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When 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area were killed in a series of sniper attacks in the fall of 2002, a local police task force was overwhelmed. The FBI was called in and mobilized its “Rapid Start” computer program, which helped sort a deluge of tips and develop investigative leads. The program, while cumbersome, proved crucial to the case, which has been called the largest manhunt in U.S. history.
More than 140,000 tips were received, resulting in about 35,000 people identified as possible suspects, but most tips were useless. When a white van was spotted at the site of one shooting, it became the center of attention. Authorities released a sketch, putting virtually every white van in the region under suspicion. When two snipers were captured in a blue sedan, the task force and the news media faulted each other for focusing too heavily on the van. Other police frustrations included leaks to the news media and difficulty communicating with the snipers.
In the end, the snipers’ boastful phone call to police about a murder in Alabama led to their capture. FBI agents followed up with fingerprint analysis and international investigations. The cooperative efforts of federal and local law enforcement agencies led to the arrest of two suspects. Both were convicted of murder.