- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — In the television documentary version of the Washington area sniper shootings, Bob Knowles had a bit part as the priest who finds a message from the sniper on his answering machine.

He played the role in October, nine months before judges moved the trials of the two sniper suspects 200 miles south, to the suburban waterfront area Mr. Knowles calls home. Now the Chesapeake resident faces the possibility of being called as a juror.

Not long after the suspects were arrested, documentary producers in southeastern Virginia sent out casting calls to reconstruct the killing spree for an episode of a weekly forensics show on the Discovery Channel. They got word to local talent agents, put out ads for actors and called in dozens of extras.

They had no way of knowing the trials would end up in their back yard.

“It’s really very weird and a little bit spooky. It’s like it all just seems to stay down here and won’t go away,” said Brenda Van Dorn, 42, a Virginia Beach resident who played sniper victim Linda Franklin in the show.

Mrs. Franklin, an FBI analyst, was shot and killed Oct. 14 while loading bags into her car at a Home Depot in Falls Church.

New Dominion Pictures, the production company behind the series, is based in Suffolk, about 25 miles from the courthouse in Chesapeake where suspect Lee Boyd Malvo is to face a jury in the fall on charges that he killed Mrs. Franklin.

Suspect John Allen Muhammad is scheduled for trial in neighboring Virginia Beach on charges that he murdered Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station in Manassas.

Judges in Northern Virginia recently moved the trials to ensure the suspects get fair hearings. If convicted, the men could face the death penalty.

In all, Mr. Malvo, 18, and Mr. Muhammad, 42, have been linked to 20 shootings, including 13 deaths, in Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and the District.

“This is something that’s affected the state, and the country, a great deal,” said Tom Naughton, executive producer of the series. With the documentary, he added, “we’re trying to make significant contributions to looking at how forensic cases are solved.”

Karen Whitlow, a talent agent at Actor’s Central Inc. in Virginia Beach, said that about 10 of her clients were booked for the film. “New Dominion really wanted to be the first on this,” she said. The suspects “hadn’t even hardly been caught and the company was on it.”

The producers brought in about 85 actors from all over the country to re-enact the sniper story at the studio in Suffolk and at sites in the area. The film aired in February as an episode of the weekly show, “New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science.”

It includes real footage from news conferences and crime scenes, interviews with figures such as former Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, and a detailed look at the forensics and ballistics that led investigators to the suspects.

“People who are from here will recognize some of the areas where it was filmed,” said Mr. Knowles, an investment consultant who played priest Monsignor William V. Sullivan of Ashland, a town just north of Richmond. His scene depicts the priest playing the message for FBI agents, also actors, then giving them the tape.

Virginia Beach landscaper Donald Byrd Jr., 40, portrayed the sheriff’s deputy who found a note left by the sniper in Ashland, where a Florida man was shot and wounded in a restaurant parking lot. Mr. Byrd described the experience as eerie.

“What was different about this was that it happened so close to home and was so recent,” Mr. Byrd said. “It was a very real thing. I mean, we all go to Home Depot.”

Prosecutors have said the shootings were part of a plan to extort $10 million from the government.

Mr. Naughton said producers didn’t want to tackle questions of guilt but focused instead on the science that drove the investigation.

With no solid eyewitnesses to the shootings, investigators relied on ballistics from .223 caliber bullet fragments and shell casings to link the attacks. They appeared to have no suspects until they connected a fingerprint found at the scene of an unsolved liquor-store robbery in Alabama to Malvo and tied a pistol also at the scene to an earlier shooting in Maryland.


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