Terror on the D.C. Beltway

Aug 22, 2011 - by Mark Pulham

Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad

Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad

During a three-week reign of terror in October of 2002, the D.C. snipers gunned down 13 innocent people at random around the Washington, D.C. Beltway. Only three survived.

by Mark Pulham

Montgomery County, Maryland, is just north of Washington, D.C., one of the most affluent counties in the United States, and an ideal place to live. With an average homicide rate in the county of only 25 per year, Montgomery County was safe, and not the sort of place where a drive-by shooting would occur. Yet, in October, 2002, that was about to change.

It had been barely a year since the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, and those who lived in and around Washington, D.C. were still nervous about future terrorist action.

On Wednesday, October 2, 2002, around 5:20 p.m., someone took a shot at a Michael’s Craft store in Aspen Hill, Maryland. The rifle bullet drilled a hole through the window, leaving minimal damage, but no one was hurt.

Just over an hour later, another shooting occurred, this time at the Glenmont Shopping Center at the junction of Randolph Road and Georgia Avenue. James Martin, a 55-year-old programs analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was doing some grocery shopping at the Shoppers Food Warehouse, buying food for his church’s youth group, before he headed home to his wife and 11-year- old son.

As he crossed the parking lot, there was the sound of a shot, and Martin crumbled to the ground. A police officer who heard the shot, rushed to the scene and tried to help. But it was no use, the bullet had entered Martin’s chest, and he died within minutes.

It had the appearance of a drive-by shooting, but this doesn’t happen in Montgomery County. There were other things wrong. Usually, someone sees something with a drive by, a car driving slowly, or someone running up to the victim and shooting. But no one saw anything other than the victim fall to the ground. And what was the motive? James Martin could hardly be thought of as a gang member or a drug dealer. The car park was checked for evidence, but nothing was found.

James Martin was just a prelude. The next morning would be the beginning of the real terror.


The Terror Begins

James Lynn “Sonny” Buchanan was a 39-year-old landscaper, the son of a Montgomery County police officer. As a favor to an old customer, Buchanan was mowing the strip of grass outside the Fitzgerald Auto Mall on Rockville Pike in White Flint. It was 7:41 a.m.

When neighbors saw him lying on the ground, they thought that something had happened with the lawnmower, and he had been injured. As soon as the paramedics arrived, it was clear that this was no lawnmower accident, Buchanan had been shot. He was rushed to hospital, but he had bled out. Drained of blood, his heart stopped. Once again, there was no motive. Robbery was immediately ruled out, nothing had been taken.

Prekumar A. Walekar
Prekumar A. Walekar

At the Mobil Gas Station on Aspen Hill Road, taxi driver Prekumar A. Walekar pulled in to fill up. Caroline Namrow, a pediatrician, was also filling up at one of the pumps, and watching her 22-month-old daughter in her car seat. There was the sound of a gunshot, and Namrow looked up to see Walekar as he came staggering over toward her. He mouthed the words, “Call an ambulance.” As he collapsed to the ground, she called 911. Namrow reached for his wrist and found only a faint pulse, then she began CPR. By the time the police arrived it was too late. Walekar, aged 54, died from a gunshot wound to the chest. The time was 8:12 a.m., barely half an hour after Sonny Buchanan’s shooting.

In Silver Spring, 34-year-old Sarah Ramos had just got off a bus and was sitting on a bench outside a post office near Leisure World, a seniors housing complex at 3701 Rossmoor Boulevard. She was waiting for a ride to another job. Ramos had moved from El Salvador, where she had been a law student, to the United States.  Her husband was an economics professor back in El Salvador, and although reluctant to leave their comfortable life, Ramos knew that America could offer more to their 7-year-old son, and he agreed to the move. To make ends meet, she was cleaning houses and babysitting.

As she sat on the bench reading a book, there was a crack of a rifle. The first thought of those who called 911 was that Ramos had shot herself, but the responders knew this was no suicide. This time, the bullet was found on the floor of a restaurant. The .223 round had passed through Ramos’s forehead, shattering her skull, then gone through a window, and fell to the floor, where investigators had found it. The shot that killed Ramos was fired at 8:37 a.m.

The police were having a hard time keeping up. As they rushed to the scene of one shooting, more reports would come in about a shooting somewhere else.

Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera
Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera

Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera had just dropped off her 3½-year-old daughter at day care before heading off to her work as a nanny. First, her minivan needed cleaning. At 9:58 a.m., 25-year-old Lewis-Rivera was in the Shell Gas Station at the intersection of Knowles and Connecticut Avenues in Kensington where she was vacuuming her Dodge Caravan. Once again, a shot rang out, and Lewis-Rivera collapsed.


Random Killings by a Serial Sniper

The police were baffled. There was no connection between any of the victims. They were Caucasian, Indian, Hispanic, old, young, male, female. There was no pattern to the killings, they were truly random.

It was clear that a serial sniper, a skilled marksman, was on the loose in Montgomery County, selecting random targets and gunning them down with a high powered weapon. No one was safe, and paranoia had swept the area.

The police sent out their own snipers to the crime scenes to give their own ideas of what went on. It was clear that there was nowhere in the areas that the sniper could be shooting from, that whoever was doing the shooting had to be doing it from a vehicle. In addition, it would be impossible for a lone man behind the wheel of a vehicle to be the shooter as there would be no room for him to maneuver. It had to be two people, one to sit behind the wheel, and one to shoot.

Reports had come in from the Sarah Ramos crime scene. Witnesses had reported seeing a blue Chevrolet Caprice leaving around the time of the shooting, but that was dismissed when a Caprice was found the next day, stolen and burned out. However, other witnesses saw a white box truck fleeing the scene. Inside, witnesses said, there were two men. It was the break the police had been hoping for. The problem was the number of white box trucks in the Washington D.C. area was astronomical.

The bodies of the victims would also provide clues. Angle of entry would determine whether the shooter was high or low and the autopsies on the five victims would determine that.

As the day turned to night, no more shootings had been reported. Was Lewis-Rivera the last victim? Was it all over?

The answer came at 9:20 p.m. On the corner of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road NW, 72-year-old retired handyman Pascal Charlot, a Haitian immigrant, was waiting for the lights to change so he could cross the road. He was just making a trip to a store. A bullet hit him in the neck and he collapsed to the ground. He died an hour later. The Charlot crime scene was just over the Montgomery County border with Washington D.C.

Fear now gripped the area. People stayed at home and schools went into lockdown. Those who had to go out walked down the streets a little faster, jinking from side to side, hoping the shooter would not be able to get a fix on them. People filling their cars at the gas pumps shifted and ducked all the time.

Chief Charles Moose
Chief Charles Moose

With six people gunned down in less than 48 hours, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose was under pressure. There were no motives, no suspects, and apart from the white box truck, no leads. The forensic teams had come back with the autopsy results. All of the victims had been shot with a high powered rifle, possibly a Bushmaster. The autopsies also confirmed that the shots were not coming from high positions, such as rooftops.

The next day, October 4, another shooting took place, this time in Fredericksburg, almost 150 miles away. At 2:30 p.m., 43-year-old Caroline Seawell had been Halloween shopping and was loading her purchases, a scarecrow and a wreath, into her minivan. A bullet tore into her back. But the shooters had made a mistake. Seawell did not die, though she was in serious condition in hospital. The bullet recovered from the scene matched those of the other victims. The killers were travelling farther afield.


Leads Pour in

Speculation arose that the shooters were military trained, or maybe law enforcement or hunters. A profile of the shooters was also put together. White and middle aged. Authorities now had a fairly clear idea of the type of persons they were looking for. At the beginning of the shootings, it was thought that the killers were local, but the shooting in Fredericksburg now made them doubt that.

Moose asked the public for help and a tip line was set up. The response was overwhelming, with 1,900 calls in less than a minute, and an unbelievable 100,000 leads. There was some debate as to whether children were in danger. Should schools be closed? It was decided that the schools should stay open, but there would be no outdoor activities, no outdoor gym classes, and no outdoor recess.

The weekend was incident free, but on Monday morning, a fresh horror awaited. The week before, 13-year- old Iran Brown had been kicked off his school bus for eating candy, and was now being driven to school by his aunt Tanya, a nurse. On this Monday morning, October 7, she got him to school an hour early, as she had to get to work. She dropped him off at the Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland, then left.

As she drove away, she glanced back in her rear view mirror, and saw Iran lying on the ground. She turned around and got him back in the car, then rushed him to hospital. Doctors saved his life by removing  his spleen and parts of his pancreas and stomach.  Iran became the second survivor of the shooters.


“Call Me God”

The Tarot Card
The Tarot Card

The police and the community were stunned. The area was scoured, and the investigators turned up a bullet casing. More importantly, the shooters had left a message. A tarot card had been found, the “Death” card, a skeleton in armor riding a horse. On the front were the words “Call me God.”  On the back, in three lines, were “For you Mr Police, Code: Call me God and Do not release to the press.”

