Possible suspect asked to call police; two men handed over to INS

R By Ron Hutcheson, Ben Finley and Sumana Chatterjee

rOCKVILLE, Md. – A possible suspect in the Washington-area sniper killings called police Monday, but authorities said the conversation was garbled and they urged the person to call back.

Police Chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County, Md., announced the tantalizing lead hours after Virginia police took two men into custody in what turned out to be another investigative dead end. The men, alleged to be illegal immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico, later were turned over to immigration authorities for deportation proceedings.

In another development Monday, ballistics experts confirmed Saturday’s shooting in Ashland, Va., was the sniper’s work. They reached their conclusion after examining a bullet that was removed from the victim, a 37-year-old man who was listed in critical but stable condition at Richmond’s Medical College of Virginia Hospitals.

The telephone call raised hopes of a break in a case that has baffled investigators and terrorized an area stretching from Washington’s northern suburbs to Richmond, Va., about 100 miles to the south. In 13 shootings over two and a half weeks, a sniper firing a single bullet each time has killed nine people and critically wounded three others. The first shot, on Oct. 2, passed harmlessly through a craft store window in Montgomery County.

Monday’s phone call came from someone police think is the shooter. But Moose, who is directing a sniper task force, said the call was garbled. Speaking to the caller through the news media, he urged the person to contact police again.

“The person you called did not hear everything that you said,” Moose said, reading from a prepared statement. “The audio was unclear, and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand.”

Moose repeated the statement word for word at the end of his brief news conference.

Tight-lipped police declined to provide any details of the caller’s message or the circumstances that led to the communication.

The day began dramatically, as police SWAT teams outside Richmond surrounded a white Plymouth Voyager van that had stopped beside an Exxon station’s pay phone. Police yanked two men from the vehicle, handcuffed them, questioned them throughout the day and concluded they were uninvolved in the case. They’d walked into a staked-out site, said one federal official, who asked not to be identified, and were merely “at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The two men, an unnamed 24-year-old Mexican national and 35-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, were turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The wife of the latest shooting victim her identity and her husband’s protected by hospital authorities – issued a statement through the hospital Monday urging prayers for her husband and his attacker.

“This has been a frightening and difficult time, where I have feared for the loss of my husband, friend and soul mate,” she said. “The hospital has taken care of all of our needs, so there is no need to send anything other than continued prayer. Please pray also for the attacker and that no one else is hurt.”

Doctors said the victim, a 6-foot, 200-pound man, faces a grueling ordeal of three to four more operations, possibly interspersed with internal infections and other life-threatening complications. The sniper’s bullet entered the left side of the man’s abdomen and tore through his stomach, his pancreas, a kidney and his spleen before lodging in his chest.

“He’s lucky to be alive,” said surgeon Rao Ivatury. “We anticipate lots of complications. . . . The next two weeks will be crucial.”

Ivatury said the bullet seemed to explode in the man’s stomach, ripping the organ apart. Doctors had to remove his spleen, half of his pancreas and about two-thirds of his stomach. They also recovered most of the bullet.

Police efforts to communicate with the sniper began with the discovery of a message at Saturday’s shooting site, outside a Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, near Richmond. Moose revealed the message at a news conference Sunday night and said it included a telephone number.

“You gave us a telephone number,” he said, addressing his comments to person who left the message. “We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided.”

By dictating a phone number of his choosing, the person who left the message could have been trying to get police to establish a dedicated line for his calls.

Criminal justice experts say there are three possibilities behind the message:

ï It is phony, left by someone who is trying to capitalize on the sniping but doesn’t have anything to do with it.

ï It is from the sniper, who either wants to get caught or is taunting police.

ï All of this is false information, released by the police to send the killer off-track.

Criminologists say they don’t know for certain, but some are leaning to the message being a phony claim of responsibility, especially since some media reports say it includes a demand for cash.

“That someone is extorting money at the end of the crime spree and not at the beginning, how silly is that?” asked Radford University criminologist Tod Burke. “It sounds like someone is trying to profit out of other people’s misery.”

People do make false claims of responsibility – especially for profit ” at times, especially in high profile cases, said Mike Carlie, a Southwest Missouri State University sociology professor who has spent 30 studying criminology, including copycats.

If that’s the case, “it hurts the investigation,” Burke said. “It really hurts morale of law enforcement, who are trying to remain optimistic that they’re really close. It really hurts the morale of the public, who think, ‘Oh my God, we really have something.'”