October 12, 2002
10:07 AM   Subscribe

An interesting analysis of the DC shooter from the Washington Post film critic (who is a hunter, has written a few novels involving snipers, and has taken two tactical shooting courses with sniper experts). I may look more closely at his review of Arnold Schwarzenegger's next flick.
posted by Taken Outtacontext (34 comments total)
In the last post on the sniper topic, I posted a link to my rough analysis of the scant evidence available and some guesses on the weapons the sniper might be using.

For bolt-action, I guessed a Remington 700VS or Savage 10/110, for semi-auto an AR-15 or variant of that type (my supporting links were to the Bushmaster line of M16/M4/Colt Commando family clones). As it turned out, it is now being reported that the sniper is probably using an AR-15 or near variant, possibly of the Bushmaster varietry.

The conclusions of this article mirror my own - .223 is not the choice of a professional sniper. A military man perhaps (the US military uses .223 almost exclusively), but not a professional sniper.
posted by Ryvar at 10:22 AM on October 12, 2002

I really don't think speculation by the press is helping the case. The police chief has scolded the media for printing the facts about the tarot card and this analysis probably doesn't help either.
posted by jasontromm at 10:41 AM on October 12, 2002

I've tended to discount the idea he's shooting from a vehicle; this ties in with the confusion over white box trucks (last week) and white panel vans (this week). He can't just stick it out the window without being noticed. A traffic light could give him plenty of time to prepare a shot, but it seems extremely unlikely he could do this without being noticed once. Personally, I'm highly suspect the whole white-van thing will turn out to be a red herring.

It's also just barely possible that he has an accomplice. They say up to 1/5 of serial killers work in pairs. But sniping seems more of a loner's activity. What's in it for the accomplice? Are they sharing a gun? Seems unlikely. But all the ballistics indicates it's one gun.

The control and discipline he's shown so far suggests he's not the type of serial killer who's obviously mentally unstable, whining in his room like Michael Badalucco in Son of Sam; instead he may well be gainfully employed, maybe even using his job assignments to find new locations. But he seems to have a variable schedule.

As this goes on longer I wonder, but my first thought that it could be a classic Alphabet Murders cover-up -- a series of random murders concealing one with a very personal motive. But the kid doesn't really fit that kind of an approach.

The one good thing is that he may be getting bolder, and losing discipline in the process -- the latest shooting with a cop nearby, and if true from a van at a stoplight, suggests someone who's getting more eager to get his kill than to proceed by a methodical system.
posted by dhartung at 10:44 AM on October 12, 2002

This analysis is nothing more (or less) than an educated consideration of knowledge that was alrady public (weapon guage, MO, target wounds) by someone with knowledge in the field. This is more than you will see from the mass media, which make this asshole out to be some super-human god of a sniper. Which he is not -- or, at least, he hasn't shown it.
posted by jammer at 10:47 AM on October 12, 2002

They say up to 1/5 of serial killers work in pairs.

Inconsequential, but I believe they're referring to this as a Spree Killing.
posted by trioperative at 10:48 AM on October 12, 2002

I think the police should be releasing more information that it knows, not scolding the media. After yesterday's killing, police were canvassing the area with a photo of a sandy-haired man, according to today's Baltimore Sun. Why isn't that being circulated in the media to see if anyone recognizes the guy?
posted by rcade at 10:49 AM on October 12, 2002

...or he is dying to be caught - for whatever reason... who knows
posted by Stars Kitten at 10:49 AM on October 12, 2002

Betcha they will find out he is ex-military. Those guys are taught a lot of things that would be useful for someone who wants to kill people and not get caught.
posted by konolia at 10:58 AM on October 12, 2002

In part, I posted this link because I found his analysis interesting to a layman like myself. A lot of this wouldn't have occurred to me.

And, as long as I continue to keep my head down, I'm enjoying the process of speculation (despite the angst).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:15 AM on October 12, 2002

It seems to me that Spree Killings are twenty people shot by some person all at once, not twenty people shot by some person over a course of days, weeks, or months.

From the link provided above, the impression I get is that spree killing is an emotional outburst. "A straw that broke the camels back." These shootings do not seem of the the "outburst" type. I would think it would be hard to sustain that outburst of emotion for an extended period of time.

It reads Serial Killer to me... what do you guys think?
posted by jopreacher at 11:16 AM on October 12, 2002

...the Washington Post film critic (who is a hunter, has written a few novels involving snipers, and has taken two tactical shooting courses with sniper experts).

It looks like we have a suspect.
posted by troybob at 11:21 AM on October 12, 2002

It seems to me that Spree Killings are twenty people shot by some person all at once, not twenty people shot by some person over a course of days, weeks, or months.

