D.C. Sniper Hunt Kept Ops on Toes

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Cable operators joined their communities in breathing a sigh of relief last Thursday, when law-enforcement officials declared an end to the multi-state search for the murderous Beltway sniper.

No longer will field technicians feel vulnerable while working outdoors in the many jurisdictions in which suspect John Allen Williams and an accomplice allegedly gunned down innocent citizens. And no more will installers fall under scrutiny for plying their trade from white vans, the vehicle initially thought to be used by the killer or killers.

Operators in the greater Washington, D.C., area said they tried to go about their business in as normal a manner as possible, but with a heightened awareness of employee security.

Cox Communications Inc. in Northern Virginia distributed a Metro News Digest and corporate security report to its workers each afternoon, and proffered security tips.

Field operatives were advised to remain especially vigilant while working outdoors, and were directed to report any suspicious activity to the regional tip line that was set up by the multi-jurisdictional task force trying to catch the killer.

Alex Horwitz, director of public affairs for the region, said he did not believe any employees called the hotline.

Events affected

Though workers in white vans were scrutinized, operators said that cable technicians were not singled out by authorities. Cable trucks, along with all other vehicles, were scrutinized in periodic roadblocks.

The danger did cause operators to shift some plans at the last minute.

Two weeks ago, Comcast Corp. employees in Montgomery County, Md., were forced to abruptly cancel "Comcast Cares Day" activities on the Saturday after the sniper killed six people in and around that locality. Comcast Cares is an annual initiative that sends workers to a chosen site — such as a school — for a day of cleaning, repair and painting.

The weeks during the search for the killer were filled with stress, but most activities continued. Shortly after the flurry of shootings in Montgomery County, Cox hosted a C-SPAN school bus visit in Fairfax City, Va. The event at Robinson High School featured an appearance by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige.

"Security was top-of-mind," said C-SPAN community relations manager Steve Roth. "There were discussions among the three parties, but we decided to go forward."

Paige arrived with his own security detail, and school police also kept watch.

"Frankly, it was the best event we've ever done," said Roth, who noted that it was well-attended.

But as the weeks wore on — and the killer wandered further afield — the level of caution increased.

C-SPAN and Comcast cancelled an event planned for Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, Md., on Oct. 8, according to Roth. And a lockdown at Washington's Jefferson Junior High School prevented a national book festival promotion, he added.

But the majority of community appearances at libraries and schools continued during the investigation, Roth said.

Events that did proceed — such as a Fairfax County, Va., C-SPAN and Cox activity on Oct. 24 — were supervised by law-enforcement officers, participants said.

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