Now, at last, the story has landed smack in the strip-mall middle of town, at the intersection of Parham and Broad.
The largest crowd of reporters is gathered around The Witness: Keith Underwood, the service manager at the car dealership next to the Exxon station. Underwood does his best to maintain an expression of implacable calm, but a gleam in his eyes reveals his excitement.
To a series of reporters, Underwood describes witnessing a white van stopped by the gas station's pay phone early Monday morning, then seeing a swarm of police sprint across Broad Street to the Plymouth Voyager. They pulled out a man who looked about 35, possibly Hispanic, he says. "It was exciting at first, when the actual guns came out the backs of the police cars," he adds. "It didn't get scary, but adrenaline started flowing."
The mood is buoyant, despite the rain. Reporters ask each other: "Could this be it?" They strain for a good view of the white van, which is being pulled onto a police trailer by heavy chains that rattle as they tighten. Some catch a glimpse of bumper stickers on the rear NRA and "Bush-Cheney" and a temporary license plate.
A reporter from the New Jersey Star-Ledger holds an enormous lens over the yellow police tape, trying to get a clear view of the van. He raced over here from the Ponderosa Steakhouse restaurant in Ashland this morning, after calling his newsroom to tell them, "I don't know where the f West Broad Street is!" They read him directions over the phone, he says, so he could get to this drizzly asphalt patch where he stands waiting, along with everyone else, for some news.
Some of those here don't look like reporters. One woman in a voluminous raincoat with a digital camera darts around, snapping pictures. She's a freelance photographer, she says, and heard about the activity when her husband called. "He said it was something weird," she says, "so we turned on the news."
Bee Gill was watching Channel 12 when she heard of the commotion and of a possible arrest being made of a man thought to be the sniper just blocks away from her home. Immediately she called her daughter, Sherry Netherland, who also lives nearby, and the two rushed on foot to the scene. "It's so weird for it to be so close to where we live," Gill says. "At least right now we don't feel unnerved."
Gill and Netherland have been tracking the story on the news for weeks. So when the shooting occurred in Ashland, they say, they knew it was only a matter of time before Richmond got in the spotlight.
Mother and daughter traveled to Ground Zero just a month after the World Trade Center collapsed. They say they had to see it in person. They had to see this site too, they say. Both women take turns taking pictures of each other with a disposable camera. When sharing with a reporter their hopes and fears about what this could mean, they giggle softly, unaccustomed to the attention but clearly reveling in it.
"To me this is a scarier form of terrorism," Netherland says, comparing it to the Trade Center. "It's really a feather in Henrico County's cap," she adds, if it turns out to be the sniper and police here are the ones who catch him. Behind the pair the huddle is growing. Netherland sees that a news crew is about to go live and she turns to her mom and asks excitedly: "Do you want to watch the CNN interview?"
It's around 10:30 a.m. An ever-growing crowd of police officers mills around the Exxon station, some in uniforms and plastic-shrouded caps, some in more ominous trenchcoats. One is stretching a tape measure across the lot. In the grass flutter tiny orange evidence flags.
"Think it's the real thing?" asks a grizzled cameraman in a yellow raincoat. The mysterious man apprehended here is not the sniper, he believes that guy's way too smart to be trapped here. Maybe the sniper even set up the man in the van as a decoy. The cameraman grins and shrugs, then turns back to the action.
What action there is, anyway. At this point, many reporters have given up squinting at the Exxon station and are chatting with each other, even listening to the live broadcasts from rival stations. Reporters and stringers from news outlets far away from here keep rushing in, yelling to those on the other end of their cellphones: "Are we in Richmond? Where are we?"
At 11, Command Sgt. Tom Shumate, the public information officer for Henrico Police, announces a press conference under a makeshift tent. People bearing microphones, cameras, notebooks and recorders run to the tent. Some crouch to avoid being socked in the head by a swinging zoom lens. "Down in front!" someone hisses as Shumate begins.
"At this point in time, the investigation is ongoing," he tells them, and ends with, "I'm not at liberty to go into any detail about what has occurred today."
The media legions are disappointed. They retreat, hoping the afternoon press conference will reveal more. The rain has stopped now. Soon police will have the van towed away on a flatbed. Soon Montgomery County's Chief Charles Moose will deliver another brief, cryptic message, perhaps to the shooter. But for now the wondering, and the earnest speeches into blank lenses, go on and on. S