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Two Men Questioned in Sniper Hunt

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Two men questioned in sniper hunt

Oct. 21 -- Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose appealed to whoever left a letter at Saturday's shooting. NBC's David Bloom reports on the investigation early Monday, before a man was detained at a gas station.

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

RICHMOND, Va., Oct. 21 — Police said two men were being questioned by sniper investigators Monday after at least one of them was seized when a SWAT team surrounded a white van parked next to a gas station pay phone. But sources close to the investigation couldn’t say conclusively whether the sniper had been nabbed. And shortly after the SWAT team action, the sniper task force issued a statement — directed at the person who left a note at Saturday’s shooting scene — saying it was “preparing” a response to his message.

THE DETENTIONS were confirmed by Hanover County Sheriff Stuart Cook, who said the men were “being questioned at this time ... in regards to the sniper shootings.”

“They have not been charged,” he said, adding, “that’s all I can point out.”

Cook also announced that ballistics tests had tied Saturday’s shooting to the other sniper attacks.

One source close to the case told NBC’s David Bloom that the sniper was not in custody. The source did not elaborate, leaving open the possibility that the men in custody were somehow connected to the case.

But another source said it was not clear what connection, if any, the detentions had.

The events Monday began when a SWAT team surrounded a white van parked next to a pay phone at a Richmond gas station. A police source told NBC’s Joe Johns that a man had made a call relevant to the sniper investigation from the pay phone.

Initial reports indicated only one person was taken into custody, but Cook said two men had been detained, suggesting a second man was seized in the van.

No gun was found inside the van, sources told NBC News, but search warrants were being issued for other property.

The van has a roof rack but does not fully match the descriptions of white utility vans issued by the sniper task force. The van at the gas station has windows all around, while the utility vans had no side windows.

A police officer at the scene said the van was a Plymouth Voyager with temporary Virginia tags.

Keith Underwood, a witness to the police operation, told MSNBC Cable that police appeared to have been staking out the gas station from his business across the street and then swooped down on the van, tugging on the door until it opened and apprehending the driver, apparently without much of a struggle.

STATEMENT BY TASK FORCE

Less than an hour after the SWAT action, the sniper task force delivered a statement, but did not refer to the Richmond incident.

Instead, Charles Moose, the sniper task force coordinator and police chief of Montgomery County, Md., read a statement to the person who left a message at the scene of a shooting Saturday in Ashland, Va., outside a restaurant called the Ponderosa Steakhouse.

“We are going to respond to a message that we have received,” he told reporters. “We will respond later. We are preparing our response at this time.” Moose then left the podium without taking questions.

Moose’s statement followed one Sunday night in which he said: “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 left the podium.

An investigator who read the lengthy message told Bloom that the contents indicate “this could be a very difficult time we are about to go through.”

Investigation sources told NBC News that investigators believe the letter came from the sniper, opening what may be a first round of communication.

The message was found in woods behind the steakhouse, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Monday, quoting unidentified law enforcement sources. The report also said police have found more than one tarot card during the investigation. Only one tarot card, found near the shooting of a student at a school in Bowie, Md., had been reported until now.

Previously, the longest distance from Washington that the sniper had struck was in Spotsylvania County, about 50 miles south of the nation’s capital.

Ashland is about 85 miles south of Washington. With about 6,000 residents, it is a favorite stop for travelers along Interstate 95, offering a variety of restaurants and gas stations.

SHOOTING VICTIM CONSCIOUS

Saturday’s shooting victim, whose name has not been released, remained in critical condition Monday after six hours of surgery. Doctors had to remove his spleen, part of his stomach, and half of his pancreas.

Dr. Rao Ivatury, director of trauma at the hospital, 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.

Surgeons succeeded Sunday night in removing the bullet from the man and turned it over to investigators for forensic testing.

Police said the victim, who is 37 years old, was shot shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday in the parking lot at the steakhouse while walking to his car with his wife.

ONE SHOT

The victim was struck with a single bullet, just as the other sniper victims.

The case 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 farther away from Washington, D.C., than any previous shooting.

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

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