CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginians boast about a crime rate that's among the nation's lowest. But in the past month, the state capital has been rocked by several high-profile crimes, including the apparently random sniper (search) shooting deaths of three people in five days.
Still, police and residents believe the recent spate of crimes is an anomaly.
"It's kind of a coincidence that we had them all put together," Charleston Police Chief Jerry Pauley said Monday. "I don't see it as a sign that [the crime wave] is going to stick around."
Since the first of July, in addition to the three shooting deaths, an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in a suburban retail store and a disgruntled employee disrupted a Kanawha County School Board meeting with gasoline and gunfire, wounding one.
Now authorities are wondering if they're investigating a copycat of last year's sniper attacks in and around Washington, D.C.
"We have the agents that worked that particular case," Kanawha County Sheriff Dave Tucker said Monday. "They're on board with us and giving us some good advice which we're following."
During a news conference, Tucker kept backing away from definitively declaring the shootings the work of one person, saying, "We cannot excuse anything. ... We don't want to create tunnel vision, because you get into that stage, it's hard to get an investigator out of it."
No arrests have been made, nor is anyone in custody, but police have suspects, who Tucker said are being questioned "as we speak."
They also are looking for a dark color or maroon full-size pickup, possibly a Ford F-150 (search). The driver has been described only as a large white male.
Tucker cautioned residents to be vigilant and take precautions when shopping or getting gasoline late at night.
"Know your surroundings," he advised, "but don't stop what you're doing."
Tucker also asked the shooter to contact his department.
"If there is a problem, let's talk about it," Tucker said. "We have to reach out and touch this individual."
The sheriff's department has received hundreds of tips and calls but Tucker declined to discuss specific information. Chief Deputy Phil Morris has given out his private office number, 304-357-0296, and has established an e-mail address for electronic tips.
"We treat them all the same," Pauley said. "Every tip could lead to solving the case."
One of the recent shootings occurred in Charleston (search), bringing the city's total homicides this year to 10, matching all of 2002. And, on the same day that the other two shootings occurred outside the city, Charleston police were investigating an unrelated double murder.
"We might have something like this once every 15 years," Willis Hensley of Seth said. "I don't believe in this serial killer stuff.
"I think everything goes in cycles. You might have a crime spurt, then have years before this happens again," Hensley said.
In October, the FBI reported that the number of crimes in West Virginia dropped between 2000 and 2001, from 47,067 to 46,120.
On Monday, two victims from last week's sniper attacks were buried in private ceremonies.
Jeanie Patton, 31, and Okey Meadows Jr., 26, both of Campbells Creek, were killed 90 minutes and 10 miles apart Thursday night outside rural convenience stores, less than 20 miles from Charleston.
Their deaths came four days after Gary Carrier Jr., 44, of South Charleston, was fatally shot while talking on a pay telephone outside a Charleston Go-Mart.
All three shootings were at night from distances of 30 yards to 60 yards. Each victim was shot in the neck or head by a small caliber rifle. Police have not released the caliber of the weapon, or if the shots were fired from the same weapon.
A task force of local, state and federal authorities set up headquarters over the weekend at the West Virginia National Guard Armory.
A group of sheriff's deputies rode their bicycles through Campbells Creek Monday to alleviate the fears of the "cautious and concerned" community, Tucker said.
Meanwhile, residents went about their business Monday, trying to regain a sense of normalcy, and Tucker said he didn't think convenience stores should close at midnight.
Clendenin resident Bud Roe said he always knew West Virginia was not immune to crime.
"It's like everywhere else," Roe said. "You never know what goes through the mind of someone like that."