Solved: The DC Snipers (2002)

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This case is infamously known around the world, that took place in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Some know it as the Beltway Sniper Attacks, but most of us know it as the DC snipers. Here is the case.

On Wednesday, October 2, 2002, at 5:20 PM, a shot was fired through a window of a craft store named Michaels, in Aspen Hill. The bullet missed Ann Chapman, the cashier at the store, nobody was injured and the shot was assumed to be random and raised no red flags. But one hour later, at 6:30 PM, James Martin was not so lucky as Ann Chapman, the 55-year-old program analyst at NOAA was shot and killed in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery store that was located in Wheaton.

The morning of October 3rd, 4 people were shot dead within a 2 hour window in Aspen Hill and other areas in Montgomery County. There was another person killed that evening in the Takoma neighborhood of the DC area.

So we have the time line of the victims from October 3rd.

  • At 7:41 a.m., James L. Buchanan, a 39-year-old landscaper known as “Sonny”, was shot dead in Rockville Pike near Rockville, Maryland. Buchanan was shot while mowing the grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall.
  • At 8:12 a.m., 54-year-old part-time taxi cab driver, Prem Kumar Walekar, was killed in Aspen Hill in Montgomery County, while pumping gasoline into his taxi at a Mobil station at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue.
  • At 8:37 a.m., Sarah Ramos, a 34-year-old babysitter and housekeeper, was killed at the Leisure World Shopping Center in Norbeck. She had gotten off a bus and was seated on a bench reading a book.
  • At 9:58 a.m., 25-year-old Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was killed while vacuuming her Dodge Caravan at the Shell station at the intersection of Connecticut and Knowles Avenues in Kensington, Maryland.
  • The snipers waited until 9:20 p.m. before shooting Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old retired carpenter, while he was walking on Georgia Avenue at Kalmia Road, in Washington, D.C. Charlot died less than an hour later.

It was found that in each shooting, the victims were killed by a single bullet fired from some distance and, just like every shooting that night, the killers stuck, and then vanished. This pattern was not detected until after the shootings occurred on October 3rd.

Fear washed over the region as the news of the shootings started to spread. During a press conference meeting, Chief of Police, Charles Moose, informed parents that schools were on code blue alert; which means they are keeping the children indoors. He said even with the code blue alert, the schools were presumed safe, but many parents decided to pick up their children, not allowing them to take the bus or walk home. Montgomery County Public Schools, the DC Public Schools and all private schools in the area went into a lockdown, no recess or out door activities. During the course of the shooting, police departments from neighboring states became embedded in the investigation through tips.

Police had only had a few pieces of evidence to work with at this point. One report said that during the Silver Spring attack, someone had reportedly seen a white box truck in the area. After the murder in Washington D.C., witnesses began telling police they had seen a blue Chevrolet Caprice rather than the white box truck that was initially reported. The police began to believe that all the murders were carried with a .223 caliber rifle.

The killers were now starting to cover a wider area and taking 2 or 3 days between the shootings now. Lets look at the time line for these shootings.

  • On October 4, 43-year-old homemaker Caroline Seawell was wounded in the chest at 2:30 p.m. in the parking lot of another Michaels store at Spotsylvania Mall in Spotsylvania, while she was loading purchases into her minivan. By this point, hundreds of journalists had converged to cover the unfolding events. School officials reassured the public that they were taking every measure possible to protect children: by tightening security and canceling all outdoor activities.
  • On October 7, at 8:09 a.m., Iran Brown, a 13-year-old student, was shot in the chest and critically wounded as he arrived at the Benjamin Tasker Middle School at 4901 Collington Road in Bowie, Maryland, in Prince George’s County (Brown’s name was initially withheld from the public but was later revealed). His aunt, Tanya Brown, was a nurse who had just brought him to school. She rushed him to a hospital emergency room. Despite serious injuries, including damage to several major organs, Brown survived the attack and ultimately testified at Muhammad’s trial. At this crime scene the authorities discovered a shell casing as well as a tarot card (the Death Card) inscribed with the phrase, “Call me God” on the front and, on three separate lines on the back, “For you Mr. Police.” “Code: ‘Call me God’.” “Do not release to the press.” Despite police efforts to honor the request not to release information about the card to the press, details were made public by WUSA-TV and then by The Washington Post, just one day later.
  • On October 9 at 8:18 p.m., 53-year-old civil engineer Dean Harold Meyers was shot dead while pumping gasoline at a Sunoco gas station at 7203 Sudley Road in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas.
  • On the morning of October 11 at 9:30 a.m., 53-year-old businessman Kenneth Bridges was shot dead while pumping fuel at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near Fredericksburg.
  • On October 14, at 9:15 p.m., 47-year-old Linda Franklin (née Moore), an FBI intelligence Analyst who was a resident of Arlington County, Virginia, was shot dead in a covered parking lot at Home Depot in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Falls Church at Seven Corners Shopping Center. The police received what seemed to be a very good lead after the October 14 shooting, but it was later determined that the witness was inside the Home Depot at the time and was lying. The witness, Matthew Dowdy, was subsequently convicted of interfering with the investigation.