Moose held a press conference. With tears running down his face, Moose said, “All of our victims have been innocent and defenceless, but now we’re stepping over the line. Shooting a kid – it’s getting to be really, really personal now.”

It was clear that if the gunmen were willing to shoot children, then no one was safe. Although the police tried to comply with the gunmen’s wishes and not get the media involved, somehow there was a leak. Moose tried to start a coded dialogue with the shooters. In his next press conference, Moose said, “You should understand that I hope to God that someday, we’ll know why all this occurred.” Some may have thought that Moose was having a religious moment, but the God reference was directed at the shooters.

Dean Harold Meyers
Dean Harold Meyers

Two days later, at 8:18 p.m. on October 9, Dean Harold Meyers pulled his Mazda into a Sunoco gas station on Sudley Road near Manassas, Prince William County. Meyers and death had crossed paths before. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran, who had received a Purple Heart for wounds he received in hostile action on March 8, 1970. The 53-year-old civil engineer was on his way home when he stopped for the gas. A bullet took him in the head. The next day, ballistics matched the bullet to the others.

That same day, the FBI released a composite drawing of the white “box truck” that had been seen in the area. Prince William County Police Chief Charles Deane made an appeal for the killers to stop, and said, “There’s enough damage been done.” But the shooters thought otherwise. Their response to Deane was another shooting.

Ken Bridges
Ken Bridges

On October 11, at 9:30 that morning, Kenneth Bridges was pumping gas at an Exxon station just off Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg. Bridges, the co-founder of a marketing distribution company, was only in the area on a business trip. The 53-year-old had just spoken to his wife. A single shot took Bridges down. It had been 10 days since the first shooting, a reign of terror that didn’t look like it would end. And the shooters were widening their target area.

On October 14, Ted and Linda Franklin had been shopping at a Home Depot store at the Seven Corners Shopping Center just outside Falls Church in Fairfax County, Virginia. They had just bought some shelves and, around 9:15 p.m., were loading them into their car. As Linda went around the back, she paused for a moment. She was motionless long enough for the crosshairs to settle on her. The bullet hit her in the head and the 47-year-old woman fell to the ground.

Her distraught husband called 911, his voice so high with distress that the dispatcher thought at first that it was a woman. It was a gruesome scene, the bullet had taken off the right side of her head. This death was close to home for investigators. Linda Franklin was an FBI intelligence analyst.

But the police seemed to have a piece of luck. A man named Matthew Dowdy came forward. He had seen everything, and said that he saw a man who he described as Middle Eastern looking. This man was crouched down in a white Chevy van with a burnt out rear light. Could this be the break they needed?

Investigators looked at the security tape, hoping to catch a glimpse of the gunman. Instead, they got footage of Matthew Dowdy leaving the store . . . three minutes after the shooting. Matthew Dowdy couldn’t possibly have witnessed the shooting. Dowdy, it turned out, craved media attention, and it was all a lie. He was arrested for interfering with a police investigation.


Two Solid Leads Lost in the Shuffle

The call centers were overwhelmed with people reporting strange behavior and suspicious men. Many callers wanted to confess to the shootings. One call even tried to prove that he was the shooter by pointing them to a killing in Montgomery, Alabama at an ABC liquor store. The police called Montgomery, and there was a shooting, a robbery homicide on September 21. Two unidentified men had attempted to rob the store. During the robbery, 52-year-old liquor store clerk Claudine Parker was killed and her co-worker, 24-year-old Kellie Adams, was injured. However, this seemed to be just a robbery-homicide. The D.C. Snipers were not stealing from their victims. There didn’t seem to be a connection.

Another lead was phoned in from Tacoma, Washington State. Robert Holmes had been following the shootings, and thought that it may be a friend of his named John Muhammad. They had been friends when they were in the army, and John was the owner of a long range rifle similar to the one the police suspected the shooters were using. Holmes called the hot line and gave his information. With so much other information coming in, his call was lost among the others.

On October 19, Jeffery and Stephanie Hopper were heading home to Florida when they passed through Ashland, Virginia, where they decided to stop to eat at a Ponderosa restaurant. At around 8 p.m., as they left and headed back to their car, a shot rang out, and Jeffery Hopper, 37, fell to the ground with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. It would take five operations over the next 18 days to save his life.


