TOPICS > Politics

D.C. Sniper Manhunt

October 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST


RAY SUAREZ: On Monday night, the Washington sniper took aim from just 90 feet from his victim, a closer range than in any of the previous ten shootings. Several witnesses told law enforcement officers they saw the gunman. Still police had few details on a suspect.

CAPT. NANCY DEMME: At this point is there not a composite. Fairfax County police are at work with their witnesses and unfortunately because of darkness and distance and perhaps, you know, excitement and adrenaline at the time, they were unable to come one a composite. The press report that had a gun involved is AK 74. The witness firmly believes that is the weapon that he saw. Keep in mind that just like the vehicles, each witness firmly believes what they do see. It’s not to discredit the witness in the least. That may be what he thinks he saw, and we have to keep in mind that weapons are interchangeable as are vehicles. They pick up another weapon. Please don’t narrow your focus to just one weapon.

According to Fairfax, the light-colored van, right now they’re not doing a composite on that because it seems to the witness… the witness seems to think that it’s closer to what we already have out in terms of the vans. There’s nothing that they could do that would create another composite. It is an Astrovan with a ladder rack, silver in color on top, left rear tail light was not functioning at the time.

RAY SUAREZ: Demme gave tips in case the sniper strikes again.

CAPT. NANCY DEMME: Remember though that personal safety comes first. If you hear the sound of a gunshot, I want you to get down or seek cover. Please remember that is paramount, your safety. Look in the direction of the sound. Make a note of the persons or the vehicles in the area. With regard to people, remember that some facts and characteristics are permanent and some are temporary. For example, people — temporary characteristics would be clothing, color of clothing, hairstyle, facial hair– beard, mustache, glasses. Permanent would be height, build, complexion.

For vehicles, temporary would be color, tag number, dents, primer, lights that are broken. For vehicles, permanent would be more the make or the model of the vehicle. Some temporary characteristics can be altered more easily than others. Commit what you saw to memory. Have a pen available on your person, and if it’s not, if paper is not available, write it on your hand. Remain on the scene in a safe place until police arrive. Do not allow other witnesses or the media to contaminate your memory.

RAY SUAREZ: At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said the President now wants to look into creating a national databank of the markings individual firearms leave on bullets, known as ballistic fingerprinting.

ARI FLEISCHER: The President wants this issue explored. And to that end, the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has been meeting and met yesterday afternoon with White House staff to start to discuss the various issues, the technical issues. There are feasibility issues, the pros and cons about how this could possibly… may be effective, whether it could work or whether it would not be able to work. And those are the issues they’re going to explore.

RAY SUAREZ: Governors in Maryland and Virginia have suspended the recreational shooting in the counties around Washington until the investigation of the sniper attacks is complete. According to the Washington Post and other newspapers, U.S. military spy planes would help hunt for the sniper. The fixed-wing Army planes called RC-7s are outfitted with high-tech surveillance equipment. Military pilots would fly under civilian supervision, and information gathered by the missions would go to investigators.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we get two views. John Pike is the founder of, a non-profit research center which focuses on national security issues. And William Johnson is the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations. He’s been a policeman and a prosecutor. What is it about these crimes and the nature of the getaways that makes this RC 7 airplane, John Pike a useful tool in the investigation?

JOHN PIKE: Well, that’s what we are going to find out. It’s too soon to say whether it will be useful. I think that the hope is that having this airplane orbiting over downtown, Washington, it would be able to direct its long range television camera towards the scene of the crime as soon as is there a 911 report to the police. This camera would be able — at ranges of say a dozen miles, to spot a white van leaving the crime scene, and tell the police it’s going down this road and enable them to put a roadblock around it and hopefully catch the perpetrators. The advantage of using the military airplane is that it flies a lot higher than police helicopters, and the telescopic camera has a range much greater than that, that you are going to get with regular law enforcement. Police could use their helicopters but you would need dozens of them to cover the same area.

RAY SUAREZ: Ask a plane like this different from the aircraft that are often available to the police agencies, state agencies, in the equipment it carries on board for these kinds of surveillance?

JOHN PIKE: Well, it has a lot of additional military equipment on it — a moving target indicator of radar — it has communications intercept equipment. But in this case, I think it’s going to be this long range camera that is the unique capability that this military airplane would have. If the police simply would not normally have a requirement to be able to have an airplane on one side of the county looking at a vehicle moving on the other side of county. Normally, police are going to be doing surveillance at much shorter range.

RAY SUAREZ: William Johnson, since 1878 it has been illegal to use the military in local law enforcement. How do you design such cooperation in a way that doesn’t run afoul of Posse Comitatus law?

