Washington, Oct. 16 (Reuters): As the US military joined the manhunt today for a sniper who has killed nine people in two weeks, police were confident they had new leads in the case that could lead them to the random killer.
Senior defence officials said US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had approved the unusual deployment of military surveillance aircraft in the search for the gunman who has terrorised the region but was reportedly seen for the first time as he struck on Monday night at a suburban Virginia mall.
The Washington Post reported that at least one eyewitness and possibly others had seen the shooter aim and fire at his victim, 47-year-old FBI analyst Linda Franklin, who was killed by a single shot to the head.
Officials said there would be no formal announcement of the move by Rumsfeld, who cancelled a news conference today that was to have addressed the war on terrorism.
A senior defence official, meanwhile, told Reuters US military and civilian crews would relay surveillance information obtained with sophisticated sensors to help local and federal law enforcement officials more quickly track the killer who has spread fear across the region by picking off random victims with a high-velocity rifle.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said Rumsfeld agreed to supply the high-tech assistance from the sky but that the US military, barred by law from engaging in domestic policing, would not be directly involved in police work.
Civilians on the ground would interpret the surveillance information from the sky and decide on any action.
The aircraft should give a major boost to the search for the sniper, who has struck 11 times in two weeks, killing nine people and badly injuring two others in Washington and neighbouring Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
With the death of Franklin, the ninth victim who was killed outside a Home Depot store in Falls Church, Virginia, west of Washington, police said new evidence from the scene could help them catch the serial killer.
While refusing to confirm reports that witnesses had seen the shooter get out of a van to fire and then get back in, police did release composite pictures of two white vans similar to the one already being sought in connection with the shootings, a Chevrolet Astro van or a Ford Econoline van.
The Post said some witnesses had caught a glimpse of the sniper and had provided at least partial license plate numbers.
Officials continued to insist they were not yet prepared to release a composite sketch.
Nonetheless, Fairfax County, Virginia, police chief Thomas Manger expressed confidence the sniper would be captured.
“There was some additional information we were able to get from last night’s case and I am confident that ultimately that information is going to lead to an arrest in this case,” Manger told a news briefing.
Authorities said Franklin had not been involved in the sniper investigation and was considered another random victim.
A spokesman for Franklin’s family, Bill Murray, appealed for anyone with information to come forward.
“Linda’s family is shocked by the senseless loss of life and is calling on anyone with any information about this tragedy to contact law enforcement,” he said.