Terror On The Beltway: The D.C Sniper Attacks

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C Snipers (Circa 2002/2003)

Welcome to the seventh (at least I think it is) installment of true crime specials that will be featured on my blog. While sports are a passion of mine so is true crime. I thought these specials would be a good way to shake things up a bit, I do hope you enjoy.

For three long weeks in 2002 residents of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia lived-in earth-shattering fear. Somebody was going up and down the beltway shooting randomly at people going about their everyday lives. People who were grocery shopping, pumping gas, going to work, mowing their lawns, and kids walking to school. Nobody was safe, nobody was off limits, and nobody knew when or where the next attack would be.  

People started running around their car or lying flat in the front seat while anxiously waiting for their tank to fill up at the local gas station. There was no more walking into your office building from your car in the morning, now you were running. Going outside for gym class, forget about it. Even stopping at the drive-through to pick up a soda had become a dangerous task.

Many people have heard the stories on the news, watched documentaries, and read about it on social media. But as a lifelong resident of the Washington Metropolitan Area, I lived through it. I was just thirteen at the time but I remember the fear. My brother and I would run to and from the bus stop. My Dad who is a real estate appraiser had to stand outside to measure houses, a normal part of the job that had suddenly become terrifying. A gentleman was shot at a gas station right across the street from my Pappy’s work. Every morning my Pap would walk over there and grab a cup of coffee before going into the office. But on that particular day, his alarm didn’t go off and he was running late. He went on to live for another ten years, in case anyone was wondering.

The sniper didn’t just start off guns blazing down the beltway. There was something that led up to this, some preliminary shootings that occurred. On February 26, 2002, twenty-one-year-old Keenya Nicole Cook was shot and killed at her Aunt’s house in Tacoma, Washington. This is the unfortunate event that would get the ball rolling. On March 19, 2002, sixty-year-old Jerry Taylor was shot and killed while practicing his swing at a Tuscan, Arizona gold course. On August 1, 1 2002 fifty-one-year-old John Gaeta was shot in the neck while changing a tire in Hammond, Louisiana. He played dead while the assailant stole his wallet before running to the nearest hospital. He would survive his injuries.

On September 5, 2002, fifty-five-year-old Paul LaRuffa was shot six times while locking up his pizzeria in Clinton, Maryland. He too would survive his injuries. That’s what I’m talking about, he was a fighter. Shot six damn times and still didn’t quit. On September 21, 2002, forty-one-year-old Million A. was shot in the head while closing up her storage unit in Atlanta, Georgia. Just nineteen hours later fifty-two-year-old Claudine Parker was shot and killed in Montgomery, Alabama. On September 23, 2002, forty-five-year-old Hong Ballenger was shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Very soon the assault on the DMV (D.C, Maryland, and Virginia) would start. On October 2, 2002 a shot was fired through the window of a Michaels Craft Store in Aspen Hill, Maryland. The bullet narrowly missed Ann Chapman, a cashier at the store. Since nobody was injured, the shot was assumed to be completely random and no serious red flags were raised. However, about an hour later fifty-five-year-old James Martin was shot in killed in a Shoppers Food parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland. Wheaton is very close to Aspen Hill, like right up the road. So, now do we think we have a problem on our hands? If you ask me even one person walking down the street firing a gun is concerning but what do I know? 

If I thought those two shootings hit close to home the next one would be even closer. On the morning of October 3, 2002, four people were shot and killed in approximately two hours. At 7:31 am thirty- nine-year-old James Buchanan was shot while mowing the grass at Fitzgerald Auto Malls in Rockville, Maryland. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have driven past that place. Just back and forth zooming on by it. At 8:12 am fifty-four-year-old Prem Walekar was shot while pumping gas at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Remember the gas station across from the Pappy’s office? That’s the one! Thank god for screwed-up alarm clocks. At 8:37 am thirty-four-year-old Sarah Ramos was shot while reading a book on a bus stop bench in Silver Spring, Maryland. The final attack that morning was at 9:58 am. Twenty-five-year-old Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was shot while vacuuming her minivan at a Shell gas station in Kensington, Maryland.

The snipers attacked again at 9:20 pm, killing seventy-two-year-old Pascal Charlot was shot while walking along Georgia Avenue in Washington D.C. He passed away less than an hour after the attack. In each shooting, a single shot had been fired from a distance and the killers vanished without a trace. Montgomery County, Maryland was crippled with fear. Former Montgomery County Chief of Police, Charles Moose, put all schools on a code blue alert, keeping all children inside while school was in session. Many parents dropped their kids off at school and picked them up later, not allowing them to walk outside or take the bus. Not my Mom, she was like get your ass on the bus and run in a zig-zag motion on the way there and back. I’m just kidding!

