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Probe Less Cohesive Than Advertised

By Jo Becker and Phuong Ly,

The epicenter of the massive search for the region's deadly sniper is a warren of rooms cramped with telephones, televisions and investigators at Montgomery County's police headquarters. Officer deployments and maps of the shooting locations are taped to the walls, the latest leads scrawled on a white marker board. The FBI has set up in one corner. In another is the ATF.

Authorities describe the cross-boundary cooperation as unprecedented and critical to solving a case that has left six dead and two critically wounded in two states and the District, not including a fatal shooting last night in Virginia that police were investigating for possible links to the earlier shootings. Hoping to reassure an anxious public, Maryland's two senators and Montgomery's county executive yesterday again touted the partnership forged during this crisis by more than a dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Behind the scenes at command central, however, interviews with leading investigators suggest that while some aspects of the massive effort are working well, others are fraught with the same turf battles, politics, leaks and confusion that historically have characterized manhunts of this size.

As of last night, authorities had yet to consolidate tip lines set up by three local police agencies -- a move experts consider crucial to ensuring that credible leads aren't lost. Media reports Tuesday night about a taunting message on a tarot card, found at the scene of the latest shooting, provoked a round of finger-pointing among various jurisdictions' investigators.

Some officers complained that they were ordered to pursue leads but not told their priority or where to report findings. Others said they checked tips only to find the same had been done earlier. Several detectives groused that constantly briefing the top brass was eating up time that could be spent on the streets.

Most spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

"It's a total bureaucracy, with guys who have never worked a homicide wanting to know every little detail," said one Prince George's County detective. "We have all these hurdles to jump, just a lot of BS to wade through."

"In some instances, there is duplication of work, and it's just a mess," a Montgomery officer said. "It's not a situation that's presented in the press conferences."

And police officials in the District and Fairfax County say they have offered to send additional investigators but have been told there is no space for them. Montgomery is knocking down walls in the command center to add desks -- and simultaneously looking for new quarters to house the whole operation.

To be sure, coordinating a huge probe like this is a daunting, time-consuming task. There is the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service. There are the Maryland and the Virginia state police. And the Montgomery, Prince George's and Spotsylvania county departments, plus District police and a host of smaller suburban city departments.

Together, the agencies have received thousands of calls and 1,700 credible tips. About 200 investigators are working the case, with Montgomery Police Chief Charles A. Moose leading the operation, since five of the killings took place in the county.

"It can be a real nightmare," said J.T. McCann, a former District homicide detective who led an elite unit assigned to the city's highest-profile killings. "If you don't have controls in place, you'll miss things. Someone will think, 'Oh, well, B is handling this or C is handling that.' " 

In some areas, the solidarity being touted publicly is the reality. Especially efficient, investigators said, is the cooperation between the local and federal forensic and ballistic specialists poring over the physical evidence found at the shooting scenes.

"It's one of the best operations I've seen," said ATF agent Kevin McCann. "The cooperation is fantastic."

Local leaders often are leery of relinquishing control over cases to federal counterparts. In this instance, however, the federal agencies were involved from the start. Monday night, Moose made it official with a letter to U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.

His action came after Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) contacted Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to suggest that the FBI take the lead because the killer had crossed state lines. Duncan dismissed that as inappropriate and unnecessary.

Just hours later, in an announcement that was mostly symbolic, he and Moose invoked a federal serial killer statute to formally request the FBI's investigative assistance. In return, federal authorities continue to stress, as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) did yesterday, that the locals are in charge.

"It's important that our community realize that this is formalized, it's not ad hoc," Moose said yesterday. "That's comforting to people."

Still, cooperation doesn't always mean agreement. Federal investigators and at least one local detective have different thoughts about the sniper's position during the District's fatal shooting -- with federal agents focusing on a stone wall and the detective believing the gunman fired from a car, a source said.

Meanwhile, possible leads phoned in to the local departments, which have no easy way to share that information, are being handled differently, depending on the jurisdiction.

In Montgomery, tip takers use FBI forms and computer software to categorize and distribute information to investigators. In Prince George's, an operator takes handwritten notes and walks them down the hall to the homicide division. The other day, Police Chief Gerald M. Wilson compiled a summary of the leads his department had received and hand-delivered it and a case file to Montgomery.

The man in charge of consolidating the local tip lines said "technical and political" factors had delayed that. "It's a lot of people working together that aren't used to working together," explained Montgomery police Capt. T.C. Didone.

Not until today will officials announce a new 800 number that will link directly to the FBI's Washington office.

The more agencies, the more likely it is that information some may want to keep secret will leak out. Wilson has held his own news conferences, releasing much more information than Moose about evidence found at the scene of Monday's shooting at a Bowie middle school.

Prince George's police found the tarot card hours after the attack but didn't share its discovery with Montgomery counterparts until Tuesday, according to sources. After a reporter was tipped, an angry Moose vowed to find the person responsible. He reconsidered, saying it would waste time and be counterproductive.

"Quite frankly, one part of the team thinks the other part of the team did it," a clearly frustrated Moose said at a news conference.

If the crimes were to expand into additional states, experts say, it might warrant the FBI taking the lead role. "We're bordering on that right now," said James K. Kallstrom, who headed the FBI's New York field office in the mid-1990s. "At some point in time, this is no longer the domain of local county executives and police chiefs."

Staff writers Christian Davenport, Maria Glod, Sari Horwitz, Tom Jackman, Allan Lengel, R.H. Melton, Jamie Stockwell and Josh White contributed to this report.

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