A Demand for $10 Million

In woods near the restaurant, a bullet casing was discovered, and pinned to a tree was a note left in a Ziploc bag. But this time, the shooters had left behind some vital evidence. On the Ziploc bag, one of them had left traces of DNA. Unfortunately, the DNA was not in the FBI database. The note, however, was of interest. It began: “For you Mr. Police. Call Me God.” The shooters went on to blame the killings on the police and their failed attempts to communicate with them.

This time, the snipers also made demands. They wanted the police to deposit $10 million through a series of ATM machines to the account of a credit card that they had stolen the previous year. They would call the Ponderosa restaurant where Jeffery Hopper was shot at 6 a.m. But the police missed the call. Chief Moose gave a news conference and urged them to call back.

Two days later, they called, and repeated their demands, including that they announce to the media that the snipers had been caught “like a duck in a noose” and added the threat that children are not safe. Police were baffled by the duck in noose reference. It has never been explained, though some believe it referred to an old Cherokee fable.  

The phone call was traced to a gas station, and police headed there. They came upon a white box truck with two men inside. Immediately, they took them into custody. But they turned out to be just two illegal immigrants who happened, coincidentally, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The note left at the Ponderosa mentioned the Alabama killing again, and the police called once more. This time there was more information. A magazine had been dropped at the scene of the shooting, and a fingerprint was found on it. However, the local investigators had not yet processed the print. The magazine was flown to Washington where the print was run through a super computer that compared it with 40 million other prints.

The result came back. The print belonged to Lee Boyd Malvo, a 17-year-old from Jamaica. He had been fingerprinted by immigration officials in Bellingham, Washington State. The police believed that he must have someone with him and was not working alone. They needed to keep this information away from the media, fearing that if it leaked and the snipers heard about it, they would just vanish, and would reappear sometime later to begin the shootings again.

Moose tried to stall. At a press conference he said “We have researched the option you stated and found it is not possible, electronically, to comply in the manner you requested.” The tactic backfired. The snipers response came the next morning.

Bus driver Conrad Johnson was standing in the stairwell of his bus at Grand Pre Road and Connecticut Avenue in Aspen Hill, Maryland. It was 5:59 on the morning of October 22. The 35-year-old man was shot in the stomach and killed. Another note was found at the scene. “Your incompetence has cost you another life,” it stated.

But the investigation had taken a turn. The investigation into Lee Boyd Malvo had come up with another name, that of John Muhammad, who had often posed as Malvo’s father. Someone recalled Muhammad’s name in a tip on the hot line.

The tapes of the snipers phone calls were taken to Tacoma and played for Muhammad’s friend, Robert Holmes. He recognized the voice on the tapes as that of Lee Boyd Malvo, whom Muhammad had called “my little sniper.”

Lee Boyd Malvo
Lee Boyd Malvo

Lee Boyd Malvo was born on February 18, 1985, in Kingston, Jamaica. His father, Leslie Malvo, was a mason while his mother, Una James, was a seamstress. The two had never married, and when Lee was still only a toddler, they separated. Leslie Malvo was close to his son and continued to help raise him until he was 5-years-old. But then Una kidnapped Lee and took him to a remote village. Leslie Malvo never saw his son again.

Una would often leave Lee with friends or relatives for lengthy periods of time, sometimes for over a year, while she went looking for work. When she came back, she would abruptly enter his life, reclaiming him as a son. Lee had a troubled life, and at the age of 12, had tried to kill himself.

They both left Jamaica when Lee was 14 years old, and moved to the island of Antigua, supposedly hoping for a better life. Lee wanted a father figure, and after school, he would visit an electronic store and watch a man there with his son. To Lee, he seemed an ideal father figure. The man was John Muhammad.

John Allen Muhammad
John Allen Muhammad

Muhammad was born John Allen Williams on December 31, 1960, in Louisiana. Unlike Malvo, John’s father wasn’t interested in his son, and was never around. When his mother died from breast cancer when John was just 3 years old, he was raised by relatives in Baton Rouge, and at the age of 17, he joined the military, where he served as a combat engineer. He was troubled, hard to read, and had problems with authority. His volatile nature got him a court martial in 1982, after he struck an officer. However, that same year, for reasons unknown, he was reinstated.

During Desert Storm, in 1991, John’s reputation for instability led to him being suspected of throwing a thermite grenade into a tent containing 16 of his fellow soldiers. Luckily, despite the intense heat and bullets from the ammunition pouches zipping around the tent, none of the soldiers were injured. Although he was led away in handcuffs, nothing could be proved and no charges were ever brought against him.

