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The Beltway Snipers, Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today, specifically at about 5:21pm,   the first shots were fired in what turned out to be a shooting spree that lasted 22 days and resulted in the deaths of ten people and the wounding of three others. That first shooting, at a Michael’s craft store in in Aspen Hill, Maryland only blew out a few windows, but a few hours later a man named James Randolph was killed in the parking lot of a grocery store in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The next day, in the course of a two hour period, four people were shot dead in various locations in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. The day after that, a woman was wounded in a parking lot at a strip mall in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Three days later, a 13 year old boy was shot outside a Middle School in suburban Maryland. On October 9th, a man named Dean Barnett was shot to death while putting gas in his car at a Sunoco station in Manassas, Virginia. Two days after that, another man was shot outside a gas station in Spotsylanvia County, Virginia. On Octber 14th, Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst, was shot while loading packages in her car in a Home Depot parking lot in Falls Church, Virginia. Five days later, another man died from a gunshot wound in a parking lot outside a Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia, which is nearly inside the Richmond City limits and far outside the location of the other shootings. Then on October 23, a bus driver in Montgomery County, Maryland was shot to death while driving his route. The police knew from early on that all of these shootings were connected thanks to ballistics testing. Two days after the bus driver was killed, the saga came to an end when police took into custody two men, John Allen Mohammned and Lee Boyd Malvo, as they hid out in a Rest Area off of Interstate 70 in western Maryland.

It’s kind of hard to describe what it was like to live in Metro D.C. for those three weeks. Once it became clear that there was someone out there that was randomly targeting people, it was hard not to look around every single time you got out of your car. After two men were killed while pumping gas, it became instinct to check your surroundings even if it was the middle of the afternoon when you’d think nobody would dare pull off something like this. Parking lots started to feel like points of vulnerability, and it became hard to know who exactly you could trust. The shooting at the Home Depot hit me particularly close to home for me since it occurred about a five minute drive from where I was living at the time. The one think I still remember about that night is hearing police car sirens going off well into the night. And my parents, like parents are, seemed to call a lot more frequently during that three week period.

Then there were the rumors that started circulating. After the shooting at the Sunoco in Manassas, someone told police that they saw a white panel van driving away from the scene. Given  the fact that the construction industry was booming here in Northern Virginia at the time, those types of fan were about as common as the deer that would run out in front f your car at night. Nonetheless, the white panel van became a media and police obsession for at least two weeks. Indeed, I remember a co-worker of mine at the time coming into the office and saying she saw a white panel van on the drive into work and wondering whether she should call the police. At that point, I was just glad I didn’t own a white panel van. As it turned out, the white panel van was, as most eyewitness reports are, a dead end. The two men who committed these murders were driving a bizarrely modified 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice. By bizarrely modified, I mean that the rear of the car had been completely gutted so that it could be a nest for whichever one of them was the designated sniper.

In the end, both Malvo and Mohammed were convicted of multiple murder counts in separate Virginia courts. Mohammed was sentenced to death and was executed on November 10, 2009. Largely because of his age at the time, and the fact that his attorney’s were successful in presenting an argument at sentencing that he was manipulated by Mohammed, Malvo was sentenced to life without parole on all charges against him.

Now, Lee Boyd Malvo is speaking to the press:

Lee Boyd Malvo said he remembers each of the sniper shootings in detail. But one moment — one image — stands out among the carnage of that terrifying time 10 years ago:

“Mr. Franklin’s eyes.”

Malvo remembers being in the blue Chevrolet Caprice, in which police found binoculars and walkie-talkies. He scanned the area to make sure John Allen Muhammad had a clean shot. He gave the “go” order and looked across Route 50 in Seven Corners at the target. Muhammad, hidden on a hill above, pulled the trigger. A bullet screamed across the highway, instantly killing Linda Franklin, who just happened to be going about her business at the Home Depot in Virginia at precisely the wrong time.

But mostly he remembers Ted Franklin’s eyes — the devastation, the shock, the sadness. “They are penetrating,” Malvo said in a rare media interview from prison. “It is the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life. His eyes. . . .Words do not possess the depth in which to fully convey that emotion and what I felt when I saw it. . . . You feel like the worst piece of scum on the planet.”

Malvo’s attitude provides a sharp contrast to his posture 10 years ago. Shortly after his arrest, a boastful, defiant Malvo told investigators that he fired the bullet that killed Franklin. He laughed and pointed to his head to show where the bullet struck. Told about Malvo’s words, one of those investigators said he wouldn’t be surprised if Muhammad fired the fatal shot and thinks Malvo might be coming to grips with what he did.

