Virginia Interstate Gunfire Reminds Motorists of 2002 Sniper Attacks

Gunfire that struck several vehicles and injured two people along a stretch of mountain highway had motorists and police on edge Thursday in a region where memories of the deadly Beltway snipers still haven't faded.

Authorities were seeking at least two people suspected of firing shots the night before that hit two cars, a van, a tractor-trailer, another vehicle police didn't describe and an unoccupied dump truck on Interstate 64 just west of Charlottesville. Two people were injured, but not seriously.

Col. Steven Flaherty, the state police superintendent, would not characterize the shootings as the work of snipers, calling it "random firing."

And there were other differences from the sniper spree of nearly six years ago, including the fact that those attacks targeted people who were standing outside their cars.

Nevertheless, Flaherty conceded the 2002 attacks, in which 10 people were killed and three wounded in Maryland, the District of Columbia and northern Virginia, were on investigators' minds as they sought those behind Thursday's spree.

"It reminded us of a lot of emergencies we've had," said Flaherty, whose agency also dealt with last April's Virginia Tech shootings.

Residents, too, were mindful of the crimes of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who were convicted in the 2002 shootings. Christy Lucado, who drives through the area on the way to work, said she immediately thought about the sniper shootings Thursday morning when a friend called and told her the news.

"I thought, well, Lord, my car's out in the driveway, my keys are in it and I'm up on the mountain by myself," said Lucado, who waits tables at Duner's restaurant in Ivy, near the exit where one of the latest shootings happened.

"We're talking the mountains up here, and the first thing you usually think of is drunk rednecks. But the fact they moved from one exit to another makes me think it wasn't just someone there shooting off their gun."

Police took a call from a driver whose vehicle was hit just after midnight. Four more occupied vehicles headed westbound were shot, one at an on-ramp at Ivy, the others at an overpass in the Afton area. An unoccupied Virginia Department of Transportation dump truck was targeted later, farther down the interstate.

The 20-mile stretch of I-64 between Waynesboro and Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, was closed for nearly six hours while police searched for suspects and evidence. The interstate reopened around dawn.

Albemarle County public schools closed for the day.

"Given the unknown nature of a still-evolving situation, the idea of putting children in buses, cars or unsupervised at rural bus stops did not seem like the best thing to do," said Lee Catlin, a spokeswoman for the county.

Some parents had called school officials to express their concerns, she said.

"Communities are now sensitized so much to shootings that you have this at a major artery through your area, it really gets your attention," Catlin said.

Police think the bullets were all of the same caliber but they could not be sure until ballistics tests are completed.

The two injured motorists were treated at hospitals and released. Flaherty said he did not know if the victims were struck by bullets or shattered glass.

Flaherty said the shooters could still be in the area, but there was no need for motorists to avoid I-64. Police planned to deploy additional officers in the area Thursday night if no arrests were made, he said.

Robert Caldwell, owner of Duner's, said he took I-64 Thursday morning and noticed police at every overpass. "I've never seen so many state police," he said.