In the end, it was television reports of information that was not released by the police -- the type of car and license plate of the sniper suspects -- that helped crack the case.
After three weeks of jousting between law enforcement and journalists, it was another leak late Wednesday that led to a truck driver's tip that the suspects' car -- a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey license plates -- was parked at a Maryland rest stop, where the men were arrested in the dead of night.
Fox News Vice President John Moody said the leaked information about the license plate "was coming from enough different sources that you had to wonder if somebody didn't want that out. If anything, we were helping the authorities."
Said Kathryn Kross, CNN's Washington bureau chief: "I don't see the downside when you've got what, in essence, was a manhunt. You want as many eyes as you possibly can to say this is what we're looking for. You can deputize a nation."
CNN reported at 10:02 p.m. Wednesday that a 1990 Caprice with New Jersey plates was being sought, that police officials were debating whether to release the men's names and that, as reporter Kelli Arena, put it, "we have been cautioned not to refer to these individuals as suspects." MSNBC's Pete Williams said a minute later that "we have been asked not to pass these specific names on."
Fox's Rita Cosby reported at 10:52 that police were looking for John Allen Williams (or John Muhammad) and Lee Malvo, and that the license plate on the blue Caprice was NDA-21Z. CNN's Jeanne Meserve reported the names three minutes later.
When Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose made a brief statement to the news media shortly before midnight, he announced that the police were looking for Muhammad and Malvo -- but said nothing about the type of car or license plate.
"This is a good example of how good reporting can result in being good citizens," said Dave Roberts, news director of WUSA-TV (Channel 9).
Michael Zeldin, a former federal independent counsel, said he wondered while watching the coverage "whether the media were giving away stuff the police really don't want given away. I was concerned that, with the noose tightening around him, this guy was going to flee and take his terror to another jurisdiction. Clearly, in retrospect, having put out that alert led to the capture."
David Schertler, former homicide chief for the U.S. attorney's office in the District, went further, saying: "It seems nonsensical not to release a good tag number. That's exactly what you want out there."
Police have offered no public explanation as to why they did not officially release the information Wednesday night. Moose offered some praise for the media last night, citing "the willingness on your part to withhold information for fear that it would somehow jeopardize the investigation."
Almost from the start of the Washington area sniper shootings, reporters have complained that police were releasing too little information, and Moose has criticized media organizations for disclosing confidential details. The first dust-up came when WUSA reported that a tarot card with the words "I am God" had been left at the scene of one of the shootings. Moose said sarcastically that if Channel 9 or The Washington Post, which also reported the finding of the tarot card, wanted to conduct the investigation, perhaps the police should bow out.
That pattern was repeated several times as Moose kept deflecting questions at Rockville news conferences. Moose criticized the media last week for interviewing potential witnesses.
"I've been doing this kind of work for 40 years," said Bob Long, news director of WRC-TV (Channel 4), "and I can't think of a single case where a piece of information let a criminal escape justice. I can think of hundreds of cases where information led to justice being done."
Another clash occurred earlier this week, when police said a note had been found near another sniper shooting, outside an Ashland, Va., restaurant, but did not reveal its contents. The Los Angeles Times and New York Post reported Tuesday that the note contained an unspecified threat against children.
When Moose revealed later that day that the note said, "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time," there was a storm of protest from parents and others that the information had been withheld. "The police were irresponsible," Zeldin said.
"Many people were outraged they didn't know that sooner," Kross said. "Parents felt it was their decision to make" whether to send their children to school.
Tensions were building on both sides. "Law enforcement was probably more frustrated by their inability to control the leaking in their own organizations than they were at the publication of the information," Schertler said. But local traffic reporters agreed not to reveal the location of police roadblocks Tuesday after the latest sniper shooting in Montgomery County led to widespread gridlock.
As the Wednesday night drama began to unfold with a search of a home in Tacoma, Wash., that apparently was once rented by Muhammad, some law enforcement officials were angry that the media were providing saturation coverage, including helicopter footage, while the suspects remained at large.
Before CNN disclosed the car and license plate, said spokeswoman Christa Robinson, the network checked with police and officials and "we were not advised that the release might be harmful." Fox's Moody said he simply confirmed with reporter Cosby that the information was "coming from reliable sources."
The scramble for details continued through the night, with WUSA the first to break in locally, at 4:28 a.m., with news that Muhammad and Malvo had been arrested, and later was the first to show video of the car at the rest stop.
As late as 6:55 p.m. yesterday, Fox reported that the Associated Press had retracted a story, cited by the network, that ballistics testing had matched the rifle found in the Caprice to the sniper's weapon. But CNN said minutes later that one of its sources had confirmed the match. The AP confirmed the positive test shortly after 8 p.m.
The debate over media conduct is far from over. Zeldin criticized journalists for a "scoop mentality. . . . The media have to be very careful, tread very lightly, about giving out information they're not authorized to give out. When you've got a madman on the loose, the rules are very different."
The gap between the police and the press, it seems, isn't likely to vanish any time soon.
"It is their job to withhold information," said WRC's Long. "Our job is to get information. We both have a role to play."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.