The hand-printed letter tacked to a tree near the Ashland, Va., sniper shooting site is known for its chilling postscript -- "Your children are not safe anywhere at any time." But among those who study handwriting, it has had even more interesting things to say.
The world of graphology has been buzzing since last week, when the letter was distributed over the Internet after the arrests of two suspects in the string of shootings in the Washington area. Handwriting chat groups have been busy as people swap theories about the writer's personality.
For those who practice handwriting analysis, this is bigger than big.
"We're always excited to see handwriting," said Ted Widmer, a New Mexico graphologist and author of two books on the subject. "I love to see this guy's handwriting to see where he is at."
Law enforcement officials will use forensic handwriting analysis to try to link the presumed sniper letter -- and a tarot card left at another sniper scene -- with suspects John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17.
Some graphologists also use writing to analyze character, though critics are skeptical about its reliability for that purpose, calling it a pseudo-science.
The theories that result from this analysis do not always agree. Gary Brown, an Oregon graphologist who consults for federal agencies, believes Malvo wrote the letter.
He drew this conclusion largely by comparing the letter with Muhammad's signature on a court document. But Widmer, who also does law enforcement consulting, said the author seems older than 17.
In interviews, though, Widmer and Brown concurred that, if they had seen the letter before the arrests, it would not have helped them tell police the race or gender of the writer.
Both said the writing does not point to a foreign-born author, even though Malvo was born in Jamaica and spent much of his youth there.
Brown and an associate, Liz Welt, said the sniper letter was written by someone who is self-conscious, withdrawn and socially standoffish, a planner who could be dominated by another person who is older and quicker-thinking.
Brown also drew some conclusions about Muhammad, based on his signed court petition filed in Tacoma, Wash., in 2001 to change his last name from "Williams."
The writing, he said, reveals a man with a big ego, a demand for attention and a lack of organization.
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