A man was fatally struck by a single shot last night as he pumped gas at a service station north of Manassas, and investigators sought to determine whether it was the act of the same sniper who has been linked to eight shootings in the past week.
"We have an adult male who was pumping gas who is deceased," said Prince William County police spokesman Dennis Mangan. "And that, at least on its surface, fits the pattern we've been seeing elsewhere."
Mangan cautioned: "It's still in the earliest stages of investigation. We don't know exactly what we have yet."
The incident was strikingly similar to the shootings in the wave ofsniper violence.
If a link is established, it apparently will be the ninth time a person was struck down by a single shot fired from a distance, the eighth shooting in a heavily trafficked shopping area, the third at a gas station and the third within a few hundred yards of a major highway interchange. And yet again, a bulletin was issued, by state police, to be on the lookout for a white van containing two men, echoing the call that went out after a shooting in Silver Spring last week.
Last night's shooting took place shortly after 8 p.m. at the Battlefield Sunoco station on Sudley Road, not far from the on-ramp to Interstate 66. The victim, whose identity was not released last night, was standing beside the gas pump when the bullet struck. His body crumpled between the pumps and his gray Mazda with Maryland license plates, the pump handle at his side and his gas tank still open.
Dozens of police officers descended upon the area. They were joined by investigators from the sniper task force who were dispatched from their Montgomery County headquarters, as were agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The shooting occurred 2 1/2 days after a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded outside his Bowie middle school, the eighth apparent victim in a series of shootings that began Oct. 2 in Wheaton. Investigators found a spent bullet casing and a handwritten message scrawled on the back of a tarot card that denotes death.
Police sources who have seen the card said that in addition to scrawling an apparent taunt on the card -- "Mister Policeman, I am God" -- the sniper also asked that his message not be revealed to the news media. Sources said some detectives had hoped that if they honored the request, the sniper might communicate with investigators again.
"This was a personal message to us, and the intention of the [shooter] was to develop a relationship with us," said one detective, who spoke yesterday on the condition of anonymity. The detective said some investigators believed that the sniper "was attempting to build a rapport with us."
But the part of the note in which the shooter referred to himself as God was leaked to at least one reporter on Tuesday and made public.
Last night, police cordoned off an extraordinary large area last night, aware that the sniper had fired from a distance of 150 yards on Monday. At least two dozen officers lined up shoulder to shoulder, turned on flashlights and searched a grassy area near the Sunoco station. Five officers searched the median area of Sudley Road, and two men in ATF jackets went door to door, interviewing guests at the nearby Best Western motel.
The Monday shooting, outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School, followed similar sniper attacks in Montgomery County, the District and Spotsylvania.
Yesterday, police on high alert responded in greater numbers than usual to reports of crimes and suspicious activities around the region. Meanwhile, in the hours before the Prince William shooting, investigators in the sniper case focused on the tarot card, the insight that the message may provide into the gunman's thinking and the impact of its public disclosure.
Prince George's County police, searching woods near the school after Monday's shooting, found the tarot card, which one investigator called the sniper's "calling card." Sources said police discovered the card and a spent shell casing near an area of matted grass in the woods where the sniper apparently had lain in wait. The spot is about 150 yards from where the boy was struck in the chest by a bullet, moments after being dropped off at the school.
For more than 24 hours, Prince George's investigators kept the information about the tarot card to themselves. They alerted Montgomery authorities to it Tuesday at a meeting in Rockville attended by at least a few dozen investigators.
Subsequent news reports on WUSA-TV (Channel 9) and in The Washington Post about the "God" reference angered some investigators, who believed that the sniper was trying to open a line of communication with them. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose angrily chastised reporters at a news conference yesterday morning, saying such disclosures threatened to impede one of the biggest criminal manhunts in the region's history.
As legions of local, state and federal investigators continued searching for the sniper, school activities across the region remained curtailed for security reasons. In Montgomery, where most of the shootings have occurred, Maryland's two U.S. senators joined law enforcement officials at a news briefing in Rockville, vowing to find the killer.
"We have the assurances from the president of the United States, the attorney general and the director of the FBI that we are not alone in this endeavor," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said, "We want to underscore our very strong support for this investigative effort."
The 13-year-old boy, whose name is being withheld because he is considered a witness, remained in critical but stable condition last night at Children's Hospital in Washington. He is the youngest known victim to date. Five people, ages 25 to 55, were slain in Montgomery on Oct. 2 and 3; a 72-year-old D.C. man was killed the night of Oct. 3; and a 43-year-old Spotsylvania woman was wounded the next afternoon.
