A Nation on Edge
November 2002

by Cliff Owen

"Do you know about the shooting?" she asked as we walked across the newspapers parking lot. "Yes, guy at the grocery store last night - sounds like a routine murder" I replied. "No, the one this morning!" Within an hour we had five dead and four photographers on the scene.

So began our three-week long nightmare of sniper shootings.

I'm a third generation Washington native and have worked as a photographer in the area since 1979 -- at Northern Virginia newspapers, UPI Washington and currently The Washington Times. I came to the paper in 1994 as a photographer and became the Assignment Editor two years ago. My knowledge of the area and coverage of spot news was useful during the sniper story. It helped us navigate photographers to the scene of shootings, the police roadblocks, and it helped me know who was closest to the story, including the Fredericksburg shootings, 60 miles south of DC.

I was able to call upon contacts at other news organizations for information. But nothing in my experience of covering news could tell me how to cover this sniper. He made no sense. We wrote the book on coverage as we went along.

On day one, we weren't quite certain if it was going to escalate into an all-day shooting spree, or another terrorist attack like 9-11 and the stress of making sure we covered all aspects of the story was intense. I met with Director of Photography Alan Zlotky and our Metro editors as much as possible throughout the day. We had televisions set to as many different local and cable news broadcasts in the newsroom as possible, used the internet to listen to local news radio, and I broke out my police radio scanner.

Montgomery County Police investigate the scene of one of a series of shootings in Montgomery County Md. This is this body of the women slain in front of the post office in Leisure World section of Silver Spring, Thursday, October 3, 2002.

Veteran DC. photographer Joe Silverman was able to get to three of the scenes quickly and made a photograph of a female victim sitting on a bench covered in a bloody sheet. Her feet can be seen below the sheet, resting as if she were still alive and sitting quietly. The photo was powerful and our editors decided to use it large as the lead photo on page A1 the next day. This play set the tone for our staff. Our editors made an aggressive decision to show the impact of this senseless killing and we were not about to let them down.

I cleared as many of our photographers' schedules as possible and sent them to the shooting scenes, to record public reaction, schools which were locked down, Montgomery County police headquarters for the constant appearances by Chief Moose, and to the homes of victims family members. Photographers were pulled out of the White House and Capitol Hill. Maya Alleruzzo was pulled from her prep for a trip to Iraq.

We changed work schedules to provide coverage during the morning and evening rush hours since the sniper appeared to like these times. Any photo request from editors was denied unless it was absolutely needed to meet a deadline. We left the White House, Congress and some local pro sports to wire coverage in order to free up staff. In addition to managing the sniper coverage, we still had to shoot for the other sections of the paper and we were down several people with the Redskins playing out of town, one photographer out on medical leave, and another on assignment in Florida.

A Montgomery County police office inspects a vehicle at a roadblock on Conn. Ave. a block from the sight of an early morning shooting which killed a RideOn bus driver as he stood in his bus on Grand Prix Road in the Aspen Hill section of Silver Spring, MD Tuesday October 22, 2002.

By the second week our daily routine was drastically changed. We have sixteen photographers, but only had eleven available to work this story. When you "can't get there from here," it made better sense to have people stationed in different locations. Since many of the shootings occurred at or near Michael's craft stores, I gave each photographer a list of every store in the area and instructed them to spend their down time near these shopping centers. We had three photographers start at 7:00 am and three more at 3:00 PM and had them sit in their cars, one each in Northern VA, Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties in Maryland. This would give us quick response to a shooting no matter where it would occur, and quick response to the police roadblocks that would be set-up following a sniper attack.

Our priority was to be accurate, get there quickly and get the best pictures. As photo assignment editor, I know that if there's a shooting or if the police capture the sniper and we're late getting to the scene, it's my butt. I slept with the police radio scanner on and next to my bed. I live near Aspen Hill, MD and found myself out covering, with my
cameras, the police response to 'shots fired' at 5:30 am on several mornings, and again to two of the shootings.

Rocket Hackett (cq) of Wheaton, pauses after placing flowers at the vacuum cleaner where one of the victims of yesterday's shooting spree was killed, at Knowles Rd. and Connecticut Avenue in Montgomery County MD on Friday, October 4, 2002. Ms. Hackett, who is pregnant, said she felt particularly sorrowful for this victim because she was a mother of a small child, although she placed flowers at all the murder locations.

