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Witness to Recent Sniper Attack Gave False Testimony, Police Say

By Stephen Braun and Jonathan Peterson

A witness’ account of a sniper suspect in a cream-colored van, which touched off a furious dragnet late Monday involving police helicopters and roadblocks in two states, has been thrown out, law enforcement officials said Thursday.

The latest frustration in the sniper case underscored the scant evidence police have been able to assemble, despite more than two weeks of shootings that have terrorized the Washington, D.C., region, leaving nine dead and two wounded.

Investigators Thursday remained unable to complete a composite drawing of a suspect or even the getaway vehicle used in the most recent shooting, in Falls Church, Va., based on available information. Police also cast doubt on reports that a dark-skinned gunman fled the scene in Northern Virginia Monday night, an account that was provided by the discredited witness.

Still, they maintained that any damage to the investigation has been minimal. “I hope that this has not set back the investigation,” Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said. “Reports of the van were inaccurate, reports of an olive-skinned person were inaccurate.”

The witness, whom police declined to identify, emerged soon after the shooting of Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot store Monday night.

Just minutes after the first Fairfax County, Va., officers arrived at the open-air parking structure where Franklin had been hit, police began taking action based on the witness’ account that an “olive-skinned” man driving a “cream-colored” van with a silver ladder rack on top and a burned-out taillight on its left rear side had fled the scene. The witness also told police he had seen the gunman wield an AK-74, an assault rifle of Russian origin.

Based on that initial report, Fairfax police broadcast an alert for the suspect vehicle and driver over their departmental radio channels. Information also moved by teletype to police departments throughout the region. Police raced into position on major interstate highways, bridges and other roads, all in search of the cream-colored van.

“One of the alerts did come from this,” Fairfax spokeswoman Lt. Amy Lubas said Thursday. At the same time, she added, the erroneous lookout was one of a number of “bulletins and alerts sent all over the place that night” by police officers fed accounts by witnesses at the Home Depot and on the roads nearby. “Did it cripple the investigation? No,” Lubas said.

Reports of a white van, possibly a Chevy Astro or Ford Econoline, remain of intense interest in the case, and task force officials have previously released composite drawings of such vehicles, based on witness accounts from a shooting in Spotsylvania County, Va. Police also have released a composite picture of a white box truck reported by witnesses near crime scenes in Montgomery County.

Dozens of light-colored vans were halted on Virginia and Maryland highways after the shooting Monday night, and dark-skinned drivers were detained -- in some cases, at gunpoint -- by police before they were released.

Police said Thursday they were still uncertain whether the witness had purposely given a false report or was overcome by the emotion of the moment. But Lubas said Fairfax police were suspicious enough of the man’s motives to launch “a secondary, separate investigation” into his actions.