October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

There are jack-o-lanterns in the windows and skeletons dangling on porches, but the playful frights of Halloween seem almost mocking. In Kensington, Maryland, just eight miles north of the White House, a very real horror—the D.C.-area sniper—has cast a pall over this once-bustling suburb. “It has turned into a ghost town,” says Audrey Hudson, 39, a reporter who has lived there for three years. “The officials say it’s life as usual, but that’s just not true. There is no one on the sidewalks. Traffic is lighter. I was scared to go to the grocery store. I am terrified.”

She is far from alone. The gunman’s fifth victim, Lori Lewis Rivera, was killed at a Kensington gas station on Oct. 3, and another four people were slain within six miles of the town. On Oct. 14 the ninth fatality, Linda Franklin, 47, an FBI intelligence analyst, breast cancer survivor and mother of two, was brazenly shot in the head while loading packages into her car in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va., 19 miles from Kensington. Her husband was only steps away. After interviewing witnesses, police began compiling a composite sketch of the killer.

In Kensington, as in the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the sniper’s seemingly random acts of cruelty have transformed the way people live their lives. “All the children have disappeared,” says Lynn Raufaste, 63, the mayor of the picturesque community of 1,900. “Used to be all day long you would see people walking with their children, stopping to talk, out around the town. Now it’s just so quiet. Nobody is out. None of us can believe that this is happening.”

Some of the changes are as subtle as a drawn shade, others as jarring as the buzz of police helicopters overhead. “It’s a war zone here,” says Craig Pet-tinati, 41, director of the Kensington Arts Theater. “I am worried to walk outside. I tell everyone to walk in bunches, since the sniper hasn’t hit groups. One of my friends went to get gas and lay down in the front seat after putting the nozzle in his car. We don’t want to be afraid, but this is just so nerve-racking.”

The Kensington Parkwood Elementary School is under an indefinite Code Blue, meaning its 400 students are not allowed to play outside. “The kids are bouncing off the walls,” says principal John Ceschini, 50. Many soccer practices and games have been canceled. “My kids have broken a vase and bowl throwing a football inside the house,” says Basia Madden, 42, a mother of three. “We feel like hostages. It seems like the sniper is everywhere. It’s a nightmare.’ ”

Business at the Shell gas station where Rivera was killed is down 35 percent; customer traffic at Pritchard’s antique store, in the center of town, is off 75 percent. People who drive white vans—the kind apparently used by the sniper—have it particularly tough. “Some of our suppliers have been pulled out of their vans face-down at gunpoint,” says Michael Cady, 51, supervisor for an interior contractor. “This used to be a laid-back town.” Many residents have simply stopped watching TV lest they hear news of yet another sniper attack. “People’s minds are so attached to this, they can’t get away from it,” says Jane Grissmer, 55, a massage therapist who has been giving free massages to stressed-out teachers. “The tension is so consuming, it touches every part of your life.”

And yet, along with the fear and dread, many in Kensington sound a note of hope and defiance. “Yes, things are different now,” says Mike Kelley, 47, deputy chief of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department. “But I grew up in this neighborhood, and we will make it through this. They will find him. It’s just a matter of time.”

Alex Tresniowski

Jane Sims Podesta, Macon Morehouse and Andrea Billups in Kensington

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