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Caution the Watchword as Sniper Sought

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Matt Olsen’s soccer team has 13 girls, a baker’s dozen, and every one of them showed up to play Saturday morning in their blue shirts and shin guards. It looked like any other glorious weekend on the grassy field at Oakland Terrace Elementary School here in the Washington suburbs. Except for the police cars posted along the sidelines.

As the hunt continued for a sharpshooter who is killing innocents with chilling precision, the people of Montgomery County pretended to carry on life as usual when it wasn’t usual at all. Late Saturday, police confirmed that a seventh person had been targeted in random attacks by a skilled marksman whose victims crossed lines of gender, race and age.

All were struck down by someone with no apparent regard for day or night or location. Until late Saturday, the linked shootings were all within a 20-mile radius in suburban Washington. Five people were killed in Montgomery County, a sixth on a street corner in Washington. Confirmation of a seventh victim late Saturday indicated the shooter had broadened his sights: authorities said a woman shot in the back Friday in Frederickburg, Va., about 80 miles from suburban Washington, was a victim of the same shooter. She survived the attack.

The settings seem haphazardly chosen. On Saturday evening, police still had no profile of a killer to offer.

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The slayings left Montgomery County on edge. On Saturday morning chores were dispatched with a watchful eye. A grocery store manager pumped gas just after dawn, making sure the pump was between him and a clear shot from the street. An elderly couple out for a morning constitutional in the park ducked into a shopping mall to get off the streets. A mother offered to pick out a pair of homecoming shoes so her daughter wouldn’t have to go out. A high school junior drove to the full-serve island at the gas station, paying extra for the reassurance of not having to get out of her car.

Here, they are struggling to make sense of a situation that is in the heart of their neighborhoods and beyond their control, on the fringes of a capital city debating war, across the river from a Pentagon still rebuilding.

The soccer field where Olsen’s team plays sits about a mile from the Shell service station where Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was shot dead Thursday morning while vacuuming her minivan. Parents conferred before allowing their children to play outside on the breezy autumn day. They decided to go ahead with the game, but at 10 a.m. the coach called police and asked for protection.

“Do you just stay home?” Olsen, a federal prosecutor in Washington, asked as his players devoured their postgame snacks. “These girls are 8 years old and there is definitely a psychological cost to saying we aren’t going out today because there is a bad man out there shooting people.”

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Parents were careful not to say too much in front of their children. What was there to say, anyway? Someone with a high-powered rifle and expert marksmanship is shooting people in the course of ordinary life--a cabdriver fueling up at a Mobil station, a woman sitting on a bench in front of a business, a man on a lawn mower, another man walking in a parking lot.

So residents in this county pumped gas, walked dogs, shopped and peered over their shoulders, unsure precisely what they were looking for. A figure lurking in the distance? There are 873,000 people here. A white box truck? There are more than a million registered vehicles in suburban Maryland.

After all, it is a white box truck that delivers cigarettes to the Wheaton Shell station that Trevor Wetzlaff manages, several blocks from the Shell where bouquets and U.S. flags now sit. And with all the publicity, would the killer be foolish enough to still be driving one?

“I’m looking for something out of the ordinary, something out of place, but I’m not sure what,” said Wetzlaff, whose business has dropped by half since word of the killings got around. “I think people are just nervous about being at a gas station in general. Everybody who comes in talks about it.”

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Outside Wetzlaff’s glass office, Debbie Skolnik filled the tank of her black Acura, squinting to keep the sun out of her eyes. The prices are higher than the station she usually patronizes, but somebody died there, so she avoided it.

“I’ve been watching, looking,” said Skolnik, a librarian at Suburban Hospital in nearby Bethesda, where two of the victims were taken. “I’ve been in every place in Montgomery County that killer struck. Now I have to think, ‘Where am I going to get gas? Which station might be safer than another?’ ”

The string of random killings has been made worse by the thought of terrorism--a theory police have not ruled out. Some people confessed they’d feel slightly relieved if it turned out to be just one nut with military-style training acting alone. No matter who is behind it, though, it felt like terrorism just the same.

Ken Warden, a facilities manager for a boat owners association, sat in a Jeep Wrangler outside a Safeway store in Kensington. He happened to be in front of the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 11, 2001; the roar of the plane rang in his ears for months afterward. Now he found himself in a parking lot where some believe the killer might have stationed himself to draw a bead on Lewis-Rivera as she vacuumed her vehicle.

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“It’s the same kind of uneasiness and vulnerability,” Warden said. “Whether or not it’s linked to Al Qaeda or the Middle East, it has the same effect.”

With nothing official to go on, some took comfort in the statistics. “There are 3 million people living in the Washington area and we have maybe two shooters, so the probability of being shot is rather low,” Jerry Carter, a 61-year-old artist from Silver Spring said, repeating what he told his 8-year-old daughter when she wondered why a police car was parked outside of her school last week.

But the police chief had another statistic--the Montgomery County murder rate just jumped 25%.

“These are equal opportunity murderers, they don’t discriminate. Their trucks take the same route we all take,” Carter conceded, heading into Safeway for milk and fruit. On the way, he handed a dollar to 80-year-old Vincent Sebastiano, a loyal member of the Knights of Columbus, standing outdoors in plain sight and proud of it.

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“My wife said, ‘Don’t go out there!’ ” shouted Sebastiano, who came here from Italy in 1946 but still has his accent. “I’m a grandfather and a family man. I’ve served the Knights of Columbus 20 years. I’m not gonna be a chicken! Whatever will be will be.”

Montgomery County Police reported receiving nearly 7,000 tips, but no real leads. They know that five of the seven victims were shot with the same .223-caliber rifle. Police Chief Charles A. Moose said the bullets from the other two shootings were probably too damaged to yield clues.

Meanwhile, Myrna and Van Olsen watched their granddaughter trot off the soccer field. They’ve lived in Montgomery County for more than 45 years and lately, it seems there is always some new kind of worry.

“It feels like we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Myrna Olsen, a retired school nurse who raced to pick up her grandson last week when afternoon kindergarten was canceled. “Not that many years ago, the most disruptive thing that happened at school was a snowstorm.”

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Times staff writer Alan C. Miller contributed to this report.


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