What's Next In Sniper Investigation

For several hours Monday morning, law enforcement officials working on the D.C. area sniper shootings were optimistic that the detention of two men outside of Richmond, Va., would prove to be integral to the ongoing investigation. By mid-afternoon, however, police were acknowledging that the two men, undocumented workers from Mexico and Guatemala, appeared to simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Monday's detentions came on the heels of the 12th shooting related to sniper, which occurred Saturday night in Ashland, Va., critically wounding a 37-year-old man. The man, whose identity has not been released, remains in critical condition at a Richmond hospital. But Saturday's shooting also seemed to provide one of the few fresh clues related to the case: A call to the police's phone tip line indicated they should look for a note in the woods behind the Ponderosa steakhouse where the lastest victim was shot. One of the men taken into custody Monday morning was in a white Plymouth Voyager at a Richmond gas station pay phone. The phone was reportedly close to where the call on Saturday night to the police tip line was made. Ironically, the detentions, which at first had seemed so promising, may in fact have made the ongoing investigation more difficult: now whomever made the phone call to the tip line on Saturday night knows that at least some Richmond pay phones are under observation.

The note, which police have not released to the public, has prompted Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose to make several statements to the media seemingly aimed at the sniper. On Sunday night, he addressed "the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night," and said, "You gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided."

On Monday, Moose told reporters, "I just want to ask the indulgence of the media that the message that needs to be delivered is that we are going to respond to a message we have received. We will respond later. We are preparing our response at this time." Later Monday afternoon, Moose made another statement: "The person you called could not hear everything you said. The audio was unclear and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand."

Moose's comments--the first time the police have publicly acknowledged receiving communication from the sniper--shows the desperation that's gripping the investigation. Two weeks ago, when word that a Tarot card was found near the scene of one of the shootings leaked out the media, Chief Moose, who is heading up the taskforce investigating the killings, was incensed and berated the media at one of his daily press briefings.

Now, two weeks later, police don't seem much further along than they were then. Saturday night's shooting prompted a dragnet around Ashland, about 90 miles south of Washington, D.C. But a Virginia law enforcement source said it was unclear what police were looking for. "We're looking for the obvious--a gun," the source told NEWSWEEK, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We're not sure what else to look for." While white vans, which were seen near some of the shooting scenes, were oftentimes searched on Saturday night, other cars sat snarled in traffic for hours but were never looked through. "We have some stuff to go for, but not a lot," the law enforcement source said.

In another sign of the wide net the investigation is casting, NEWSWEEK has learned that the federal authorities have been quietly contacting Washington, D.C.-area mosques about the sniper case. "We have been checking with Muslims in the area," says a FBI source. Nihad Awad, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations, cautioned against jumping to conclusions. "We pray it has nothing to do with the Muslim community," Awad says. "I want the guy to be caught because we hope for peace."