The futile search for a white van in shootings

WASHINGTON – During the Beltway sniper siege, all eyes were looking for white vans.

Yet the snipers did their killing from a hole cut in the trunk of a 1990 Chevy Caprice.

A month before the shooting spree, the snipers shot Prince George’s County pizza shop owner Paul LaRuffa.

“The window exploded, and five bullets came shooting in,” LaRuffa says. “Every one of them hit me.”

The snipers robbed LaRuffa, and used the money to buy the Chevy Caprice.

An eyewitness spotted the dark-colored Chevy Caprice where Pascal Charlot, 72, was killed while walking on Georgia Avenue in D.C. on the second day of the shootings. Police also received up to a dozen reports about the suspicious vehicle during the paralyzing three weeks in October 2002.

white van search sniper (AP/2002)

Searches of white vans were common in the investigation. (AP)

Still, people in the terrified region searched aimlessly for a white van or box truck.

Prince William County Police Chief Charles Deane remembers the hunt for the white vehicle.

“This media frenzy of white vans just fed on itself,” he says.

Though the public sent tips about the Caprice, the former head of the sniper task force – then-Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose – concedes police never told the public to be on the lookout for a similar car.

“I’ve never been able to figure out why it didn’t rise up maybe to a status that would have certainly caused us to announce that in the public,” Moose says, 10 years later.

Moose speculates it may have been because white van sightings were more prevalent, or because the Caprice was seen moving slowly.

“Why we didn’t focus on that car, I just don’t know,” he says.

Three weeks later, police were able to confirm that the suspects’ car was indeed a 1990 blue Chevy Caprice.

Authorities’ dilemma then was over whether or not to share that information with the public. Moose says officials worried that the suspects might change vehicles if they heard there was a lookout in news reports on the radio or TV.

“We were always apprehensive that the perpetrators were listening,” Moose says. “If we put out certain information, they may get rid of the car, they may get rid of the license plate.”

Late on Oct. 23, Moose announced an arrest warrant for John Allen Muhammad on federal weapons charges. He did not disclose that Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were thought to be in a Caprice, but that information – along with the car’s license plate number – was leaked to the press and widely reported.

The Catch

A few hours later, on Oct. 24, a refrigerator repairman called 911.

“The 1990 blue Caprice that you’re looking for is sitting at a rest area,” he told the operator.

Former Maryland State Police Lt. Dave Reichenbaugh was 32 miles away from the Interstate 70 rest stop west of Frederick. He later found out he drove those 32 miles in 17 minutes.

Reichenbaugh ordered the highway closed and met two troopers, posting one at the rest stop entrance and the other at the exit.

“I told the two troopers that whatever happens, the people in that car do not leave that rest area,” he recalls.

SWAT teams and three K-9 units were also called to the scene.

“I told them, ‘Anybody that comes out of that rest area on foot, if they’re not in uniform, have your dogs eat them,'” he says.

The fortified SWAT team then moved in and grabbed the snipers. While John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo appeared very frightened, Reichenbaugh says the 17-year-old Malvo composed himself.

“Looking into his eyes felt like looking into the eyes of a shark on

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