- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

The Washington area held in the grip of a serial sniper for the past 23 days began taking a few tentative steps toward normalcy yesterday after authorities made arrests in connection with the attacks.
For the first time in three weeks, cars lined up at gas stations. Shoppers returned to the malls. People packed local restaurants and outdoor cafes at lunchtime. Conversations, which lately focused mostly on the shootings, were once again about local politics, upcoming parties and plans for the holidays.
It was clear that residents greeted yesterday's news with a collective sigh of relief.
"Finally, things are getting back to normal," said Dani Cook, 32, of Alexandria, who went out for lunch for the first time since the shootings began. "I definitely feel better now knowing that I don't have to look over my shoulder. People can get back to their daily routines."
Mary Beth Roberts of Stafford, Va., echoed those sentiments. Yesterday was the first time she returned to a Michaels craft store in Fredericksburg, where a 43-year-old woman was wounded Oct. 4.
"I feel a lot safer today," Mrs. Roberts said. "Everyone's smiling and getting out more."
News of the arrests also was welcomed by drivers of white minivans and box trucks who until yesterday were suspect in many people's minds. Police put out a lookout for a white Chevrolet Astro minivan and a white box truck. Witnesses had reported seeing those vehicles at some of the shooting scenes .
Eduardo Patino, a 35-year-old contractor from Fairfax who drives a white Ford Econoline van with a ladder rack, said he could breathe easier now that he won't be routinely stopped anymore. During the investigation, someone called police to question Mr. Patino about his van.
"I use my truck to pick up things, and I have been terrified," Mr. Patino said as he shopped at a Home Depot in Falls Church, where the sniper killed FBI analyst Linda Franklin in the store parking lot Oct. 14. "I'm glad he's caught."
Schoolchildren, who were kept indoors since the crime spree began, were also relieved.
"I feel great," said Donovan Gordon, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Northeast. "I can have my recess back."
"I'm glad they caught him, because now I can go trick-or-treating on Halloween," said Tymberly Barber, also an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Bunker Hill.
Meanwhile, Islamic civil rights groups said that while they are relieved about the arrest of Muslim-convert John Allen Muhammad, they are concerned that it could trigger a backlash against Muslims.
"We are concerned that because a suspect in this case has the last name of Muhammad, American Muslims will now face scapegoating and bias," said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "There is no indication that this case is related to Islam or Muslims."
It has been a fearful wait since Oct. 2, when the sniper began his shooting spree in the Washington area. Ten persons were killed and three were wounded. Among the wounded was a 13-year-old boy, gunned down after he was dropped off outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie. The sniper left notes claiming to be God and warning that children were not safe "anywhere, at any time."
Schools canceled soccer, football and field hockey games and moved practices indoors. In a few cases, they even arranged secret bus convoys, bringing students to secure, undisclosed locations to compete in virtually empty stadiums. Some parents had their children switch bus stops; others drove their children to school rather than have them take the bus.
Some parents were considering canceling Halloween activities and not allowing their children to go door to door to collect treats.
But many began their day yesterday with the feeling that something had changed.
"My gut reaction is relief," said Craig Brown, 43, of Olney, who pumped gas at the Mobil gas station in Aspen Hill where his neighbor Premkumar Walekar, a cabdriver, was gunned down Oct. 3.
"Today's news is by far the best news we've had linked to his case so far. Let's just hope it's a defining moment for every single person, the community, the local police, the federal agencies and especially, more than anything else, for the victims' families. Let's hope that this brings peace and a sense of closure to the pain that they've been going through," Mr. Brown said.
Area businesses looked forward to a return to normalcy.
"You can see the customers laughing and smiling," said the manager of a Shell gas station in Kensington, down the road from where the sniper killed Lori Lewis-Rivera, 25, as she vacuumed her minivan.
Some were skeptical that police had caught the sniper. "I don't think they're the snipers; I really don't. And I'm not being racist. Snipers are not usually black," said Milton Peoples, a 59-year-old black man working at an Aspen Hill shopping center. "As a rule, most serial killers, the majority of them, are not black."
Parents of young schoolchildren were optimistic, but many of them still picked up their children after school, rather than have their children take the bus home.
Veronica Taylor, the mother of a first-grader who attends Webb Elementary School in Northeast, sat by the door of the school, waiting for her little boy.
"I'm hoping to God that the police have arrested the right person," Mrs. Taylor said. "You never know, and you must be careful with your children. You know, it's dangerous just walking out of your front door. I won't be satisfied until the police are 100 percent positive that they have arrested the right person."
Tammie Gordon, 32, of Columbia Heights said she and her son Donovan, 11, have been sprinting from their car into establishments to avoid the shooter. The arrests lifted a burden off her.
"I was just so happy to see him get caught," Mrs. Gordon said. "It's great. Now, I don't have to keep looking over my shoulder. I don't have to make [my son] run into buildings. I'm sure my son will sleep better at night."
Meanwhile, at Tasker middle school in Bowie, parents picked up their children without much of the trepidation felt during the past three weeks. A police cruiser still sat a few hundred feet from the school, parked under a line of trees. After classes broke for the day, children poured out of the building not from its front, near where their classmate was shot, but from the side.
"I feel a burden has been lifted off my chest," said John Biggs, 40, of Bowie as he waited to greet his 13-year-old son, Patrick. "It's been three weeks of hell. We don't deserve this. It's crazy that somebody that sick is roaming the streets."
Marina Abernethy, 39, of Bowie said her 12-year-old daughter, Taylor, originally did not want to discuss the sniper situation, but that changed when news flooded the media about the arrests.
"She kept asking me all the way to school, 'Do you think it's him?'" Ms. Abernethy said. But not all the fear has dissipated in the wake of the arrests.
"I've been on edge ever since this happened," Ms. Abernethy said. "I'm still afraid for myself, my daughter and my community until they tell us it's definitely him."
Police, who have remained on high alert, may now be able to get some rest. They have been working 11- and 12-hour shifts to beef up police presence in the region since the shootings began.
"A lot of officers have families too, and this put them at risk," said D.C. police Officer J.M. Lucas. "I don't want to see more people hurt."
Also, the feeling of dread lifted dramatically from the sniper task force. "You'd hear about a shooting and you'd be sick to your stomach. Sick for the family. Sick for the victim. Sick for the whole country. Nobody wants to feel vulnerable," said Patrick Berarducci, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Yesterday, a federal agent said, "There were smiles."
Jon Ward, Christian Toto, Denise Barnes, Guy Taylor and Mary Shaffrey contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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