My brother and I did take the bus and later on when I asked my Mom why, she gave me the best answer I think a Mom could give a kid (especially one with anxiety). She wanted to keep life as normal as possible for my brother and me. She didn’t want us to live in fear and she didn’t want us to be scared. She wanted us to be aware but not afraid. I think that logic helped me as an adult. I think it helped me overcome some of my anxiety because at that moment I realized that what my Mom was basically saying is that you can’t let fear control you, if you live in constant fear you aren’t living at all. But I digress, real quick shout out to my Mama!

Police has very little evidence to work with. One initial report stated that witness saw a white box truck fleeing from the scene of the Silver Spring shooting. Everyone who drove a white box truck was probably pissed as hell and everyone who didn’t wanted nothing to do with them. All of the sudden if you saw a white box truck driving around you were like “Oh shit! Is that the snipers?”.  However, the report out of Washington D.C was entirely different. Witnesses there claimed that they saw a blue Chevrolet Caprice (do they even make those anymore?) leaving the scene of the crime and not a box truck. So now everyone was scared of Chevy Caprices and white box trucks, good lord! The only other hunch police had to go on was the fact that they believed all shootings were carried out with a .223 caliber rifle. 

By now the snipers were waiting two to three days between shootings. They were starting to cool it a bit but they weren’t done. They simply started taking their time. On October 4, 2002, forty-three-year-old Caroline Seawell was shot and wounded in the parking lot of a Michaels Craft store (Dude what did they have against Michaels? That store rocks!) in Spotsylvania Mall in Virginia. She was simply loading purchases into her minivan. I wonder if she bought any yarn. On October 7, 2002, thirteen-year-old Iran Brown was shot and wounded as he arrived at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland.

This was the first crime scene where the snipers would start to taunt the police. Authorities discovered a shell casing as well as a Tarot card (the Death card) with the message “Call me God” scribbled on the front. On the back three separate messages reading; “For you Mr. Police”, “Code: ‘Call me God’, and “Do not release to press.” All had been handwritten. Serial killers always slip up, they always get too cocky and begin to play fast and loose. That is what these snipers were, serial killers, and terrorists.

On October 19, 2002, thirty-seven-year-old Jeffrey Hopper was shot in a parking lot of The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia. His wife Stephanie flagged down passers-by who called an ambulance and rushed Jeffrey to the hospital. He would survive his injuries. Authorities later discovered a four-page letter in the woods near the crime scene. In the letter, the snipers demanded ten million dollars and made threats to children. On October 22, 2002, Richmond, Virginia police arrested two men with a white van. They ended up having no connections to the shootings but remained in federal custody for unrelated reasons.

On October 22, 2002, thirty-five-year-old Conrad Johnson was shot while standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland. That same day Chief Moose released part of the shooter’s letter which stated; “Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time.”. No shootings occurred on October 23rd, but two other important events occurred. First, ballistics experts confirmed Conrad Johnson as the tenth fatality in the Beltway shootings. Second, in a yard in Tacoma, Washington, police searched with metal detectors for bullets, shell casings, or other evidence that might provide a link to the shooters. A tree stump believed to have been used for target practice was seized.

With seven separate shooting victims, including six deaths, in the first fifteenth hours of the D.C. area spree, the North American media soon devoted extensive coverage to the shootings. By the middle of October 2002, all-news television networks provided live coverage of the aftermath of each attack, with the coverage often lasting for hours at a time. The Fox show America’s Most Wanted devoted an entire episode to the shooters in hopes of aiding in their capture. The snipers eventually made a phone call to police, it was traced to a pay telephone at a gasoline station in Henrico County, Virginia. Authorities missed the suspects by a matter of a few minutes. On the phone call, the sniper bragged about his cleverness, mentioned a previously unsolved murder in “Montgomery”.

This was identified as the September 21, 2002 shooting at a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama. On October 17, 2002, authorities said they matched fingerprints found at the Benjamin Tasker Middle School site with one lifted from the Montgomery liquor store scene. After confirming the link between these two crime scenes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was able to link these fingerprints to seventeen-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo due to his fingerprinting during a previous arrest in Washington state. After further research into Malvo’s background, the police found he had close ties to an older man named John Allen Muhammad. If I remember correctly Malvo was Muhammad’s step son through a previous marriage. Or something like that. The house of cards finally starts to fall.

