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Cryptic Message Left at Va. Shooting

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Cryptic message left at Va. shooting

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

ASHLAND, Va., Oct. 20 — In a tantalizingly cryptic briefing, the police chief leading the investigation into the serial sniper attacks plaguing Washington, D.C. and its environs spoke Sunday to an unknown person “who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night,” asking that person to call authorities “at the number you provided.” Authorities believe the sniper left the message, opening what may be a first round of communication, NBC News has learned.

‘To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night: You gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided. Thank you.’

— CHARLES MOOSE

Montgomery County police chief AT A press conference, Charles Moose, the Montgomery County, Md., police chief, spoke briefly to reporters, saying he would take no questions. Moose read a statement that seemed to speak directly to the unknown party.

“To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night: You gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided. Thank you.” With that, Moose turned and left the podium.

Officer Joyce Utter, spokeswoman for Montgomery County police, said afterward: “To the person who left the message, it should make complete sense. That is the only person Chief Moose wants to talk to.”

Moose asked the media to carry the message clearly and often, but did not take questions and did not elaborate. It was not clear how or where the message was left.

It was the latest twist in the attacks attributed to the serial sniper, and perhaps the most perplexing. It came as authorities continued to methodically comb the woods and parking lot behind the Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland, Va., trying to find evidence that may link the Saturday-night shooting of the man there to the sniper attacks that have claimed nine lives in the Washington area.

MORE SURGERY FOR VICTIM

Meanwhile, the 37-year-old man wounded Saturday at the steakhouse fought for life Sunday as he returned to surgery doctors at a Richmond hospital characterized as “life-saving.”

Identifying the caliber of bullet could aid investigators in establishing a connection to the sniper plaguing the region since Oct. 2.

NBC News has learned that the wounded man was taken back into surgery about 7 p.m. Sunday. The surgery, being done in order to reconnect the victims’ intestine and small bowel, is considering “life-saving.” Doctors are also expected to clean out infections and repair damage to the victims’ abdomen. They would not say whether or not they would immediately try to remove the bullet, and have referred all question about the bullet to police.

Although the Ponderosa shooting did not occur in metropolitan Washington, where a sniper has killed nine people this month, scores of police units responded, shutting down Interstate 95 through Maryland and Virginia for miles and searching for a white van with a ladder rack.

Police said the victim was shot shortly before 8 p.m. in the parking lot at the steakhouse in Hanover County while walking to his car with his wife. He was conscious and able to talk to doctors when he arrived at Medical College of Virginia Hospital in Richmond.

At an earlier news conference Sunday, Dr. Rao Ivatury, director of trauma at the hospital, described the physical damage the man suffered.

“We had to remove part of his stomach, pancreas and spleen,” he said of the victim. “His stomach was ripped apart. His pancreas was torn in half, so we had to take out the left half. His spleen was in multiple fragments, so we had to remove the spleen.” Ivatury said the bullet also grazed a kidney.

‘GUARDED ... REASONABLE PROGNOSIS’

Ivatury, who said the man’s injuries were “typical of gunshot wounds in that area,” said the victim’s prognosis “is guarded, but since he is a very healthy man, the chances are fair to good, I would say ... Because of his youth and his good health, he has a reasonable prognosis.”

The man was conscious but unable to talk because he was on a ventilator, he said.

“At the next operation we will make an attempt to see if we can take the bullet out safely,” the doctor said. “It’s not my priority, but we’ll certainly do it depending on the stability of the patient.”

FORENSIC DETECTIVES

‘Sometimes a firearms expert can assess or approximate the caliber of weapon by looking at X-rays from different angles.’

— DR. PAUL B. FERRARA

Director, Virginia's Division of Forensic Science Unless the bullet is removed, officials cannot conclusively determine whether it was fired from the same rifle used in 11 previous assaults — nine fatal — in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

However, it may be possible at least to determine whether the bullet is the same size, .223-caliber, that was used in the earlier attacks, said Dr. Paul B. Ferrara, director of Virginia’s Division of Forensic Science.

“It depends on the condition of the bullet and how badly fragmented it is,” Ferrara said Sunday. “Sometimes a firearms expert can assess or approximate the caliber of weapon by looking at X-rays from different angles.”

The man, who remained unidentified Sunday, came out of three hours of surgery around midnight and was then listed in critical condition, said hospital spokeswoman Pam Lepley.

ONE SHOT

Police told NBC News that the victim was struck in the abdomen with a single bullet. The confirmed victims of the capital sniper were also hit with a single shot. Hanover County Sheriff Stuart Cook told reporters that the man was traveling through the area with his wife, who was not injured.

Cook said investigators had very little to go on so far. No witnesses reported seeing the shooter, police said.

