Sandy Moose had just landed in Minneapolis for the annual police chiefs convention she was to attend with her husband, Charles.

He would be flying out to join her later that day, Oct. 3, after the funeral of one of his officers, who had died of a heart attack. As she was driven to a hotel, she mentioned that her husband was the police chief in Montgomery County, Md.

Isn't that the place that had all those shootings this morning? her driver asked.

What shootings? she replied.

When he explained, she told him, "You need to turn the car around and get me back to the airport." Then she got her husband on the phone.

"Sandy, it's a nightmare," she said he told her. "People are dead. I don't know what's going on."

Thus began the 22-day public ordeal of Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose, who headed the investigation into the Washington area sniper shootings, and the subtle, behind-the-scenes role played by his wife, Sandy.

As he became the stern, sometimes impassioned face of an investigation that riveted the nation, she watched from the background, deeply concerned about his emotional well-being under the enormous pressure.

In bleak moments, she reminded him that all things, in the end, resided in God's hands. After he was out of communication with her for too long, she told him that he needed to call -- and that his "troops" needed to call their families as well.

She and the other families needed, more than ever, to feel connected.

And when she told him that she was already on her way home that grim Thursday -- when five were dead and a phantom killer was on the loose -- he said, "Great, great."

In interviews last week around the eight-sided table in his office where he often met with investigators, as well as in their Montgomery County townhouse they share with their four Persian cats, the couple recounted their experiences of the past month.

He spoke formally, still in the careful language that was his signature during the sniper saga. She painted, more vividly, an unseen side of the police chief who happened to be her husband. Even away from the microphones, Moose is correct and reserved. His wife wears jeans and red sneakers.

Derrick Foxworth, an assistant chief in the Portland (Ore.) Police Bureau who worked with Charles Moose there and has known the couple for a decade, said Thursday that, while very different, they are best friends and that she is his alternate conscience and chief confidant.

While he stood daily in the public maelstrom, she held a unique vantage point. She saw him when he went off to work early in the morning, downing a protein drink for breakfast, and when he came home exhausted after midnight, walking up the 10 brick steps to their front door.

"I'm not tired," he'd say before dropping off to sleep in the overstuffed beige rocking chair in front of the big-screen TV in their sitting room.

She saw him over and over on television -- often tense and tight-lipped; sometimes angry at investigative leaks to the media; one time tearful over the coldblooded shooting of a child.

"I was very proud of him for being a complete person," she said.

At times, the TV news briefings seemed pointless. The chief had little to report. The media were impatient. Sandy Moose reminded her husband that his appearances were as much for public reassurance as for news.

At one point, as another briefing approached, she said he worried to her: "I don't really have anything to say."

"You go out there," she said she told him, "tell your public you love them and that you're working hard to keep them safe."

For his part, Moose said he never doubted that the sniper task force would eventually catch the killer or killers, though there were times when he wondered how long it might take.

She worried that he might be wrong.

"One day, we had a little time to talk," she said. "He was reflective. He was very sad about the killing. We're well aware there are serial murderers that have never been caught.

"For an officer, a detective, a chief, anybody that cares about their job in that industry, it eats them alive to think that they failed in keeping their people safe," she said. "I was very worried about that."

She said she and friends who know her husband's fierce dedication to his job feared that "if this turns out certain ways, he'll feel like a failure and go to his grave feeling like a failure, and that's so unfair."

"God has a plan," she'd tell him. "We can't see it. It's hard to reckon with God's plan when people are losing their lives."

North Carolina Roots

They have been married for 14 years. Both are 49. Each has an adult son from a previous marriage. He has a doctorate and was the police chief in Portland before coming to Montgomery in 1999.

She recently graduated from law school and for seven years was director of Portland's police review board, a watchdog agency.

Both hail from North Carolina. He is the son of a high school teacher and grew up in Lexington, about 35 miles southwest of Greensboro. She is the daughter of a logger and spent her early years in a "two-bedroom shanty" with a tin roof, no running water and no indoor plumbing in the state's remote southwestern mountains.

They met in graduate school in 1982 in Oregon, where her family had moved and where he had gone to be a policeman.

Oct. 3 began early for both of them. He drove her to Baltimore-Washington International Airport at 5 a.m., planning to fly out later after the funeral for his officer.

