Desperately Trailing the Sniper

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DRAGNET: Police use flashlights to scour a Virginia gas station after the seventh murder

The deadly sniper saga continues in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and well into Virginia, leaving investigators stymied. Death returned to Maryland early Tuesday morning when a bus driver was shot and killed in Montgomery County; Wednesday afternoon, ballistic tests confirmed a link with previous shootings. Public anxiety, already on the rise, was further piqued by the words on a note found near Saturday's shooting in Richmond, and released by police Tuesday evening: "Your children," the ominous message read, "are not safe anywhere at any time."

Over the buzz of misinformation, anxiety and outright lies, the army of investigators working the sniper case still managed to invent new ways to pursue the clues left intact last week. It was an exercise in data management and stamina, with extra points for creativity.

On the forensics side, the FBI is examining the ink written on a tarot card found at one of the 12 shooting sites, hoping to link it to a specific kind of pen, law-enforcement sources told Time. Agents dismissed as unrelated a shell casing found in a white box truck at a car-rental agency near Dulles Airport in Virginia. And the FBI is reviewing credit-card receipts from filling stations near the shooting sites, in case the killer staked out his crime scenes and gassed up while he was at it. The latest suspected shooting site was in Ashland, Va., about 80 miles south of Washington, where a rifle shot Saturday night wounded a traveler in the parking lot of a steakhouse.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms inspectors are visiting Virginia's 2,200-plus gun dealers and pawnbrokers, searching records for sales of rifles that fire the .223-cal. bullets used to kill nine people and wound two others.

This diligence is interrupted by the occasional lunatic or false positive. Several people have called claiming to be the sniper, and police have traced each one, only to find a jokester at the other end. And a Virginia man who had offered the best witness description yet has been charged with giving false information. More than 70,000 calls have poured into the tip line, generating 14,487 leads. But most callers leave general suggestions or rants. Police have tracked down men who match the killer's profile, but they have turned out to have alibis. One was a man known for belligerence and a fondness for firearms who was found to be sick and under constant care. Several other men remain under surveillance, but police still don't believe they have the shooter.

Calling in the military to operate fancy surveillance technology may prove frustrating. Satellites are particularly unhelpful, experts say. They cannot monitor the entire D.C. region at once in any detail. The RC-7 surveillance plane brings fewer handicaps. It can loiter over D.C., aim its camera at a shooting scene after a 911 call and pick out a white van. But it would miss vehicles obscured by trees or buildings.

The lack of progress inflated theories of a terrorist connection. Al-Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo and Belgium have been questioned, spurring a vague warning for U.S. Senators to watch their backs on the golf course. Says a counterterrorism official: "Al-Qaeda videotapes have shown them training in sniper tactics. Is it possible? Absolutely." Still, insists another intelligence official, "there's no reason to believe that it is al-Qaeda at this point."

So the slow-motion wait continued for the people who live within the sniper's range. Politicians were openly worried about how to secure polling places for upcoming elections. And high school football teams played at secret locations released only on a need-to-know basis.

Reported by Melissa August, Eric Roston, Elaine Shannon, Mark Thompson, Douglas Waller and Michael Weisskopf/ Washington