From the link provided above, the impression I get is that spree killing is an emotional outburst. "A straw that broke the camels back." These shootings do not seem of the the "outburst" type. I would think it would be hard to sustain that outburst of emotion for an extended period of time.

It reads Serial Killer to me... what do you guys think?

actually, thinking about it, looking at the very link I gave, I think there's some elements of both involved. This is still all at once, within a small time frame, and not being carried out over months or years (yet). I suppose we won't know until it's over.
posted by trioperative at 11:24 AM on October 12, 2002

The spree killer/serial kill question was talked about quite a bit several years back during the rampage that ended after Andrew Cunanan took Gianni Versace's life. I think we need a new term for this kind of suicidal hunting expedition.
posted by djeo at 11:45 AM on October 12, 2002

We're all familiar with firemen who set fires; could the sniper be the law-enforcement analogue?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:31 PM on October 12, 2002

Lucas Miller, an NYPD detective, engages in some guesswork over in Slate; in what might be a first in the annals of policing, he comes up with fewer points, that are less specific, than a Washington Post movie reviewer.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:35 PM on October 12, 2002

It looks like we have a suspect.

You know, thinking about the article clearly, I find that a lot more plausible than you probably intended.

Ooh! Fun scenario: that the killer, Stephen Hunter, Taken outtacontext and troybob are all the same person, and he's going to play it out until discussion on MeFi is raging at such at pitch that they manage to put together all the facts proving his guilt into an airtight case, and then he makes a MeFi thread with a speech (maybe via webcam? blog?) containing his statement of beliefs in an intensely morally wrenching spectacle, and then goes down in a hail of bullets from a SWAT team.

Hmm. Yes. Copyright on that while I go talk to my agent.
posted by zerolucid at 1:40 PM on October 12, 2002

Betcha they will find out he is ex-military.

We're all familiar with firemen who set fires; could the sniper be the law-enforcement analogue?

S/he could easily be a civilian who read a couple novels from Golden Eagle Press. Or not. S/he certainly wouldn't need any training that couldn't picked up at a pawnshop, firing range, or hunting lodge. S/he doesn't need to know who Kurt Saxon or Ashida Kim are in order to go out and start taking individuals down from afar.

If you've got the money to purchase a .22 centerfire, the free advice necessary to operate it with relative competance is never too far away. And while I agree that the attacks are unlike "outburst" or "spree" killings, there's a definate "fuck you" theme that the killer is drawing upon, and those particular profiles don't always fall into the Luke Helder category.
posted by Smart Dalek at 1:44 PM on October 12, 2002

Stephen Hunter's a film critic?! I've read a few of his books and they're pretty good (he's definitely done a great deal of research into sniping). I think everybody's jumping on the military boat to soon, he's not an incredible shot...so my suggestion: his video card couldn't run the new unreal tournament so he had to find another source to hear "Headshot!"
posted by NGnerd at 2:11 PM on October 12, 2002

Anyone taking bets on all these guesses--educated as they may be? Check with Jack Ruby....
posted by Postroad at 3:55 PM on October 12, 2002

What intrigues me about the reporting is that we are told that the "ballistic evidence" links the shootings without expressly saying that the rounds are traced back to the same gun. We would have been told that it was the same gun if they knew that. I think that it is quite likely that multiple guns are involved, fueling the multiple shooter speculation. It could be that all that the investigating agencies have is an unique subtype within the .223 caliber round specialty.

The evidence at hand does not provide a means of distinguishing between terrorist cell and nut case. We probably are learning more about the psyches of the analysts at this point than the shooter(s).
posted by paleocon at 4:02 PM on October 12, 2002

Look, this guy is no marksman regardless of what the news channels would like us to believe. Eight out of ten kills from 150 yards is pathetic. I've seen my father put ten out of ten shots inside a 1" circle at 300 yards with a Browning .270, shooting cold (no practice shots) after more than two years' layoff.

Any reasonably-experienced hunter should be able to make eight out of ten kills with a single shot on each target. Hell, I'm a lousy shot (couldn't hit water if I fell out of a fuckin' boat) and I'd bet a substantial amount of money that I could take down a minimum of seven out of ten on a single shot each.