There had been a mysterious slaying in the county the evening before: A man was shot to death in the parking lot of a Wheaton supermarket. Moose had talked late into the night with his top homicide investigator. Homicides are rare in Montgomery County -- there were just 19 last year -- and in most cases, the motivation for each seems readily apparent. This time, detectives were baffled and by morning had already resumed working the case.

As Moose prepared for the funeral, word reached his office just after 7:30 a.m. of another fatality: a man mowing grass near White Flint. There was talk that maybe the mower had exploded, though some people said they had heard a gunshot.

A half-hour later came a report that a cabdriver was dead at a gas station. He, too, appeared to have been shot. Then a woman sitting on a bench, and another vacuuming her car. Both shot dead. And it was not yet 10 a.m.

Moose would not make the funeral.

What was going on? Five people dead in 16 hours. Two white men, a man who came from India, a white woman, a Latino woman. What was the connection?

"On the surface . . . it didn't look like any of the people were connected," Moose said. "But certainly that was the initial thought: 'Let's find out as much as we can, as quick as we can, about the various victims' and see if there's some weird thing that connects them and gives us some kind of, 'OK, that's what's going on.' "

But it felt strange, and as the day wore on, there didn't seem to be any connections.

"Something is wrong," Moose thought. "Something is different here."

At one point, he went to the scene of the shooting of cabdriver Premkumar A. Walekar, who had been gunned down while buying gas at an Aspen Hill Mobil station. The victim's body had been taken away, and crime scene investigators were hard at work. But there actually was very little evidence and not that much to do, Moose's specialists told him.

As he stood there, at the busy intersection of Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue, it was a beautiful fall morning. Traffic rushed by. Moose was amazed at how normal it all looked, almost as if nothing had happened.

At the gas station, he telephoned Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who was visiting Chicago.

"I don't really know what's going on," Moose told Duncan. "But it's kind of crazy, and we've got some stuff to work on."

A Frenzied Reaction

The public was electrified by the events. Schools went into lockdown. Police were on the lookout for a white box truck that witnesses said they had seen leaving one of the killings and stopped scores of them across the region.

Back at police headquarters in Rockville, Moose presided over the first of what would be dozens of news conferences that would shortly make him famous.

"We need to figure out a way to stop this," he said. "The suspects are certainly out there . . . being very calculating."

"We don't need panic," he said. "We're trying to get our arms around it."

That would prove difficult. As darkness fell that day, word came of yet another strange shooting. A 72-year-old Haitian immigrant had been slain on a street corner in Northwest Washington.

It was only a block from the Montgomery County line, and, Moose said, "it looked, smelled and felt just like it was part of the whole mess."

But the chief's Thursday was not over.

Sandy Moose was frantically trying to make her way back from Minneapolis. After changing planes and missing a connection, she finally arrived back at BWI about 1 a.m. Moose sent an aide to pick her up. But the two missed each other in the airport, and at 1:30 a.m. Moose drove from his townhouse to the airport and brought his wife home.

The next day, the sniper attacks spread, with the wounding of a woman in a shopping center in Spotsylvania County, Va. Three days later, the boy was wounded outside his school in Bowie. Two days after that, a Maryland man was slain at a gas station in Virginia. It went on with terrifying regularity. A kind of gruesome game of catch-me-if-you-can.

The killer always seemed one jump ahead of police, and the dragnets all came up empty.

"You can wish [an arrest] to happen," Sandy Moose said, "but that doesn't make it happen. You needed a break. The team needed a break."

Lost in Time

The pace for the police seemed deadly. Chief Moose lost track of the days of the week. He got little sleep, though his wife says he is superb at power naps. He spent long periods at headquarters, sometimes forgetting to stay in touch with his wife.

At one point, Sandy Moose said, her husband went about eight hours without calling her. She became upset and called him. She didn't mind if he had little time to talk: She just needed to hear from him.

"Look," she said she told him. "Not only do you need to call me and say about six words, you need to tell your troops to call their families. This is a time when families and close friends are feeling very isolated. All they need is, 'I can't talk now.' "

Her husband, meanwhile, was riding the cruel "roller coaster" of the investigation. Police would zero in on a suspect, only to find him an unlikely culprit.

"One day, we had four people" who looked like potential suspects, he said. "They got the gun. They got the history. They got flaky where-were-they kind of stuff. They got jobs that allow them to be flaky about where they are. Their job requires that they have access to white vans. All of that stuff."

Police either had them under surveillance or were actually interviewing them, he said. Then there would be another shooting.

"Four of them, right away, just fall off the board," he said. "They're not the guy. To have four possible good leads evaporate all at once. There were those kinds of days."

