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The cop vs. the killer

• Portland's former police chief trades cryptic messages with a mysterious sniper • Moose's unusual approach raises questions about his handling of a national nightmare Outbursts earn Moose support, criticism

ROCKVILLE, Md. Ñ The story seems stolen from a movie script: a brazen, stone-cold killer versus a police chief who has vowed to wade through an emotional minefield Ñ tears, anger and frustration Ñ to catch him.

Former Portland Police Chief Charles Moose emerged again Sunday and Monday at center stage of a national drama. Monday morning's arrest of two people who were questioned in connection with the Washington, D.C., serial shootings initially did little to quell the growing sense of insecurity in the area.

October's sniper shootings, which have left nine dead and three critically wounded, have been terrifying for the nearly 6 million people who live in and around Washington, D.C.

Residents of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs outside D.C. have imprisoned themselves in their homes, afraid to go about such mundane chores as filling a gas tank, running to the market or doing yardwork.

At the center of it all is the 49-year-old Moose, now the top cop in Montgomery County, Md. It was in his jurisdiction that the first five killings occurred during a 16-hour period Oct. 2 and Oct. 3.

That cast Moose as the leader of a regional task force Ñ which includes the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and several local police agencies Ñ charged with hunting the sniper before he could strike again.

Even when the case comes to its conclusion, Moose's actions are likely to remain the subject of much debate. His Sunday and Monday news conferences, during which he seemed to be talking directly to the shooter, were puzzling and controversial.

While the elected officials who hired Moose and work with him are raving about his leadership, some renowned criminologists and experts see a tightly wound cop who has let his emotions run wild and played right into the hands of a sniper who seems to be monitoring news reports and adjusting his patterns accordingly.

Dr. Steve Pieczenik, a resident of Chevy Chase, Md., who served four American presidents as deputy assistant secretary of state, international crisis manager and hostage negotiator, said Moose's role at the center could be exacerbating the situation.

'I'm not Monday-morning quarterbacking,' Pieczenik says. 'I said from Day One, 2 1/2 weeks ago, there was no reason for Moose not to cut off the media almost immediately.

'I don't know what to think' about the cryptic messages from Moose to the sniper,' he says. 'What's clearly coming across on Chief Moose is that he's totally reactive and almost plaintive in saying, 'Oh, my God, please don't do this again.' '

When police said on Oct. 5 that schoolchildren were safe, the sniper waited two days before choosing a school yard in Bowie, Md., and critically wounding a 13-year-old boy. The youth was hit by a single shot from a .223 round that can be fired by as many as 30 assault and hunting rifles.

Hours after the boy's shooting, Moose challenged the sniper on national television as a large tear rolled down his left cheek.

'Someone is so mean-spirited that they shot a child,' Moose told the cameras. 'Now we're stepping over a line because our children don't deserve this. Shooting a kid, I guess it's getting really, really personal now.'

After Saturday's shooting in the Richmond, Va., area, Moose resurfaced as the primary spokesman for the investigation after apparently delegating the news conference chores near the end of last week.

On Monday morning, he began the day with a terse news conference at which he seemed to be speaking only to the sniper. This took place even while the story of Monday's first arrest Ñ of a 24-year-old man driving a Plymouth Voyager van near Richmond Ñ was breaking.

'Not impressed'

'I'm not impressed with Charles Moose,' continues Pieczenik, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and critically acclaimed author of psycho-political novels. 'I don't think he's handled it well. The police chief of any unit, and I've worked with many, should never be emotive and a volatile personality who makes pleas to the gunman and develops a personalized relationship through the media with the gunman.

'It's totally ineffective. It causes a feeding frenzy. Moose is now inviting copycats to come in. They realize he's extremely vulnerable as a leader and does not know how to manage a crisis. I wouldn't be surprised to have copycats within 48 hours.

But the officials who work with Moose on a daily basis see it differently.

'He's done a marvelous job for three years, and now the whole nation is seeing what kind of a person he is,' says Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, who hired Moose away from Portland in 1999. 'I knew he would do a great job, but he exceeded my expectations.'

Support from Katz

Portland Mayor Vera Katz says that she wishes Moose had stayed in Portland and that his passion is often misconstrued as hotheadedness. 'He's a very caring individual and sensitive,' Katz says. 'Most people don't see that. And he doesn't tolerate fools easily, including the media.'

Moose's emotions, particularly his temper, were hallmarks of his six-year tenure as Portland's chief after an 18-year career that began as an officer on the city's streets.

Moose grew up in a leafy, middle-class neighborhood in Lexington, N.C., a town of 20,000. His father, David Moose, taught biology in middle school and high school. Moose wrestled at the University of North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor's degree in American history in 1975.

Mentored by legendary black Police Chief Reuben Greenberg, then a UNC professor and now chief of police in Charleston, S.C., Moose answered Portland's call for minority police recruits in 1975. He worked his way up to chief by 1993.

While gaining a national reputation for his community policing policies and overseeing an 18 percent drop in Portland's crime rate, Moose also lashed out at the media and city officials. Four times between 1975 and 1992, he was reprimanded for blowing up at civilians, mostly store clerks he thought were discriminating against him on the basis of race.

A Portland police union official, speaking privately, says: 'Chief Moose was well liked in the beginning, but as time went on, people saw him as less effective. He was explosive at times. He could be extremely volatile.'

Doug Gansler, the state of Maryland's attorney for Montgomery County, says he has an excellent working relationship with Moose's department, while many neighboring departments have acrimony with their prosecutors.

'I look at that temper as being his passion,' Gansler says. 'He's a cop's cop. He's somebody who defends and backs up and supports his people through thick and thin.'

On Oct. 9, Moose angrily denounced some media outlets for reporting that the sniper had left a tarot card at the scene of the 13-year-old's shooting, taunting police with the words 'Dear Mister Policeman: I am God.'

Gansler says it was a cop from the neighboring jurisdiction of Prince George's County, Md., who leaked the tarot card to a local television reporter before Moose even knew about it.

'That was a display of frustration,' prosecutor Gansler says of Moose's televised dressing-down of the media. 'He viewed it, properly, as a police officer from a neighboring jurisdiction as complicating the investigation.'

Hard to solve

The investigation also has been hampered by poor and conflicting witness statements and even the arrest of one witness who lied to police about seeing the shooting last week at a Home Depot in suburban Virginia. The witness set the investigation back days as police chased leads that the shooter used an AK-47 assault rifle and fired from a cream-colored Chevy Astro van.

Meanwhile, police have urged residents to walk quickly and in zigzag patterns while outdoors to avoid an assailant who has killed all nine of his victims with single shots, many to the back of the head. And they continue to tell the public to be on the lookout for white vans.

High school football games and most other outdoor school and public events have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. Starbucks coffee shops and area restaurants have closed their outdoor seating areas. Many residents shield themselves behind their cars while they fill their fuel tanks. Some put the pump on automatic and then lie across their car seats, while others drive well out of their way to have red-bereted Guardian Angels pump their gas.

'I wait until the afternoon to get gas, and I stay in my truck cab,' says Fauri Cook, 27, a driver for MotorSport towing and recovery and a Bowie, Md., resident who lives two minutes from the middle school where the 13-year-old was shot.

'I'm thinking about carrying my gun,' Cook says. 'And the other day I ran a red light to get away from a white van that was next to me.

'When I drive through D.C., I check the rooftops for a sniper. I'm just always nervous.'

J. Todd Foster is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in national magazines.