Plus, no "sniper" is going to use .223 rounds. Even my father's custom-loaded 190-grain .270's are questionable ammunition for sniping. A sniper wants a big, heavy slug that will do the maximum amount of damage with a single round. A .223 is puny, barely adequate for deer, let alone bringing down a human being. This guy probably bought his rifle second-hand from a pawn shop and couldn't possibly hold his own in an actual shooting match. Apologies to the distaff readers of Metafilter, but a .223 is a woman's gun, built for minimum recoil and varmint plinking.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 4:21 PM on October 12, 2002

My guess is that there are two shooters, taking turns (one acting as getaway driver while the other fires) sharing one weapon . The van is the shooting platform. One of the two is prior military, but with no formal sniper training. At the estimated ranges, there is no reason to assume they are using a scope, but they probably are.
posted by mcchesnj at 4:27 PM on October 12, 2002

van could be a diversion. the 'death card' could be a smoke screen. What i find it interesting is that some killings took place in or around Manassas, Spotslyvannia, and Fredericksburg.....hmmm. Gas stations could be relevant.
posted by clavdivs at 5:11 PM on October 12, 2002

Eight out of ten kills from 150 yards is pathetic

Shooting a person is diffrent than a target. The person moves at the last second, interference comes into play and not to mention keeping ones cool. %80 of them stood still long enough to get a shot off from inside a van at a red light or somthing.

The best hypothesis so far seems to be shooting from inside a van (probably using a tripod or some brace) out a window while at a red light just as the red light turns green. This would require 2 people but the bang and the sound of moving traffic all at once no one would notice.

The problem with the white van theory is there are so many white vans it could be coincidental and the shooter is actually on foot there is evidence for this at least 2 of the scenes.

I have some personal involvement as my sister is on the PG County police force and involved in the manhunt and I have called a tip into the hotline, the details of which I wont get into on MeFi, unless it proves fruitful.
posted by stbalbach at 5:49 PM on October 12, 2002

I'm unimpressed with the new white van graphic they've released; it's only slightly improved over the one that was circulating in the media last week (appears to be the same base photo, too). The box has been touched up to show metallic corner treatments, and "UNKNOWN WORDS" have been affixed to the side. Meanwhile the cab remains clearly an Isuzu-style cab, but all brand markings have been erased. Do they not want to offend Isuzu? Or are they unsure of the brand? Why use the distinctive Isuzu cab, then? The same basic chassis is used by GMC (who own half of Isuzu), with a different window treatment. Mitsubishi and others make similar cab-forward designs but again it's different. Bottom line, this new photo is meant to seem more specific, but instead I'm left wondering if it really does reflect witness observations or not, especially given the question of white panel vans like the Astro (which from most angles could also have been the full-size Savana) (the Savana has that goofy black collar treatment on the back windows, the Safari doesn't) and even the mention of other minivans.
posted by dhartung at 8:59 PM on October 12, 2002

It seems that if a box van is being used--and if, indeed, the shooter is using the box as a platform-- then this is most likely a two-person job. If that is the case, the choice of the cab-forward design truck strikes me as odd. I am familiar with these trucks and, as far as I know, there is no way to have a door between the box and the cab, whereas there are plenty of similar size trucks (based on van chassis) that do offer this option. Being able to shoot and then crawl back into the cab would offer a couple of important advantages: less suspicious entry and exit, and better visibility of the prospective scene.

Having said that, all of this speculation on our parts is likely to look very silly when the sniper is caught.
posted by samuelad at 9:38 PM on October 12, 2002

built for minimum recoil and varmint plinking

But is it also quiet? (relatively speaking) If so, that may be why it's this sniper(s) weapon of choice.
posted by yhbc at 9:49 PM on October 12, 2002

One thing is certain: he's trying to make a point, but his message has gotten lost in the medium he's chosen. Anything beyond that though is mere speculation, and I'm sure some could argue the one "fact" I've personally been able to glean from all this can't be 100% certain. Maybe he has no point. Maybe he's just bored.

One can't even say all his targets were Americans. One was an immigrant from El Salvador. Another was from India, and hoped to return there some day. However, most of them were at least naturalized citizens if not born and bred in the states. The targets seem to be chosen due to opportunity, not specific malice towards them personally. Even that is conjecture or speculation.

Our government, and all the authorities placed at our disposal, be they local, state or federal, are supposed to protect the American populous from enemies both foreign and domestic. We can't even tell if this particular enemy is foreign (like an Al Quaeda terrorist) or domestic (like Tim McVeigh). Whether this bastard has a point or not, the statement being made here at the barrel of a gun is that the authorities pledged to serve and protect are not 100% capable of doing their jobs.

It's kinda like computer hacking. A corporation can put up all the firewalls and protections they wish. A hacker can simply go in, observe what's there and react accordingly until he's successfully conquered the obstacles. Then a corporation's IS team can react to that break-in by putting up even stricter protocols and more complex security systems. This only gives the hacker another challenge to overcome. There is no such thing as an unhackable system, and there is no such thing as 100% security at home, regardless of the failsafes in law enforcement, or any freedoms we accumulatively agree to forego in the name of safety.