Mildred Muhammad
Mildred Muhammad

Desert Storm had affected John emotionally and psychologically. He was finally discharged from the army in 1994. That same year, John and his second wife of six years, Mildred, moved to Tacoma, Washington State, where he ran a mobile car repair service. John had also begun using the surname Muhammad, after becoming part of the Nation of Islam, and officially converting to the faith in 1997. He would eventually change his name officially in October, 2001.

The Nation of Islam focuses on family values, and for a while, Muhammad was heavily influenced by this. But the marriage began to fall apart when he started having affairs, and finally, in 1999, he and Mildred parted. Muhammad became increasingly threatening to Mildred, and she got a restraining order against him. However, he still had partial custody of the children. On March 27, 2000, Muhammad picked up the kids to take them on a shopping trip. He never returned.

Muhammad had, instead, fled with his children to Antigua, where he supported himself and his children by making fake ID’s and documents that would allow people to migrate to the United States illegally. One of his customers was Una James.

When she abandoned Lee once again, John stepped in and looked after the boy. Lee was suffering from rheumatic fever, and Muhammad took him back to the woman who was looking after his own children and asked her to care for him as if he were his own.

Muhammad and his children hid out in Antigua for 15 months before returning to the United States, to Bellingham, Washington, 103 miles north of Tacoma, where, for a few weeks, they stayed at a shelter called The Lighthouse Mission. Muhammad was obviously a homeless dad, who came across as a kind, gentle man who was a good father. No one could have known that he had actually kidnapped his own three children.

Muhammad then made a mistake. He applied for public assistance in August 2001, and the moment he did so, a flag went up. Within a few days, the authorities had found him and had taken away the children. On September 4, 2001, at Pierce County Superior Court, Muhammad’s wife Mildred was given full custody of the children, and Muhammad would not be allowed to see them again. He seemed not to understand that he had lost his kids, and asked Judge Mark Gelman, to explain. Even then, he asked two more times before the end of the hearing, “So I can’t see my children?”

Many of those who knew Muhammad the best believed that this was the stress point that finally caused him to snap. His life, already emotionally damaged, now turned bitter, not only over the laws that separated him from his beloved children, but also against the United States, and after the 911 attacks, just one week after the custody case, Muhammad was heard defending the terrorists. The Nation of Islam’s message of family values was being overshadowed by its other message of anti-Americanism.

But the majority of his hate was aimed at his wife. For a few months, Muhammad went through all the legal motions to try and win back his children, Taalibah aged 8, Salena, 10, and 12-year-old John Jr., but it was no use. By this time, Mildred had left Washington State and had gone into hiding.


“My Little Sniper”

A hazy plan was forming in Muhammad’s mind, and he needed Malvo to help.

Malvo had been in the United States, arriving as an illegal alien in Miami in 2001. In December of that year, he and his mother were both caught by the border patrol in Bellingham, and held. Malvo was released in January the following year on a $1,500 bond. He and Muhammad soon got back together.

Both were familiar figures in the Bellingham area, and many believed that Malvo was Muhammad’s son. They would spend their time playing war video games at the local arcade, not for fun, but to help in training Malvo to become a killer. They spent long hours at a local shooting range, where Muhammad would use his military training to turn Lee Malvo into a sharpshooter. Eventually, Muhammad began to call Malvo “my little sniper.”

In early 2002, Muhammad thought that Malvo was ready. All he had to do was pass a test.

On Saturday, February 16, 2002, 21-year-old Keenya Cook was staying at her aunt’s house in Tacoma. On the kitchen stove, food was simmering, and upstairs, Keenya was getting her baby daughter, 6-month-old Angeleah, ready for a bath. Cook, a single mother, was alone with the baby. Her aunt, Isa Nichols, was out. It was around 7 p.m. when Keenya heard someone at the door.

Keenya left Angeleah on the bed for a moment while she ran down to see who it was. She opened the door, and there standing before her was Lee Boyd Malvo. In his ear was an earpiece, through which John Muhammad was giving instructions. According to Malvo, they chatted for a few minutes. Then Malvo raised his arm. In his hand was a .45 calibre pistol. He fired point blank into Keenya’s face. The bullet entered just below her left eye.

The young woman crumpled to the floor, instantly killed by the shot. Muhammad was pleased, Malvo was able to take orders, and was willing and able to take a life. He had passed the test with flying colors.