It has been 10 years since Malvo and Muhammad went on one of the most notorious killing sprees in the nation’s history. Over 21 days in October 2002, the pair ambushed 13 unsuspecting strangers, killing 10 of them, in the Washington area. They succeeded in terrorizing the region, as death could come anywhere, anytime: in gas stations and parking lots. They even shot and wounded a 13-year-old standing in front of a middle school. Sporting events were canceled. People cowered behind tarps as they filled their cars with gas. Parents kept their children home. After the two were caught, they were tied to at least 11 more shootings from Washington state to Alabama, five of them fatal.

Muhammad is gone — executed in 2009 for his crimes. Malvo, the scrawny teenager, the cold-blooded accomplice, is now 27.

His killer stare seems to have softened. He speaks with animation and poise, and with an adult perspective on what he did. He claims to understand the enormity of his actions — the trail of death and loss and pain he left behind — and believes that but for Muhammad, he might have accomplished something in life.

“I was a monster,” Malvo said. “If you look up the definition, that’s what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. I did someone else’s bidding  just because they said so. . . . There is no rhyme or reason or sense.”

(…)

In three hours of interviews this month, Malvo reflected on the sniper shootings and what led to the deadly spree of crimes that stretched coast to coast. He said he is different now, extricated from Muhammad’s grip, and wiser. He said he has deep regret for everything he did. He added several details to what was known about how he and Muhammad carried out the shootings undetected.

Much of what he said was similar to the narrative his attorneys presented at his 2003 capital murder trial in Franklin’s death. Jurors spared his life, largely because they believed that while he was responsible for the killings, he was also under Muhammad’s control.

Malvo spoke through plexiglass on Sept. 19 in the stark cinder-block visitation room at Red Onion State Prison, a remote supermax facility tucked among Virginia’s Appalachian coal mines, about eight hours from Washington. Prison officials would not allow paper or pens or pencils into the room. Malvo then spoke the next day by telephone in four separate, recorded calls.

He said there is no explanation for why he and Muhammad killed so many people, only that he learned of Muhammad’s plans piecemeal. He knows that Muhammad snapped when he lost custody of his children and wanted to get back at his ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, who lived in Prince George’s County, so he could get the children back. And there was talk of taking the children away and starting a new society with the money they were trying to extract from the government, but Malvo said he can’t be sure of Muhammad’s real motives. Malvo also said that in October 2002, he would have done anything Muhammad asked of him.

In the interview, Malvo did not make any fanciful claims, as he did in his only other media contact. In a summer 2010 interview with William Shatner for the A&E Cable network, Malvo claimed that he and Muhammad shot 42 people and had accomplices along the way. Authorities have discounted those assertions.

Malvo was respectful and willing to answer questions from The Washington Post. A slight man with close-cropped hair, Malvo has a broad smile and often uses his hands to express himself, such as when pointing to his temple while explaining how his mind was warped.

Andrew Cohen notes that Malvo’s openness with the media coincides not only with the 10th anniversary of the beginnings of the shootings, but also with the release of a new book about them that focuses largely on Malvo himself:

We know — and yet we are confronted again in this case with a form of cognitive dissonance that runs through many stories of life and death and crime and punishment. How can Malvo be a victim when he victimized so many others? Why should anyone feel sorry for a murderer, a young man who day after day allowed himself to be used as an instrument of death? These are reasonable questions to ask, and they brook no universal answers. But I dare you to read this book and not feel sorry for Malvo, and not feel anger toward all the adults who let him down, and not root for those precious few who tried vainly to help.

So now what? We have the victims and their family members whose lives were forever altered by what Malvo did and allowed to be done. And we have a repentant young man locked away in a prison cell, claiming (to Albarus) that he wishes he could do more, wishes he could do something, to try to put to right the damage he caused. He cannot. But perhaps his life may serve as a warning, to fathers and mothers everywhere, that treating a child like this doesn’t just destroy the child, it destroys society itself. And if that message gets through to just one family, or just to one reader, Albarus will have accomplished something very great indeed.

At trial it became eminently clear that Malvo was manipulated by Mohammed, which is why he was not sentenced to death himself.  That doesn’t absolve the man of his crimes, of course,  he committed horrible crimes that led to the deaths of innocent people. It is proper that he is being punished in the manner that he is. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder how the lives of so many people might have been different if Lee Malvo had found a mentor far more moral than John Allen Mohammed.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I find myself wondering how Mr. Malvo’s situation is different from children conscripted into armies.

