Five Things We Know About the D.C.-Area Sniper

  • Share
  • Read Later

Montgomery County police search for evidence near the Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Md.

If you have no idea what's behind the shootings in suburban Washington, D.C., you're hardly alone. FBI, CIA and local police forces are also puzzled — and residents are terrified. While we're largely in the dark about the shooter's cause, motive or methods, a few theories have emerged. What do we know so far about the sniper?

Is this an act of terrorism?

Yes — just not the type we've gotten used to thinking about lately. On the one hand, this killer is terrorizing a community and a nation, and so he is, by definition a terrorist, but on the other hand these shootings probably don't originate with al-Qaeda. Foreign terrorists, as we've come to understand them in the post-9/11 world, are not prone to calling attention to themselves. They prefer to get in, act, and get out as silently as possible. This sniper is taunting the police, surfacing again and again to perform identical crimes. This kind of violence is more in line with domestic terrorism, a la Eric Rudolph, the man suspected of bombing several abortion clinics in the South — and a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombing.

Why are police not having any luck finding the shooter(s)?

Unfortunately, the killer's not providing investigators with much information. Even clues that seem promising haven't really panned out: while ballistic experts have been able to link the shootings by analyzing the bullets and casings they've recovered, for example, the high velocity rounds found in some of the victims can be used in many different kinds of guns, including hunting rifles and military weapons. Another bit of evidence surfaced late Tuesday: a tarot card with the words, "Dear Policeman: I am God" scrawled across it. Did it actually come from the sniper or from a prankster? That's one more mystery for investigators to ponder. A side note on the tarot card: those familiar with tarot card meanings say that whoever left the card at the crime scene probably doesn't know much about tarot or how to read cards. The death card doesn't actually signal or predict death; it's a sign of transition or change — a "death," as it were, of a previous habit or way of life.

Police say that while they're working with extremely paltry evidence, they have gotten about 1,250 "credible" leads from more than 6,000 phone calls — which means there's probably someone out there with valuable information. Now the key is finding that person and putting the pieces together before the next murder. Can they do it? The good news is there are hundreds of extremely qualified people working this case. The bad news is that thousands of violent crimes go unsolved each year.

What is "geographic profiling?"

We've been hearing a lot about this forensic technique, in part because it's one of the only ways officials have to track the sniper. Geographic profiling is generally used when investigating serial crimes — rape, murder, robbery — and depends on mapping the location of each crime in order to determine the most likely point of origin for the suspect. In other words, if you pinpoint the place each shooting occurred, you can deduce a "center" for the criminal's activity, and that often ends up being the perpetrator's home.

Are these shootings totally random?

They certainly appear to be — but they're probably not. Most likely, there is some pattern at work here, just one that investigators haven't been able to pinpoint yet. The shooting Monday outside a Maryland middle school, for example, was a departure from the previous shootings, in terms of both location and victim type. It could have been just another piece in a very complex puzzle, or it might have been the violent crime equivalent of a Bronx cheer in the direction of police — ("You think you know what I'm going to do next? Think again."). Either way, the killer seems to be acting in a very deliberate, controlled manner, and is clever enough not to have been caught yet — two factors that belie a slipshod, random methodology.

When will the killings stop?

Either when the police find the killer(s) or when the shooter loses interest — and that, sadly, may not be for quite a while. According to former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt, the killer's pattern shows every indication that he is toying with the police, using the media for information, challenging assumptions we make about him, and generally taking great pleasure in outsmarting all of us. The shooter knows he's got our attention, Van Zandt speculates, — he gets all the confirmation he needs whenever he turns on the television — and hints like the carefully placed tarot card mean he's playing to the spotlight. We don't know anything for sure about the killer's state of mind, but chances are he's enjoying himself enormously.