But Keenya was not the target that night. Instead, it was her aunt, Isa Nichols, who had been the bookkeeper for the mobile car repair business. She was a friend and supporter of Mildred through the divorce and custody hearings and had testified against John Muhammad.


On the Road

Jerry Ray Taylor
Jerry Ray Taylor

Now the two men travelled around the country, and in March they found themselves in Tucson, Arizona. At around lunchtime, on Tuesday, March 19, Jerry Ray Taylor, a frozen food salesman, pulled into the parking lot of the Fred Enke Golf Course. He left his silver Nissan pickup and went to the practice area. As the 61-year-old practiced chipping shots, there was a gunshot. Taylor was hit in the back, the bullet tearing through his heart. People heard the shot, but thought nothing of it. Gunshots were not unusual in the area, the nearby Davis-Monthan Air force base had a small arms range.

Around 2:30 that afternoon, Taylor’s body was found by two golfers. It had been dragged away and hidden in some brush. Nearby, police found his wallet, with the cash and credit cards still intact.

Muhammad and Malvo left Tucson the following Monday, March 25 by Greyhound bus. The bus driver does not remember the two men, but she has a clear memory of that day. On that day, she left her knapsack on the seat behind her while she drove. When she looked later, she found that her credit cards that were in the pouch of the knapsack were gone. She immediately called the credit card companies and cancelled the cards, but forgot to cancel her Bank of America Platinum VISA card.

Months later, the two snipers would demand that the $10 million dollars be transferred to an account at the Bank of America. It was the bus driver’s VISA account.

What happened during the next four months in unknown, but by August, they were in Hammond, Louisiana, some 40 miles east of Baton Rouge. On August 1, around 8:20 p.m., 50-year-old John Gaeta was at the Hammond Mall, and had just parked his truck before rushing into Sears to get a new pair of shoes. When he came out, he saw that one of his tires was flat. It had been slashed. Gaeta pulled up under a streetlight to change the tire.

It was around 9 p.m. when he saw a couple of men approach him. They asked him if the mall was still open. He said it was, and they left, but returned about five minutes later. They asked if he needed any help. He told them he was okay and they moved off. As Gaeta went to the back of the truck to get the spare, he saw one of the men approach. It was Lee Boyd Malvo. Gaeta asked what he was doing, and in response, Malvo raised a .22 calibre pistol and shot Gaeta from about five feet. The bullet passed through Gaeta’s neck and out through his back. It had missed the jugular and his spine. Gaeta fell to the ground and pretended that he was dead. He knew that if he moved and showed that he wasn’t badly hurt, the next bullet would end his life. Malvo went through Gaeta’s pockets and took his wallet.

Once Muhammad and Malvo had fled, Gaeta got up and crossed to a gas station. Strange as it may seem, Gaeta was not in any pain, and even thought he may have been shot with a paintball gun. However, the gas station attendant pointed out that he was bleeding. Gaeta was extremely lucky, and spent only one hour at the hospital before being released.

By September, Muhammad and Malvo were in Maryland. On September 5, Paul J. LaRuffa was leaving his restaurant, Margellina's, in Clinton, Maryland. He had his laptop, and cash and credit receipts. He climbed inside his 1999 Chrysler sedan, and as he sat behind the steering wheel, a shadow appeared on his left. The window shattered and LaRuffa saw a flash of light. Six bullets entered LaRuffa’s body. Miraculously, although shot in the stomach, chest, and spine, LaRuffa survived.

An employee had left the restaurant with LaRuffa and he witnessed it all. He told the police that he saw a kid run up to the car, fire the shots, and then take the briefcase and the laptop. The briefcase contained the cash from the day’s takings, $3,500. Six weeks later, the briefcase and the empty deposit bags would be found in a wooded area a mile away. Clothing found nearby had traces of DNA which would later be traced to Lee Boyd Malvo.


The Blue Chevrolet Caprice

The Blue Chevrolet Caprice
The Blue Chevrolet Caprice

Five days after the LaRuffa shooting, Muhammad and Malvo bought a car in New Jersey, paying $250 for it. It was a twelve year old Chevrolet Caprice, dark blue. It matched the description of the vehicle leaving the Sarah Ramos crime scene, the one that was subsequently dismissed by the police.

