BALTIMORE -- The assassin favors shopping malls and gas stations, knows his way around five counties in two states, and if composite photographs are correct, likes a certain style of getaway vehicle.
Knowing that -- and that police, sheriff's deputies, state troopers and federal agents put up massive roadblocks within minutes of him pulling the trigger -- how does the killer slip free?
Because he plans an escape route, criminal experts said Tuesday, and because, after killing nine people in two weeks, the only wanted posters in the deadly case are of vans and trucks.
"This person is out there whacking people in broad daylight, and people don't know anything," said Colin Simpson, who investigated 33 young men murdered by John Wayne Gacy in Illinois. "These are very tough cases to handle."
Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst and mother of two, became the latest victim of the Washington-area sniper, gunned down as she loaded purchases from Home Depot into her red convertible Monday night, accompanied by her husband, in the capital suburb of Falls Church, Va.
Even though authorities sealed off sections of two interstates and all immediate roads leading to the sprawling outdoor shopping center, a light-colored van with rooftop ladder racks, which witnesses described to police, managed to get away.
"He does his planning," said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor in Boston who studies serial killers. "He likely plans in advance his escape route, and the police just don't have a clue."
Fairfax County Police Chief Tom Manger, thrust into speaking publicly Monday night about a killing spree that until then had skipped his affluent district, said officers were hampered by the shopping mall's sheer number of exits.
"There are a number of ways you can leave that shopping center, and in a few short minutes be in Alexandria (or) Arlington County," he said.
Franklin, 47, who assessed terrorist threats for the FBI, was shot in the head. Investigators said Monday night's witnesses have given the most detailed clues yet in a spree that began Oct. 2 outside a Montgomery County grocery store. Eleven people have been shot, including two who were wounded.
For the first time, license plate information was reported, though investigators refused to divulge it Tuesday. There also was a description of a dark-skinned man -- possibly Hispanic, possibly Middle Eastern -- inside the van.
"To catch this guy, you hope that law enforcement gets lucky and a witness says they have seen this exact truck, with this exact plate," said Simpson. "In the Gacy case, at least we had a lead. We had a missing persons report, and it was enough to get a search warrant," which led to the discovery of human remains.
"The guy that drives up and shoots someone for no reason is almost impossible find," Simpson said.
Former Maryland police officer Tod Burke, now a criminal justice instructor at Virginia's Radford University, said the killer either escapes before the dragnet comes down, or he has a hideout where he can watch the ensuing chaos.
"You can shut the roads down all you want," Burke said. "But if you're hiding out, you just wait until they reopen the roads."
But criminologist Mike Rustigan of San Francisco State University said the killer's increasing brazenness in shooting down people running everyday errands shows the assassin "is coming unglued."
To kill in a congested area, as happened Monday night, means "he's getting sloppy," Rustigan said. "He's not going to be able to blend in indefinitely.
"He's not careful or methodical. He's not killing over a series of years," Rustigan said. "He's got more luck than brains."
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