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D.C. Area Breathes Big Sigh of Relief

Wearied by three weeks of fear and frustration, Washington, D.C., and its suburbs awoke Thursday to a new emotion: hope.

The arrests of two men sought for questioning in the serial sniper case had commuters smiling, parents feeling cautious relief, and children eager to play outside again.

"I'm not ready to completely believe this is it, but I sure as hell hope it is," said Kathy Zelaya, whose home in Falls Church, Va., is less than a mile from the Home Depot where a woman was killed.

Zelaya's 6-year-old daughter had asked whether there would be any Halloween this year. On Thursday morning, the 40-year-old mother was looking forward to taking her two children trick-or-treating, and weighing when it would be safe to return to the park where they played before the shootings began on Oct. 2.

It has been a trying time.

Dragnets trapped motorists on the highways for hours, while the sniper slipped away. Schools locked students indoors and canceled football games, and the sniper answered with a mocking message that children aren't safe anywhere.

With 10 dead, some residents had begun to grouse about hundreds of police being unable to catch a killer or two.

"They've got the FBI, everyone out there, and they don't even have a clue. It's amazing," airline worker Alfredo Mantica, 43, said, in advance of the news of Thursday.

Even the many citizens who praised police for doing their best had seemed to take little comfort from the enormous investigation, with more than 1,300 federal agents helping police from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Leander Mouzon, 44, of Baltimore recommended praying for the law officers.

"They're not getting any closer to him. But this is bigger than them," Mouzon said. "They're dealing with the devil. This is in God's hands."

Harvard University psychiatry professor Alvin F. Poussaint said the anxiety was aggravated by "a feeling that the people who are supposed to help you — the police, and for children, their parents — perhaps cannot help."

So residents looked for solace in countless inconveniences that have become acts of everyday adaptation — switching their shopping to a more-distant mall, walking their children into school buildings, taking a serpentine route through the grocery store parking lot.

Tony Thomas, 48, who lives near Washington in Fort Washington, Md., had begun to fill up his wife's car in the city, so she wouldn't have to visit suburban gas stations similar to some of the shooting scenes. As an extra precaution, he said, "You find yourself standing behind the gas pumps."

Elizabeth White took the long way as she drove her 18-month-old twins from Eldersburg, Md., to a Washington doctor's appointment, because the killer had struck close to her usual route.

"I'm a little nervous," said White, 39. "I don't want my kids to not have a mom."

For most people, the new rituals weren't enough to ward off fear, said Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor and a leader in the study of how people perceive risk.

For any individual in the Washington area, the risk of becoming the sniper's next victim was minuscule. But people disproportionately feared things that are "dreadful to contemplate," Slovic said.

"The whole idea of someone out there with a rifle randomly picking off people with no reason other than to kill is horrific," he said. "We're not going to adapt to this."

Expectations had been adjusted, however.

Initial hopes for a quick capture had faded into musings about how long teachers should try to keep stir-crazy children in check without recess.

What should trick-or-treaters do if the sniper is still loose on Halloween? Would the National Guard be needed to protect polling places on Election Day? What about Christmas shopping?

When would it end?

Ileana Esparraguera, a Gaithersburg doctor, said she has watched her niece and nephew grow increasingly stressed since their schools went to "code blue" three weeks ago, banning outdoor recess and sports.

"They're incarcerated in their own back yard," she said.

For Esparraguera, the stress came Tuesday morning, when police dragnets kept her frozen in traffic for three hours.

"Certainly the sniper wouldn't stay in line with all us good people and wait to be searched," she said. "It seemed sort of futile."

Then came Thursday, and hopes were lifted.