Case Study : Stopping a Serial Sniper

Suffolk County, New York, located on Long Island, 18-miles east of New York City, has a population of 1.3 million residents, who live in both suburban and rural areas. During the summer of 1994, the Suffolk County Police Department, with 2,663 sworn members, faced a series of sniper attacks that prompted a highly concentrated response from the department.

On the evening of July 22, 1994, a man and his wife were eating dinner at a windowside table in a Commack, New York, roadside restaurant. Suddenly, a bullet ripped through the window, striking the man and killing him instantly.

Three days later, at a self-serve gas station less than one-half mile away from the restaurant, located on the same well-traveled highway and at approximately the same time of evening, the station’s attendant was fired upon as he stood behind the cash register in the pay booth.
Fortunately, the attendant was protected from injury by bulletproof glass.

Investigating detectives from the Suffolk County Police Department believed one person was responsible for both shootings. The local news
media quickly dubbed the unknown assailant the “Suffolk Sniper.” Citizens throughout the county understandably became frightened at the
prospect of a roving sniper shooting victims at random.

In response, Suffolk County police implemented a comprehensive strategy to prevent future incidents, to provide a sense of security and protection to a terrified public, and to develop intelligence through increased police activity. The ultimate goal, of course, was to identify and arrest the offender.

On the evening of August 3rd, a third shooting incident reinforced the
need for a concentrated police response. At a fast food restaurant 8 miles from the earlier incidents, a worker was shot while cleaning tables.
A single round fired through the front window of the restaurant struck the employee, causing serious injury. Investigators immediately linked the case to the two previous shootings.


Because of the heinous nature of the crimes committed and the public fear they created, the Suffolk County Police Department mobilized all of
its resources. Each of the department’s divisions developed individual strategies that contributed to the agency’s overall response.

Patrol Division

Because each of the shooting incidents occurred in or adjacent to
the police department’s 4th precinct, the Patrol Division initiated saturation patrol throughout the 4th and surrounding precincts. A captain in the Community Response Unit managed the special patrol.

This tactical unit normally augments regular precinct coverage in
problem areas during evening shifts. During this crisis, the
Community Response Unit, as well as contingents of officers from
each precinct, the K-9 and aviation units, the Marine Bureau,
Emergency Services, and the Highway Patrol, was assigned exclusively
to the special patrol.

At the beginning of each shift, officers in the special patrol met for a briefing and were given a radio call sign before reporting to their assigned zones. Based on a psychological profile of the offender, supervisors directed officers to pay particular attention to vehicles containing lone, white males. Administrators also encouraged officers to file field interrogation reports and conduct traffic stops. Traffic tickets
subsequently were collected and reviewed by investigators at the
end of each shift for possible leads.

In addition to the increased patrol activity on the ground, a police helicopter patrolled the skies over the 4th precinct every evening from 9 to 11, the time period during which each of the sniper attacks had occurred. However, the helicopter was available at other times when needs dictated its use.

Administrators hoped that the visible saturation patrol would deter additional incidents, reassure a frightened public, and eventually lead to the assailant’s apprehension. The increased patrol activity also would allow for a massive police response if a new shooting incident were to occur.

Detective Division

On two occasions, detectives from the division’s Homicide Squad
canvassed the neighborhoods surrounding the first two shootings.
The detectives visited 1,100 homes and conducted 1,600 interviews.
With the assistance of patrol officers, detectives also established several investigative roadblocks and conducted interviews with thousands of motorists.

Shortly after the second sniper incident, Homicide Squad detectives began gathering information from licensed firearms dealers, state hunting license applications, parolee files, and the records of recently discharged patients from state mental hospitals. Detectives also gathered data generated from the increased patrol and investigative activity.

To manage the massive amount of information, personnel in the
Detective Division, with assistance from technicians in the department’s Data Services Section, designed a lead-tracking system using question-and-answer format software. They also developed a multipart lead sheet for data entry. The form listed names, addresses, phone numbers, vehicle descriptions, lead sources, and the actions leading to the entry of the information.

The database system was designed to search the existing police
database and signal when any information matched a prior entry.
Data entry clerks then notified detectives of any matches.

This signalling feature ensured that repeated entries were highlighted for closer scrutiny. For example, a person interviewed during a neighborhood canvass, who was also on parole and carried a hunting license, would be automatically highlighted for further attention. The vast amount of
information collected added to the importance of this matching feature. At the conclusion of the investigation, the database contained approximately 200,000 entries.

In addition, to learn more about the unknown subject, the homicide detectives consulted with two nationally recognized criminal profilers. These experts provided information on a likely profile of the shooter and later offered suggestions on interrogation techniques.

Support Services

The police department’s Public Information Bureau, working closely with the Detective Division and the police commissioner, managed the daily media inquiries related to the serial sniper case. To handle the deluge of media requests in the early days of the investigation, the Public Information Bureau conducted daily press briefings.

A newly launched Crimestoppers Program became instrumental in
eliciting information from the public. The program made reward money available and offered anonymity to anyone contributing information about the sniper attacks.


