Is it just me, or does anyone else out there think Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose and his vaunted task force bungled the sniper investigation?
I realize it might seem churlish to speak ill of Chief Moose when everyone else is showering him with accolades; this is a time when people want heroes. Besides, the good news is that the sniper suspects, John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, were captured within three weeks of the first killings in Montgomery County. But the bad news is: There was enough information to capture them sooner.
That's why I have to speak up. It's not because I don't like the police. On the contrary: I am a criminologist and writer who has interviewed hundreds of cops over the years as sources for dozens of stories. I've worked side by side with the police, training them on how to respond to domestic violence calls. I believe that, as a collective body, they are some of the smartest and most progressive folks you'll ever meet. But that doesn't mean I should keep quiet when I think the huzzahs and hurrahs in this case are woefully unearned.
When the clues were out there and were ignored, when solid, old-fashioned, shoe- leather sleuthing didn't happen, I have to ask: Why are we glorifying ineptitude?
Obviously, Chief Moose wasn't responsible for every mistake that was made, such as the Virginia cops arresting the illegal aliens who were in the wrong vehicle at the wrong pay phone at the wrong time, or all the effort expended on the clues provided by the shooting "witness" who turned out to be lying. But Chief Moose was the spokesman and the international public face of the investigation, and that makes him accountable.
Accountable for what?
Item: The Chevrolet Caprice. A witness told police about seeing a dark-colored Chevy Caprice, its lights off, driving away from the scene of the D.C. killing on the night of Oct. 3. That shooting, which took place later on the day that four people were killed in Montgomery County, raises a two-part question: Why was that information buried, and why, subsequently, did the white van/white truck sightings get 100 percent of the attention?
Further, well before Muhammad and Malvo were apprehended, the owners of the Hillandale Beer and Wine store told any reporter who would listen that they were convinced the Sept. 14 wounding of their employee was the work of the sniper. It turned out they were right, but it wasn't until well after the two suspects were arrested that police announced conclusively that the shootings were indeed linked. Surely the task force heard and saw the store owners making the claim. Did its members then read the file on the Hillandale shooting? Did they re-interview the witnesses, including the young man who worked at the adjacent Safeway who told police he had seen a dark-colored Chevy Caprice speed out of the parking lot immediately after the shooting? That would make two sightings of a dark-colored car specifically identified as a Chevy Caprice, but no public mention, because the focus was on white vans.
Item: Son of Sam. In nearly every article written about the sniper and how difficult it was to find the culprit, there was a mention of serial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, who was eventually caught by police because of a routine parking ticket. Why didn't the task force immediately hear a bell go off and start looking at police traffic procedures, such as vehicle stops and license plate checks?
If they had, they would have found multiple license plate checks of the suspects' Chevy Caprice. In fact, according to newspaper accounts, police from Baltimore to Richmond checked Muhammad's license plates at least 10 times during the time the shootings were taking place. Maybe someone would have concluded: "Hey, let's stop looking for this $*#&% white van and start locating this Chevy Caprice."
Low-tech policing, admittedly, but it sure stopped Son of Sam.
Of course, if the D.C. and Hillandale vehicle sightings had been taken seriously by the task force, those traffic stops would have taken on an important new significance.
ITEM: The roadblocks. Let's forget that we know police were looking for the wrong vehicle. Even so, just what about those roadblocks made sense?
Logic should tell us that, after a shooting, the culprit would either leave the scene immediately or hole up somewhere nearby. What could possibly be gained by setting up enormously costly and disruptive roadblocks 15 to 20 minutes after the crime? Remember, the roadblocks covered only highways, not side streets.
Not many people complained about the roadblocks, however, because they filled a need: The public saw a lot of police action, and that made them feel safer. The roadblocks didn't actually make anybody safer, just as confiscating nail clippers at airports doesn't eliminate a terrorist threat. But when the public is crying out for action -- well, hell, a three-hour paralyzing roadblock with real-time constant media coverage just screams out: "We're on the scene! We're doing something! We're taking charge!"
Item: The hang-ups. The snipers tried numerous times to communicate via the sniper hotline and other police lines, but the people answering the hotline phones were so clueless that they pretty much kept hanging up on them. The FBI said it used trainees for the hotline to save its experienced agents for work in the field. Well, what's the point of staffing a hotline with people who don't know what they're doing? At least one of the snipers apparently tried several times to identify himself through the words "Call me God" -- a tarot card left behind at one crime scene referred to the killer as "God" -- and was blithely dismissed. It made him so frustrated he even wrote to the police about it (more about that later), but if his complaints resulted in the hotline staff receiving more training, we weren't told about it. The people answering the hotline should at least have been instructed to pay rapt attention to any caller using the word "God" in reference to himself, and to keep those callers on the line.
Item: The letter to police, tacked to a tree in the Virginia woods near one of the shootings. The letter contained threats, demands and complaints about the people who dismissed his telephone calls. It also provided a window into the sniper's personality. If the public had been allowed to see images of this and other communications received, perhaps someone would have recognized the penmanship, spelling errors or grammatical construction and could have identified the author, much the same way the Unabomber's brother did. In fact, Muhammad's second ex-wife lives in Prince George's County, and she later said it had occurred to her that Muhammad might be the sniper. What if she'd been able to see what had been written in that letter? Maybe some familiar words and phrases would have helped her make a connection -- well before the arrests on Oct. 24.
In the end, if one of the suspects hadn't cracked the case wide open by bragging about the Montgomery, Ala., shootings, they both might still be out there instead of in jail awaiting trial. The truth is, the two were caught despite the chief's and the task force's efforts, not because of them.
The other evening, someone suggested to me that the sniper made the incriminating statement about the Alabama shootings because he wanted to be caught. Not at all. He was trying to boast about his actions, but to do that, he had to find someone who would listen to him. Clearly, he thought the only way to be heard was to share information that would boost his bona fides as a killer. To say otherwise -- that all the incompetence was part of a deliberate plot to goad the sniper into making a fatal mistake -- would take a degree of spinning and stretching that would put Rose Mary Woods to shame.
The lionizing should end; instead, there should be an examination of what went wrong. It won't bring back any of the victims, but it should bring forth a significant primer on lessons learned. Given the amount of local and federal talent and resources involved in the case, the Keystone Kops circus that resulted is a crying shame. And all the television and newspaper profiles, the glowing magazine accounts and the chiefmoose.com Web site won't change that.