Police made a rare direct appeal last night to the sniper who has terrorized the Washington region for weeks, after finding an apparent message and phone number from the shooter at the Ashland, Va., steakhouse where a 37-year-old man was critically wounded Saturday.
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose disclosed what could be the second known communication between the sniper and authorities, while using a hastily scheduled news conference to respond to the message directly.
"To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night: You gave us a telephone number," Moose said. "We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided."
The cryptic reply came as authorities worked to link Saturday's shooting in the restaurant parking lot to other attacks that have killed nine people and wounded two since Oct. 2. The unidentified victim in the most recent attack was in critical condition after surgery last night at a Richmond hospital, where a key piece of evidence - the bullet - was removed from his chest.
Police said they would not be able to say conclusively whether the attack is linked to the earlier shootings until they are able to examine the bullet. But investigators were acting on the assumption that it is, and they conducted a painstaking search of the Ashland crime scene, including a nearby wooded area where witnesses said the shot came from.
What appeared to be the most significant new clue also was the most mysterious.
Law enforcement sources said last night that investigators believe the message came from the sniper, offering police their first chance to make contact. However, authorities refused to answer any questions about the tantalizing message.
Moose said only that he wanted the media to broadcast the message. "Carry it clearly and carry it often," he said.
It was unclear last night whether the message to authorities came in a phone call or a written note, or exactly where it was found. Moose's appeal for a call to police raised the possibility that the phone number in the message was for a phone booth or a third party.
But the communication could offer a breakthrough for police, who have been frustrated for more than two weeks as the sniper has slipped through extensive dragnets and traffic searches. Until last night, the only apparent message from the shooter came on a tarot Death card left Oct. 7 outside a Bowie middle school where a 13-year- old boy was shot and wounded.
That message, which police have refused to discuss, reportedly said: Dear Policeman: I am God.
Brian H. Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino said that if the new message is another communication from the sniper, it would offer authorities an important chance to make contact with the man they want to catch.
Any dialogue with the elusive shooter would allow authorities to learn more about his state of mind and location, Levin said. It also would provide him with another method - besides killing - to communicate his message.
"Part of what he wants is respect. He's someone who feels that he plays by the rules and he didn't get the proper recognition, and this is his time," Levin said. "He might want to generate respect or he might want to ratchet it up another level - that he is so smart that he can talk directly to the police."
James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said serial killers often send messages as they begin to feel comfortable. But he said those messages typically do not allow police to solve a case.
"Maybe he wants to say something more than just, 'I'm God,' but he probably doesn't want to say, 'I'm at such and such address, come get me,'" Fox said. "It's a possible message from the perpetrator that could be of no value whatsoever except to make the shooter feel better."
Saturday's shooting - if linked to the other sniper attacks - would mark the first weekend incident and would be the farthest from Washington, shattering the relative security of many who live far from the Capital Beltway.
Although witnesses in Ashland said they heard the shot and saw the victim fall, no one reported seeing the shooter or described a getaway vehicle. Investigators were tight-lipped throughout the day.
"We're following up on all leads at this time," said Col. Stuart V. Cook of the Hanover County sheriff's office. "They are numerous, and we hope they will continue. ... We will not discuss what has been found, what has not been found."
Ashland, about 80 miles south of Washington and 10 miles north of Richmond, is more like a small town than a sprawling suburb. Developed by railroad interests as a mineral springs resort for vacationing Richmond residents, its quaint town center is split by railroad tracks and coal trains still rumble past. The town's most notable feature is the leafy campus of Randolph-Macon College.
Many residents in the town of 6,000 people said they had assumed that distance would provide a safe buffer from the Washington-area sniper.
"We felt a certain separation from all that," said Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican who represents the Richmond area. "This is quite a shock."
Over the weekend, some high school football games in Northern Virginia were moved to the Richmond area because of safety concerns. Last night, four Richmond-area school districts canceled today's classes for their 140,000 students.
Officials have released no identifying information about the victim other than to say that he was not from Virginia.
The man and his wife were traveling through the state when they pulled off Interstate 95 at Exit 92, apparently to fill up at a gas station and to eat dinner at Ponderosa, a steakhouse tucked among other restaurants just off the highway.
They left the restaurant about 8 p.m. and were walking to their vehicle in a back parking lot when a single shot rang out, police said. As his wife looked on, the man fell to his knees and said he had been hit.
The man underwent three hours of surgery last night at Medical College of Virginia Hospital at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was listed in critical condition last night with extensive injuries to abdominal organs, but doctors had reconnected his stomach and intestines.
"Because of his youth and because of his good health, he has a reasonable prognosis," Dr. Rao Ivatury, director of the trauma and critical-care unit, said before last night's surgery.
Ivatury said the bullet had ripped through the man's stomach, tearing his pancreas, fragmenting his spleen and grazing a kidney. Surgeons removed the bullet during surgery last night, and turned it over to authorities, a hospital spokesman said.
The bullet is a critical piece of evidence; police have linked the earlier shootings by comparing bullets or bullet fragments found at crime scenes.
In the hours after Saturday's shooting, police indicated that they had few solid leads. Authorities had no description of a getaway vehicle - unlike in some of the earlier shootings - but police closed area roads and I-95 for hours. When traffic was allowed back on the highway, each driver was checked as police searched for suspects or witnesses.
Cook said Richmond-area officers had been preparing plans in the event of a sniper shooting, meeting over the past two weeks and "discussing the what-ifs."
"Unfortunately, the what-ifs hit us. We were hoping it never would," Cook said. "But I think we were as prepared as any metropolitan area could have been under the circumstances."
Saturday's shooting broke what had been a nearly five-day lull in the attacks, the longest period without gunfire since the shootings began. Federal, state and local authorities have taken extraordinary measures to solve the crimes, which have unnerved the nation's capital.
Investigators have prepared sophisticated geographic and psychological profiles of the shooter. The military authorized the use of spy planes to patrol over Washington. FBI agents planned to interrogate al-Qaida detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, about any possible link to international terrorism, though White House officials have played down any such possibility.
"We're looking for every possible connection, but so far I've not seen anything that does tie it in to al-Qaida," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday on Fox television.
Over the weekend, authorities were testing a shell casing found in a white truck at a Virginia car rental agency to see whether it was linked to the crimes. Officials have not released the results of those tests, but a source told the Associated Press that the shell casing had "nothing to do with this case."
In Ashland, stunned residents were amazed that the sniper shootings had apparently now spread to their doorstep.
Outside a Waffle House restaurant across Route 54 from Ponderosa, Brenda and Ross Herring said Ashland is the kind of town where you can leave your car and front door unlocked without worry.
But Brenda Herring, 36, who works for an insurance company, said she had grown increasingly concerned as the hunt for the sniper wore on. This week, she quit jogging and started locking her doors.
"This is such a huge stop for people traveling up and down the East Coast," she said. "I had a feeling that he was going to head this way."
Sun staff writers Del Quentin Wilber, Johnathon E. Briggs, Tom Bowman and Greg Garland contributed to this article.