Military aircraft called in for sniper hunt

Police revealed their first strong lead last night in their hunt for the Washington serial sniper hours after an FBI analyst killed outside a DIY store was confirmed as the gunman's ninth fatal victim.

Officers said a witness had described a dark-skinned man, possibly Hispanic or Middle Eastern, racing from the scene of the shooting in a white van. Other witnesses were able to give registration details of the vehicle, which matched a description of a van previously sought by police.

The US Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld agreed to the FBI's request to use military surveillance aircraft in the hunt for the killer. Federal agents onboard will relay any information they collect to authorities on the ground. The Army also has started searching its records for people with sniper training.

Linda Franklin, the eleventh person shot by the sniper, was pronounced dead at the scene after being hit in the head by a single .223 calibre bullet while loading her car at the Home Depot store in Falls Church, northern Virginia, at 9.15pm on Monday local time. Mrs Franklin, who had two grown-up children, was shopping with her husband in preparation for a house move at the end of the week.

Law enforcement sources said there was no indication that Mrs Franklin had been attacked because of her job as an analyst with the bureau's National Infrastructure Protection Centre, which assesses threats against major structures and internet systems. Rather, it seems she fitted the pattern of the sniper choosing victims at random.

Robert Young, a Washington construction worker, returned to the shopping centre yesterday to tell the police what he had seen on Monday night as he backed his truck out of one of the parking spots. He said he heard a muffled gunshot and saw a white van.

He said the van, with two men inside, tried to turn into his lane. The driver appeared very agitated to find his way blocked and took another route. Mr Young described the driver as a short man of slight build who appeared to be Middle Eastern. He said: "I got a good look at the guy."

Witnesses said that even as Mrs Franklin lay dying, people were bundling their newly bought items into their cars before speeding off.

"You know, until now I thought the biggest threat was from people driving too fast in the car park," said Denise Pringle, who was selling pumpkins and plants from a trailer in another shopping plaza opposite the Home Depot. "I drove past Home Depot at around 9.05pm last night so I must have missed it by just a few minutes. I don't know, maybe it's safer here now that he has struck. They just want to catch him quick."

Hundreds of officers immediately set up a dragnet along the highways around Falls Church looking for a white Astro van, reportedly seen leaving the area. The state governor's office said the van was believed to have a Maryland registration plate.

There were reports that several people had given detectives a detailed description of a suspect, said to be wearing a blue shirt and trousers.

Tom Manger, the Fairfax County police chief, said: "There was some additional information that we were able to get from last night's case and I am confident that information is going to lead us to an arrest in the case. We have been receiving quite a bit of information from witnesses. Information is always the key in solving cases like this."

Police formed a line and got down on their hands and knees for a fingertip search of the store car park yesterday. As they worked, a tow truck hauled away Mrs Franklin's car ­ a small red convertible with a black cloth top ­ for forensic science tests.

But despite such highly visible efforts by police, with the sniper having claimed his ninth fatality, anxiety is reaching new levels as people grow increasingly aware of the random way in which the victims are selected.

"The police are doing everything they can," said Mike Hoskins, 20, who was entering a store opposite Home Depot. "Unfortunately, it seems we have someone sick enough to go around killing people. It's disgusting, it's outrageous. You get worried when you go to the gas station."

A tribute to Mrs Franklin was paid by the FBI director, Robert Mueller, who said: "Linda was a dedicated employee and she will be missed. All of us are deeply shocked and angry over this tragedy."

Mrs Franklin recently had a double mastectomy because of breast cancer and was still in physical therapy, according to a friend, Paul Hulseberg.