For the last three weeks, the Atlantic Coast of the United States has been held hostage to the murderous rampage of a sniper. 10 people have been killed and three wounded in a series of shootings that began on October 2. From the suburbs of the nation's capital of Washington, D.C., to the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, 145 kilometers to the South, residents are terrified. Schools have been closed, community life suspended. As we hear in this Dateline report, which was written by Ania Zalewski, the so-called "Sniper Shootings" and the accompanying aspects of the ongoing investigation, have dominated newscasts this past month.
Reports from broadcast and cable television on a shooting Tuesday which took place in a suburban Washington neighborhood called Aspen Hill, sounded all too familiar to Americans.
"You know, from our pictures at Chopper 4, it looks like an embankment. It looks like it goes down the hill from the road to the park"
Television and radio anchors try to speak with anyone who saw anything like this Maryland woman.
"My husband and I heard this loud…we knew it was a shot…and it was just a tremendous sound…"
Police have linked it to the past 12 shootings which have been attributed to the killer who is known as "The Serial Sniper." The sniper has been blamed for killing 10 and critically wounding three. All deaths were caused by a single shot, fired in hiding from the shadows. The shooter vanishes within seconds and melts away before police can react. The victims were all carrying out the mundane and ordinary chores of daily lifeshopping, dining out, pumping gas, or standing on the steps of his bus. The killer reportedly has left tarot cards with cryptic messages written on them at the site of the shootings, or letters addressed to police demanding money and threatening the lives of school children.
In response, police officials have banded together in a task force consisting of officers from Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and various U.S. government agencies. Chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County, Maryland, scene of six killings since October 2, heads the task force, and discussed Tuesday's shootings. "Certainly, law enforcement, medical and the task force responded, appropriate measures were implemented, the crime scene was searched," said Charles Moose. "At this point, we have no vehicle lookout to share, we have no person lookout to share."
Chief Moose has become a recognizable figure on American television screens. In a public comment on the shooting and wounding of a 13-year-old student in neighboring Prince George's County, Maryland, who became the eighth victim of the sniper, Chief Moose became quite emotional at a press conference held just a couple of hours after the shooting. "All our victims have been innocent, have been defenseless," he said. "But now we're stepping over a line because our children don't deserve this."
And he said this to parents. "So parents please - do your job tonight, engage your children, be there for them - we're gonna need it," said Chief Moose. "We're going need you to support them, but stepping over the line, and shooting a kid…I guess it's going to be really, really personal now "
And in a way it has become quite personal for Chief Moose. He's been hailed as a hero and criticized for not catching the sniper. He has been taken to task for not revealing information, and has been pilloried for possibly releasing too much. And at times during the very public investigation, the police seem to be engaged in a strange dialogue with someone they believe is the killer, and they think by communicating with the sniper, the sniper can be apprehended. But frayed nerves are taut and on edge, as frustration, on the part of authorities and the public, is beginning to show.
For parents and children living in the areas where the sniper has struck, the past month has been especially trying. Since the first sniper shooting on October 2, school recess, most field trips, many dances and celebrations, after-school activities, and even college entrance exams were scrubbed as schools locked their doors and, for students, the outdoors are off limits.
Additionally, a domino effect has rippled throughout the community. Youth sporting events, day care centers, Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings were postponed, all following the lead of the public school systems.
But it is the schools that, at this stage of the sniper investigation, seem to be at most risk. One school official, who did not want to identified, told Dateline's Ania Zalewski that the schools cannot say anything about their day to day plans. "We made a decision to allow no outdoor activities during school or after school," he said. "For how long? We look at this on a day to day basis. (…) You don't want to tell me anything … I really can't tell you anything." But students in the region can, and have. The social lives of these adolescentsso important to their developmentare slowly draining away from them as fear grips an entire region. Philip, who attends the private Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, along with Evan and Ryan from Madison High School, and Freddie from Oakton High School, in Vienna, Virginia, talk about their new lives.
PHILIP: We're not to go outside at all…we have to stay inside so we can't really switch classes going outside so it makes it, usually it takes five minutes to get to classroom - now it takes 10; and we have a bunch of security guards outside, they have buses lined out outside so no one can see us at all, all the blinds are closed.
RYAN: There is lots of police around schools now… I mean there is more patrol cars coming around the neighborhoods and schools…
EVAN: It's all cancelled until the guy is caught.
Unlike parents and education officials, the students do not see any benefits in clamping down so tightly on school activities.
EVAN: Actually it's kind of unnecessary because it makes you seem more like afraid about it and I don't think anyone necessarily will get shot really, so I think it's kind of overblown.
FREDDIE: A lot of kids in our school don't like the fact that there is no football games… you can't go outside and hang out, play soccer or something.
RYAN: I think a little bit too much, I think canceling all the games … like my baseball season has been postponed for about three weeks or so."
But a specific threat to children emerged following the sniper's October 19 attack in Ashland, 145 kilometers south of Washington. Press reports quoted law enforcement authorities saying the sniper left a lengthy note demanding millions of dollars.
Police Chief Moose read to reporters another more chilling part of the letter. "It is in the form of a postscript.'Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time,'" he said.
Schools in the counties near this past weekend's shooting in Virginia received hundreds of phone calls from concerned parents and decided to close schools all together. Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, stayed open on Tuesday.
Karen Lynch, of Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, agrees with the decision of area schools to clamp down on outside activities. "I don't know that they are going too far, I think that they need to be cautious because if they held an activity and something did happen they'd have that on their conscience instead," said Karen lynch. "I definitely agree that it's safer to do as much as they possibly can to keep them inside and away from harm."
But by doing so, the children of the Washington area are being robbed of their school lives and their childhood. Linda Foley, of Springfield, Virginia, near the nation's capital, says her elementary school age son is saddened he is not fulfilling his duties as a student crossing guard. "My younger son, he is in elementary school - he used to be a patrol, school crossing and they don't have the children doing it right now so that is a change," said Linda Foley. "He's a little disappointed that he's not out there doing his little job."
Parent Karen Lynch of Falls Church says although she's concerned about the sniper, she will not yield to the anxiety being felt in the nation's capital and its surroundings. "Although I mean it's scary, it's really close to home, but you have to go on and live your life," she said. "It's like you know terrorism in your own back yard, you can't let something like this keep you from living your life you know that's what they want you to do and you can't do it."
That's a view shared by Barry Glassner, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, and author of The Culture of Fear. Mr. Glassner says residents in the area need to keep the events of October in perspective. "Over time the community has to make some decisions about how to respond," said Barry Glassner. "Do you simply lock every one away for long periods of time and cancel event and hinder the business activity of the community, keep children from being able to play and get exercise, and so forth. At some point, you have to make a decision besides that. And one way to do that is to keep in mind that even though it's terrifying and a horrible situation - the probability, the likelihood that any individual in the Washington is not very high so far."
Fear and anxiety seem ready to explode into frustration, suspicion, and anger along the Atlantic Coast. The Sniper has killed and wounded more than a dozen people as well as disrupted ordinary life for thousands, if not more.
Terrorism has not been ruled out and the spectre of September 11 still hangs over the nation. But coming at a time when crime was declining nationwide, the Sniper shootings have once again reminded Americans how random murder can be and how precious life truly is.