By this point, gas stations wanted to protect their customers and they began putting up tarps to conceal them. The killers did not commit any shootings for the next 5 days.

On October 19 at 8:00 p.m., 37-year-old Jeffrey Hopper was shot in a parking lot near the Ponderosa Steakhouse at State Route 54 in Ashland, Virginia, about 90 miles south of Washington, near Interstate 95.. His wife Stephanie called out to passers-by, who phoned for an ambulance, enabling Hopper to survive his injuries. Authorities discovered a four-page letter from the shooter in the woods that demanded $10 million and made a threat to children.

On October 21, Richmond-area police arrested two men, one with a white van, outside a gas station. The men turned out to be illegal immigrants with no connection to the shooter and they were remanded into federal custody (what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently deported them).

The next day, October 22, bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, was shot at 5:56 a.m. while standing on the steps of his bus at the Grand Pre Road in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Chief Moose released part of the content of one of the shooter’s letters, in which he declares, “Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time.” Johnson later died of his injuries.

While no shootings occurred on October 23, the day is significant for two events. First, ballistics experts confirmed Johnson as the 10th 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.

The crime spree came to a close at 3:15 a.m. on October 24, 2002, when Muhammad and Malvo were found sleeping in their car at a rest stop off Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland, and were arrested on federal weapons charges. Police were tipped off by Whitney Donahue, who noticed the parked car. Four hours earlier, Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose had relayed this cryptic message to the sniper: “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.” This statement may refer to a Cherokee fable.

Trooper First Class D. Wayne Smith of the Maryland State Police was the first to arrive at the scene and immediately used his light blue 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. Later, 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.

A stolen Bushmaster .223 caliber weapon and bipod were found in a bag in Muhammad’s car. Ballistics tests later conclusively linked the seized rifle to 11 of the 14 shootings, including one in which no one was hurt.

The attacks were carried out with a stolen Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic .223 caliber rifle equipped with a Bushnell holographic weapon sight effective at ranges of up to 300 meters, which was found in the vehicle. The trunk of the Chevrolet Caprice was modified to serve as a “rolling sniper’s nest”. The back seat was modified to allow a person access to the trunk. Once inside, the sniper could lie prone and take shots through a small hole created for that purpose near the license plate.

While imprisoned, Malvo wrote a number of erratic diatribes about what he termed “jihad” against the United States. “I have been accused on my mission. Allah knows I’m gonna suffer now,” he wrote. Because his rants and drawings featured not only such figures as Osama Bin Landen and Saddam Hussein, but also characters from the film series The Matrix, these musings were dismissed as immaterial. Some investigators reportedly said they had all but eliminated terrorist ties or political ideologies as a motive. Nonetheless, in at least one of the ensuing murder trials, a Virginia court found Muhammad guilty of killing “pursuant to the direction or order” of terrorism.

At the 2006 trial of Muhammad, Malvo testified that the aim of the killing spree was to kidnap children for the purpose of extorting money from the government and to “set up a camp to train children how to terrorize cities,” with the ultimate goal being to “shut things down” across the United States.

Before the trial, Chief Moose engaged in a publicity tour for his book on the sniper investigation, including appearances on Dateline NBCThe Today’s Show, and The Tonight Show. Assistant Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Willett told The Washington Post, “Personally, I don’t understand why someone who’s been in law enforcement his whole life would potentially damage our case or compromise a jury pool by doing this.”

Change of venue requests by defense attorneys were granted, and the first trials were held in the independent cities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach in southeastern Virginia, more than 100 miles from the closest alleged attack (in Ashland, Virginia).

During their trials in the fall of 2003, involving two of the victims in Virginia, Muhammad and Malvo were each found guilty of murder and weapons charges. The jury in Muhammad’s case recommended that he be sentenced to death, while Malvo’s jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty. The judges concurred in both cases. Alabama law enforcement authorities allege that the snipers engaged in a series of previously unconnected attacks prior to October 2 in Montgomery, Alabama. Other charges are also pending in Maryland and other communities in Virginia.

After the initial convictions and sentencing, Will Jarvis, the Assistant Prince William County prosecutor, stated he would wait to decide whether to try Malvo on capital charges in his jurisdiction until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether juveniles may be subject to the penalty of execution. While that decision in an unrelated case was still pending before the high court, in October 2004, under a plea agreement, Malvo pleaded guilty in another case in Spotsylvania Pennsylvania, for another murder to avoid a possible death penalty sentence and agreed to additional sentencing of life imprisonment without parole. Malvo had yet to face trial in Prince William County.

In March 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper vs. Simmons that the Eight Amendment prohibits execution for crimes committed when under the age of 18. In light of this Supreme Court decision, the prosecutors in Prince William County decided not to pursue the charges against Malvo. Prosecutors in Maryland, Louisiana, and Alabama were still interested in putting both Malvo and Muhammad on trial. As Malvo was 17 when he committed the crimes, he could no longer face the death penalty but still could be extradited to Alabama, Louisiana, and other states for prosecution. At the time of the Roper v. Simmons ruling, Malvo was 20 years old and was held at Virginia’s maximum security Red Onion State Prison in Pound, Wise County.

