ROCKVILLE, Md. – In the stable of utility vehicles, the white cargo van is the old gray mare: homely, helpful, reliable.
Not until the sniper struck. Now the ubiquitous vehicles are being eyed warily by Washington-area residents and scrutinized by police because some witnesses reported seeing white vans leaving several of the shooting scenes.
They even appear on wanted posters, composite images created by the FBI of unmarked, unremarkable Chevrolet Astro and Ford Econoline vans. The multiagency investigative task force has distributed the pictures along with one of an equally ordinary white box truck -- another vehicle type witnesses saw near some of the shootings that have killed nine people since Oct. 2.
There are thousands of such vehicles out there -- Ford says it has sold 51,300 Econolines in the Washington-Maryland-Virginia region since 1992 -- and police have searched scores of them.
Dorwick Smith, who drives a Chevy Astro as maintenance man for a chain of day care centers, said he was stopped Tuesday afternoon by a fleet of police cars that seemed to materialize around his van in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 70 east of Frederick.
"There were lights on, so I knew what it was about," Smith said. "By the time I found a place to pull off, there were, like, 10 police cars behind me and two police cars ahead of me."
He said they searched the van, which bears a small, red, company logo, for nearly 30 minutes. Then they gave him a form documenting the stop and let him go.
Smith's van has a ladder rack, like the Astro in the FBI image. So does the Econoline that laborer Lazaro Portillo drives throughout the Washington region for Miller Home Services. Portillo, sipping coffee and listening to a taped sermon in Spanish while traveling to a job in Darnestown, said he hasn't been stopped -- but he's ready for it.
"We cooperate with the law. We have to get this guy no matter what," he said.
Co-worker Sal Rosales said police followed his white Econoline for several blocks but didn't stop him.
Citizens have been spooked by the Miller Home Services vans, although all are clearly marked with the company's logo, President Mike Wilson said.
"We had one the other day, he pulled up at a gas station and all the other people at gas pumps starting ducking for cover," Wilson said. Four sniper victims were killed at gas stations.
"I think it's kind of weird right now that the No. 1 most wanted enemy is a white van," Wilson said. "People are used to looking at white vans as something we can rely on. They're a symbol of service and America and everything to help you, not to harm you."
He said his company chose white partly because vehicle manufacturers and dealers price them attractively, often bundled with ladder racks and other handyman modifications. The color makes a good canvas for lettering and is highly visible, which can cut insurance costs, Wilson said.
White is the color of 90 percent of cargo vans sold by Darcars Ford of Lanham, sales director Irvin Silverman said. He said the shootings haven't caused any drop in demand for white cargo vans at the dealership, which sells about 200 a year. Darcars also sells about 25 white box trucks a year.
Curtis Chevrolet in northwest Washington hasn't noticed a drop in demand for white vans, either.
"We just delivered a white van yesterday to a customer who's been waiting for it for a couple weeks," Larry Friedman, general sales manager, said Friday. "I guess if you're in business and you need it, you need it."