Ballistic evidence from the murder at the roadside restaurant and the attempted murder at the fast food restaurant indicated that the same .35-caliber weapon was used to fire each of these rounds. Unfortunately, this evidence represented the only concrete lead in a growing sea of possibilities.

Detectives from the Homicide Squad closely monitored other crimes occurring in and around the 4th police precinct, as well as events such as hostage takings, the commitment of emotionally disturbed persons to mental hospitals, and cases involving the recovery or theft of firearms. This information was added to the expanding pool of information and further widened the field of possible suspects. With several hundred names in the database requiring further investigation, detectives began to prioritize the leads.

Developing a Suspect

One of the top leads was the name of a young man who had been
identified by various department sources and offered by a parole
officer. The subject had a significant criminal history and an apparent penchant for firearms. His residence sat in the middle of the area where the three shooting incidents occurred, and he currently worked for an auto parts supply store making deliveries throughout the target area.

Through surveillance, detectives determined that the subject frequented a local bar, thus violating his parole. At the request of detectives, the subject’s parole officer issued a warrant, and on August 25, 1994, detectives arrested the young man. At the time of his arrest, the subject carried a stolen, loaded 9mm handgun in his waistband. During questioning, he denied any involvement in the sniper attacks.

Shortly after arraignment, the subject pled guilty to charges of
weapon possession and parole violation. He agreed to a sentence
of 2 to 4 years.

When homicide detectives interviewed the subject’s employer and
co-workers, they described him as a quiet gun enthusiast. Shortly after the subject’s arrest, his employer recontacted the detectives and turned over a .410-gauge shotgun that co-workers had found in the delivery truck that he drove.

Following Leads

A short time after the subject was sentenced for his firearms and parole violations, detectives still investigating the sniper attacks followed up on the report of a man who had been confined briefly to a mental hospital after threatening to commit suicide with a rifle. The man told detectives that he had bought the .356-caliber rifle from a friend. This friend turned out to be the subject who had been recently arraigned and sentenced. A search of records through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms revealed that the rifle had been one of three firearms stolen from a local sporting goods store 2 months earlier. One of the other stolen weapons, a .410-gauge shotgun, was the
weapon recovered by the subject’s employer. The third firearm, a
used, .35-caliber rifle, remained missing.

After conducting forensic tests, the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory determined that rounds from a weapon such as the missing .35-caliber rifle were consistent with the bullets recovered from the crime scenes. Detectives located the previous owner of the missing rifle. The man informed the detectives that he remembered firing the weapon into a tree while deer hunting in upstate New York the previous year. He agreed to accompany detectives to the area in an effort to locate the tree.

On October 19, 1994, the man led detectives and a group of volunteers to a remote mountain in Turnwood, New York. After a brief search, they located the tree that the man had fired into the year before. Detectives cut the tree down and sent a large section to the crime laboratory. Laboratory technicians were able to remove the bullets from the tree and match them definitively to the rounds recovered from the two victims. Detectives now could link a specific weapon to the sniper
incidents. More important, they could place constructive possession of this weapon to the suspect, who had stolen the rifle and two other firearms a month before the first sniper attack.

Meanwhile, followup of other leads revealed that the subject had
apparently admitted to an exotic dancer that he was the Suffolk Sniper. When questioned by detectives, however, the dancer downplayed this admission.

At this point, detectives learned that the subject also was a suspect in a rape case involving a 15-year-old girl that had occurred the night before the third sniper attack. Upon his arrest on August 25th for the firearms and parole violations, the subject had provided hair and blood samples voluntarily. A saliva stain recovered at the rape scene proved consistent with genetic markers in the subject’s blood. The evidence was sent for further DNA testing.

Interviewing the Suspect

On November 24, 1994, homicide detectives interviewed the subject at a correctional facility in Fishkill, New York. When confronted with the evidence and information developed by the detectives, the subject admitted to the 3 shootings and to the rape of the 15-year-old girl. Acting on information volunteered by the suspect, detectives later found the .35-caliber rifle used in the sniper attacks hidden above the ceiling tiles in the den of his mother’s house. Tests conducted by the crime laboratory verified that the rifle had been used in the fatal
shooting of July 22nd and the attempted murder of August 3rd.


On August 12, 1995, the suspect pled guilty to one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of burglary. He received a sentence of 35 years to life in prison. The suspect’s conviction and sentencing closed a frightening chapter for the citizens of Suffolk County and marked a successful conclusion to one of the most ambitious investigations ever undertaken in the county.

The serial sniper case presented law enforcement with several unique challenges. Because the assailant and victims did not come into contact during the attacks, little physical evidence was left at the crime scenes. The crimes also defied many of the accepted precepts of criminal behavior–the offender evidently did not know the victims, no economic incentive was apparent, and the crimes did not appear to be drug- or gang-related. Hence, detectives had very few clues to help them identify possible suspects.

By mobilizing resources, the Suffolk County Police Department
was able to identify and apprehend the assailant shortly after his spree of terror began. The rapid, decisive, and highly visible response of the police department not only prevented further attacks but also restored a sense of safety to a frightened public.

By John J. McElhone – Published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1996. At the time of publication Deputy Chief McElhone commanded the Detective Division of the Suffolk County Police Department in Yaphank, New York.

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