We have effectively brought a knife to a gunfight. The bastard is laughing at us.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:28 PM on October 12, 2002

I seem to remember hearing something on NPR a few months ago about a new remote sensing system being used by the LAPD to track gang shooting. Basically, there's a grid of microphones set up in the air (on light poles or telephone poles, for instance), and when a shot is fired, they triangulate where the shot came from.

I know that the DC area probably doesn't have something like this in place, but it might help if they did. Especially if they installed cameras at traffic lights.

But then that scenario gets a bit too Orwellian for some people.
posted by geekhorde at 11:06 PM on October 12, 2002

We have effectively brought a knife to a gunfight. The bastard is laughing at us.

I don't understand your point. Is this some kind of slam on the authorities involved because they haven't caught the guy yet? I could walk out of my house right now, 30-06 over my shoulder and do the same thing, with similar results. 'Course I'm a better shot {wink}.
posted by Witty at 1:11 AM on October 13, 2002

Also... I hate the fact that this guy is being referred to as a sniper... I mean I understand why, and I'll use the term also, if I have to. The thing is, it just assumes too much... to me. Sniping may be what he's doing, but being a "sniper" is a stretch.

mr_crash_davis makes some interesting points on his caliber and cartridge of choice theory, but I think he misses the point slightly. A professional sniper may NOT choose a .223, which is why he may not be a professional sniper. On the other hand, choosing this caliber (.223) may be the smarter choice that a professional would educated to make.

A .270, .30-06, .308, .338, or a 7mm, would all be "overkill"... and as yhbc touched on, would be far too loud.

At 100-150 yds., I think the .223 is a reasonable choice, especially for thin-skinned humans... as horrible as that sounds. It's pretty darned accurate and has a slightly greater velocity than the .270... although a significantly lower energy load... entirely due to the fact that the bullet itself is only a third of the weight of the .270. The greater velocity of the .223 also means that it's more accurate at a given distance... well, at least it doesn't drop off as quickly. Slap a scope on the rifle (which I sure the sniper has done), and you have a pretty deadly weapon.

Yes, it is often use for varmints. Varmint hunting/shooting is done from fairly long ranges for such a small target. So it has to be a high velocity/accurate round. Just because it is used for varmints primarily, doesn't mean that it's weak however. If someone wanted to eat a groundhog (God forbid), let's just say you wouldn't want to after shooting it with a .223.

The bottom line is, it doesn't take much to kill someone with a well placed shot, regardless of caliber or grain. But it's certainly worth taking a look at.
posted by Witty at 1:45 AM on October 13, 2002

One blogger has speculated there's more than one "white van" involved, though that stretches logistical credibility.

The DC-area bloggers are getting into aspects of this, naturally, that the papers won't touch; Jim Henley has a good discussion of the racial motivation theory, and pretty nearly rules it out -- though it does seem that a higher number of individuals were non-white or non-native than randomness alone would suggest even in a diverse metro area. (The one blonde white woman killed was married to a Salvadoran immigrant, but not from there herself. Did she have a sticker on her van?)

Also ruled out is a theory some have mooted, that Eric Rudolph (of bombings in southern states, including an abortion clinic, gay nightclubs, and the Atlanta Olympics) has resurfaced. This just doesn't seem to fit.

A few hawks want to label it terrorism, but that seems overeagerness, and for my part doesn't change the practical aspects of the investigation very much at all.

I wouldn't get too hung up on terminology, Witty -- to this day there are JFK conspiracy theorists who go off like a firecracker if you call Oswald a "sharpshooter", because he was rated in the Army as only a "marksman" on a three-part scale (the highest is "expert"). Like it makes a difference to most people? Please. That certainly doesn't definitively rule out his being able to make one of two (or three) shots. The media, here, is just using sniper to describe his method of shooting from a hidden location, which is certainly different enough from most murders to be unusual. It doesn't indicate that he's using every recommendation in the military sniper handbook.
posted by dhartung at 11:15 AM on October 13, 2002

Jim Henley is now looking at the pattern of shootings across time and has published an appeal to retail managers in the area. He's asking them to examine employee timesheets to see who was not scheduled to work at the time of every one of the shootings (the sniper may be a retail worker who has to work weekends and/or who may work some midday shifts). Read his entire explanation and spread the word if you can.
posted by maudlin at 8:43 PM on October 14, 2002

All right, I think Fox news got hold of a few military snipers who make the point I was trying (and failing) to make above.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:58 PM on October 14, 2002

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