The hand-printed letter tacked to a tree near the Ashland, Va., sniper shooting site is known for its chilling postscript -- "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time." But among those who study handwriting, it has had even more interesting things to say.
The world of graphology has been buzzing since last week, when the letter was distributed over the Internet after the arrests of two suspects in the string of shootings in the Washington area. Handwriting chat groups have been busy as people swap theories about the writer's personality. For those who practice handwriting analysis, this is bigger than big.
"We're always excited to see handwriting," said Ted Widmer, a New Mexico graphologist and author of two books on the subject. "I love to see this guy's handwriting to see where he is at."
Law enforcement officials will use forensic handwriting analysis to try to link the presumed sniper letter -- and a tarot card left at another sniper scene -- with suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17.
Some graphologists also use writing to analyze character, though critics are skeptical about its reliability for that purpose, calling it a pseudo-science.
The theories that result from this analysis do not always agree. Gary Brown, an Oregon graphologist who consults for federal agencies, believes Malvo wrote the letter. He drew this conclusion largely by comparing the letter with Muhammad's signature on a court document. But Widmer, who also does law enforcement consulting, said the author seems older than 17.
In interviews this week, though, Widmer and Brown concurred that, if they had seen the letter before the arrests, it would not have helped them tell police the race or gender of the writer. Both said the writing does not point to a foreign-born author, even though Malvo was born in Jamaica and spent much of his youth there.
Brown and an associate, Liz Welt, said the sniper letter was written by someone who is self-conscious, withdrawn and socially standoffish, a planner who could be dominated by another person who is older and quicker-thinking.
Brown also drew some conclusions about Muhammad, based on his signed court petition filed in Tacoma, Wash., in 2001 to change his last name from "Williams." The writing, he said, reveals a man with a big ego, a demand for attention and a lack of organization.
"A [Jeffrey] Dahmer, a Ted Bundy, you can see immediately this is a dangerous personality," Brown said. By contrast, in the handwriting examples from the sniper suspects, "you would never get to saying, 'Hey, these people are dangerous.' You would say under the right circumstances they would do something, but there would have to be that trigger."
Widmer, who directs the International School of Handwriting Sciences, said the letter writer "is very unstable. This person feels alienated from society and has difficulties interacting. . . . Extremely cold, but underneath it all highly emotional . . . capable of violent outbursts."
Among the clues he sees: "That left margin is a disaster," weaving back and forth, not the straight line most writers form. The writing changes direction and size, he pointed out, and the spacing between words varies.
Widmer noted that the letter was printed, not written in cursive script. That tells him the writer is relatively young, but he said that does not rule out Muhammad.
To skeptics, the idea that personality can be predicted through handwriting is ludicrous. Barry Beyerstein, a biological psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada who co-edited a book critical of graphology, called it "scientific bunk, no better than palm-reading or tea-leaf reading."
Charles Bahn, a professor of forensic psychology at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, described it as "very much an art rather than a science." A skilled practitioner -- and many are not -- has a "fairly good" chance of predicting emotional stability, he said. Beyond that, he said, it does not have a good track record.