Ballistics tests have linked six of the shootings, not including last night's, to the same high-powered rifle, according to authorities. Bullet fragments from two attacks in Montgomery could not be accurately tested. In another, similar shooting, a clerk was wounded by a bullet fired into a Silver Spring liquor store Sept. 14. Authorities said tests on bullet fragments from that shooting were inconclusive.
No tarot cards were found near the shooting scenes in the District or Spotsylvania, officials said. It could not be determined yesterday whether investigators have found tarot cards near where the Montgomery attacks occurred.
Although police sources did not describe the design on the "death" card found in Bowie, the author of the Encyclopedia of Tarot, Stuard R. Kaplan, said that such cards almost always bear the image of a skeleton, a reaper and the Roman numeral XIII.
Kaplan said tarot originated as a 15th-century Italian card game. He said the cards are now used in pursuits such as fortunetelling and meditation and are widely collected. They are available in most bookstores, he said. "It's very mainstream."
The death card "doesn't really mean death," Kaplan said. "More usually than not, it means transformation, a clearing away of the old to make way for the new, an alteration."
There was broad speculation yesterday about the meaning of the card found in Bowie and the message on it.
Retired FBI profilers and other crime experts said yesterday that thesniper probably feels surges of omnipotence because of his life-or-death control of his victims' fates.
One expert pointed out that Eric Harris, one of two teenagers who massacred a dozen fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, wrote "I am God" in German in a classmate's yearbook before the slayings.
The best-known example of a serial killer who communicated with authorities is David Berkowitz, the notorious "Son of Sam" gunman who killed six people and wounded seven in New York City in 1976 and 1977. Berkowitz sent notes to police and to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, then with the New York Daily News.
Fuming at reporters yesterday morning after the existence of the tarot card was disclosed, Moose said sarcastically: "I have not received any message that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or The Washington Post or any other media outlet to solve this case. . . . If they do, then let me know. We will go and do other police work, and we will turn this case over to the media. And you can solve it."
He added: "We are approaching interference, and interference is unacceptable. Disclosures in this category have tremendous potential to damage the investigation. We may not see the fallout, but it's a matter of, why take the chance?"
Later in the day, Moose softened his tone, thanking the media for its role in the case and saying of the leak about the tarot card: "We're going to adjust, and we have adjusted, some of our evidentiary processes."
In the District, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said detectives believe they have found "the logical spot" from which the sniper killed the sixth victim, Pascal Charlot, 72, last Thursday night.
About 80 yards from the well-lighted intersection of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road NW where Charlot was hit is a five-foot-high stone wall, which holds the sign for Northminster Presbyterian Church.
On Sunday, dogs trained to sniff out gunpowder residue were "alerted" to the wall, which is under a tree and away from streetlights -- making it relatively dark at the time of the 9:20 p.m. shooting. Authorities removed two stones from the 49-year-old wall for testing, but Ramsey said he did not think they found any certain traces of gunpowder.
Ramsey cautioned, however, that investigators were not certain about the sniper's position and that not everyone on the investigative team agrees with the theory.
Elsewhere, suspicion, fear and the advent of duck and dove hunting season kept residents and authorities on edge.
In Prince George's County, police raced to a report of a shooting at the Cadillac Motel near the Charles County line.
Officers quickly surmised that the shooting was not related to thesniper attacks. An argument apparently broke out among a group of people staying at the motel, and one man fired at an acquaintance with a shotgun, authorities said.
Ten minutes later, a 911 caller reported a man with a long black bag in the woods near Friendly High School in Fort Washington.
Police went to the site, secured the area and started searching the woods and the neighborhood. A car was pulled over and later let go. Police soon learned that surveyors were working in the area and carrying their equipment in long black bags.
In Manassas, police said they believe a gunshot that shattered the window of a truck was the accidental act of a duck or dove hunter.
School officials canceled or rescheduled outdoor events and trips to pumpkin patches, citing concerns about safety.
Soccer and baseball leagues also called off games. In Fairfax County, ballfields were closed to children but remained open for adults.
In the District, public schools instructed principals to again cancel all recess, field trips and other outdoor activities. After-school interscholastic sports also were canceled.
And for the third day, all outdoor activities during and after school in Fairfax were moved indoors when possible, and canceled otherwise. School officials did ease security measures yesterday by permitting students to attend field trips at the discretion of principals.
In Montgomery County, school was not in session because of a previously scheduled teacher training day.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said the day was being used to advise teachers on how best to handle the current crisis. "The teachers are getting . . . additional training on dealing with what's happening in our community and what's appropriate to say to what children at what age," Duncan said.
Staff writers Justin Blum, Christian Davenport, David A. Fahrenthold, Annie Gowen, Hamil R. Harris, Sari Horwitz, Serge F. Kovaleski, Fredrick Kunkle, Phuong Ly, Raymond McCaffrey, R.H. Melton, Josh White and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.