Fear stalks leafy Washington suburb

Fear is settling into this leafy, affluent suburb on the northern edge of the US capital, where lurks an eagle-eyed sniper who has killed six and wounded two in the past week and is still at large.

Firing a hunting or military-type rifle, the killer has used only eight bullets, each finding its mark, six with mortal accuracy. Sirens scream and helicopters circle overhead as reports pour into a police hotline of suspicious characters, some carrying long parcels that could contain a rifle.

But despite the round-the-clock efforts of all area police agencies, with help from the likes of the FBI, Secret Service and others, the Montgomery County Police Department admits it has few clues to go on.

Once a tranquil, self-satisfied enclave of expensive homes, trendy boutiques and legions of ethnic restaurants, where residents tended to leave their cars and even houses unlocked and let your kids frolic in the streets, Bethesda has battened down the hatches.

Parents pick up their kids at school, take them straight home and lock the doors. Instead of taking long evening walks, people now stay indoors.
Shopping trips are kept to a minimum.

“I think everybody has their priorities straight,” said Monique-Hill Buchanan, sales assistant at a downtown Bethesda clothing boutique. “A lot of our clients have kids and they are picking them up at school. Nobody is hanging out. Nobody feels like shopping.” Suspicion is rampant.

“I saw a white mini-van on the corner and stopped to stare,” said Shelly Gibson, salesperson in a furniture store, referring to what police describe as a white van or truck seen near the scene of one of the shootings. “I said a little prayer before I noticed other people doing the same thing. We smiled at each other, feeling a little silly.”

Down the street, frame shop owner Farid Goljamali said “there are less people in the street and less people coming in. “People are walking in the street, buttoned up, looking at each other as if, ‘Are you the one?’”

“My customers want to stay home until things get resolved,” he shrugged. “Luxury businesses are being more hurt because people think, ‘I can buy this later.’”

A popular bookstore, whose carpeted aisles are habitually peopled with browsers, was virtually empty. It’s easy to get a table at one of the many outdoor restaurant terraces, usually crowded during a balmy Indian summer such as this.

“The patio is noticeably slower,” said Sig Ribaya, head waiter at the Thyme Square Cafe. “We even had clients sitting outside who asked to change and come inside, saying they didn’t feel comfortable out there.”

Mon Ami Gabi, a French bistro across the street, is also suffering. “Outside business slowed down and we closed the patio three days ago,” said maitre d’ Aaron Rogers. “People were asking for tables inside, with little jokes like, “Kind of brave to be sitting outside,” or, “Nice weather, but I don’t want to get shot.’” To departing clients, Rogers bids, “Get home safely. Be careful.”

Becky Whitacre, the restaurant’s manager, echoed his observations. “There usually aren’t enough tables outside when the weather’s nice,” she said. “But the patio was empty after the shootings, so we just closed it.” - Sapa-AFP

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