“The best evidence we have right now from the few witnesses we have — they believe the shot came from a wooded tree line” behind the restaurant and other adjacent businesses, Ashland Police Chief Frederic Pleasants said.

Ashland is about 90 miles south of Washington and about 35 miles south of Fredericksburg, where two previous shootings this month were linked to the sniper.

LINK TO PAST SHOOTINGS UNCLEAR

A police statement said several witnesses reported hearing a single shot from woods behind the restaurant. But while the shooting could be characterized as the work of a sniper and police responded in force, they stressed that for now, they had no specific reason to believe the shooter was the same gunman who has killed nine people and wounded two others in Washington and its suburbs since Oct. 2.

Likewise, although roadblocks were set up along major roads heading north to Washington and police searched for a white van with a ladder rack, they said they were doing so as part of a planned procedure developed in light of the sniper shootings, not because a white van had been sighted at the scene, as in some of the previous shootings.

The case also differed from the sniper’s previous pattern in at least two important respects: It took place on a Saturday, while all of the previous shootings occurred on weekdays, and it was not in metropolitan Washington.

But “we are not taking any chances. We are deploying our resources as if it’s connected,” Hanover County sheriff’s Lt. Doug Goodman said. “Better safe than sorry.”

‘INTERACTIVE TERRORISTS’

Meanwhile, a former FBI profiler said Sunday that if the shooting at a Ponderosa parking lot is linked to the Washington-area sniper, it’s likely the sniper attacked south of his usual killing fields to outwit law enforcement officials as they reveal new techniques to find him.

“This guy, these guys or the guy and his girl are interactive terrorists,” said the former profiler, Clint Van Zandt, who is also an analyst for MSNBC. “I believe they are interacting, they are responding, they are changing, evolving as this goes on. They are interacting with law enforcement via the media.”

Throughout the investigation, police have quietly said they feared the possibility of copycat shootings inspired by the massive news coverage of the Washington area cases. Shootings preliminarily believed to have been by copycats have been reported in recent days in a variety of cities, including Chesterville, Ohio, and Long Island, N.Y.

Pleasants said the man’s wife heard a sound, but didn’t recognize it as a gunshot, then saw her husband take about three steps before collapsing. Pleasants said the couple was traveling and had stopped to get gas and something to eat.

A REGION ON EDGE

‘We certainly felt sorry about all the people up north who were nervous, and now it’s down here and we’re nervous, too.’

— NANCY ELROD

shopper Ashland, with about 6,000 residents, is a favorite stop for travelers along Interstate 95. It is just off the highway and offers a variety of restaurants and gas stations. It is just north of Interstate 295, a bypass of Richmond and Petersburg.

Russ Brickey, 26, a maintenance mechanic, said he had eaten at the Ponderosa many times and couldn’t believe this type of violence had made its way to Ashland.

“This is like a high-tech Mayberry,” Brickey said as he stood across the street from the restaurant. “Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen here — period.”

At the Virginia Center Commons mall, about seven miles from the shooting, a normally busy food court sat half-empty Sunday. Shopper Nancy Elrod said she almost had been too afraid to come.

“We certainly felt sorry about all the people up north who were nervous, and now it’s down here and we’re nervous too,” said Elrod, 45.

POST: DIFFERENT SHELL TYPE FOUND FRIDAY

Pleasants said that because the bullet from the shooting Saturday night is lodged in the victim, police have not turned over any ballistic evidence to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Another potentially promising lead on the sniper appeared to evaporate Saturday when tests revealed that a shell casing found Friday in a white box truck in Virginia was not similar to the bullets used by the sniper, The Washington Post reported Saturday night, quoting law enforcement sources.

The shell casing, found by a truck rental company and turned over to police Friday, would have held the equivalent of a .30-caliber or similar bullet, sources told the Post. The bullets used in the previous shootings firmly attributed to the sniper were significantly smaller .223-caliber bullets.

How D.C.-area residents are coping

It was the second apparent dead end in a week for investigators, who had spent the early part of the week chasing a lead from a Falls Church, Va., man who said he had seen the sniper up close when he killed a woman Monday.

Authorities charged the man, whom they had called their best witness, with filing a false report Friday, saying his story was completely bogus.

The man, Matthew Dowdy, 37, was charged with making a false statement concerning the killing of FBI analyst Linda Franklin at a Fairfax County Home Depot store.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Dowdy was ordered held without bail pending a hearing Monday.

The reward for information leading to capture of the killer has grown to more than $500,000.

Authorities have established a hot line — 1-888-324-9800 — for any tips but said they were still overwhelmed and urged only callers with specific leads to call. People with non-urgent information should submit tips online at www.fbi.gov/sniper/sniper.htm.

People can also write in with tips to P.O. Box 7875, Gaithersburg, Md. 20898-7875.

MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and Michael Ross, MSNBC’s Nikole Killion, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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