Three Weeks in October: The Manhunt for the Serial Sniper by Charles A. Moose & Charles Fleming (Dutton, 336 pages, $23.95)
After bungling the investigation of the Washington-area snipers in 2002, Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Charles Moose quit his job because the county’s ethics rules prohibited him from making money (starting with a $170,000 advance) on the book he was writing about the case. Now, Moose is applying to be chief of police in Minneapolis. If Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak is seriously thinking about selecting Moose, and if the Minneapolis city council has to vote on whether to confirm Moose, they would be well advised to read his awful book, Three Weeks in October
Both the prosecutors of and defense attorneys for the snipers were concerned that Moose’s book would be published shortly before the trials began, possibly affecting their outcomes. But regardless of whatever damage Moose’s book did to the trials, the trials are doing more damage to Moose’s credibility. But both reveal Moose’s pernicious obsession with race, and how his repeated policing blunders may have cost lives.
But perhaps the most important reason why Three Weeks in October fails is that it reveals so little of factual interest or substance. This is caused, in part, by Moose’s narrative confusion. He often interrupts his chronological account of the sniper shootings with autobiographical chapters, inserted, presumably, to address criticisms of him. They give Moose a chance to refute allegations that he is hot tempered; he also tries to slough off blame for the investigation’s misguided focus–born out of racial profiling–on white suspects.
But Moose’s defenses are weak. He claims, for example, that he would never engage in racial profiling because, as a black man, he has been subject to too much of it all of his life. Moose further argues that he cannot possibly be anti-white, because his current wife is white. Moose’s denial of being hot tempered is undermined by his own report of the incidents in question. He may or may not be correct that some of the rudeness he experienced was based on the color of his skin. But we have all encountered clerks who ignored us or seemed to wait on others ahead of us; yet most of us do not respond with cursing, intimidation, foul language, or by invoking police authority.
Conveniently excluded from the book is an incident which WorldNet Daily and the Washington Post reported last summer. After the snipers were caught, Moose and his wife were vacationing in Hawaii at a Marriott Hotel. They wandered into a portion of the hotel used only by staff, not by guests. A hotel-security officer noticed them, and when they claimed to be guests, security asked the couple to show their room key. Moose was indignant that the security officer did not recognize him. He filed a discrimination lawsuit, and Marriott, while denouncing the suit as outrageous, settled for $200,000, fearing negative publicity. Naturally, Moose failed to properly report the settlement to Montgomery County.
Also missing from the book is how Moose’s wife received a $10,000 sexual-harassment settlement from the city of Portland, Oregon, where she worked. Yet Moose does include the story of how he thought of suing Jackson, Mississippi, because when Moose and his wife went to a party for him and two other finalists for a police-chief job, people at the party did not engage the couple in conversation.
In Three Weeks in October, Moose does not say whether or not he opposed the racial profiling used in the sniper investigation. He had been hired by Montgomery County to combat racial profiling, but he underperformed rather badly in that regard.
In fact, it nearly cost him his investigation. Despite Moose’s claims to the contrary, his task force was focusing almost exclusively on white men, either alone or in pairs, based on the recommendations of FBI profilers. Unfortunately, the profilers were mistaken in their analysis of the clues: They viewed the murders as serial killings rather than spree or sniper killings. The distinction is important: 44 percent of known sniper offenders are black, according to the FBI. Had Moose not been blinded by race, it’s possible he would have paid closer attention to the signs before him.
Moose’s defense is not devoted entirely to racial matters: He also tries to justify his policing tactics. Yet Moose’s explanations are vague, and when even those fail, he hides behind a veil of ignorance.
Moose, and his task force, are responsible for several terrible decisions, and nothing in his book explains those decisions satisfactorily–or, in some cases, at all.
First, the book emphasizes from time to time how concerned the “investigation” was, not so much with making the area safe, but with making the public feel safer. For example, while he didn’t completely dismiss their utility, Moose noted that military helicopters were used “largely because we wanted the community to see that we were there.” In other words, Moose violated the code forbidding military interference in law enforcement for public-relations purposes.
And Moose posted police officers in public schools, where they could accomplish nothing beyond becoming possible targets themselves, because their presence would reassure the citizens, especially schoolchildren. Those officers would have been better off actually making the children safer by assisting the investigation.
