- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

Law enforcement authorities conducting a manhunt for the elusive sniper who has killed nine persons and wounded two others in the Washington area are turning to surveillance cameras for help in identifying the killer.

Police have begun using military surveillance planes equipped with computer-enhanced, long-range cameras to help track the sniper.

Cameras are in place at major intersections to capture drivers running red lights, and shopping mall parking lots are using cameras to protect customers. Some area gas stations have begun pointing cameras away from the pumps and into the space beyond in hopes of catching a glimpse of the killer. Four of the fatal attacks have happened at gas stations.

Task force investigators and Montgomery County officials yesterday would not say how crucial such surveillance is to the investigation, which spans five jurisdictions. The shootings occurred in Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, Spotsylvania and Fairfax counties in Virginia and in the District.

Richard Diamond, press secretary for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, an opponent of surveillance cameras, said the cameras won't do any good in this case unless investigators have detailed information on the getaway vehicle. "Are they going to help in solving this case? I would highly doubt it," he said.

An average American is caught on camera eight to 10 times a day, which means the sniper or his getaway car should have been caught on tape at some point since Oct. 2 when the shooting spree began.

"It would seem a pretty good chance that the killer would probably be on a camera somewhere," said Dave Lang, a video forensics specialist at Veridian Corp. in Arlington, which works with law enforcement agencies.

Authorities say they have reviewed video footage taken from stores, banks and buildings near the shooting sites. They also reviewed images from cameras used to monitor traffic flow or red-light runners, and tapes from police cruisers that responded to the latest shooting outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church. But authorities have not said whether any of the images have yielded any clues.

"We're using everything we possibly can to get any information [on the shootings or the gunman]," Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan said yesterday.

Surveillance technology is being used increasingly in criminal investigations. Killers and bank robbers have been caught because they were photographed by video cameras at automated teller machines or convenience stores.

Hijackers Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari were caught on camera as they withdrew money from ATM bank machines or shopped at a Wal-Mart the day before the September 11 attacks. Last month, a camera in an Indiana parking lot videotaped a woman hitting and shaking her young daughter. The woman later was charged in the incident.

No matter what kind of images they capture, cameras can be helpful in solving crimes, said Paul Cromwell, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University. Cameras can provide a real picture of a suspect much better than eyewitnesses can, Mr. Cromwell said.

Investigators in the sniper case suffered a setback this week after witnesses to Monday night's attack couldn't provide authorities with a consistent description of the gunman. One witness lied to police after the shooting when he described the gunman, the rifle used and the getaway car, police said yesterday.

"I wouldn't be surprised if police track the sniper down using some of the cameras out there," said Mr. Cromwell, a former parole officer who is also director of the university's School of Community Affairs. "So much of our society is now covered by closed-circuit television. Cameras can be used as a major tool in this case. Eyewitnesses seldom provide accurate information. Cameras can give a true picture of a suspect."

Montgomery County, where five of the sniper's victims were killed, rotates about a dozen red-light cameras around 15 locations, and has other cameras in many more places to view traffic. Red-light cameras, however, photograph only motorists who run red lights, which means if the sniper obeyed the traffic signals, he most likely would not be detected by the cameras.

Dozens of video cameras are stationed along highways and major intersections to monitor traffic flow. But those cameras do not store images for long periods of time.

A traffic camera is at the intersection of Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue, where a cabdriver was gunned down Oct. 3 at the Mobil service station. Another one stands near White Flint Mall on Rockville Pike, where a man was shot dead Oct. 3 as he mowed grass. Those cameras take pictures every four minutes.

"It may provide authorities with a hint, a clue as to who may be doing this, but it's not the answer to their questions," said Alex Tabb, associate managing director of Kroll Inc., a security consulting firm in New York. "It's not, 'Let's throw video cameras everywhere and we'll be safe.'"

Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City prosecutor and police officer, said investigators should make sure that all videos have been preserved since the shootings began.

"A camera and a videotape not only help solve crimes, but also help convict criminals," said Mr. O'Donnell, who is now a law and police studies professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "An image can place a suspect somewhere at a certain date and a certain time. It puts it beyond the realm of doubt in court."

Patrick Badgley contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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