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  2. Gromit,

    Though not in those exact words, that is essentially the argument that Malvo’s attorneys made at sentencing

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  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I distinctly remember this fiasco.

    Shit, I lived 3,000 miles away from these nutjobs and I was looking around and moving quickly when filling up the tank at gas stations. Crazy days.

    The media of course covered its banner with shame. First they stroked these freaks’ dicks by going wall to wall coverage of the body count, nearly at times in a prurient manner. Then before the investigation even had ramped up they paraded a series of “experts” who based upon the standard profile of serial killers informed us that it had to be a middle-aged white guy. Then when it turned out to be two black guys the left-wing media instantly started jumping through its own arseholes and spinning their heads around, like Linda Blair, because they couldn’t figure out how they could try to humanize these guys and they couldn’t with straight faces argue that it was racism that caused them to do what they did.

    2001-2002 were hard times. 9/11. The recession. Worldcom, Enron, Tyco, etc. A bear market in stocks. The D.C. snipers. Probably a few other maladies not immediately coming to mind. That we leapt out of that frying pan into this fire truly is surreal.

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  4. Tylerh says:

    This read exactly like the final chapter of Capote’s masterpiece, “In Cold Blood.”

    Actually, the parallels between the two stories are fascinating.

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  5. Moosebreath says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    “Probably a few other maladies not immediately coming to mind.”

    The anthrax by mail scare should be on that list.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. @Moosebreath:

    Indeed. The anthrax attacks have never been definitively solved. Federal investigators spent years going after someone who worked at the Army’s research facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland, as did the media, but he was exonerated and ultimately received a generous libel settlement from the Washington Post.

    Current speculation is that another employee at the Ft. Detrick lab who had committed suicide, was the person responsible person, but the evidence has been questioned by many, including Senators from both sides of the aisle.

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  7. @Tsar Nicholas:

    For rather obvious reasons the story was a big deal for the local media here in the D.C. area but I didn’t realize how much national coverage the story was getting until I started getting phone calls and emails from family members in other part of the country.

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  8. ernieyeball says:

    Of course the Media made them do it!
    Fox news helicopters made that guy in Arizona kill himself too!

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  9. Mikey says:

    Three days later, a 13 year old boy was shot to death outside a Middle School in suburban Maryland.

    He survived, actually, and testified at Muhammad’s trial.

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  10. JKB says:

    Good times back then. Doing the gas pump dance, scanning horizons, the delight of having to stand on an exposed platform to wait for the train. The first victim worked in my building, he was out of the office on community outreach returning from a school visit when he was killed. The first series of shootings pretty much surrounded where I worked.

    The cops and FBI were clueless. They put out their profile which being the usual suspects of white male meant that the real snipers made it through roadblocks. They went around collecting the registered rifles for testing. The white van was real amusing. The one thing you quickly noticed is a white panel van went by every few minutes when you were keeping a look out. It wasn’t the investigators that were clueless but the police chiefs and senior FBI who put out this information with a certainty that it didn’t have just to look like they had a clue. In the end, they were caught well out of town where people started to think they might be safe.

    I was surprised Al Qeada didn’t use this tactic. It was pretty much shown that a couple of guys with a rifle could cause a lot of terror with little risk to themselves.

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  11. JKB,

    As you’ll no doubt recall, the deeper we got into the crisis the more people began to speculate that this was a terrorist act.

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  12. Largely because of his age at the time, and the fact that his attorney’s were successful in presenting an argument at sentencing that he was manipulated by Mohammed, Malvo was sentenced to life without parole on all charges against him.
    Actually, Paul Ebert, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Prince William County, Virginia, wanted to indicted Malvo and to seek the death penalty for him, but before he could, the Supreme Court of the United States released its decision in Roper v Simmons, where it ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment for crimes committed while someone was a juvenile.

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  13. @Mikey:

    Ah yes, you’re correct. Correction forthcoming.

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  14. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yes, I remember that. My concern was that having demonstrated the technique, it would be picked up and used by the Islamists. Thankfully, they try to go big

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  15. Trumwill says:

    I remember there being two competing theories from the start (albeit the authorities focused on the first). The Deranged Ex-Military White Guy and the Muslim Terrorist. Turned out there were elements of each, but neither were right enough to be right.

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  16. Richard Gardner says:

    Definitely spooky times in the DC Metro then. I’d been gone all summer and had only been back about a week when this started. Sort of went into a bunker mentality, with News 9 on all the time as background noise in case something happened.