Photographers Rod Lamkey and Gerald Herbert used their police radio scanners to keep me informed of information I missed. One photographer set up an informal network with some out-of-town photographers to share any breaking news of a shooting. Jessica Tefft, a veteran of the Columbine massacre, set about early in the story to keep staff morale up and to focus everyone on our tasks as photojournalists. Our staff worked long hours and gave up their days off without complaint. Some just wouldn't go home.

I researched where the sniper would be held once an arrest was made determined that the most likely location would be the Seven Locks jail in Rockville, Md. I had several photographers drive to the jail at different times of day and by different routes so we could have a quick and knowledgeable response once he was captured. Getting a photo of the sniper was my greatest worry. As it turned out, Montgomery County Police had prepped for him to be taken to Seven Locks and we had three photographers there by daylight the day he was arrested but the Feds stepped in and took him into their custody and he has not been seen.

Friends, family and community members join wife Margaret, center (getting hugged by the woman in the hat) and children Andrew and Andrea at the funeral service of Prem Kumar Walekar at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, MD, Sunday, October 6, 2002. ( Liz O. Baylen / The Washington Times )

On Wednesday Oct. 23 I began work at 6:30 am with another report of 'shots fired' in my neighborhood and did not get to sleep until 45 hours later. I had my 3 yr. old daughter for her weekly overnight with me and once I had her to sleep, the phone and radios lit-up. Reports of shootings, manhunts, pending police announcements. Wednesday nights seemed to be active during the 3 weeks with two shootings and now ... what?

Director of Photography Alan Zlotky called to say the Feds had search warrants and were searching two houses in the area and could I find out where? I worked the phones and internet until midnight when Chief Moose announced they had two "people of interest." Then all hell broke loose.

We had to get our photos from the Moose presser and of the suspect into the paper on a very tight deadline. We scrambled people to Muhammed's ex-wives house, set photographers on 'stand-by' and racked our brains over where/when/how would the police handle an arrest and how to be there. Within an hour Gerald Herbert was on his way to Frederick, Maryland on reports of another shooting. I worked my sources to find out what was happening, listened to the police radio and tried to keep the noise level down so that my daughter could sleep. 3:00 am brought another barrage of phone calls but thanks to the heads-up work of Gerald, we had the arrest under control -- but like everyone else -- no photos of it.

4:30 am Gerald informs me that he is making plans for a helo to make aerials of the arrest scene. 5:00 we scramble Rod Lamkey to the Task Force headquarters. 6:00 am our Metro editor called me and we planned future coverage. By 9:00 am I was dropping long glass to our photographers at the Seven Locks jail and then rushed to the paper as we published a special edition. Our deadline was 12:15 PM and we just made deadline with images from the arrest scene.

As a photo assignment editor in a situation like this, gratification comes from small things that make life easier for our photographers and allow them to create good images. If I can show them that I am willing to work the extra hours, to endure the cold and rain with them, then I think they don't mind when I ask them to endure hardship. If it means giving a photographer turn-by-turn directions over the cell phone while I read a map as they are going to the scene of a shooting via backroads, sending Starbucks coffee to photographers on a stakeout, stopping by a late night stakeout to see if a photographer needs anything and to keep them company, to haul long glass to a scene early in the morning, I'm going to do it.

After all, they make my job worthwhile with their awesome images. We beat our competition on this story but more importantly, we gave our readers images that told the story with impact. I would not trade our staff for any other. We worked as a team and that made all the difference in the world. Everyone sacrificed and gave of themselves.

We supplied pictures to the AP, Time Magazine, People, Newsweek, Der Spiegle and many others. Our images fronted major newspapers in the USA and abroad. In three weeks, we selected 494 images for publication.

We use Nikon D1, D1H cameras in addition to some Nikon film cameras, Nextel Direct Connect cell phones -- the Direct Connect radio feature proved invaluable, Macintosh PowerBooks, and Telefinder connection software for photo transmissions.

Cliff Owen
The Washington Times

Cliff Owen has covered news in 26 countries and 48 states. He was staff photographer at the Washington Times for five years before becoming the Photo Assignment Editor, two years ago.

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