“Muhammad, with his sniper team partner, Malvo, randomly selected innocent victims,” Virginia Supreme Court Justice Donald Lemons wrote in the decision. “With calculation, extensive planning, premeditation and ruthless disregard for life, Muhammad carried out his cruel scheme of terror.”

Muhammad’s death penalty was affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court on April 22, 2005, when it ruled that he could be sentenced to death because the murder was part of an act of terrorism. This line of reasoning was based on the handwritten note demanding $10 million. The court rejected an argument by defense lawyers that Muhammad could not be sentenced to death because he was not the triggerman in the killings linked to him and Malvo.

In May 2005, Virginia and Maryland announced that they had reached agreements to allow Maryland to proceed with prosecuting charges there, where the most shootings occurred. There were media reports that Malvo and his legal team were willing to negotiate his cooperation, and he waived extradition to Maryland.

Muhammad and his legal team responded by fighting extradition to Maryland. Muhammad’s legal team was ultimately unsuccessful, and extradition was ordered by a Virginia judge in August 2005.

Maryland agreed to transfer Muhammad and Malvo back to the Commonwealth of Virginia after their trials. A date for Muhammad’s pending execution in Virginia had been set for November 10, 2009.[60]

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.[61]

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.

On May 6, 2008, it was revealed that Muhammad had asked prosecutors in a letter to help him end legal appeals of his conviction and death sentence “so that you can murder this innocent black man.” An appeal filed by Muhammad’s defense lawyers in April 2008 cited evidence of brain damage that might render Muhammad incompetent to make legal decisions, and that he should not have been allowed to represent himself at his Virginia trial.

In John Allen Muhammad’s May 2006 trial in Montgomery County, Maryland, Lee Boyd Malvo took the stand and confessed to the 17 murders. He also gave a more detailed version of the pair’s plans. Malvo, after extensive psychological counseling, admitted that he was lying at the earlier Virginia trial where he had admitted to being the trigger man for every shooting. Malvo claimed that he had said this in order to protect Muhammad from a potential death sentence, and because it was more difficult to obtain the death penalty for a minor. Malvo said that he wanted to do what little he could for the families of the victims by letting the full story be told. In his two days of testimony, Malvo outlined detailed aspects of all the shootings.

Part of his testimony concerned Muhammad’s complete multiphase plan. His plan consisted of three phases in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas. Phase one consisted of meticulously planning, mapping, and practicing their locations around the D.C. area. This way after each shooting, they would be able to quickly leave the area on a predetermined path and move on to the next location. Muhammad’s goal in Phase One was to kill six white people a day for 30 days. Malvo went on to describe how Phase One did not go as planned due to heavy traffic and the lack of a clear shot or getaway at locations.

Phase Two was meant to take place in Baltimore, Maryland. Malvo described how this phase was close to being implemented but was not carried out. Phase Two was intended to begin by killing a pregnant woman by shooting her in the stomach. The next step would have been to shoot and kill a Baltimore police officer. Then, at the officer’s funeral, they planned to detonate several improvised explosive devices complete with shrapnel. These explosives were intended to kill many police, since many police would attend another officer’s funeral.

The last phase was to take place during or shortly after Phase Two, which was to extort several million dollars from the United States government. This money would be used to finance a larger plan, to travel north to Canada. Along the way, they would stop in YMCAs and orphanages recruiting other impressionable young boys with no parents or guidance. Muhammad thought he could act as their father figure as he did with Malvo.

Once he recruited a large number of young boys and made his way up to Canada, he would begin their training. Malvo described how John Muhammad intended to train boys in weapons and stealth as he had been taught. Finally, after their training was complete, John Allen Muhammad would send them out across the United States to carry out mass shootings in many other cities, just as he had done in Washington and Baltimore. These attacks would be coordinated and be intended to send the country into chaos that had already been built up after 9/11.

On September 16, 2009, the circuit court judge Mary Grace O’Brien set an execution date by lethal injection for November 10, 2009. His attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to stay his execution, but it was denied. They also requested clemency from Virginia Governor, Tim Kaine, but this was denied as well.

Muhammad was executed by lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, on November 10, 2009. The execution procedure began at 9:06 p.m. EST; Muhammad was pronounced dead five minutes later. It was reported that when asked if he had any last words, Muhammad made no reply. Twenty-seven people, including victims’ family members, witnessed his execution.

A memorial to the victims of the D.C. area sniper attacks is located at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland. An additional memorial was constructed in 2014 in the government plaza of Rockville, Maryland.

In just a short time, 10 people were killed and 3 others critically wounded in these attacks. This was one of the most infamous Mass murders and Spree Killings that took place after 9/11.

 

Sources:

D.C. sniper attacks – Wikipedia

John Allen Muhammad & Lee Boyd Malvo: The DC Snipers – StMU History Media

Beltway Snipers — FBI