Published October 20, 2002
ASHLAND, Va. – The task force investigating the Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks headed to Ashland, Va., Saturday, where a man was shot in the parking lot of a Ponderosa restaurant.
Authorities said the victim, 37, and his wife were walking to a car behind the restaurant at around 8 p.m. when he was shot in the abdomen.
Ashland Police Chief Frederic Pleasants said after dining at the restaurant for about an hour, the man's wife heard a sound, but didn't recognize it as a gunshot, then saw her husband take about three steps before collapsing.
The man came out of surgery shortly after midnight after about three hours of surgery and was in critical condition, said Pam Lepley, spokeswoman for MCV Hospital in Richmond. She said his injuries were still life threatening and there was no prognosis for recovery. He may require additional surgery.
Police said the man had stopped in the area to fill his car with gas and get something to eat, but would not say where he is from.
Pleasants said that because the bullet remains in the victim, police have not given any ballistic evidence to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and whether they will depends on the doctors' assessment of the man's condition.
Pleasants also said some witnesses said they heard the shot coming from a wooded area bordering the parking lot.
Montgomery County, Md., police Capt. Nancy Demme said the sniper task force headed to the scene to determine whether there is any connection to the string of sniper shootings. Ashland is about 90 miles south of Washington, D.C. and about 35 miles south of Fredericksburg, where two shootings earlier this month were connected to spree.
Roadblocks were set up along Interstate 95 in Maryland and Virginia, according to police. Roads have since been reopened, and state police were monitoring traffic at exits. Officials were searching for a white 2000 Chevrolet van with Maryland plates and a ladder rack.
If the shooting turns out to part of the sniping spree, it would be the first time the sniper has struck on a weekend. The attack also would follow the longest break in between shootings as the lull in the spree stretched into a fifth day.
Lt. Doug Goodman, spokesman for the Hanover County sheriff's office, said there is no physical evidence yet connecting the attack to the other sniper shootings.
"We are not taking any chances. We are deploying our resources as if it's connected. Better safe than sorry," Goodman said.
Goodman added that police were still interviewing witnesses. He said several vehicles were stopped immediately after the shooting, but no one was in custody.
Ashland, a town of about 6,000 residents, is a favorite stop for travelers along Interstate 95. It is just off the highway and offers a variety of restaurants and gas stations. It is just north of Interstate 295, a bypass of Richmond and Petersburg.
There have been 11 confirmed sniper shootings -- nine of them fatal -- since Oct. 2.
Meanwhile, investigators continue to examinine a shell casing found in a white box truck to see if it matches casings tied to the shootings.
Ballistic tests are being performed on the casing and the results will be released Monday at the earliest, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said Saturday.
The Washington Post, quoting law enforcement sources, reported, however, that the cartridge was for a 7.62mm bullet, about equivalent to .30 caliber and larger than the .223 caliber bullets implicated in the earlier shootings. The bullets cannot be fired from the same weapon because they require different sized chambers and barrels.
Moose refused to discuss any preliminary findings in the investigation about the truck reported Friday evening by workers at a car rental agency near Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Moose also declined to discuss other details, including who rented the truck.
"We want to just give our people time to do their work, and that work hasn't been done," he said.
On Friday, the witness who earlier in the week gave investigators false information was charged by Virginia authorities was charged with making a false statement concerning Monday's killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin at a Fairfax County Home Depot store.
Authorities said Matthew Dowdy, 37, of Falls Church, Va., falsely described an olive-skinned man and a cream-colored Chevrolet Astro van with a burned-out taillight at the scene of one killing.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail. Dowdy was ordered held without bail pending a hearing Monday.
Northeastern University criminologist James Fox said false witnesses aren't routinely prosecuted. But authorities likely were aggressive with Dowdy because of the damage he caused to their case, he said.
"They are probably trying to make an example of him, almost to punish him for the extent of the frustration that they have," Fox said.
However, Fox said prosecuting Dowdy shouldn't deter other witnesses for coming forward. "If this guy outright lied and did deceive on purpose, then it should not have a chilling effect on other witnesses," he said.
Also on Friday, investigators revisited crime scenes.
Fairfax County officers combed an area across the highway from the Home Depot. Previously, reporters and bystanders had been allowed to tramp all over that area.
"That's not the first time the surrounding area had been checked," said Fairfax County Police Officer Julie Hersey said. "It wasn't a result of us finding that the witness was not credible."
Still, Moose, who is leading the multi-jurisdictional investigation, said crime scene perimeters need to be expanded.
"We needed to make it larger," he said of the Falls Church scene. "We are learning as we go."
Until now, the killer has been seen as a "weekday warrior," Fox said. If the shooting currently being investigated in Ashland, Va., turns out to be linked to the previous shootings, it might be to prove again that the sniper cannot be classified, categorized or profiled.
"It could be that he's just planning his next move," Fox said before the Ashland shooting was reported. "Maybe he feels he needs to do some extra homework."
U.S. investigators are questioning terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba about whether they had any information about the sniper attacks, a law enforcement official confirmed Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official characterized the interviews as an effort to cover all possible investigative avenues, adding that officials do not necessarily believe Al Qaeda might be responsible for or even knowledgeable about the shootings.
Meanwhile, Moose said the investigation into whether a Sept. 14 shooting at a Silver Spring beer and wine store is connected is continuing.
More than 1,000 federal, state and local law enforcements agents are working on the case, according to Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.
Two shooting victims were scheduled to be buried Saturday.
Dean H. Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, who was killed Oct. 9 at a Prince William County gas station, will be laid to rest in Pottstown, Pa. Pascal Charlot, 72, gunned down Oct. 3 while standing on a Washington street corner, will be buried in Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.