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When fear was in season
TEN YEARS AGO, still shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, still unnerved by the fall 2011 anthrax letters scare, the Greater Washington area, including Fredericksburg and environs, was gripped by the icy hand of yet another form of terror: a series of 13 random shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three others. "This," said one investigator, "is pure evil."
We tend to categorize crime victims. A person is killed outside of a nightclub. "I don't go to nightclubs," we say, and settle a little more comfortably into our recliner. Or someone is murdered by an estranged spouse. "We're happy, and not given to violence," we note with satisfaction. But in October 2002, things were different. The victims were a man pumping gas, a woman sitting on a bench reading a book, another vacuuming out a minivan, still one more standing alongside her husband loading shelving supplies into her van.
They were young, they were old, they were black, they were white, they were male, they were female, they were just like us. And for 23 days everyone wondered if he or she would be next. If a loved one would make it home from the store. If a child would get to school. If it was safe to pump gas. What came to be known as the Beltway Sniper case rattled our nerves, changed our daily patterns, and initiated the largest manhunt in the history of law enforcement.
Five of the first six shootings occurred in Montgomery County, Md. At 6:02 p.m. on Oct. 2, a man walking into a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Silver Spring fell dead in the parking lot. Shootings the next day at nearby locations sent three more people into eternity. Was there a connection?
Ballistics would provide the link: On Oct. 4, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said "we are 90 percent sure that it is a .223 round from a rifle, a hunting rifle, an assault rifle." Then, at 2:20 that afternoon, heads in the Fredericksburg area snapped to attention: A .223 bullet had ripped through the torso of a 43-year-old mother loading purchases into her van outside the Michael's store at what is now Spotsylvania Towne Centre. Ballistics proved what all feared: The sniper had come to our area.
DEATH FROM NOWHERE