Nine days later, they struck again, this time in Silver Spring. Twenty-two-year-old Rupinder “Benny” Oberoi worked at the Hillandale Beer and Wine store. It was just after 10 p.m. and he was standing outside the store with the owner, Arnie Zelkovitz. As Zelkovitz showed Rupinder how to lock the door, they both heard the sound of gunfire. Oberoi collapsed to the ground. The bullet had entered his back and splintered, missing his spinal cord but bruising his kidney and liver. Once again, the shooters had left a survivor. Rupinder spent one week in hospital. A Safeway worker from next door told the police that he saw an old model dark sedan leaving the parking lot.

Sniper Trunk
Sniper Trunk

The next day, September 15, 32-year-old Muhammad Rashid was locking the door of the Three Roads Liquor Store in Brandywine. He heard gunshots behind him and two bullets missed him by inches. As he turned, a young man rushed up and shot him in the stomach. As Rashid played dead, the young man stole his wallet. Once again, the victim survived and gave a description that fit Lee Boyd Malvo. Rashid also told the police that he had seen a dark American car idling behind the store.

It would be six days before they struck again, this time in Atlanta.

On September 21, 41-year-old Million A. Woldermariam was helping out the owner of Sammy’s Package Store. Like himself, the owner was an Ethiopian who had immigrated to the United States. Earlier, Woldermariam had seen a suspicious looking car in the parking lot. He went inside and told the owner, and she told him not to hang around outside. Woldermariam dismissed the idea.

Around 12:15a.m., they closed the store. Woldermariam waited outside while the owner turned out all the lights. Suddenly, shots rang out, and Woldermariam fell to the rain soaked ground. One .22 calibre bullet had hit him in the back, another in the head. The owner rushed over and she kept calling his name, but it was no use. Woldermariam would never answer.

That same day, 19 hours later, the robbery that ended in the death of Claudine Parker, which the sniper had mentioned to the police, took place. Outside the ABC Liquor Store in Montgomery, Alabama, 52-year-old Claudine Parker and 24-year-old Kellie Adams were closing up. Parker was going to head off to a football game, while Adams was off to pick up her young daughter. As they locked the door, they were both shot from long range. Parker, a Sunday school teacher, was hit in the back, the bullet severing her spine and puncturing her lung, killing her. Another bullet went through Adams’s neck and came out through her chin, breaking her jaw in two. Her face and teeth were shattered. She fell to the ground, but never lost consciousness. She later told police she had seen a slender black man approach.

While the rifle was being fired, Malvo was seen approaching the fallen women. A police car passed the scene almost immediately after the shooting, and the officers saw Malvo taking the purses of the women. They gave chase, but Malvo got away. It was at this point that he dropped the gun magazine that had his print on it.

Hong Im Ballenger had moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana after marrying an American GI in Korea. On September 23, two days after the Alabama shooting, the 45-year-old manager at the Beauty Depot, walked toward her car. It was 6:30 p.m. and she had closed the store for the day. Before she reached her car, a rifle bullet struck her in the back of the head and smashed through her jawbone. A few seconds later, a large, dark blue car was seen easing out of a field some 75 yards from where Ballenger lay dead. It was being driven by an African-American, and travelled just one block before picking up a second African-American, the second one holding Hong’s purse. The car then sped away.

The two men began heading north, to the Washington D.C. area. The sniper killings were about to begin.


The Real Motive: Revenge

With the information from Robert Holmes, the police rapidly put the pieces together, including the fact that they were driving a Caprice. All this time spent looking for white males in a white panel truck was wasted. The description could not have been more wrong. In addition, a frightening motive began to emerge. The demand for $10 million may have just been an added afterthought by the two men. A more compelling motive was revenge.

When they were not carrying out a shooting, Muhammad and Malvo would just mingle with the community, seeming just like an ordinary father and son. Sometimes they asked if they could just park the car in mini malls and rest.

Surprisingly, the two men were stopped almost every day by the police, but as they showed respect and everything was in order, they were allowed to continue. At nights, they would use LaRuffa’s stolen laptop to mark out the next days target areas and plan out their future kills.

One area they frequently cruised around was Clinton, and one resident who lived on Quiet Brook Lane, called the police after seeing the dark Blue Caprice parked nearby. It seemed to her that the occupants of the car put newspapers up to their faces to hide. It was not the first time the car had been seen in the area. The caller was Muhammad’s ex-wife, Mildred. Muhammad had tracked her down through the Internet.

