By Phillip Caston and Tamara El-Khoury
ANNAPOLIS – Police may not be looking for an expert marksman in a killing frenzy that took the lives of at least five Maryland residents Wednesday and Thursday.
Firearm experts say any individual with basic rifle skills could execute the unsuspecting victims, all of whom were outdoors in broad daylight, with the same accuracy.
The fact that the shooter fatally wounded each of the victims with one shot, either in the head or torso, does not necessarily make them an expert shot, said Roy Tarbutton, legislative vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association.
The killer knew where to shoot to kill most quickly, he said.
“A hunter is efficient,” Tarbutton said. “He doesn’t want to see the animal suffer, he wants to kill it instantly.”
The shooting spree began at 5:20 p.m. Wednesday at a Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill, but no one was injured there.
The killer took his first victim, James Martin, 55, at 6:04 p.m. in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton.
At 7:41 a.m. Thursday, James “Sonny” Buchanan, 39, was shot dead while riding a lawnmower in White Flint. At 8:12 a.m. cabdriver Prenkumar Walekar, 54, was shot while pumping gas at Mobil at Connecticut Avenue and Aspen Hill Road. Then at 8:37 a.m., Sarah Ramos, 34, was killed while sitting on a bench in front of a post office in Silver Spring.
The last Maryland victim died at 9:58 a.m. when Lori Lewis-Rivera, 25, was shot at a Shell gas station as she was vacuuming her car.
Police are hunting for what they believe is a team of two men, a driver and a shooter, who may have been driving a white foreign-made box van. Two other shootings in Washington, D.C., and Virginia are being investigated as possibly tied to the Montgomery County killings.
All of the Maryland victims were most likely hit with .223-caliber bullets fired from a high-powered rifle at a distance, said Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose.
“We do have someone that so far has been very accurate in what they are attempting to do, and so we probably have a skilled shooter,” Moose said.
However, the gunman would not have to be extremely skilled or have access to an advanced weapon, nor would he or she have to be former law enforcement or military, Tarbutton said.
Any hunter, the experts said, could probably approach the same accuracy. However, the kind of ammunition believed used in the killings is not permitted in hunting, said Michael Britt, a forensics expert in New York who often testifies in court cases involving firearms.
“A .223 round is used for wounding, not for killing,” Britt said.
There is no way to determine what type of round was used without having the shell casing from the bullet, the actual bullet, or knowing what kind of gun the shooter used, Britt said.
Police have only retrieved bullet fragments from the victims.
“If I were testifying in court on this, with the information available to me, I would say it’s insufficient for an opinion,” Britt said.
The possibility that the shooter used a pistol also cannot be ruled out, Britt said, given the scant evidence.
The killers also could be using ammunition similar to a .223-caliber round, said Tarbutton.
“Any modern rifle could fire that type of round or one similar to it,” Tarbutton, 58, said.
Although the .223-caliber round is the most commonly used, Tarbutton mentioned that other frequently used rounds are the .222-caliber, the .22-250- caliber, often used for groundhog hunting, and the .220-caliber Swift round, which Tarbutton said had the highest velocity.
Other factors could have improved the accuracy of even an amateur shot, Tarbutton said.
If the shooter fired from a vehicle, he or she could rest the gun for an easier shot than could be obtained while standing.
A scope would also considerably improve the accuracy of the shot, Tarbutton said, and they are regularly used by most hunters.
Judging by the high accuracy of the shots, Britt said, the shooter likely did not fire from farther than 200, or even 100, yards away.
Tarbutton disagreed, saying a gunman would not have to be extremely skilled to hit a target from 100 yards.
“Your average off-the-shelf bolt action rifle will shoot a group (of bullets),” Tarbutton said, “from one to two inches apart at a distance of a 100 yards.”