But he knew he could not appear demoralized. "You can never show it," he said. "If you come into the meeting and the roller coaster's just hit the bottom, if everybody sees that . . . . You just can't."

Moose did show his feelings at times. During a news conference after the school boy was wounded Oct. 7, he became emotional, saying that the killer had now gotten "personal."

He said last week that he's not sure exactly why that shooting got to him.

"Whereas all of our victims were innocent and defenseless, there's always still some slight possibility that these series of people had done something to someone" to motivate the sniper to target them, he said. "We hadn't discovered it yet.

"We know that there's no way the child's done anything to deserve this," he said. "We don't need to do any research. We don't need to do any investigating. This is just pure mean."

Moose also became emotional after the media reported that the killer had left a tarot card with a message at the scene of the boy's shooting -- a message that included a request that the card not be shared with the press.

He angrily chastised whoever in law enforcement had leaked the information and the media for reporting it.

Moose said he was also speaking to the sniper that day. "You want to make sure that the people who left the card know that you're upset. So that if they feel like any potential trust has been violated," they'd know it was not the chief's fault.

The manhunt and the shootings went on. One week stretched into two, and then three. "Twenty-two days felt like forever," Moose said. "It could have easily been 22 weeks."

The killer left more cryptic messages in writing and on the phone. Moose wouldn't say if any were aimed directly at him.

Then there was a killing on Oct. 22. This one was again in Montgomery, where the attacks began. A bus driver was dead, and the sniper, chillingly and defiantly, was back.

But the killer already had made a crucial misstep, leaving information in a phone call that police traced to an angry drifter named John Allen Muhammad, 41, and his sidekick, John Lee Malvo, 17.

The night after the bus driver's death, Moose announced that police were seeking the two for questioning. A few hours later, at about 1:30 a.m., he got a mysterious phone call at home, his wife said. He would tell her only that it meant the task force was "going to go do something."

They went to bed. But he was restless. "Hope nothing goes wrong," he told her. At 3 a.m., the phone rang again. The job was done. It had gone well. Police had found the two suspects at an interstate rest stop near Frederick. There had been no trouble, and both were in custody.

There have been no more sniper shootings.

Heart-Rending Moment

Later that day, at about 4:30 p.m., as evidence against the suspects accumulated, county officials gathered families of the local victims in a classroom in the county's public services training academy in Rockville to give them a briefing.

It was an emotional meeting -- it was the first time that Moose had met most of the 40 or so family members, and the first time he was able to see their collective grief in person. It was a powerful moment. He addressed them from the front of the room.

He felt as if he owed them all an apology. He'd not been able to get the killer off the street in time to save their loved ones. He had, in a way, failed them.

But they were grateful. It looked like the community might at last be safe. One relative of Conrad Johnson's, the bus driver who was killed two days before, went up to Moose and hugged him.

The chief was very moved. "They weren't angry," he said later. "They were glad that the police had done their job. I didn't expect them to be thanking the police. I thought they would be wondering why we hadn't done something sooner. But they didn't."

A little later, Moose held a meeting in his office for the police chiefs from each of the jurisdictions where victims had been shot.

Duncan was waiting outside the office. "We heard an applause that came through the walls," he said. Moose came out and said that a rifle confiscated from the suspects' car had been linked to most of shootings.

"It's over," Moose told Duncan. Then they embraced.

That night, Moose came home and sat down in the big rocking chair that had been his refuge the past three weeks. Earlier, he had happily told his wife, "Decide what you want to do." But just now, he did not feel like celebrating.

He said he had been thinking about his meeting with the victims' families: "I wasn't prepared for that to be as hard as it was."

He still felt as if he owed them an apology. Sure, it looked like the shootings were finally over. But for them, he had been too late.

As she watched in silence, she could see him wiping tears from his eyes.

Montgomery Police Chief Charles A. Moose and his wife, Sandy, in his office. She is his chief confidant and alternate conscience, friends say.During the attacks, Sandy Moose urged her husband, Police Chief Charles A. Moose, to assure the public by keeping in constant communication through continued news conferences. The Mooses, who have been married for 14 years, live in a Montgomery townhouse with four Persian cats.Known for being fiercely dedicated to his job, Moose says he never doubted that the sniper task force would find the killer or killers.One of Moose's toughest moments came when he met with victims' relatives. "They weren't angry," he said. "I thought they would be wondering why we hadn't done something sooner."