- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

Authorities yesterday discredited evidence from a supposed witness to Monday night's sniper slaying who reported seeing a cream-colored van with a burned-out taillight leaving the Home Depot garage in Fairfax County, Va.
The eyewitness account, describing the sniper and the type of semi-automatic assault rifle that was used, came from a single witness now deemed unreliable by investigators.
"It's been determined through further investigation that information provided by one of the witnesses at the scene of the shooting at the Home Depot describing a cream-colored van with a malfunctioning taillight is not credible," Fairfax County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said yesterday.
"In addition, there have been several media reports related to the description of a specific weapon and a suspect. That information, as well, is not reliable," Chief Manger said. "We continue to follow up on leads from other witnesses that we have at the scene."
Police did not, however, discredit reports that they had a partial license plate of a vehicle that may be related to the 11 shootings that have killed nine persons since Oct. 2, and Chief Manger repeated earlier statements that he is confident police will solve the case.
"We continue to be confident that this case will be solved based on the investigative efforts and the excellent cooperation between all of the agencies involved and through the information we've received from the public," he said.
Fairfax County police Lt. Amy Lubas said the bogus witness story was exposed by investigators who checked it against the stories of several other witnesses to the shooting at the Home Depot in the 6200 block of Arlington Boulevard (Route 50) near Falls Church. Police and state prosecutors are investigating to determine whether the witness should be charged, she said.
Another part of the man's story, also discredited, is that the sniper fired from inside the Home Depot garage. Investigators now believe that the shot could have been fired from across Route 50.
Asked whether the witness may have intentionally misled investigators, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who is heading the investigation, at first said: "I'm moving forward." When asked the question again, Chief Moose simply said, "Yes."
Chief Moose said newspaper and television reports describing the shooter as dark-skinned, olive-skinned, Middle Eastern or Hispanic were getting so much attention they were confusing the investigation.
He added that people should "please keep an open mind" if they think they know someone or see someone with a weapon similar to the ones that have been described by investigators after ballistic tests on bullets recovered from the victims.
"We need people to realize it's a family of weapons, and we still need to hear from them," he said.
Chief Moose said evidence from earlier shootings, such as the descriptions of the white box truck seen in Montgomery County and the van seen at a Spotsylvania County, Va., gas station are still reliable.
Spotsylvania County authorities Wednesday released new composite pictures of a van seen near the shooting last Friday that killed a Philadelphia man. One is a Chevrolet Astro van and the other is a Ford Econoline van. Both vehicles have ladder racks on the roofs.
The sniper shootings have mobilized an investigative effort involving agents from local police forces, the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Additionally, the Department of Defense this week approved the use of military surveillance planes to help catch the sniper. The number of planes, specific information about their high-tech capabilities and when and where they would fly was not released, officials said.
ATF Special Agent Michael R. Bouchard said ballistics evidence, "as well as other evidence," has conclusively linked nine of the shootings. Mr. Bouchard said he is "not identifying any brand of firearm" used in every shooting. He said more than 30 types of rifles chamber the type of round authorities have recovered.
On Wednesday, police described an AK-74 as a weapon one witness reported seeing, but they reminded the public yesterday that the AK-74 is part of a family of some 30 similar weapons, and people should not be focusing on just one. The man who described the gun is the man whose account is now discredited.
Since the shooting spree began, the longest lull in the shootings has been the 84 hours between the killing of a Philadelphia man at a gas station near Fredericksburg at 9:30 a.m. last Friday and the killing of an FBI analyst from Arlington outside the Falls Church Home Depot at 9:15 p.m. Monday.
Two of the sniper's victims survived. A 13-year-old boy, who was shot Oct. 7 outside his school in Bowie, was upgraded from critical to serious condition at Children's Hospital in the District on Wednesday. And a 43-year-old woman, whose identity has been withheld after she was shot Oct. 4 in the parking lot of a Michaels craft store in Spotsylvania County, Va., was released from the hospital last week.
Legal analysts observing the sniper investigation said that the sudden move by investigators yesterday to discredit what earlier this week had appeared to be the first key eyewitness account of one of the shootings, illustrates a difficulty characteristic to many criminal investigations.
The witness' account may have been distorted by fear and the tendency to focus immediately on the victim, not facts about the shooter.
"The normal reaction to fear is not one of becoming a really good, attentive eyewitness," said Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychologist who has studied witness testimony for 25 years. "The normal reaction is to flee, to help the victim, to protect yourself."
Others close to the sniper investigation said some people who were near Monday's shooting may have been seeking the attention of newspaper and television reporters who flocked to the scene. One law enforcement authority said the "media frenzy" surrounding the sniper shootings is like "Chandra Levy times 10."
NBC Nightly News reported last night that a law enforcement source said the discredited witness was a phony, "who just lied to get his 15 minutes of fame."
Police this week gave tips on how to be an effective eyewitness. Among them: Stare in the direction of the bullet noise, carry a pen to take notes; if necessary, write down details on your hand. In addition, witnesses should not "contaminate" their memories by comparing notes with other people or the media, police said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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