By Maria Glod and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 7:48 PM
Cleaners at the Marine Corps museum near Quantico noticed spots on windows they thought were bird droppings one recent Sunday. They turned out to be bullet holes.
Since then, the same weapon has been used four more times to fire at U.S. military facilities in Northern Virginia.
The gunman has taken aim only at night or early in the morning, when the buildings would be vacant or sparsely populated, and authorities said they don't think he or she is out to hurt anyone. The shooter might be trying to send a message, officials said, but they don't know what the message is. As they search for the person, the questions remain: Who and why?
"Sometimes it is just for the thrill," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "Sometimes it's for the sake of power and control. Or maybe he just wants to wreak havoc on the military."
The incidents began the night of Oct. 16. or early the next morning, when shots were fired at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle. The Pentagon was hit a few days later. A U.S. Marine recruiting center in Chantilly was next. Then the shooter returned to the Marine Corps museum.
On Wednesday, authorities announced that a fifth shooting of a U.S. military facility in Northern Virginia was part of the same spree. This time shots were fired at a U.S. Coast Guard recruiting center in Woodbridge. As in the other cases, no one was injured.
An examination of bullets left behind has proved that a single weapon was used in all five cases. But the motive and whether a single person or a team is behind the shootings remain a mystery.
"We're following a variety of leads," said FBI spokesman Andrew Ames. He said the FBI is working with Prince William and Fairfax County police and the Pentagon Force Protection Agency.
Fox said investigators have a difficult task. Many snipers are never caught, he said. When they are, it is often because someone sees them in the act, or they are seen on a security camera.
In this case, Fox said, the shooter's apparent target - the U.S. military - is massive. The list of suspects would include anyone with a grudge against the military, but that's just one possibility.
"They are so hard to catch," Fox said. "Even if you have ballistics, you have little about the shooter. You don't have fingerprints. You don't have hair. You don't have any blood."
In a partial profile released last week, FBI officials said they think the shooter might have a grievance with the U.S. Marine Corps. They tried to coax that person to contact them, offering to try and work through any concerns.
FBI officials said that they don't think the gunman intends to cause harm and that's one reason why the incidents have occurred at hours when the facilities are likely to be deserted.
Although the incidents have amounted to vandalism, authorities and experts said that the spree is troubling and that they worry that someone eventually could be harmed.
"I'm concerned about someone getting killed who wasn't intended to get killed," Fox said.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said police are almost certainly focusing on similarities between the shootings and are looking for prior incidents here and elsewhere that could possibly be related.
"They're looking for common denominators here," said Wexler, who studies policing nationwide and wrote a report for the Justice Department on the 2002 Washington-area sniper shootings. "You take anything like this seriously, especially because you don't know if this person is simply sending a message or is going to ratchet it up."
Authorities, who have asked people to consider whether they know the shooter, said the person has probably experienced a recent trauma, such as the loss of a loved one or a job. He or she might have offered excuses to account for absences the nights of the incidents.
When the Marine Corps museum was first struck, it seemed a random incident.
Then, just before 5 a.m. Oct. 19, Pentagon police officers reported hearing five to seven gun shots near a parking lot. Windows on the third and fourth floor had been hit.
In the days that followed, similar shootings occurred at a Marine Corps recruiting facility in Chantilly, and again at the Marine Corps museum.
The most recent shooting occurred late Monday or early Tuesday at a U.S. Coast Guard recruiting center in Woodbridge.