms said the high-powered rifle believed to have been used in the shootings is "very accurate," which means that the person firing it doesn't need to be a highly trained shooter.
"Anyone with reasonable marksmanship can hit the target at the kind of ranges that are being used in these cases," the official said. "You don't have to have specific training to use this kind of weapon."
The government official said other than the AR-15, the sniper could also be using a Ruger Mini-14 or a Steyr semiautomatic rifle.
The rash of unsolved shootings have left frayed nerves throughout the area.
Yesterday afternoon near Kenilworth Elementary School in Bowie what may have been a detonation of fireworks prompted calls to Prince George's County police. Kenilworth is less than a mile east of Benjamin Tasker Middle School, where the 13 year-old boy was shot Monday.
In this case, the incident turned out to be a false alarm. Still, parents scrambled to the school to pick up their children. One described the scene as "near chaos."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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