The Beltway Snipers, Ten Years Later
Ten years ago starting today, John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo began a crime spree that kept the D.C. area on a knife's edge for three long weeks.
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.
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.