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WV sniper raises fears

It's a dark pickup truck instead of a white box truck but the fears are the same.

BY SUSAN KIM | CHARLESTON, W.V. | August 22, 2003

"People need to keep a wary eye out."

—Rev. Ron Burnsworth

It's a dark pickup truck instead of a white box truck but the fears are the same. Police in Charleston, W.V., are investigating a series of shootings with eerie similarities to the serial sniper shootings that brought a siege mentality to the D.C. area last year.

"On TV this morning, they had people actually recommending everybody hunker down when they're at the gas station," observed Mary Virginia DeRoo, interim director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. "That sent chills through everyone.

"Every family is talking about it and dealing with it," she added.

Over the past week, three people have been fatality shot in the Charleston area with a .22 caliber rifle. Each was shot from a distance at area convenience stores or gas stations, and by Friday police had conclusively linked all three shootings.

Police were investigating a fourth shooting Thursday. A 16-year-old girl told police Wednesday she heard a bullet whiz by her at a convenience store near Charleston. She said the shot may have come from a maroon pickup truck but police could not confirm by Thursday a shot had indeed been fired.

On Friday police released a composite sketch of a suspect seen in a pickup truck near convenience stores where two people were gunned down. The suspect, police said, is a white man with dark hair and a goatee.

According to police reports, the first victim, a 44-year-old man, was shot last Sunday while he talked on a public phone in Charleston. Four days later, the second victim, a 31-year-old woman, was pumping gas not far from the first shooting. One hour later, a 26-year-old man was killed at a nearby walk-up window.

Police said they have evidence that shows the same type of weapon could have been used for each killing.

The Rev. Ron Burnsworth said people in the Judson Baptist Church offered prayers for victims and their families, and prayers for people to be confident in their faith.

The church is located in Belle, W.V., which is a small community outside of Charleston.

Burnsworth said, while people were urged to stay confident in their faith, they were also counseled to be cautious. "People need to keep a wary eye out. They need to be aware of their surroundings. People shouldn't get gas at isolated places."

Burnsworth asked the same question police and many Charleston area residents are asking: is this a copycat of last year's D.C. area sniper shootings?

"It does appear to be," said Burnsworth, who said he and his parishioners also prayed for the perpetrator. Police said the shootings appear to be random. Investigators have been unable to find any connection between the three victims.

People are watching for a black pickup truck with a similar intensity people in the D.C. area looked for a white box truck or white van in October 2002, when two snipers randomly gunned down 11 people and wounded several others. The white box truck turned out to be a false clue; the snipers never drove one and were caught in an entirely different vehicle.

But, in Charleston, "I notice people are watching for that black pickup truck," said Burnsworth, after people were told this morning to look for a black truck. In an afternoon press conference, investigators changed it to a dark blue or maroon pickup truck.

And, just as white box trucks appeared to luck on every street corner in the D.C. area last fall, dark-colored pickup trucks seem to be aplenty in West Virginia.

"I mean, I drove right by one," said Burnsworth. "It was a gentleman who lives right near me."

What can churches or community groups do? They can help people find ways to cope with stress, said Liz Monahan-Gibson, a voluntary agency liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Groups could put out information about the symptoms of stress," she said, "and how you handle stress."

Churches and other groups should also advise people to know their emergency contacts.

In the Charleston area, some information related to flood response could potentially transfer over to help people cope with sniper-related fears, said Monahan-Gibson.

"We have worked with school systems to distribute information about how kids deal with trauma and fear associated with floods," she said, adding so far she saw "different reactions" from people in the Charleston area.

"Everybody is just a little cautious," she said. "Some people don't want to get gas by themselves but other people aren't changing a thing they do."

David Hogue, West Virginia's disaster response coordinator for the American Red Cross, said Red Cross leaders had talked about the incidents but had no formal response underway. "We have had some conversations with county emergency management services," he said.

Hogue and other disaster response leaders were under pressure to cancel a drill scheduled for Tuesday morning. The drill related to hazardous materials response could be postponed because it could exacerbate people's fear, said Hogue.

Federal agents who were active in the D.C. area investigation last year have been called to West Virginia to help.

The D.C. sniper case is scheduled to go to trial in October. John Lee Malvo, now 18, and John Allen Muhammad, 42, both could face the death penalty.

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