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Fear, Caution Grip D.C. Area

Residents across the Washington, D.C., area say they are scared and taking as many precautions as possible in response to the spate of unsolved shootings that has spread to at least four different jurisdictions.

"Things were different after 9/11, but now people must be even more paranoid," said Davis Schlesinger, a real estate agent in Kensington, Md., who works around the corner from the gas station where Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring, was shot and killed last week.

"I've got three small children under the age of six," said Schlesinger. "You can't watch them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don't even sleep well since this whole thing started --it's very upsetting."

Authorities on Monday linked the shooting of a 13-year-old boy outside his school in Prince George's County to the six fatal shootings in neighboring Montgomery County and the District of Columbia last week. But even before the official connection was made, fears were already heightened across the region.

Eric Bickel, a sports talk radio host on WJFK-FM in Fairfax, Va., said the shootings have become the major topic of conversation.

"Let's put it this way, this has just knocked the Redskins off the top of the show," Bickel said of the "Sports Junkies" Monday broadcast. "The way we do it here is when we strike a nerve, the phones light up. And when we started taking about this on the show, the phones lit up."

Bickel said the school shooting cranked tension up at least another notch. "People are going to go nuts," he said. "We can handle a wild, crazed serial killer, but are we going to be able to handle a terrorist attacking our kids playing basketball, or is it just a sociopath? We just don't know."

Schools across the area remained open on Monday, with education officials insisting students were safer in the classroom than they were in public. But every one was in some version of a lockdown, with recess, outdoor lunch and after-school programs all canceled.

Local merchants and workers were taking their own precautions. News reports that the victims so far fit no visible profile, and that they were shot outside, in public from yards away with a high-powered weapon, have many looking over their shoulders.

"I ran out to the bank this morning, and as I was getting out of the car, I looked around, I did not want to hang out outside for very long," said Chris Pashby, a Kensington, Md., resident. "When you think about it, when there is pure randomness, you can't do a lot to improve your chances."

Frida Ghannam, who works for a Hair Cuttery in Prince George's County, said her customers were nervous. "I think the whole world is on edge already because of the war," she said. "There's just no stability anymore -- people feel unsafe."

Ava Navarro, an employee at Champs Sports in Montgomery County, said that taking a bus, two trains and walking six blocks to her home in Washington from the subway station each day has been a trying affair since the shootings began. She also has two school-age children to worry about.

"I have to wait for the shuttle to get to the subway station and I'm thinking, am I going to be the next victim? It's really scary."

One high-ranking police official in Montgomery County urged area residents to keep calm.

"There's not much you can do," said the source, who asked not to be named. "We can't tell people to stay indoors. That would shut down the region."

He pointed out that the suburban Washington D.C. area is heavily populated. "Your chances of getting in a car accident are much more than your chances of getting hit by a sniper."

Salman Barkat, who works at the Radio Shack in Springfield, Va., agreed, and said Monday that people around him weren't visibly alarmed by the recent events. "People are talking about it. They are aware of it, but people are holding up pretty strong around here -- especially since Sept. 11," he said.

Others found it harder to remain calm.

A woman who had just moved to the Kensington area with her husband said she was across the street from the Shell station when Lewis-Rivera was shot.

"Certainly the day of the shooting, after I got home, I was terrified -- I was literally afraid to stand near a window," said the woman, who would only give her name as Jennifer. And while the initial shock has worn off, she said, the open-ended nature of the situation has left her disconcerted.

"When I'm out running errands with my husband, I don't like sitting in one place, I will go in with him," she said. "I don't think I'm scared, I'm just using a little more caution."

Mathew Guenther, manager of the Suncoast Motion Picture Co. in the White Flint Mall, which is located near the Montgomery County shooting sites, said his business has dropped noticeably since Thursday.

And while employees seem to be taking things in stride, he has noted an extra level of caution, along with contempt for the person or persons responsible.

"I think whomever is doing it, they are possibly one of the most despicable human beings on this earth," said Guenther.