Messing around on a Saturday night 17 months ago, Ryan Vadnais and Chris Roy stumbled across a killer's trail.
Long months would pass before federal investigators told them how close they came to a potentially deadly meeting with John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
The D.C. snipers had set up a shooting nest in a vacant Parkland lot more than a month before they began their killing spree on the East Coast, Virginia prosecutors have concluded.
Vadnais, 24 and Roy, 20, found it the night of Aug. 17, 2002. They were leaving a friend's apartment, peeling through the lot in Vadnais' truck, skidding in rowdy circles, when Roy saw something gleam in the glare of the headlights.
"Hey, what's that?" Roy recalled Friday.
Vadnais stopped the truck and the two men walked over to an area overgrown with weeds at the edge of the lot.
On the ground, they saw a rifle, equipped with a telescopic sight and perched on a bipod to steady the weapon for more accurate shooting.
The weapon, which had a .308-caliber bullet in the chamber, was aimed at the apartment building they had just left. Next to it was a duffel bag; they could see the stock inside.
Nearby, they heard rustling. Someone was running through the bushes. A weedy path in the undergrowth led to A Street South, which fed onto 112th Street East, which was only a few blocks from highways 7 and 512.
The snipers were "preparing or training" to kill randomly with the rifle when they were interrupted, Virginia prosecutors say. They abandoned the weapon and fled into the bushes.
"It's fair to say we believe they were set up to shoot someone. We can't say who or why," said James Willett, deputy prosecuting attorney in Prince William County, Va.
Vadnais picked up the rifle and the duffel bag, throwing both into the back of the truck. The two drove to a convenience store nearby, and called police.
Roy remembers seeing a big car, maybe a Cadillac, driving around the block over and over.
Their friend Zac Barber, who lived in the apartment they had been visiting, recalls a knock at the door about 1:30 a.m.
Barber didn't open the door, but looked through the peephole, and saw a middle-aged black man. Behind him, in a car, was a younger man.
In court in Virginia, Barber, who testified along with Vadnais and Roy, identified the pair as Muhammad and Malvo. He says federal investigators told him Muhammad, perhaps angered by the loss of his weapon, was planning to kill him.
The Seattle Times reported Friday that investigators have traced the rifle found in the lot - a Remington Model 700, commonly used by police sharpshooters - to a Tacoma man, Earl Lee Dancy Jr.
Dancy has admitted he illegally bought the gun for Muhammad and then reported it to Fife police as stolen, at Muhammad's request, after it was found.
Dancy is under investigation by federal agents for making that purchase.
Muhammad, 43, could not legally possess a gun because he was the subject of a domestic-violence protective order. Dancy and Muhammad were friends and Muhammad and Malvo had stayed with him off and on.
Dancy also was the owner of a .45-caliber handgun used to kill Keenya Cook in Tacoma in February 2002. Malvo, 18, has told police and psychiatrists that Muhammad sent him to commit that killing as a test.
Dancy, contacted at his home in Tacoma, told the newspaper he was under a "gag order" and could not talk about the case.
In his testimony during Muhammad's trial in Virginia, Dancy said Muhammad came to him in November 2001, said he needed a rifle and gave him $800. Dancy bought the gun at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma.
Over the next several months, Dancy testified, he, Muhammad and Malvo went several times to an outdoor Tacoma shooting range to fire it.
The discovery of the rifle might partially answer why Malvo, according to testimony, shoplifted a Bushmaster assault rifle, the weapon used in the Beltway shootings, from Bull's Eye.
According to Bull's Eye employees, the Bushmaster was first noticed missing in August or September 2002 - probably after the Remington was abandoned in the field.
The two guns are significantly different from each other.
The Remington is a 44-inch-long rifle that can be fired only after the shooter manually operates its bolt action, which ejects a spent casing and reloads the next round for firing.
Its magazine carries five bullets. It can shoot accurately at distances of 500 yards or more.
The Bushmaster is about 35 inches long and fires a .223-caliber bullet. It is an assault-style weapon that can fire as fast as the shooter can pull the trigger and can be fed with a 30-round magazine. While accurate at up to 250 yards or so, it is not commonly considered a sniper rifle.
Muhammad was convicted and sentenced last year to die for the death of Dean Meyers, who was shot while filling his car at a gas station near Manassas, Va.
Malvo was convicted and given a life sentence in Virginia for the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of FBI analyst Linda Franklin.
In addition to the two convictions, Muhammad and Malvo are suspects in 12 other slayings in Washington, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sean Robinson 253-597-8486