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D.C.-Area Sniper Trial Enters Third Week

November 3, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ As the Washington-area sniper trial enters its third week, testimony has included reminders of what police fear were missed opportunities to end the shooting spree that left 10 people dead.

There was the police officer who spoke to suspect John Allen Muhammad, who was driving a blue car near one of the shootings, but let him go. There was the harried dispatcher who tried unsuccessfully to refer a caller claiming responsibility for the attacks to another agency.

The jury also has heard from a woman who saw a suspicious blue car but didn’t tell police ``because they were looking for a white van.″

``These are heartbreaking things,″ former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt said. ``These are things that police officers and FBI agents are beating themselves in the head with and saying: ’My God, if only we would have, should have, could have. We might have gotten them sooner, if only.‴

The trial was expected to resume Monday as Muhammad faces charges in the Oct. 9, 2002, shooting death of Harold Meyers at a Manassas-area gas station.

Prosecutors are introducing evidence in 16 shootings in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana and the District of Columbia in an effort to show that Muhammad is responsible for multiple deaths and engaged in a form of terrorism _ necessary conditions for the two death penalty charges against him.

Muhammad, 42, and 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo, who goes on trial separately Nov. 10, were arrested Oct. 24, 2002, at a Maryland highway rest stop. They had been sleeping in a 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice that authorities say was adapted so someone concealed inside the car could fire a rifle through a hole in the trunk.

Authorities didn’t ask the public to look for such a car until shortly before the arrests, focusing instead on descriptions of a white van or a white box truck at some shootings, but several witnesses have testified they saw that car at shooting scenes.

Christine Goodwin saw a blue car at a gas station in Spotsylvania County on Oct. 11, 2002. It had peeling paint, darkly tinted windows, New Jersey tags and was parked ``cockeyed″ away from the pumps.

``Everything about that car was wrong,″ she testified.

Goodwin, fearful because of the shooting spree, said her first instinct was to tell police about the car. Asked why she didn’t, she replied: ``Because they were looking for a white van.″

She later heard that a man had just been killed at that station. She didn’t call police until Oct. 23.

Van Zandt said some things such as car descriptions are bound to be missed in such wide-ranging investigations, involving multiple states and multiple crimes.

But he said there are lessons to be learned from the sniper investigation, such as making sure everyone who might hear from a suspect is prepared to handle the call.

Amy Lefkoff, a police dispatcher from Rockville, Md., testified that she was alone and besieged by calls on Oct. 15, when a male caller told her: ``We have called you three times before, trying to set up negotiations. We have got no response. People have died.″

Lefkoff said she tried to refer the caller to police in Montgomery County, Md., where the sniper task force was based, but the caller hung up.

``I was very busy,″ Lefkoff testified. ``I was just going through the motions.″

Prince William County Police Officer Steven Bailey said he spoke to Muhammad near the scene of Meyers’ killing, but let him drive off in a Caprice from a restaurant parking lot where police believe the sniper fired the shot that killed Meyers a half hour earlier.

Bailey said Muhammad told him police had directed him into the lot as they secured the crime scene. Actually, police had been barring cars from entering the lot.

``I didn’t catch on,″ Bailey said. ``I wish I had.″

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