Police Criticized for Not Releasing Information Sooner in Sniper Case

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Within an hour of police releasing to the public the first detailed description of "persons of interest" in the "Beltway Sniper" murders, an alert citizen located the two men and notified police. Now, police are under fire for not giving the public more information, sooner, to assist them with the investigation.

After the arrests of 42-year-old John Allen Williams, also known as John Muhammad, and a young man he considers a stepson, 17-year-old Lee Malvo, Maryland State Police Maj. Greg Shipley praised the police tactical team members who took the two into custody.

"These are specially trained law enforcement officers who know how to react in tactical situations like this in order to insure as much safety as possible," he said. "They did it very carefully, very quickly, very efficiently, and these two individuals were taken into custody without any problem."

But authorities have said little about the fact that it was a citizen, not police officers, who actually located the two men. A motorist, passing through a rest area on Interstate 70 in Frederick County, Md., saw a vehicle matching the description released by police early Thursday morning and called 911.

Police were reportedly given the description of an older model, blue, Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey license plates the night of Thursday, Oct. 3, after the fifth victim was murdered. They were distracted from that car, however, when a chase involving another vehicle ensued.

Geoffrey Neale, national chairman of the Libertarian Party, told CNSNews.com Thursday that the police should seek the public's help, but with a caveat.

"Obviously this is information that, if it was known, it's certainly legitimate to ask if we couldn't have caught these guys a couple of murders [sooner] if the information had been out there," he opined. "[But] there is a limit to how much information you can give out.

"It's not necessarily beneficial to tell the guy, 'Hey, we know exactly where you are and we're coming after you," Neale added. "That's a tough call ... but allowing the public to be an adjunct to legitimate police forces is a damn good idea. It just makes sense."

Criminal profiler and forensics expert Brent Turvey described himself as "one of the strongest critics" of the investigation into the murders. But after the arrests, he praised Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose for finally releasing information to the public that allowed individual citizens to help with the investigation.

"That was crucial," he told Fox News Channel. "That was a good call."

Turvey emphasized that the public is almost always responsible for the capture of serial murderers.

"You have an alert citizen who calls in a tip about seeing that vehicle," he continued. "That was excellent, and that's the kind of thing that breaks cases."

Police in New York caught the infamous "Son of Sam" killer only after an observant citizen reported his vehicle as having received a parking ticket near the scene of one of the murders.

Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski was identified after his rambling "manifesto" was published in major national newspapers, not by police, but by his brother and sister-in-law.

Former Washington, D.C., police detective Trevor Hewick was also critical of investigators for not sharing more information with the public sooner.

"I've still got problems with this. They're going to face a lot of criticism over how they handled this," he said.

Police should have given area residents more information about the alleged suspects, Hewick charged, including some of the details from a note left at the scene of one of the shootings, indicating that the murders were at least partially motivated by money.

"They have handled this completely wrong. [You've] got to get it out to the public, have to get it out to the media, and you have to get it out to your troops on the street," he added. "Instead they didn't. I don't know what the reasoning was, but they didn't play it out and the sniper suspects went out and killed four more people."

Neale speculated that that ominous possibility, and the quick success in capturing the two suspects after police did involve the public in the search, may encourage investigators to reach out to citizens for help sooner in future investigations.

"Police should view the general public as allies," he concluded, adding, "I applaud the person who was observant enough to notice this car."

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