- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

Fairfax County [Va.] police yesterday charged a witness to Monday night's sniper shooting in Falls Church with intentionally misleading investigators by falsely saying he saw a gunman open fire with a rifle and flee the Home Depot garage in a cream-colored van.
Matthew M. Dowdy, 37, of Falls Church, was arrested yesterday afternoon and charged with filing a false report with a police officer in the course of a criminal investigation, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail.
In what police called an "interesting development" last night, a white box truck with an "unknown caliber" shell casing inside was found by a cleaning crew at a rental agency near Washington Dulles International Airport. Montgomery County police spokesman Officer Derek Baliles said the shell casing and the truck had been seized by police. He declined to name the business or its exact location.
The truck was being scoured for evidence last night for clues and the shell casing was given to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for testing.
Officer Baliles said ballistics tests on the shell casing could be finished this morning, but emphasized that it is not clear whether the vehicle has anything to do with the shootings.
"We're being very deliberate not to be too hopeful about it," he said.
Police said Mr. Dowdy told investigators Monday night that he saw a man with a gun and saw him speed away in a cream-colored van with a broken taillight. Police said Mr. Dowdy also told investigators that the shot that killed FBI analyst Linda Franklin of Arlington was fired from 30 yards away, much closer than in previous shootings.
Police became suspicious of Mr. Dowdy's testimony after his account conflicted with those of other witnesses.
"This is particularly an outrageous crime," Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said last night. "Here we have a man who's just feet away from an innocent woman who has just been killed, lying there on the concrete, telling police what he never saw. It's really outrageous."
Mr. Dowdy is being held without bail and is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.
Investigators returned to the parking garage outside the Home Depot yesterday to look for clues. They also combed through a small field and a vacant parking lot across the street from the store, which sells home improvement items. Detectives were knocking on doors in nearby neighborhoods, asking residents whether they had heard or seen anything around the time of the shooting.
Montgomery County police Chief Charles A. Moose said that returning to the crime scene was routine procedure. "That was nothing more than them having their accident-reconstruction team lay the graphics of the area, conduct some additional search," he told reporters at a news briefing yesterday in Rockville. "I see that as very routine, very traditional, just good business to do what they did."
Police remained confident that the sniper would be caught.
"It would have been better if [the false lead] didn't happen, but it didn't cripple the investigation," said Lt. Amy Lubas, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County police.
Former FBI Deputy Director Weldon Kennedy, now a vice chairman of the New York-based Guardsmark private security firm, said witnesses making up sightings during high-profile cases is something investigators routinely contend with.
"In a high-profile case like this, it certainly is a problem," Mr. Kennedy said. He said that when he led the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing, authorities were forced to follow a "plethora of false reports." He said investigators in the Fairfax case "did a very good job getting the person to admit their story was false."
Mr. Kennedy said he hopes investigators are working with more information than they are releasing, but says that from his experience, there are reasons to doubt it. With all the different agencies investigating the shootings, "if there was significant information in this case, it would have been leaked to someone somewhere," he said.
Mr. Kennedy also said he's skeptical that police will catch the shooter during massive dragnets like the ones that closed off expressways after the two shootings in Falls Church and, three days earlier, in Fredericksburg, Va.
"When they say they have these plans, I just shake my head," Mr. Kennedy said. He said there are too many roads to cut off in the region and that there's no way authorities can react quickly enough. But he says he believes the shooter will be caught.
"If he continues, hopefully, he'll make a mistake or, hopefully, someone will respond," Mr. Kennedy said.
Police said there were other witnesses to Monday's attack and that they did not discredit reports that authorities had a partial license plate of a vehicle that may be related to the sniper slayings.
But Chief Moose declined to say whether police were closer to catching the serial sniper, whose rampage started with a shooting in Wheaton Oct. 2.
"Close, in this situation, in our minds, is not good enough," he said.
Acting on tips and leads, police have served search warrants, checked motor-vehicle records, searched military documents and used other tactics to sift through a constantly changing list of suspects. Many people own guns that can fire the .223-caliber bullets used in the attacks or drive white vans similar to vehicles seen leaving the shootings.
The sniper hasn't been heard from since Monday, marking the longest lull so far in the shooting spree that has killed nine persons and wounded two others. The Washington area, however, is not taking any chances.
The random nature of the attacks has set the area on edge.
"It's terribly unnerving," said Beau Phillips, 34, a public-affairs consultant and father of a 7-week-old girl who lives in Alexandria. "I have grounded my wife and child. She's going nuts. She's going stir-crazy."
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said troopers have increased their presence on highways, doubling their patrols outside the District by pulling in officers from other counties.
But motorists and shoppers continue to cower as they fill up with gasoline and carry groceries to their cars. Schools in the region continued operating under lockdown restrictions, with outdoor sports and activities postponed or moved elsewhere.
For the second week in a row, Montgomery County schools have canceled all outdoor activities, including high school football games. County school officials planned a meeting next week to come up with ways to salvage shortened fall sports seasons.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said there is no timeline for schools to resume normal activities. "We're analyzing this on a day-by-day basis," he said. "We make decisions for our schools from one day to the next."
Northern Virginia teams will return to the gridiron this morning, and they are expected to play at venues in areas of the state far removed from their home fields.
Events like the annual Bethesda Row arts show and an Hispanic music festival scheduled to take place this weekend in the District have been called off.
The annual antique car show in Rockville was postponed.
The event was expected to attract thousands to the 150-acre Rockville Civic Center Park. Joe Palamara, production specialist at a theater in the park, said the grounds would have been too hard to secure.
"The last thing people want is to be at the car show and have helicopters overhead doing patrols," he said.
Also in Rockville, antique vendors won't be setting up tables beneath the turning leaves at Chestnut Lodge. The event was canceled.
"The best brains in public safety say they can't guarantee our safety and I don't want to be wrong," said Eileen McGuckian, executive director of the group Peerless Rockville.
"There's a mentality that I understand and I share, that we're not going to cave in to someone terrorizing us. I can make that decision for my family, but you're looking at a greater issue when you invite people to a public event," Mrs. McGuckian said.
Federal authorities are taking an increasing role in the investigation, committing two Army spy planes packed with surveillance gear to fly over the Washington area.
The Army agreed to an FBI request to enlist the sophisticated RC-7 airplanes packed with surveillance equipment in the search. Because the U.S. military is prohibited from engaging in domestic law enforcement, an FBI agent will be aboard the planes and direct any relevant information to police on the ground.
U.S. investigators are questioning Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on whether they had any information about the sniper attacks. A law enforcement official characterized the interviews as an effort to cover all investigative avenues, adding that officials do not necessarily believe al Qaeda might be responsible for or even knowledgeable about the shootings.
ABC News reported yesterday that al Qaeda had trained some of its snipers in the use of rifles in assassinations, based on videotapes obtained near Kabul. ABC reported that a man, Nazir Trabelsi, arrested a year ago on charges that he tried to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris, said al Qaeda had trained a three-man sniper team to kill U.S. senators at a distance of as far as 250 yards.
In England, law enforcement officials had reportedly earlier seized a manual on assassinations using firearms believed to have been written by al Qaeda.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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