Sniper May Have Left Taunting Note
‘I Am God’ Scrawled On Tarot Card At School Site
By Christian Davenport and Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 9, 2002; Page A01
The sniper linked to eight area shootings left a taunting message for authorities outside the Bowie school where a 13-year-old boy was shot Monday morning, police sources confirmed last night.
"Dear policeman, I am God," the message said. Police said it was found on a Tarot card known as the Death card, part of a deck used in fortunetelling. It was spotted in a wooded area about 150 yards from the school entrance, where police have also found a spent shell casing and a matted area of grass that suggested that the gunman had lain in wait.
The message, first reported last night on WUSA-TV (Channel 9), was the first known communication from the sniper, police sources said last night.
Authorities have linked the same gun to several of the shootings, which have left six people dead and two wounded. However, despite devoting an increasing level of resources to the investigation, authorities have reported few clues.
Contacted last night after the television report aired, Prince George's County Police Chief Gerald M. Wilson declined to comment.
"I can't confirm that," Wilson said of the TV report. There's "nothing I can say in regards to that."
An officer close to the case told a reporter that the television account had severely impaired the police investigation.
Earlier yesterday, it was reported that bullet fragments recovered from a liquor store clerk who was wounded at a shopping center in Silver Spring on Sept. 14 have been examined. But the analysis has proved inconclusive, authorities announced last night, meaning a connection cannot be made or rejected.
"We are not linking it, we are not ruling it out," Michael Bouchard, an agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said of the shooting in the Hillandale Shopping Center on New Hampshire Avenue.
Police, meanwhile, returned to several of the recent crime scenes yesterday, again searching for clues in a case that continues to baffle investigators. The broader inquiry, which has drawn 195 investigators from local, state and federal agencies, includes reviewing lists of snipers who served in the U.S. military, recent sales of rifles and a systematic review of 1,400 leads received from the public and deemed credible.
Investigators also are trying to determine whether there are links between the victims and the shooter. "This could be anything," one law enforcement source said. "It could be another Timothy McVeigh. It could be bin Laden. It could be Joe Nut."
Today marks a week since the attacks are known to have begun with a single shot fired through the window of a Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill. Since then, eight shots have killed six people and wounded two others. The victims range from a 13-year-old boy about to walk into his school in Prince George's County to a 72-year-old man crossing a street at night in the nation's capital.
Yesterday's relative calm allowed investigators to canvass the different crime scenes and pore over the hundreds of tips received. The trauma of the last week was evident when Montgomery County's police chief, Charles A. Moose, stepped up to a microphone for the afternoon news conference and began by saying, "There are no acts of violence in the county to report."
Authorities said the rifle used in Monday's shooting at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie was the same one used in five of the other shootings. The shell casing was recovered in a wooded area 150 yards from where the 13-year-old was standing. Until last night it was the only such piece of evidence publicly discussed by authorities. authorities.
One law enforcement source said that the ground was matted, as if a person had been lying there, and brush appeared to have been parted. That signals that at least in this case, the gunman was not in a vehicle when he fired, the source said.
At least three search warrants have been executed based on hundreds of tips investigators received after the shooting Monday, according to law enforcement sources.
The boy shot outside the Bowie school remained in critical but stable condition last night at Children's Hospital. The only other victim to survive, a 43-year-old woman shot at the Spotsylvania Mall on Friday, was discharged yesterday from Inova Fairfax Hospital after steadily improving since the weekend.
All of the victims were shot from a distance with a high-powered rifle that can be deadly accurate from as far as 500 yards. Authorities said it appeared that the victims were chosen at random as they went about the chores of everyday life – going to school, vacuuming a car, walking down the street.
Elected officials, appearing at a joint news conference outside police headquarters in Rockville, said the myriad agencies involved in the investigation were working together. "There is unprecedented determination, there is unprecedented cooperation to solve this case," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "There's no turf battle here. There's no ego here. Just resolve and determination to track down whoever has done this."
Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) called the shootings an "act of absolute cowardice."
"We will catch him," Glendening said. "There is no question. And he will be brought to justice."
As he and the others spoke, heavily armed officers stood watch atop police headquarters. The surveillance that is now a part of the investigation also includes two state police helicopters that circle the region during morning and evening rush hours and a chopper sent by the FBI.
At the news briefings, officials divulged little information on the status of the investigation. They continued to press the public for help, and announced that a reward fund set up by Montgomery County has grown to $237,000.
"Regardless of the quantity of physical evidence they have, it's not like investigators are sitting around banging their heads," said Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney. "They have gotten thousands of calls, hundreds of leads that they are tracking down. And that's precisely how these types of cases get solved."
Forensic testing has linked six of the eight shootings to a single high-powered rifle that fires a .223-caliber bullet. D.C. police also have said that dogs detected residue from a gunshot on a wall in front of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Northwest, near the scene of one of the five fatal shootings Thursday.