WILLIAM JOHNSON: In a is a fair question. I think you suggested the answer that the key is coordination and design. From what I’ve seen so far the Department of Justice and the FBI in working with the defense department has been careful in how they are coordinating this. You must remember this law was passed in 1878 in the midst of the aftermath of reconstruction. It was I think aimed primarily at preventing what were seen to be excesses in the use of exclusive use of federal troops to enforce all the laws particularly in the reconstructed South. It’s not what we have today. We are not talking about soldiers or armies enforcing laws in the United States. This I think is strictly the use of another asset of the federal government just like we already using the FBI or AFT for example to who feel these crimes. This once happens to be piloted by soldiers because they are the people who know how to fly it but I don’t think it’s any different than for example using a federal employee who works for ATF to do the ballistics comparisons; we are simply using another tool simply that the federal government is making available in helping local law enforcement solve these murders.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this happen very often?

WILLIAM JOHNSON: It happens very frequently that federal law enforcement works closely with state and local –.

RAY SUAREZ: But not military?

WILLIAM JOHNSON: No, not military not in this sense of using these high-tech aircraft with surveillance gear but again it is I think a useful tool. You know, 15 years ago, DNA was on the cutting edge. Now it’s very common. This is a tool that the federal government has at its disposal. It’s there to protect the citizens of the United States. It happens to be being used in this context to protect their capital from the sniper.

RAY SUAREZ: Do this is raise a flag for you, John Pike?

JOHN PIKE: I think that certainly after September 11 and the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act, there has been a lot of concern about the use of military intelligence for domestic surveillance and boring the line between the constitutional protections that we afford American citizens and the much freer rein that our foreign intelligence agencies have in operations around the world. In this particular case, I think fortunately, that concern doesn’t arise. This is a type of aircraft that really is doing the same sort of thing that the police would normally be doing with their helicopters. It just so happens that you can use one military airplane rather than dozens of police helicopters. But certainly I think that it’s very important that we are raising this question, because we are going to have other instances down the road where that very important distinction between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence isn’t going to be so clear-cut. I think it is going to raise questions in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: William Johnson, you mentioned FBI and ATF. Add to that the various county and state polices, the police of the District of Columbia, and you start… you’re talking about some real numbers there. When you have an investigation that involves so many people, how does information make it through the system? We saw the Montgomery County captain talking about the gathering of evidence and new descriptions of trucks and the possibilities of gaining more eyewitness reports. How does everybody get to know what they need to know when there is so many people involved?

WILLIAM JOHNSON: There is a tremendous glut of information there, but police work like any other profession really is part art and part science. There is no substitution for experience. The men and women who number, I think, in the thousands now between the federal and local agencies, who are working on this case in every capacity, do have that experience. And it is the type of thing where the detectives who work these case, the men and women from the FBI and the various state and local entities involved do have the experience where a particular fact, a rumor, a hunch that might appear innocuous to you or I or someone else on the street may resonate with someone, may seem to stand out, and may be the type of thing that will eventually break this case open. It will break open. I can’t predict when– I don’t think anybody can predict when, but it certainly will — and the person will be caught eventually. I have no doubt in that mind that is the case. But “when,” no one can say. But I do know it will come through with the continued application of the hard work of the men and women who are doing their jobs out there.

RAY SUAREZ: You heard Captain Demme telling people that if they saw something, they should pull out a piece of paper and a pen and write it on their hand. What is it about eyewitness testimony, especially in a highly tense situation like witnessing a shooting, that makes her give this particular bit of instruction?

WILLIAM JOHNSON: Well, human beings in whatever kind of situation they’re in will react to the things they are being exposed to, and certainly a horrific crime of violence like witnessing someone shot at close range would certainly upset and disturb any human being. Therefore, it would be important right when it has happened to jot down everything that the person can at that time so that as time goes on, that person’s memory have not been influenced by what they may have heard from someone else or read in the paper or seen on television; things that they may have recollected differently or second-guessed themselves later on. A lot of crazy things happen and unusual things happen during crimes and during investigations. And you want to have the most accurate reflection or recollection of what happened as close to the time –memorialized as close to the time of its occurrence as possible so that down the road, even though it might seem crazy it may be the type of thing that stands out down the road. You know what, this is an unusual hunch. This doesn’t make sense, but I have a tip or I have something similar from a similar case six months ago that also stood out. So it is more than anything else an effort to maintain accuracy and to not let the recollection be contaminated by things that may happen down the road.

RAY SUAREZ: So you are not surprised, for instance, that there are now several witnesses who say they saw this crime, but they weren’t able to come up with a composite or a description?

WILLIAM JOHNSON: No, I’m not surprised at all. It’s a horrific event. Every person will see things and perceive things slightly differently. As the captain pointed out, it doesn’t mean that anyone is distorting the truth or certainly not lying. They are doing I have no doubt their very best to communicate what they perceive in the most truthful way they can, but such a shocking and violent experience will be perceived and be remembered by different people differently. That is just being human.

RAY SUAREZ: William Johnson, John Pike, thank you both.