Moose does not indicate why the road closures accomplished so little, nor does he explain why an officer spoke to Muhammad near one murder scene, found him so unusual as to comment about him to fellow officers later, but not sufficiently so as to be worth investigating. Perhaps it was because Muhammad was black, and was not in a white car.
Moose notes how quickly a roadblock went up in the Ashland area, 90 miles south of Washington, after a shooting there. He does not mention or defend the roadblocks set up at the same time between Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland. The only possible justification is another public-relations stunt: Moose made it clear that the police cared enough to inconvenience everyone who dared to drive within 90 miles of a sniper attack.
In other words, Moose wasted extensive police resources on programs to give the appearance
that the police were doing something, instead of using those resources to actually catch the snipers.
In the book, Moose brags about all the efforts made to find the “crime” gun, and about how many tips the police got regarding guns and gun ownership. He is quite proud of the fact that, as a result of the information gleaned only because of the seriousness of the situation, federal, state, and local authorities have gained information to prosecute lots of gun owners for technical offenses regarding their guns. “We eventually went back and made a huge number of cases out of it,” he gloats.
The searches for the gun were irrationally broad. Based on bullet class identification, the authorities should have known fairly early in the search for the snipers that they were searching for a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle. But the dragnet for the gun was much broader, testing numerous rifles, and collecting information for future possible prosecutions, with the dragnet as an excuse. Unsurprisingly, the dragnet for the gun yielded nothing.
Moose’s view of what poses the real problem in society came in his public response to the arrest of Muhammad and Malvo: “I said something about how happy I was that this gun was off the street.”
He did apologize for one gun seizure, since it involved officers’ nasty treatment of the wife of a gun owner–who wasn’t home at the time, since he was busy doing his job manning 911 calls for Montgomery County.
Clearly, neither the book nor the trials are helping Moose’s image: Both prove that he blundered at every turn, and that the investigation was a failure. Blinded by an obsession with race, and hindered by his own incompetent policing, Moose made no significant progress until the killers called 911 to alert the authorities to their crimes in other states, and until calls from Washington State led Moose to Muhammad and Malvo.
The killers were only captured because the news media, so often denounced by Moose, reported the license plate of their Chevy Caprice. Then, a previous suspect, thrilled that he was no longer in Moose’s crosshairs, spotted the vehicle and called the authorities. But while the news media were trying to tell the public who were the likely suspects, and why, Moose (contrary to the desires of the FBI) was trying to keep the information secret, including their names and details about the car and gun, etc., for fear they would ditch their weapons and disappear. Even up to that point, Moose seemed to be actively working against his own investigation.
After the snipers were caught, President Bush called Moose to congratulate him. The call was a double mistake. First, Moose did not deserve congratulations. Second, the call just made Moose angry. In the book, he complains that the president should have visited him personally.
The book appears to have been written in haste. Among its other flaws, it is riddled with inaccuracies: Moose puts Ashland south rather than north of Richmond, and repeatedly misspells the name of W.E.B. DuBois, the radical black leftist whom Moose cites in the inspirational speeches he gives.
One error stands out because it indicates a serious, and dangerous, ignorance about one small facet of police work in the D.C. area. It is also further evidence of Moose’s general ineptitude.
The District, like some other cities, has tried to make the high-risk job of cab driving a little safer by modifying the “taxi” lights on the tops of cabs. Besides having a “taxi” sign to indicate the cab’s availability for hire, D.C. taxis have another light: it reads “CALL 911.” The light allows cabbies to covertly alert others that they are being threatened by a passenger. Not all area cabs have such lights, but most do.
Because of the D.C. area’s high population, even local calls require an area code. To make a local call, you have to dial ten digits, not seven. And yet, in reporting on the third murder, Moose wrote: “In what I thought was a kind of eerie detail, the sign on the top of his taxi read ‘Call 911.’ That’s because you dialed ‘911-TAXI’ to order a cab from his company.” Muhammad and Malvo clearly weren’t the only persons involved in the sniper case to have problems with 911.
It’s just another example of how Three Weeks in October proves Moose’s failings both as author and policeman. They’re failings Minneapolis would do well to consider, before the find themselves with Moose as their new chief of police.
–David B. Kopel and Paul H. Blackman are coauthors of No More Wacos: What’s Wrong with Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It.