A single shot on a rainy night served a sharp notice to Prince William County and residents of Washington's other Virginia suburbs: The trouble has arrived.
Wednesday night's sniper killing of a gas station customer also reinforced painful new facts for the region, according to scores of interviews yesterday: Bright lights meant to make service stations safer also provide illumination for a gunman. A close interstate isn't just a convenience but the means for a quick getaway. And 30 miles of highway is hardly insulation from "city" crimes.
"Everyone's upset, everyone's wound up," said Roy Fuentes, 64, a car salesman who works a few driveways from the Sunoco station on Sudley Road where Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg was killed. "The guy's on a rampage. You don't know what the hell he's up to. But a block away from where I work -- my God."
Fuentes moved to Manassas three years ago from Fairfax County. "I thought I could get a better deal out here, where it's peaceful," he said.
Some residents said they were not surprised that the killer would be lured to the area by its easy highway access and anonymous landscape of fluorescent chain-store lights and strip malls.
"I knew it was going to happen sooner or later in Northern Virginia. It was inevitable," said Tony Parveen, 42, who lives with his wife and 9-month-old in one of hundreds of townhouses that sit on either side of Sudley Road, behind the big-box stores, auto dealers and Mexican restaurants.
"My wife was so scared she couldn't sleep. She stayed up all night with the baby, listening to the helicopters overhead," said Parveen, who works at an Amoco station just down the street from the shooting site. "She doesn't want to go out, and she told me to be careful, not to stand outside because you're a sitting duck."
Others took some comfort that the crime had nothing to do with Manassas or Prince William per se.
"It's just random," said Renee Daniels, 45, who lives near the shooting site. "It's not this area. It's the whole country. He's long gone, on the way to his next exciting adventure."
Throughout the county, schools gathered their children close, some requiring the ringing of a buzzer for entry. Fearful parents drove their children to school, rather than allowing them to ride the bus. Police cruisers parked outside front doors. Everywhere, administrators and teachers struggled to maintain a normal day, even with all the precautions.
Erma Hunt, who picked up her granddaughter as usual after Sinclair Elementary dismissed yesterday, said she wasn't surprised that there was another shooting. But she didn't consider keeping her granddaughters, in second grade and kindergarten, out of school.
"We felt that we put them in God's hands," she said. "And the school system is very safe. They have our children's best welfare at heart."
At Stonewall Middle School, cars were packed 20 deep on Lomond Drive as parents picked up their children from school. The school is a little less than two miles from the shooting site.
Laura Proffitt, a school bus driver, said it was important for children to maintain their routines. She made sure her children did.
"A lot of these parents, as well-meaning as they are, are just scaring the kids more."
But Proffitt has seen changes. She said she usually keeps the interior light on in her bus for high school students who are finishing up homework on the way to school.
"This morning, they wouldn't let me turn the light on, because they were freaking out," Proffitt said. "They said they felt like targets."
Prince William and Manassas have hardly been exempt from high-profile crime or big-city controversy. The county was, after all, the site of the notorious "malicious wounding" of John Wayne Bobbitt. Still, some residents sense that the county's absorption into the Washington region in the past decade has come at some cost.
"First there was Disney putting us on the map, then the Bobbitts, now there's this. Manassas is a media circus," said Tony Papa, 36, a lifelong area resident who lives in an apartment complex behind the Sunoco.
He said those who argued against Disney's proposal to build a theme park in the mid-1990s worried that it would bring in crime and traffic. "My God, look what we have now."
Linda Brown, a waitress at the Bob Evans restaurant across the street from the Sunoco, said the place was charged up, as customers added rumors and theories to the clinking of coffee cups and plates. The restaurant was open, even though its front parking lot was blocked off with police tape.
Still, it was not a party. Brown was scared enough to keep her children out of school yesterday. And everyone who wasn't a regular got an extra-long glance.
"Now we're all looking at our customers and thinking, 'Gee, I haven't seen that person before,' " Brown said. "It could be that guy over there."