Rockville, Md. In a tantalizing turn in the hunt for the Washington-area sniper, investigators said Monday the killer apparently tried to contact them in a phone call that was too "unclear" to be understood. They pleaded with the person to call back.
The announcement came hours after Virginia authorities surrounded a white van parked at a pay phone in Richmond, Va., and seized two men. Police later said the men had nothing to do with the case and would be deported for immigration violations.
The most intriguing development came from Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, who is in charge of the investigation.
Moose disclosed for the first time that a call had been received from someone of high interest to investigators but the call was somehow muddled.
"The person you called could not hear everything you said. The audio was unclear, and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand," Moose said.
He did not disclose who received the call, when or where it was made or other details.
But investigators believe the call may have come from the sniper and that the caller was the same person who left a note and phone number Saturday night at the scene of the latest shooting, a law enforcement source told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
For the second consecutive day, Moose seemed intent on establishing a dialogue with the killer. On Sunday, he publicly pleaded with the note writer to call authorities.
Early Monday, he said: "The message that needs to be delivered is that we are going to respond to a message that we have received. We are preparing our response at this time."
Moose said he could not discuss the message further.
The flurry of activity raised hope there had been a break in the search for the sniper who has killed nine people and critically wounded three others in Virginia, Maryland and Washington since Oct. 2.
The latest attack came Saturday night in a steakhouse parking lot in Ashland, just north of Richmond. The victim, a 37-year-old man, was felled by a single shot to the stomach.
He remained in critical but stable condition Monday at a Richmond hospital after having his spleen and parts of his pancreas and stomach removed. Surgeons removed the bullet from the victim, and authorities said Monday that ballistics tests had linked the slug to the sniper.
Surgeon Rao Ivatury said the man was conscious and responding to his wife's voice but would need additional surgery in the next few days.
"He still has a long way to go," Ivatury said.
Through the hospital, the man's wife issued a statement saying the care and prayers she and her husband have received "have been a bright ray of hope and comfort."
"Please pray also for the attacker and that no one else is hurt," she said.
Schools in Richmond and nearby counties were closed Monday, idling 141,000 students. Authorities said they would keep schools closed today.
Ed Barber, a physical education teacher at Crenshaw Elementary, said closing was the right choice.
"I have five daughters and four of them are with me today, watching TV, talking a lot about human nature and what it means to go through this," he said. "For the kids, it's consumed the day."
In other developments Monday:
France alerted Interpol about a French army deserter who is known as a marksman and is missing in North America. A Defense Ministry spokesman said there was speculation of a link to the sniper.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that police have found more than one tarot card during the investigation. A tarot death card was reported found Oct. 7 outside a Bowie, Md., middle school where the sniper wounded a 13-year-old boy. It had the words "Dear Policeman, I am God" written on it.
Bail was denied for Matthew Dowdy, who is accused of lying to police about a van description at the scene of last week's shooting in Falls Church.
Authorities said tests had failed to link a shell casing found in a rental truck to the attacks. The shell turned up Friday at a rental agency near Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. Authorities said it was .223-caliber round, the same kind used by the sniper.