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Woman Is Shot to Death Outside Shopping Center

F By Megan K. Stack, Mary Curtius and John Hendren

fALLS CHURCH, Va. – A woman was shot dead with a single bullet to the head outside a suburban shopping center Monday night, and investigators were scrambling to figure out whether this was the latest in a string of sniper slayings that have terrorized Washington’s suburbs this month.

The killing shattered a jittery peace that had settled over the nation’s capital over the long weekend. Ten people have been shot – eight of them fatally – in 13 days by the anonymous sniper.

As in the 10 previous shootings, the marksmanship was flawless Monday night. “One shot,” said shopper Raymond Massas, “not very loud, like a snap. After that I heard people start panicking.”

After the shot sounded about 9:15 p.m., the gunman seemed to dissolve into this dark landscape of highway and chain stores. The woman had emerged from Home Depot, and was shot as she reached her car.

“I know the question in everyone’s mind is, `Is this shooting related to the others that we’ve had in the area?’ ” Fairfax County Police Chief Tom Manger said. “It’s too early to tell. However, we are working it and investigating it with that potential in mind.”

Police were hunting for a cream-colored Chevrolet Astro van with a silver ladder rack on the top and the left taillight burned out, Manger told reporters. The van was last seen headed east on Route 50 from Falls Church, which is about 10 miles west of Washington. Interstates 66 and 495, two major highways that could offer quick getaways, are nearby. Traffic throughout the region was brought to a standstill for several hours.

Detectives also were interviewing several witnesses. Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined Fairfax County police in the investigation.

The Seven Corners shopping center rises at a crossroads of several heavily traveled highways, echoing previous attacks in which the sniper struck near busy roadways offering fluid escape. Witnesses said they spotted a light-colored van near the shopping center Monday. A white van or truck has been the only clue police have released in connection with the serial sniper.

After Monday’s shooting, traffic ground to a halt, and brilliant snakes of car lights stood paralyzed in all directions past midnight. Helicopters beat overhead. A group of investigators jogged west alongside Route 50 with a bloodhound that sniffed the road. Federal, state and local investigators teemed over the shopping center, and spread to the wide parking lot of an adult education center across Route 50. The school is on an uphill rise, and could offer a clean shot.

“We are saturating this area as well as the main routes,” Manger said. “We have as many police officers as we can get in this area.”

The woman was shot in the head as she and her husband loaded packages into their car’s trunk, said Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner. Someone fired the fatal shot from a van, she said.

Nasser Ahmed, 52, had just finished picking out a new faucet for his sink and was strolling toward the parking area when a woman hurtled toward him. “Oh my God,” she cried. “A woman has just been shot.” Thirty feet away, Ahmed saw the victim’s slumped body alongside a parked car.

“Everyone yelled, `Go inside, go inside,’ Everyone was screaming,” Ahmed said. The shoppers dashed back into the store . Pandemonium prevailed in the hardware store. People wept.

“I’m shaking,” Ahmed said. “If I had walked out two or three minutes before it could have been me.”

Two of the shootings – one of which injured a woman in Fredericksburg, Va. – occurred outside Michaels craft stores, and there is a Michaels in the Seven Corners center. Earlier Monday, a company spokesman said there is an “ongoing communication between us and the police.”

“Our main focus is assisting the police,” said Tom Clary. “They’ve asked us to not comment on the scope of their investigation.”

These are affluent suburbs, home to legions of white-collar workers who pour over the Beltway at dusk – in part to escape the urban dangers presumed to belong to the inner city. These crimes have rattled nerves and shattered calm throughout the region. In the hours after Monday’s slaying, dazed neighbors mingled with police on the blacktop.

“I think it’s crazy,” said Kevin Neuenschwander, a 21-year-old shopper whose car was trapped inside the parking structure when squad cars and uniformed officers descended out of the darkness.

“It’s happening so close to home,” said his companion, a 22-year-old woman who gave her name only as Tiffany. “I’m scared mostly for my younger brothers and sisters. I haven’t gotten gas for my car since this whole thing began. I’m running on empty now.”

Their dismay was echoed by President Bush, who earlier Monday said the “cold-blooded” attacks have made him sick to his stomach. “I weep for those who have lost their loved ones,” he said. “The idea of moms taking their kids to school and sheltering them from a potential sniper is not the America I know.”

Men and women of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds have been gunned down in everyday settings – gas stations, shopping centers and a middle school. With a mysterious gunman making a killing field of the suburbs, fear is general.

“He is destroying our daily lives,” said Nico Casillas, 32, of Falls Church. “How can you stop going to Home Depot? It dumbfounds me. If I stop going to this Home Depot, who’s to say he won’t be at the next Home Depot?”

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