Death Card With Message Found During Search

By DAVID DISHNEAU, Associated Press Writer

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) - Investigators searching for a sniper terrorizing the Washington suburbs found a tarot card with the words, "Dear policeman, I am God," near a bullet casing outside the school where a 13-year-old boy was critically wounded, a source familiar with the investigation confirmed Wednesday.

Police were also searching a wooded area behind a school in Prince George's County after reports Wednesday of a suspicious man seen carrying a long black bag in the area.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, who has been leading the investigation, wouldn't comment about the card and said he was concerned that unapproved information was being leaked.

"I need to make sure I don't do anything to hinder our ability to bring this person or these people into custody," Moose said Wednesday.

The taunting message left on a tarot card known as the Death card, first reported Tuesday night on WUSA-TV and then by The Washington Post, was confirmed by a source Wednesday to The Associated Press.

The shell casing was being checked against the National Ballistics Identification Network, a database of crime-scene firearms evidence maintained by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The motive for the seemingly random crimes still eluded police Wednesday, one week after the first of six slayings. Nearly 200 investigators were working their way through 1,600 leads culled from 8,000 tips.

"We need just a shred of evidence," Prince George's County Police Chief Gerald Wilson said.

Police sources told the newspaper that the tarot card was found next to the spent shell casing in a wooded area about 150 yards from the school entrance in an area of matted grass, suggesting the gunman had lain in wait.

Prince George's County police issued a statement saying: "We're not commenting on any potential evidence that may have been located." Joseph Riehl, an agent for the ATF, also declined comment.

Wednesday morning, police began searching a large park behind Friendly High School in Fort Washington after receiving a report of a suspicious man wearing a baseball hat and carrying a long black bag, Cpl. Diane Richardson said. She said surveyors, carrying long black bags containing tripods, had been seen in the area earlier in the week.

A Prince George's County school spokeswoman said students were being kept inside as county schools remained locked down. Friendly High School is about 20 miles from Benjamin Tasker Middle School, where the boy was shot.

Even as they discarded one lead -- a man was released after police questioned him about at least one rifle in his home -- investigators wondered whether the sniper might have struck weeks earlier, on Sept. 14, when a liquor store employee in Montgomery County was wounded by an unknown assailant.

Bullet fragments recovered from the clerk who was wounded at a shopping center in Silver Spring have been examined, but the analysis has proved inconclusive.

"We are not linking it, we are not ruling it out," ATF agent Michael Bouchard said of the shooting in the Hillandale Shopping Center.

In Montgomery County, where five of the deaths occurred, Moose urged people to keep calling in tips. The reward swelled to more than $237,000.

"We feel like someone has information that will help us bring this situation to closure," Moose said.

Gov. Parris Glendening took a confrontational tone, repeatedly calling the shooter "a coward" during a news conference.

Police believe the sniper has shot eight people, including a woman wounded 50 miles away in Virginia. One death occurred on a Washington street; the others came within five miles of each other in Montgomery County.

Investigators say the sniper apparently picked victims at random and fired from a distance with a high-powered hunting or military-style rifle. All the victims were felled by a single bullet.

The Sept. 14 shooting occurred outside the Hillandale Beer and Wine store. Owner Arnie Zelkovitz said police interviewed him about the incident, in which his 22-year-old employee was shot in the back.

Zelkovitz said he believes the man was another sniper victim: "It just seems too coincidental."

The 13-year-old boy, who police have not identified, was in critical but stable condition Wednesday with a wound to the chest. He was shot early Monday after his aunt dropped him off at Benjamin Tasker Middle School.

Ballistics tests found that the bullet that struck him was of the same caliber as those that killed some of the others and wounded a woman in Virginia. That woman was released from the hospital Tuesday.

Dorothy Prather, a teacher at Tasker, said she was impressed by how well students responded to the traumatic events. "The only ones who seemed really concerned were the parents," she said.

At a nearby mall, employees at a Coldwell Banker real estate office noticed shoppers were edgy.

"They don't get out of their car without looking around, then they dash in the store," Polly Rogers said. "You don't see people on their porch, or playing tennis. We're not used to this -- we think Bowie is the safest place."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)