Sniper’s motive unimaginable

A cop’s job is tough under any circumstances. However, when a madman murdering strangers is on the loose, the job of every officer in the target area seems virtually impossible.

Since Oct. 2, when the first shot from the sniper’s high-powered rifle found its mark, police have been plagued by sightings of varying versions of a light-colored van with a silver rack on its roof and a faulty taillight. Many of the shootings occurred near major highway interchanges, and witnesses suggest the perpetrators used the van to get on the highway quickly.

Thousands of tips from the public have both helped and hurt efforts to find the killer. Since that first victim fell dead from a single .223 caliber cartridge, 10 others have been shot. All but two have died. The lack of some common theme among the killings makes the shootings in the areas of Washington, Prince George’s County in Maryland and several counties in Virginia, so inexplicable. Thus far, it has been nearly impossible to categorize the sniper’s movements or measure his instincts, putting nearly anyone in the region at risk.

Charles Moose, the thoughtful and troubled Montgomery County, Md., police chief who leads the task force, hinted that the killer seems to enjoy taunting the police, as in this inscription on a Tarot card that may be from the sniper: “I am God.”

The biggest hope among authorities is that the killer will leave something behind that will lead to his doorstep. Meanwhile, there is virtually an army of officers out there, all determined to rope in the individual who has struck fear into the lives of millions. People accustomed to casually gassing up their cars, shopping the malls, attending school or simply walking down the street are now gripped by terror.

Despite admirable support from local, state and federal officers, including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and state police, in this instance the policeman’s job remains terribly frustrating.

“How do you even begin to think like this mad individual?” posed a uniformed officer at a TV news update.

Since Friday, the sniper seemed to have changed his pace. Eighty-four hours went by without any new developments. Suddenly, at 9:15 p.m. on Monday, it happened again. The killer moved into Falls Church, Va., and pointed his weapon at 47-year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin of Arlington, Va., in a Home Depot parking lot. There was instant panic. People began screaming, yelling and running.

Random shootings have disrupted the lives of 11 families from Philadelphia to Northern Virginia. Police still do not have a clue concerning the shooter’s motive. But the policeman’s difficult job continues. Men and women in and out of uniform doggedly track the killer. They try to make something out of every lead offered by a frustrated and outraged public. Every tip is checked and double-checked in the hope that one will be golden.

The announced reward stands at $500,000. But for many of those looking for him, I’ll bet, the motive isn’t the money it’s winning the game, capturing this killer without conscience, this man who seems to go about the business of murder like a postman delivering the mail.

And that’s where we stand at the moment I write: a terrified region, a tireless manhunt, a gleeful, soulless murderer. The authorities face the massive task of turning nothing into something, finding the key to a door unknown. That’s the quest that, at this very moment, drives fleets of lookout cars to dispatch to all points, men and women to stare into thousands of computer screens, forensics experts to comb pavement and grass alike. I hope they get the guy. I don’t want to see another headline or hear another news bulletin about him until they do.

Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.