Even though a lack of progress in the case was aired publicly in the media, federal authorities were making significant headway in their investigation and found leads in Washington state, Alabama, and New Jersey. They learned that Muhammad’s ex-wife, who had obtained a protective order against him, lived near the Capital Beltway in Clinton, Maryland, in Prince George’s County, Maryland adjacent to Montgomery County. Information was also developed about an automobile purchased in New Jersey by Muhammad. Police discovered that the New Jersey license plate number issued for Muhammad’s 1990 Chevrolet Caprice had been checked by radio patrol cars several times near shooting locations in various jurisdictions in several states, but had not been stopped because law enforcement computer networks did not indicate that it was connected to any criminal activity and they were focused exclusively on the “white van”. 

On October 8, 2002, Baltimore Police Department investigated a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice with a person sleeping inside that was parked near the Jones Falls Expressway. The officers were concerned that the driver’s license was from Washington state while the vehicle was registered in New Jersey. Although the vehicle was suspicious enough for them to investigate, and it fit the description of a vehicle associated with the shooting in Washington, D.C. just five days prior, the officers did not question the occupants extensively, nor did they search the vehicle. That is just shitty police work if you ask me. It all could have ended right there.  

The tragic crime spree finally came to an end at 3:15am on October 24, 2002 after John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were discovered sleeping in their car (a blue Chevrolet Caprice) at a rest stop of Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland. Authorities were tipped off by civilian Whitney Donahue who first noticed the parked car. Trooper First Class D. Wayne Smith of the Maryland State Police was the first to arrive at the scene and immediately used his unmarked police vehicle to block off the exit by positioning the car sideways between two parked tractor-trailers. As more troopers arrived, they effectively sealed off the rest area at both the entrance and exit ramps without the suspects being aware of a rapidly growing police presence. Damn, they are some deep sleepers.

As truck driver Ron Lantz was attempting to exit the rest area, his tractor-trailer was commandeered by troopers who used the truck, in place of the police car, to complete the roadblock at the exit. With the suspects’ escape route sealed off, the SWAT officers moved in to arrest them. Both Muhammad and Malvo were arrested immediately on federal weapons charges. Four hours before the arrested Chief Charles Moose held a press conference where he relayed this cryptic message to the snipers: “You have indicated that you want us to do and say certain things. You have asked us to say, ‘We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.’ We understand that hearing us say this is important to you”. Moose asked the media “to carry the message accurately and often.” 

Both snipers were tried in the state of Maryland and Virginia. John Allen Muhammad faced the death penalty during his Virginia trial and life in prison at his Maryland trial. Although at the time both states allowed capital punishment (Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2013) they chose to seek it in Virginia as it is one of the few states who put inmates to death within five to ten years of being sentenced.

Lee Boyd Malvo escaped the death penalty due to his age at the time the crimes were committed. In Fall 2003 both Malvo and Muhammad were found guilty of murder and weapons charges. Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On April 22, 2005, Muhammad was officially sentenced to death. On September 16, 2009, the circuit court judge Mary Grace O’Brien set an execution date by lethal injection for November 10, 2009.

On May 30, 2006, a Maryland jury found John Allen Muhammad guilty of six counts of murder in Maryland. In return, he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without possibility of parole on June 1, 2006. Malvo pleaded guilty to six murders and confessed to others in other states while being interviewed in Maryland and testifying against Muhammad. Malvo was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole, but in 2017, his sentence in Virginia was overturned after an appeal. A new law in Virginia now allows any and every minor the ability to apply for parole after serving twenty years. Lee Boyd Malvo will be able to take advantage of that opportunity.  

John Allen Muhammad’s execution went ahead as scheduled and on November 10, 2009 he was put to death by lethal injection. Lee Boyd Malvo still sits in prison, now that he is free of Muhammad’s brain washing he is remorseful for what he has done. Supposedly, who knows if he is or isn’t. He has appealed his sentence in the state of Maryland numerous times and all have been rejected.

Life soon went back to normal in the Washington Metropolitan area. Years passed and you heard less and less about the sniper attacks. Kids grew up, teenagers turned into adults, and adults got older. You soon pumped gas like you did before and a simple trip to the store was no longer a terrifying adventure. But you never forget, when their names are mentioned or the events are discussed, you remember the three weeks of terror. You remember staying inside learning line dancing during physical education rather than running around the track outside. You remember not wanting to take a walk around your city or town. You remember everything. But remembering is alright because if you remember something it means you lived through it. Remembering means you survived something that some unfortunate people did not. Remembering is a part of life. Never live-in fear but always remember. Because at the end of the day life is an unpredictable journey. Don’t let psychopaths take away your peace of mind. If you do, they win. Nobody ever wants psychopaths to win. They suck.

Sources:

“D.C Area Sniper Fast Facts” – CNN

“A Collective Timeline of The D.C Sniper” – Northern Virginia Mag

“True Crime : The D.C Snipers” – YouTube

“Monster: D.C Sniper”- iHeartRADIO

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