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Season of fear

October 7, 2012 12:10 am

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.


Clues were few. People were around but didn't see anything. They heard a bang and the victim collapsed. Many reported seeing a white box truck or van in the vicinity, leading police down what would be their longest blind alley. Who knew that Ford had sold over 50,000 Econoline vans in the D.C. area in the previous decade? And no time of the day was considered safe: Kenneth Bridges of Philadelphia was shot dead at the Four-Mile Fork Exxon station on Oct. 11 at 9:30 a.m.

Stories of turf battles between various law-enforcement agencies are legion. This time, federal, state, and local law enforcement formed a cohesive unit. Chief Moose became the leader and the face of the investigation. ATF and the FBI provided invaluable resources and manpower. Most other local law-enforcement officials, including then-Spotsylvania Sheriff Ronald Knight, meshed with the team. In all, over 4,000 officers would be involved.

While citizens waited anxiously for an arrest, they zig-zagged through parking lots, put off buying gas, and hugged their loved ones a bit closer. Teams cancelled sports practices; schools nixed recess. The sniper, like a spider, had paralyzed its victim.

In the end, a tip from Washington State and clues from the sniper's own rambling messages provided the breaks the police needed. John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo were spotted by an alert citizen and arrested in Meyersville, Md., where they were sleeping in their Chevrolet Caprice. The vehicle had been rigged as a mobile sniper station; their .223 Buckmaster rifle was tucked under the back seat.

The terror had ended. The public could relax. And all over the greater Washington area, people began taking note, not of white trucks, but of turning leaves and crisp fall air, of pumpkins and Indian corn, of high-school football and homecomings, and, most of all, of the precious gift of life without fear.


Our Oct. 5 editorial, "Unanimous Decision," mistakenly asserted that 23 million Americans are unemployed. Actually, when we wrote, the official number of jobless Americans was about 13 million, with another 10 million underemployed. Underemployment is often defined as holding a part-time job while seeking full-time work or holding a job well below one's skill level.

In September, the official number of jobless Americans, we happily note, fell to just over 12 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.