Published October 15, 2002
They look through a cylinder of glass and metal at a distant target, knowing they are about to snuff out a life. They don't brag about their kills over beer, nor do they overly brood about them. They take life only to save other lives.
To them, the word "sniper" is a badge of honor and a hallmark of skill. And to them, whoever has been terrorizing the Washington area for the last two weeks is not worthy of the name.
"I definitely know they're not snipers, because snipers don't take innocent life," said Neil Morris, who spent nearly two decades as a Marine sniper and has trained countless military and police sharpshooters from around the world. "It's the most sane, hardworking, dedicated group of people you'd ever meet in your life. And without us, there'd be a whole lot more harm in this world than there already is."
Police are looking for any leads that might point to the person or people responsible for a string of 10 shootings, eight of them fatal, in Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia since Oct. 2. Authorities were investigating whether the fatal shooting of a woman in Fairfax, Va., on Monday night was related to the sniping spree.
The FBI has reportedly asked the Defense Department to search their records from the sniper school at Fort Bragg, N.C., for rejected applicants or former students with psychological problems.
Eric Haney, who trained as a sniper at Fort Bragg and was a founding member of the Army's ultrasecret Delta Force, believes the shootings are the work of a pair of young men, working in tandem as military snipers are trained to do -- one as the lookout, the other the shooter. But he thinks the closest they got to a real elite sharpshooter was at a Special Operations convention.
"They're utter losers, and they know they're losers," said Haney, who wrote a book, "Inside Delta Force."
Over the weekend, Haney visited nine of the 10 shooting scenes. He imagines a shooter and a spotter/driver, perhaps swapping roles after each shot. In his mind, the driver surveys the scene, tells the shooter when it is safe to fire, then pulls away calmly, unburdened by the rush of adrenaline the shooter must be experiencing.
They're clever, he said, but not pros. The longest shot to date was 100 yards, and most of the victims were standing still or walking in a straight line toward or away from the shooter.
"It's the kind of thing that if you've never shot a rifle before in your life, you and I could spend 90 minutes together and you can do this," said Haney, a 20-year combat veteran.
Morris said the fact that the killer left behind a shell casing and a fortune-telling card is a clear sign that this is no professional.
"Anything the sniper does or fails to do that give his position away to the threat, snipers don't do that," said Morris, former head of the Marine Corps sniper school at Quantico, Va. "They don't leave brass laying around, and they damn sure don't leave tarot cards."
Chuck Mawhinney agrees.
During nearly two years as a Marine sniper in Vietnam, Mawhinney had 103 confirmed kills and another 216 probables. No other Marine sniper in Vietnam had more confirmed kills of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army regulars.
The Washington killer has been using a .223 caliber projectile, which some have called a standard sniper bullet. But Mawhinney, who lives in Baker City, Ore., said a professional sniper would use a heavier load, at least a .30 caliber.
There are certain guns and scopes that manufacturers will sell only to credentialed military or law enforcement shooters, Morris said.
Haney can't imagine what the Washington killer must be feeling, because he can't imagine doing what the killer is doing. In his book, Haney described feeling "soiled and guilty" after making a 350-yard head shot during a 1983 mission to support Marines in Beirut.
"For these bastards ... it is a game," he said. "There's something so rotten in their psyche and the foundation in their humanity which is so lacking that it's a fun game."