When police put the story together, they rushed to Mildred’s home and took her and the children into protective custody. Many believe that Mildred was the planned target, and the other shootings were camouflage. All they had to do was wait until Mildred was in a public area, and then shoot her as they did the others. Her murder would be thought of as another sniper killing, and Muhammad would be free to get custody of his children. Mildred was only alive because she had not been anywhere public where the shooting could take place.


Capturing the Snipers

Chief Moose announced who they were looking for at a news conference, but held back the fact that they were driving a dark blue Caprice. Police felt that if the snipers were to hear that they were looking for the Caprice, it would immediately be dumped. But the police could not control the leaks, and soon, the media had details of the car and were broadcasting the description.

In the early hours of October 24, Whitney Donahue, a supermarket refrigerator mechanic, was driving home after a late shift at work. As he drove, he listened to the radio and heard the description of the car the police were searching for. Truck driver Ron Lantz was also driving and listening to the radio. Both men pulled into a rest stop along Interstate 70. As Donahue’s van turned in, his lights swept across a car that was parked there. He saw it was a dark blue Caprice with New Jersey tags.

He knew that it was the suspects’ car, and he picked up his cell phone to call 911.

Ron Lantz had also spotted the car. Just to check, he walked over to within 20 feet of the car and noted the New Jersey tags. He got back to his rig and called 911. The police asked him and a second trucker to block the exits to the rest area with their trucks.

It was 15 minutes before a takedown team arrived. They slowly moved in and began creeping up on the suspect vehicle. Both men were asleep in the Caprice. Within 30 seconds, they had captured Muhammad and Malvo without incident. It could have turned out much different. Malvo was on guard duty and should have seen them coming, but he had fallen asleep.

It had been three weeks since the first Beltway shooting, three weeks that saw 10 people die and three others suffer serious wounds, and with their shooting spree around the country adding five more dead and five more wounded, it was a tragically high count.

Police found a high powered rifle in the back on the car, hidden under the back seat. It was later determined to be the weapon, a Bushmaster .223 calibre rifle, that was used in the sniper attacks. In the trunk, the investigators found a hole had been made, about the size of a baseball, which had been stuffed with a sock. This was the killers’ gun port. Malvo would lie in the trunk and point the barrel of the rifle through the hole. It allowed him to kill without anyone even noticing.

When he was interviewed, Malvo was completely loyal to his surrogate father. He boasted that it was he who pulled the trigger in all the shootings. His lawyers would later argue that Malvo suffered from “Stockholm syndrome” and had psychologically bonded with his abuser.

There was overwhelming evidence against the two men, including a confession by Malvo. Malvo pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. On December 18, 2003, Malvo was found guilty of murder. On March 10, 2004, he was formally sentenced to life in prison without parole. In October, he pleaded guilty to several other charges in the hope to avoid the death penalty. However, a Supreme Court decision in March 2005 prohibited the death penalty for crimes committed when under the age of 18. Malvo was only 17 when the sniper attacks occurred.

Malvo would later reveal Muhammad’s plans. It involved three phases. Phase one concerned the meticulous planning of their killing spree around the Washington D.C. area. The goal was to kill six people every day over a 30-day period. This phase did not go as planned, due to traffic conditions, the inability to get clear shots, and difficulty in getting away from different locations.

Phase two was to be carried out in Baltimore, where it would begin by shooting a pregnant woman in the stomach, then kill a cop. The plan was to detonate several shrapnel bombs at the officers’ funeral. The final phase was to extort millions of dollars from the government. The money would be used to finance a training camp where Muhammad would train young boys to kill, as he had done with Malvo, and then send them across the United States carrying out terror attacks.

Malvo has, in the last few years, shown some remorse for his actions. In October, 2007, he called one of his victims’ daughters and apologized, and in a letter dated February 21, 2010, he apologized to John Gaeta. Malvo had believed that Gaeta was dead.

Malvo is currently incarcerated at the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. He had petitioned the court for a name change as he felt he would be safer if other inmates did not know who he was. The request was denied on July 29, 2011.

Muhammad went on trial in October 2003, and for a short while represented himself, before switching back after his opening argument. Muhammad was convicted on November 17, 2003, and on March 9, 2004, a Virginia judge sentenced Muhammad to death. In prison, Muhammad was harassed by other inmates who called him a coward who lacked the guts to kill someone face to face.

At 9 p.m. on November 10, 2009, John Allen Muhammad was strapped to the table at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrett, Virginia, and six minutes later, the lethal injection process was started. Five minutes later, at 9:11 p.m., he was dead.

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