Authorities have no motive in the slayings and no suspects have been named. A single eyewitness saw a white box truck at the scene of one shooting on Thursday, and police continue to place some import on that tip. Investigators are sifting through motor vehicle records and seeking to interview owners of such vehicles. Yesterday, Moose said investigators believe that they have not yet spoken to the person or persons who may have been in the truck.
Experts in forensic analysis said there may be important clues, even in the limited evidence accumulated so far. Robert J. Castelli, a firearms instructor, Vietnam War veteran and professor of criminal justice at Iona College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said a shell casing such as the one recovered at the crime scene in Bowie is a potentially significant piece of evidence that the killer may not have wanted to lose.
"It's something you don't want to leave behind," Castelli said. "It leaves [investigators] another piece of evidence which, by virtue of comparison, you may be able to link to a particular rifle.
"This could be a mistake on the part of the shooter," he added. "He may have sought to recover it and was under pressure to get away, and as a result didn't have time to find it. Or he may have felt secure in the fact that he was shooting from a great enough distance that nobody would have figured out where the shots were coming from. It's literally like finding a needle in a haystack."
Castelli said the brass casing could have a fingerprint on it, or part of a fingerprint. It could also have marks left by the weapon's extractor, the mechanical device that ejects the shell from the rifle, and the firing pin, which strikes the primer at the base of the cartridge to ignite the propellant. Such marks on casings ejected from the same rifle would be nearly identical.
By recovering the shell casing, authorities also can determine its caliber and manufacturer. The casings cannot be directly traced to a store, but some stores sell only certain brands, which could potentially narrow the search.
Autopsies of the victims could reveal some telling details. Forensic pathologist Michael M. Baden said work by medical examiners could provide clues as to where the sniper was positioned for each assault. If police know in which direction the victim was facing at the time he or she was shot, the medical examiner can analyze the entrance and exit wounds and "draw back a trajectory" that would point toward the sniper's position, Baden said.
The other source of clues for investigators is the public, through the thousands of tips called in. That has proved a logistical challenge. Officials are trying to consolidate three hot lines into one so that more than 20 people would be able to answer incoming calls. Information provided by the public is written on a form supplied by the FBI, said Montgomery County Deputy Chief Bill O'Toole, and then passed along to supervisors who assess its importance.
Some – like the one from a psychic who called from Oregon – are deemed frivolous and given a low priority. Others are considered hot leads, until they eventually do not pan out. That was the case when a caller told authorities about a person in Bowie who owned high-powered rifles. Officials descended on the scene shortly after midnight yesterday, found the weapons, but quickly determined that they were not tied to the shootings.
It is unclear how broad the analysis is of shootings before Oct. 2. But yesterday, attention focused on the Sept. 14 incident at the Hillandale Shopping Center in Silver Spring, which appears to have similar elements to the recent attacks: a single shot, a single victim, no motive, no suspect.
Arnie Zelkovitz, the owner of Hillandale Beer and Wine, said he walked outside with one of his clerks, 22-year-old Rupinder Oberoi of Linthicum, and then heard "an incredibly loud noise."
Oberoi gasped in pain and then fell to the sidewalk, on his stomach. "All of a sudden, we heard a loud shot," Oberoi said. "I thought it was like some kid in the parking lot playing with a firecracker or something like that. Then, after five seconds, I was out of breath and I fell down on the ground."
Doctors at Washington Hospital Center told Oberoi that the bullet went into his back and bruised his kidneys, liver, diaphragm and colon. They were able to recover a bullet fragment, light gold in color, that was passed along to Montgomery County police detectives.
Zelkovitz said he spent sleepless nights wondering who shot his employee – and whether he himself might have been the target. Montgomery County Detective Wayne Cummings visited several times, Zelkovitz said, once canvassing an adjacent area of trees for shell casings as he tried to determine the bullet's trajectory.
"I figured it was a dead end," Zelkovitz said. "I thought he gave up on it. I thought it would be one of those bizarre things that they never find out about. Until Wednesday."
Last Wednesday, he was watching the late television news when he saw that a man had been shot in a Shoppers Food Warehouse parking lot a few miles from his store. The parallels between the two incidents were chilling, he said. He and his wife, Adrienne, were shocked to hear a police captain say that there had been no similar incidents recently.
"My wife and I just looked at each other: 'Of course there was a similar incident! Oh God, it's the same thing!' "
They left two messages for police but got no response, he said. No officer contacted them again about the Sept. 14 attack until yesterday, when Cummings reappeared at his store, Zelkovitz said. Cummings told him that the bullet fragment taken from the clerk during surgery had been given to ATF investigators Friday.
Cummings called Oberoi at home Monday night and told him that "there might be a link" between his shooting and the sniper slayings. He told Oberoi that it was too soon to say for certain, until police performed ballistics tests on the bullet fragment recovered from his body.
Staff writers Martin Weil, Petula Dvorak, Clarence Williams, Michael E. Ruane, Phuong Ly, R.H. Melton, David A. Fahrenthold, Allan Lengel, Annie Gowen, Spencer S. Hsu, Jo Becker and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company