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Tacoma Jews Shocked by News That Sniper Suspects Tied to May Shooting

“Phil Donahue on line two,” a voice squawked through an intercom at Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Wash., during a JTA phone interview with the synagogue’s rabbi, Mark Glickman.

Since Tacoma police stated Monday night that the suspects in the notorious sniper case have been linked to a May shooting at Beth El, the 350-family synagogue has been inundated with calls from the media.

The response from the congregation and the local Jewish community is a mixture of relief — that the case may bring closure — and shock, but not panic.

Two bullets were fired into the synagogue sometime between May 1 and May 4 of this year. One lodged in an outside wall, while the second tore through the wall, crossed a meeting room and flew into the chapel. There it penetrated the door of the ark and landed in the back of the ark, but missed the synagogue’s Torah scrolls.

When Glickman learned last week that John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo — suspects in the three-week shooting spree in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that killed 10, wounded three and transfixed the country — had lived in Washington state, he gave local law enforcement officials “a friendly reminder” about the synagogue shooting in May.

Glickman told JTA he was “slightly embarrassed” to make the call because the link was “such a long shot.”

But a ballistic test at the Washington state crime lab matched the bullet from the synagogue shooting to a .44 Magnum the suspects may have used, according to Martha Tebbenkamp, public information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Seattle.

The weapon had been given to police by a concerned citizen who said Muhammad and Malvo were his house guests from May to July 2002, during the time of the synagogue shooting.

“Everybody is just sort of dumbfounded and surprised that our synagogue here in the Pacific Northwest is somehow related to this person who did such horrible things,” Glickman said.

The evidence tying the pair to the Tacoma shooting is scanty, however.

“Chances of going further with this are pretty slim unless someone comes forward with a tip,” said Jim Mattheis, public information officer for the Tacoma police.

This isn’t the first time Beth El has been a target.

In fact, the synagogue “has had the most activity of any institution in the five-state region that I cover,” said Brian Goldberg, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest region.

Goldberg listed about seven attacks against Beth El in the last two years, which have escalated from threatening phone calls and vandalism to an arson attempt — shortly after Sept. 11 — and the spring shooting.

The Pacific Northwest has the highest concentration of extremist groups in the country, and several white supremacist groups are based in Tacoma, Goldberg said.

There also have been several recent incidents in the region involving Islamic militants, Goldberg said.

Coverage of attacks on the synagogue has only raised its profile, he said.

It also doesn’t help that the synagogue is located on a main thoroughfare, Glickman said.

Beth El, Glickman joked, is like the Far Side cartoon of a deer with a target on its chest, and the deer’s buddy says, that’s a ” bummer of a birth mark you got there.”

“We’re pretty visible,” he said.

While congregants have been shaken by word of Muhammad’s and Malvo’s tie to the May shooting, it hasn’t disrupted their lives.

“I think it’s startling, frankly, to think that someone who’s so skilled at shooting might have killed one or more members of our Jewish community, or anyone as a matter of fact,” said Lilly Warnick, 68, a retired college administrator at Tacoma Community College and a member of Beth El for 49 years.

“I’m not scared, but I think wherever you live in the world now there’s concern,” she said. “I think the Israelis have given us a good model. You just go about doing what you’re doing and try to be as vigilant as possible.”

Homebuilder Joe Mayer, 33, said he feels safer knowing that Muhammad and Malvo are “no longer on the street.”

Mayer’s son Ethan, 3, is in a Jewish day care program at the synagogue, where his wife, Gloria, works.

“It’s a little more scary sending them,” he said, “but you would never change your routine for this kind of activity.”

The ADL’s Goldberg is trying to schedule a meeting with Washington Gov. Gary Locke to stress the need to secure Jewish institutions.

Goldberg also met with Locke after the arson attempt, and the governor responded by asking the Washington state patrol to monitor Jewish institutions when they hold activities and to conduct undercover sweeps at night.

“We continue to be singled out in many of the alerts and warnings that come from the Department of Justice,” Goldberg said.

He aims to “make sure that law enforcement, all the way from command staff down to patrol officers, are aware that the Jewish community and their institutions are potential targets.”

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