Aspen Hill Residents Hit Close to Home

Like many of my neighbors in the Aspen Hill section of Montgomery County, I awakened Tuesday morning to a phone call from a concerned family member and news of another shooting nearby.

But it wasn't until I looked out the window and saw the yellow police tape down the street that I realized how close to home this murder was.

My mother, who was already watching televised reports from another state, called to warn me about the traffic problems and to tell me to call her if I was going out at all.

For once, I listened to her.

Just the day before, my roommates and I had confidently believed our neighborhood would be safe because of increased police presence after the first sniper attacks.

Now, we feared just stepping outside our apartment.

Residents of the several apartment complexes, including mine, that surround the scene of the shooting woke up to the fear that the sniper responsible for nine deaths in the Washington, D.C., metro region had returned to the scene of his first crimes.

"I had this gut feeling" the sniper would come back to this neighborhood, said Marsha Levin, 49, who lives in the Grand Bel Manor condominiums on Grand Pre Road and Bel Pre Road.

"It's just way too close to home," Levin told me -- echoing my own shock this morning, as well as the fear we all experienced when the attacks began on Oct. 2 and 3.

Of those first sniper shootings, three were within two blocks of our neighborhood: the murder of 34-year-old Sarah Ramos at Leisure World Shopping Center, one block north of Bel Pre on Georgia Ave.; the murder of 54-year-old Prem Kumar Walekar at the Aspen Hill Mobil gas station, about two blocks southwest on Connecticut Ave.; and the shooting through a window at a Michael's craft store across Georgia, which did not injure anyone.

The murder of 35-year-old Conrad Johnson, a Ride On bus driver and father of two, just before 6 a.m. Tuesday occurred within the triangle formed by the intersections of these three roads, on Grand Pre, which runs between Connecticut and Bel Pre.

Five apartment and condominium complexes form a peaceful residential community around Northgate Park, where Johnson was killed by a shot in the chest.

Police have not yet linked this shooting to the sniper attacks, but similarities to those crimes had many of my neighbors speculating that the sniper may actually live here, or may have committed this crime without a getaway vehicle.

"I think he's on foot this time," said Levin.

Neighbor Philip King worried the shooter had escaped into the trees near his complex.

"What you think is safe isn't safe anymore," said King, a 55-year-old personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness on Rockville Pike. King, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1987, said it had always been very safe.

I moved to The Manor Apartments at the intersection of Bel Pre and Georgia less than two months ago.

Being college students, my roommates and I were looking for affordable housing in safe areas, trying to avoid cheaper apartments in high-crime locations.

We settled on this neighborhood because of its relative safety; now, we seem to be caught in the center of a baffling and terrifying shooting rampage.

A few reporters and camera crews were patrolling Grand Pre when I walked out to meet the residents who gathered outside Tuesday morning, looking worried, frightened and confused.

"Look at me. What you see?" 33-year-old Sonia Martins asked me. "I'm scared, everyone's scared here."

Martins, a 33-year-old house cleaner who lives in the Northgate apartment complex right next to the crime scene, could not get to work early Tuesday because of the roadblocks set up at either end of Grand Pre.

Her neighbor, Maria Reies, 42, said she had begun to feel safe because the shooter had seemed to move away from this area.

"Usually when people do that, they don't come in the same place again," she said.

Martins and Reies stood in the morning chill with some of their neighbors, watching police cars at the north end of Grand Pre and the officers who turned drivers around.

"Police asked me about everything, but I don't know exactly what happened because I was sleeping," Martins said, explaining that officers and agents had gone through her complex asking residents if they had heard or seen anything.

"But it's great, it's good," she added. "If I can help the police, I [will] help the police."

Martins and Levin both told me they would not go to work Tuesday.

King is a marathon runner who does a 10-mile loop every morning that would have taken him right past the crime scene at the time of the shooting had he not awakened late. He said he would now run only after sunrise.

A "spiritual person" who believes that every person had a time to die,

King said Tuesday "put things in a different perspective ... It wasn't my time to go down there."

Living in this neighborhood the past three weeks already had us looking over our shoulders every time we stepped out. My roommates and I keep constant tabs on each other, and this latest shooting will only further sharpen our fears.

But like everyone else, we have to keep trying to balance the fear with the need to go about our lives as normally as possible. And like everyone else, we can only hope and pray that this killer is caught before he can terrorize us again.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.