SILVER SPRING - After police pleas for a telephone dialogue, the serial sniper stalking the Washington region responded yesterday with a different statement: the killing at daybreak of a bus driver, accompanied by another demanding letter left for authorities, less than a mile from where the gunman began shooting three weeks ago.
Police answered last night with their longest televised address to the killer, saying it was not "electronically possible" to achieve what the sniper demanded of them. In a letter left at the site of the Saturday shooting in Ashland, Va., the sniper demanded that $10 million be wired to a domestic bank account and threatened further violence, law enforcement sources have told The Sun.
Yesterday's multipage letter, left at Aspen Hill's North Gate Park, repeated Saturday's demands, officials said.
"We remain open and ready to talk to you about the options you have mentioned," Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said last night. "It's important we do this without anyone else getting hurt."
Moose then instructed the sniper to call authorities to obtain a toll-free number he could use in the future, and offered to set up a post office box to be used for communications if that would make the sniper "feel more comfortable."
"You indicated that this is about more than violence," the chief said. "We are waiting to hear from you."
The killer claimed in the Saturday letter - which had similarities to another note left by the sniper - that he has unsuccessfully attempted about six times to contact police, only to be thwarted by phone lines jammed by tipsters, according to law enforcement sources. Police have verified some of those calls by checking their logs.
Earlier in the day, Moose revealed one reason why police are so desperate to maintain contact with the killer. The letter left behind at Saturday's shooting, he said, contained an alarming threat: "Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time."
The disclosure of this threat and yesterday's killing further raised the stakes in the cryptic dialogue taking place between police and the killer - partly on the public airwaves - over satisfying the killer's demands.
Those demands, meanwhile, have taken many by surprise. There were many theories about motives of a sniper who has now killed 10 and wounded three, but few expected he was driven by a quest for money.
"He had our attention after the first day," said one law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Why ask for money now?"
Bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, of Prince George's County was shot in the torso at 5:56 a.m. as he stood on the top step of his commuter bus at a bus staging area on Grand Pre Road in the Aspen Hill area of Silver Spring.
Police had not confirmed a ballistics match with the sniper's previous shootings, but they had other evidence for a link: About 1 p.m., they found the killer's latest letter in the park adjacent to the scene, a law enforcement source said.
The killing and the letter marked the sniper's return to Montgomery County, where he launched his attacks on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3 with five fatal shootings. Since then, the sniper had killed four others and injured three, but skirted the site of his initial crimes, going as far away as Ashland, 100 miles south of Washington, for Saturday's shooting.
Yesterday's resurfacing of the killer just outside the nation's capital renewed an intense manhunt in the Washington suburbs, with hundreds of police clamping down on the morning rush hour with roadblocks and street closings. A weary Moose told reporters that police had "no vehicle lookout to share, no person lookout to share."
The sniper's return also rekindled intense fears in the metropolitan area - fears that were heightened by Moose's late-afternoon revelation of the threat against children.
That disclosure intensified a daylong debate over the decision by Montgomery County to open schools yesterday, albeit on the "code blue" high alert. The decision contrasted with the Richmond area, where 11 school districts, with a total of 150,000 students, canceled school yesterday after meeting with authorities who had knowledge of the threatening letter.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said county leaders had decided not to follow the Richmond area's lead yesterday morning because they "have utmost confidence in the investigative team conducting the work being done here" and did not believe that only children were now at risk.
Moose agreed, seeking to quell alarm about the killer's threat against children by pointing out that the killer's diversity of targets has put everyone, not just children, at danger.
"This person or people have shown the ability and willingness to kill people of all races, ages, genders and professions," he said. "We have not been able to assure anyone of their safety in regards to this situation."
County officials decided late in the day to open schools again today even after news of the threat against children fueled parental fears.
Yesterday morning's killing came after Moose's televised plea on Monday for the sniper to call authorities because they were unable to understand a garbled call he had made earlier that day. In Saturday's letter, the sniper instructed police to call him at an Ashland pay phone, but police were unable to make the call by the appointed time, a law enforcement official said.
Rather than calling back yesterday, the sniper's first act of the day was to strike again - and to strike on the home turf of Moose, the man leading the investigation and making the direct pleas to the killer. This brazen choice of location, experts said, was likely meant as a direct jab at the authorities leading the investigation - possibly in response to the police attempt to nab the sniper Monday at a pay phone they thought he had been using.
"What it said is psychological: I've killed five people up there, I've killed a few in other places, and I can go back to the same location and you're still not there," said Maurice Godwin, a criminal investigative psychologist at Methodist College in North Carolina.
Experts who are baffled by the sniper's demand for money speculated that perhaps he didn't understand his motivations for killing, and now realized he needed something to justify taking so many innocent lives.
"I had assumed that his motives were beyond money," said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore. "I thought it was more in the area of acknowledging his skill, both as a shooter and his ability to evade capture. Maybe his motivations were not clear beforehand. Maybe he's finally coming to the realization that he can make some money."
Yesterday's shooting bore many of the sniper's trademarks. Johnson's bus stood near North Gate Park, a wooded setting that would have provided the gunman adequate cover, with a short footpath that runs directly to nearby Connecticut Avenue, a main suburban artery.
Like all the victims, Johnson was hit by a single shot. And like many recent victims, he was shot under the cover of darkness - a precaution the killer appears to be taking after initially shooting most of his victims in broad daylight.
John T. O'Neill said his alarm clock had just gone off in his ground-floor apartment on Grand Pre Road when he heard the gunshot. But he didn't immediately realize what the noise was - a failure he was still ruing hours later.
"I shaved and fixed my hair; I thought it could have been a firecracker," said O'Neill, whose apartment has a clear view of the park but is screened by trees from the bus stop. "I should have called [the police] and said I heard a shot."
Other neighbors recognized the gunshot more quickly and called the police. Johnson, a father of two, was still alive when the police and ambulances arrived, but he died soon afterward at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.
Helicopters and two small planes circled overhead, police dogs combed the park, and officers recorded license plates of every vehicle in the area. Meanwhile, police closed roads around Aspen Hill and set up roadblocks all over the area, from the Capital Beltway to Route 108 running east into Howard County.
Radio traffic monitors were asked by police not to report road closings, so as not to tip off a fleeing sniper. Police inspected nearly every car that was driven by a man - a tactic different from their previous focus on white vans and white trucks, the vehicles that have been spotted at previous shootings.
Area residents responded to the shooting as they had after the initial burst of killings three weeks ago - canceling appointments, shepherding their children home from school and staying indoors.
About 200 residents ventured out for a vigil last night at Faith United Methodist Church in Rockville that was attended by many of the area's political and religious leaders, including Washington Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, Rep. Constance A. Morella and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
"We want to stand and say with one voice that we will not rest until these acts of violence stop," Williams said. "We want to show unwavering support for all those who have been affected by these heinous and horrific acts."
Sun staff writers Mark Matthews, Ivan Penn and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.
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