    Remember Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose? Instant celebrity. He quit the Dept to write a book, then went into the Air Guard for a few years

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  17. Hal 10000 says:

    I was living in Baltimore at the time and we were nervous enough. As it turned out, they were actually *in* Baltimore, not far from where I worked. It was a scary time.

    I’m prepared to believe that Malvo is sorry for what he did. And I hope that he has had some change in his personality. I still don’t think that absolves him of responsibility for what happened.

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  18. Let's Be Free says:

    We had two daughters in diapers then. My wife wanted to buy fabric and accesories to make them Halloween costumes so off to the fabric store on the lower level of Seven Corners she went, kids in tow. When I learned of the trip I questioned her going out with the kids while the sniper was on the loose. She said, not to worry I was safe, I parked under the deck at the Home Depot. Two days later Malvo randomly and maliciously blew Linda Franklin’s brains out not more than a space or two from where my wife had parked.

    Whatever Malvo’s advertised state of mind today he deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life. Teenagers understand the difference between right and wrong and life and death. As a clear message to anyone else who chooses to be influenced by someone else, Malvo should never be released, no matter how repentent he may appear to be now. Malvo had dozens of opportunities to turn himself in and id Muhammed as the bad guy. He chose alignment and being wrong over right; that inclination will sadly, never entirely go away. There is something inherently evil and inhumane about doing what Malvo did, again, and again, and again. Don’t cry for John Malvo — he has earned his fate.

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  19. Ron Beasley says:

    Malvo made some bad choices but I’m not sure that life in prison is not worse than the death penalty even though I oppose the death penalty. A few years ago I did some volunteer work at a hospice. There was a fellow there who had spent most of his life in prison because he murdered someone 40 years ago. He had terminal cancer. I talked to him for hours – hours. We talked about prison, about his crime. He actually felt uncomfortable out of prison. I took him to on a trip to the ocean. He cried when he saw the ocean for the first time in over 40 years. Shortly after that trip he died of cancer. I’m glad I was able to let him see the ocean before he died.

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  20. superdestroyer says:

    The police actually had a description of the vehicle from the shooting that occurred inside the district. There was a distinct feeling that Maryland and especially the governor at the time, Paris Glendening ,was too excited about catching a couple of white serial killers for political purposes. The Democratic Party in Maryland would have benefited from catching a couple of white gun nuts but the Democratic Party in Maryland would not have benefited from catching a couple of black guys.

    That is one of the reasons that Chief Moose became the butt of so many jokes.

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  21. J-Dub says:

    @Hal 10000: I also remember that they found a list of schools in their car, all within a mile or so of my house in Baltimore. Glad they caught them before they used that list.

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  22. J-Dub says:

    @Ron Beasley: Sounds like Shawshank Redemption. Did you take him to Zihuatanejo?

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  23. Rob in CT says:

    The Democratic Party in Maryland would have benefited from catching a couple of white gun nuts but the Democratic Party in Maryland would not have benefited from catching a couple of black guys.

    Is there nothing you won’t stoop to?

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  24. Electroman says:

    a few hours later a man named James Randolph was killed in the parking lot of a grocery store in Prince George’s County, Maryland

    This fellow was actually James Martin, an old and dear friend of mine. Here’s to you, James.

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  25. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more use by terrorists of our lax gun laws. Suicide death wish and armed with standard weaponry available? No further comments to be made.

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  26. Susan says:

    @Electroman: I’m sorry for your loss.

    I remember when two plainclothesmen drew down on a suspect not twenty feet from where I was stuck at a traffic light with my then little girl. I very calmly told her to play a game: see how low down she could get in the back of the car. Thank G-d she had no clue.

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  27. superdestroyer says:

    @Rob in CT:

    At the time of the DC Sniper, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (KKT) was running against Robert Ehrlich for the governor of Maryland. The Democratic Party in Maryland has made gun control, assault weapons, virginia gun shows, and trigger locks an issue in the election.

    The the white panel van became a big issue it was described as having two white males inside. There was a huge amount of discussion in the local media about how KKT would benefit if the two white guys in the white van were captured. Of course, the search for the white van caused the police to ignore the eye witness account of the Chevy Caprice being involve din the shooting on Georgia Avenue inside the District of Columbia.

    Maryland actually adopted the strategy of swarming the area of a shooting and stoping all of the white panel trucks. Of course, Maryland was wrong and the two shooters were driving a vehicle where they had a description but ignored.

    One of the reason that Virginia got to prosecuted the snipers before Maryland was the thought that Maryland would screw up the trial.

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