- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

Police do not have a physical description of the serial sniper who killed his ninth victim Monday night, because witnesses to the latest shooting gave so many conflicting descriptions of the gunman, authorities said yesterday.
Officials were unable to develop a coherent sketch of the gunman who killed Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst from Arlington, outside a Home Depot in Falls Church. The sniper was variously described as dark-skinned, olive-skinned, Middle Eastern and Hispanic, investigators said.
"There's so much disparity in their descriptions that there is no one description to put out," said Capt. Nancy Demme of the Montgomery County Police Department. "The only common denominator thus far is male."
The Pentagon is planning to send up planes with high-tech surveillance equipment to help track the sniper, who has eluded law-enforcement officials for two weeks.
The number of planes, their high-tech capabilities and when and where they would fly was not being released, officials said.
The planes could provide high-resolution imagery and night vision for such things as tracking the light-colored van that authorities say was seen at one or more of the shooting sites. Infrared sensors that can detect flashes of gunfire on the ground also could be used, officials said.
Police said darkness and distance most likely prevented the witnesses from clearly seeing the gunman, even though Monday's shooting at 9:15 p.m. in the garage of the Home Depot at Seven Corners Center was the closest the sniper has come to being seen.
"Unfortunately, distance and darkness and perhaps adrenaline have made [the witnesses] unable to give a clear composite that we can disseminate," Capt. Demme said. "I know that's not what the public wants to hear."
CNN reported yesterday that investigators are running partial license plate information from the Chevrolet Astro van through computers at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
Meanwhile, the hunt for the sniper continued as investigators cast a net over the region's gun community, confiscating sign-in logs from shooting ranges, tracking sales of .223-caliber weapons and knocking on gun owners' doors.
Some gun owners reported that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have visited numerous gun shops to review sales records and federal 4473 forms that list buyer information for every firearms sale. In some cases, the investigators made copies of documents, gun shop owners and employees said.
Authorities declined to comment on the probe of gun dealers and gun owners. An FBI spokesman for the task force searching for the sniper said investigators were using every strategy to catch the killer and countless interviews were being conducted.
At Montgomery County police headquarters in Rockville, Capt. Demme said one witness to Monday's shooting told police he was certain he saw the sniper fire an AK-74 rifle.
Police said the weapon can fire the .223-caliber round that has been the sniper's bullet of choice. The sniper could be using a variety of high-powered rifles, including an AK-15, a Ruger Mini-14 or a Steyr semiautomatic, some firearms experts have said.
Capt. Demme stressed that the witness could be mistaken and urged the public not to narrow its lookout on that one gun model.
"The witness firmly believes this is the weapon," she said. "We have to keep in mind that weapons are interchangeable, like vehicles. That may be what [the witness] thinks he saw."
The only thing witnesses agreed on was the type of vehicle they saw leaving the parking lot: a white Chevrolet Astro van with a silver ladder rack on top and a burned-out left taillight. So far, police have released composite images of a white box truck and white vans a Chevrolet Astro and Ford Econoline that have been seen at more than one shooting scene.
The latest setback comes two weeks into the investigation into 11 shootings in Maryland, Virginia and the District that have killed nine persons and wounded two. Each victim was shot by a single .223-caliber bullet as he or she went about daily activities such as mowing grass, filling up cars with gasoline or walking to school.
The sniper's only known communication has been a tarot Death card, with the words "Dear Policeman, I am God." The card was found near the Bowie middle school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded.
President Bush yesterday authorized the deployment of military surveillance aircraft, specifically the twin-engine U-21 reconnaissance aircraft and the four-engine Army RC-7B Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft. The RC-7B plane has been used to hunt drug traffickers in Latin America and monitor the North Korean military from South Korean airspace.
But the American Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the propriety of U.S. military involvement in the investigation. "We are monitoring what the Department of Defense may do in providing support to the sniper investigation," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office.
Under U.S. law, the military can provide equipment, supplies, technical assistance and training to domestic law-enforcement agencies, but it cannot be involved in making arrests or other such direct civilian police work.
A senior defense official said U.S. military and civilian crews would relay surveillance information obtained with sophisticated sensors to help local and federal law-enforcement officials more quickly track the shooter if there is another killing.
Since Monday's attack, police were optimistic that a breakthrough in the case was near. They had been working with several witnesses to put together a composite sketch of the sniper. The composite would then be released to the public.
Those witnesses reported to police that they "got a good look" at the man who opened fire on Mrs. Franklin as she and her husband loaded packages into their car.
Several law-enforcement sources said the sniper was in the garage, about 50 yards away from Mrs. Franklin when he shot her. The sniper's previous victims were shot from a distance of several hundred yards, authorities have said.
Despite the inconsistencies in the descriptions, police remained optimistic that the case will be solved.
"The indications from Fairfax and some of the other agencies involved in the investigation lead us to believe that they're going to solve this case," one law-enforcement official said.
Guy Taylor contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.


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