This is Part Three of a four-part series on the 2002 Beltway Snipers killing spree in collaboration with the former criminal intelligence operations commander for the Maryland State Police and commanding officer at the scene during the snipers’ capture in Myersville, Md. Read Part One and Part Two
The Beltway Snipers investigation, which lasted 23 days in October 2002, is believed to be the largest multijurisdictional, multi-agency criminal investigation in American law enforcement history. During the manhunt, shootings occurred in eight local jurisdictions spanning two states and the District of Columbia. There were more than 1,000 federal agents, troopers, deputies, and police officers involved in tracking down the killers. In all, there were 32 federal, state, city, county, and local police agencies involved in the investigation, which ultimately became the SNIPMUR (Sniper Murder Task Force). The logistics alone for trying to manage an ongoing investigation of this size under the pressure of the continuous shooting of innocent citizens going about their daily lives was daunting.
The case began on Oct. 2 during the early evening with a bullet that exploded a window at a Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill, Montgomery County, Md. Less than an hour later, the snipers claimed their first victim at a Shoppers Food Warehouse parking lot in Wheaton. By 9:30 p.m. the following day the snipers had shot five more people: four in Montgomery County and one in the District of Columbia. This many shootings occurring in such a short period of time, which were obviously connected in some way, was extremely troubling and foretold the possibility of some more sinister plot. The victims were being shot with high-speed bullets coming from some sort of rifle fired at a considerable distance. The randomness of the shootings also ruled out motives normally associated with shootings and killings.
Coming a little over a year after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., which was followed by the anthrax attacks that were still unsolved and under investigation, this appeared initially to be the work of another terrorist plot to instill fear in the citizens and erode public confidence in the ability of the police and/or the government to protect citizens. The Montgomery County Police Department, which caught the initial cases quickly, asked for help from both federal and state police agencies. Also fearing this was the start of another terrorist attack, the agencies quickly came to the support of the Montgomery County Police Department. The initial response from the federal agencies consisted of lending their forensic capabilities and the response from the Maryland State Police was to flood the area with road troopers to increase police presence and attempt to suppress the snipers’ ability to easily acquire targets.
In the coming days, the killings did not stop – they only expanded into additional jurisdictions, thus bringing in more and more law enforcement agencies and resources. To try to organize and coordinate this rapidly expanding investigation, the SNIPMUR Task Force was formed and very quickly organized. This effort required the vast resources of the federal government.
Due to the randomness of the killings – and the only information that police had to work with was the repeated sighting of a white van or box truck leaving the vicinity of each shooting – law enforcement needed the eyes and ears of citizens in an effort to develop any viable leads that would lead to identifying the killers and putting a stop to this nightmare that had quickly paralyzed the DMV. Tips and information from a panicked and extremely concerned citizenry began to quickly pour in, which created another logistical challenge. Every tip and bit of information had to be cataloged, reviewed, and followed up where appropriate, since we had no way of knowing which tip or bit of information might be the missing pieces that would break the case wide open.
This task alone was going to require human assets, technology, organization, determination, and time – which we did not have. It was going to require thinking outside of the normal investigative thought process to separate useful, valuable, and actionable information from what we used to call noise. Since tips were coming into the Task Force literally by the thousands each day and growing as the days and nights dragged on, the job was assigned to the criminal intelligence section which I was assigned to supervise. Using police officers, agents and civilian intelligence analysts from all these allied agencies, we began the process of turning the tons of information received into an organized investigative effort.
It was obvious immediately that we needed to use technology to assist in what was referred to as link analysis: in short, the ability to connect the dots with the now tens of thousands of tips and bits of information that not only was received from the public but was also generated by the intelligence section trying to find the electronic footprint or bread crumbs left behind by the yet-to-be-identified killers. Existing software was not able to perform what we needed it to do.
During the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI utilized a program called Rapid Start. It was a great program that was a way to catalog and organize all the calls and tips that came into law enforcement. However, it did not have the means to conduct link analysis and look for the common thread. For that, we utilized and radically modified a drug enforcement software program called Case Explorer. It had the ability to conduct link analysis but lacked the diversity to accept the data from RapidStart and to read other data sets coming in from allied agencies and other law enforcement databases and civilian databases that we were searching, looking for the electronic footprint. Under the extreme pressure of the continuous shootings and the need to get the data immediately, some extremely talented programmers were able to help the Task Force write code to make Case Explorer fit our needs.
Their work under extreme pressure ultimately paid off and greatly assisted in identifying the snipers. Using the link analysis concept, the Intelligence unit was able to classify the value of the thousands of tips using a simple color code of green, yellow and red. Green information was low-priority. It was information that did not match any other tips or known information. Yellow was information such as two or more tips about the same person or persons with maybe another factor thrown in, such as a criminal record for violence. Red information was hot with multiple links: known violent felon, owned a white-panel truck, maybe a known owner or known to use a .223 caliber rifle. The more data that matched, the higher priority was given to the tip. Red was worked on immediately. A full rapid background check was completed for the person and the red packet was given to field agents to run down as soon as possible.
The SNIPMUR Task Force came together with multiple agencies and a lot of working parts. The level of cooperation and teamwork was incredible under the crisis of the sniper case, and the task force was turned into a functional working group within a week of the initial shootings. The success of the task force was unprecedented and speaks to the level of professionalism of all 1,000 cops working the case.
In Pursuit: The Hunt for the Beltway Snipers by David Reichenbaugh recounts the terrifying crimes through the eyes of one of the few people who know the complete details of the investigation. The book is currently available on Amazon.