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The DC Snipers: The random shootings that terrorised Washington

Washington DC in the sniper's sight
Photo by Kony Xyzx | Pexels

Over the course of eight months in 2002, several states were terrorised by a series of random shootings. The main shootings took place in Maryland and Virginia in the space of just three weeks in October. The elusive killers became known as the ‘D.C. Snipers’ and they gunned down people going about their everyday lives; people were shot while mowing the lawn, pumping gas, shopping and reading a book. In total, they took 17 lives before finally being apprehended and identified as 41-year-old John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo.

The first victim associated with the D.C. Snipers was 21-year-old Keenya Nicole Cook, who was killed on the 16th of February, 2002. She had been changing her daughter’s diaper when she opened the front door of her home to somebody who shot her dead with a single .45-caliber bullet which had been fired point-blank into her head. It wouldn’t be discovered that Keenya was a victim of the D.C Snipers until Muhammad and Malvo were arrested. As it transpired, she was the niece of Isa Nichols, who was once a close friend of Muhammad and his ex-wife, Mildred. Muhammad held a grudge against Isa because she had worked with authorities to assist Mildred during a custody battle (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 26 October, 2002 – ‘Possible Link to Killing Here’).

The next victim would be Jerry Taylor, a 60-year-old avid golf player who was shot dead off the practice area at the Fred Enke Golf Course in Tucson, Arizona, on the 19th of March, 2002. Taylor was a father of three and had served in the Army for three years; he had been shot once in the torso with a rifle from some distance (The Arizona Daily Star, 21 March, 2002 – ‘We Need to Know Why’). At the time of the shooting, Muhammad’s sister lived less than a mile from the golf course (Houston Chronicle, 6 November, 2002 – ‘Judge Denies Bail for Sniper Suspect’). Between March and July, there would be three more shooting deaths and four more shooting injuries associated with Muhammad and/or Malvo. These included the September 21st murder of 41-year-old Million Waldemariam, who was shot dead in Atlanta, Georgia, while closing a Sammy’s Package store, the murder of Claudine Parker, 52, who was shot in the chest less than 24 hours later in Montgomery, Alabama, and the murder of 45-year-old Hong Im Ballenger, who was shot in the head with a rifle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on the 23rd of September.

The D.C. Snipers continued their rampage, but by this point, they had built a shooting nest into the back of their car which had allowed them to pick off victims with ease and escape without a trace. They had lowered the back seat of Muhammad’s 1990 Chevrolet Caprice and then cut a small hole into the trunk which allowed a gunman to lie down and shoot while the other drove around seeking out victims. This led to confusion at the crime scenes when investigators struggled to find spent shell casings – they had remained in the trunk (New York Daily News, 25 October, 2002 – ‘Shooting Nest Built into Car’).

On the evening of the 2nd of October, 2002, 55-year-old James Martin was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse near Wheaton, Maryland. Just the following day, James ‘Sonny’ Buchanan, 39, was shot dead while mowing the grass behind the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Rockville, Maryland. He was a landscaper and the area where he was killed is now a memorial which includes a poem he had written:

‘Remember none can take them away, you always have your dreams.’ From here, the D.C. Snipers travelled on to Aspen Hill, Maryland, where they shot and killed 54-year-old Premkumar Walekar, who was killed while pumping gas into his taxi (The Washington Times, 11 October, 2009 – ‘Random Rampage’).

Just over thirty minutes later, 34-year-old Sarah Ramos became the next victim. She was reading a book on a bench outside the Leisure World Shopping Center in Norbeck, Maryland. Just over an hour later, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was killed while vacuuming her minivan in Kensington, Maryland. At around 9:20PM that night, 72-year-old Pascal Charlot was killed while standing on a street corner on Georgina Avenue, Washington D.C. He would be the fifth victim to be killed that day; all five victims had been shot from a distance and all were killed with a single shot.

The D.C. Snipers wouldn’t wait long before they continued their massacre. Around 70 miles away in Spotsylvania, Virginia, 43-year-old homemaker, Caroline Seawell, was shot and injured as she returned to her minivan in the parking lot of a Michaels craft store in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Crime scene investigators were able to retrieve a bullet from her minivan. It was this bullet that would link these shootings to the earlier shootings in Maryland (The Free Lance-Star, 8 November, 2009 – ‘Sheriff Recalls Terror and Intensity of Case’).

The spate of shootings truly held the area in a state of panic with many fearing doing everyday tasks, such as grocery shopping, pumping gas and simply walking to their parked car. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose would attempt to calm these fears, telling residents: ‘Your children are safe.’ However, less than a week later the attacks would continue with 53-year-old Vietnam combat veteran and civil engineer, Dean Harold Meyers, being shot dead as he pumped gas at a gas station near Manassas in Prince William County, Virginia.

The next victim would be 53-year-old Kenneth Bridges, who was shot and killed as he pumped gas at an Exxon gas station in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and three days later, Linda Franklin, 47, who was a breast cancer survivor and FBI intelligence analyst, was shot down at a Home Depot parking lot in Fairfax County, Virginia. There would be a respite from the shootings for less than a week, then on the 22nd of October, 35-year-old bus driver, Conrad Johnson, was shot while standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland. That evening, the public would receive a chilling message from the D.C. Snipers in the form of a note which read: ‘Your children are not safe anywhere at any time’(ABC News, 7 January, 2006 – ‘Sniper Warning: “Children Are Not Safe”’).

In addition to these murders, there were ten other shootings but these victims all survived, including a 13-year-old boy who was shot in the chest while arriving to school in Bowie, Maryland. In this instance, a Tarot ‘death’ card was left near where the shooting had taken place along with the ominous message: ‘Dear Policeman, I am God’ (Daily Press, 25 October, 2002 – ‘Suburbs Became Sniper’s Killing Fields’). By this point, investigators were closing in on D.C. Snipers with a plethora of tips coming in from witnesses as well as from acquaintances of the two shooters.

Muhammad and Malvo were finally apprehended on the 24th of October when they were found sleeping in the Chevrolet Caprice at a rest stop in Maryland. Their car had been identified as the suspected vehicle used in the shootings just hours earlier and had been publicized across the news. Furthermore, a fingerprint found at an earlier shooting had come back as a match to Malvo from a previous arrest (Springfield News-Sun, 22 June, 2018 – ‘Beltway Sniper Lee Boyd Malvo Granted New Sentencing Hearing in Virginia Killings’). A search of the car would turn up the murder weapon: a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 rifle that had been linked to a number of the shootings as well a rifle scope.

Following their arrests for the spate of shootings, investigators would link them to the preliminary shootings which had taken place between February and September. In total, Muhammad and/or Malvo killed 17 people and injured ten more. The true motivation behind the senseless string of murders still remains murky today; Muhammad’s ex-wife believed they were a smoke screen for his plan to kill her while Malvo claimed Muhammad had indoctrinated him into sharing his rage over white American society (Los Angeles Times, 14 December, 2003 – ‘Snipers’ Motives Start to Emerge’). He claimed that Muhammad wanted to extort millions of dollars from the government so he could train orphaned boys to be terrorists. Investigators and prosecutors would never reveal a motivation other than the ‘pure sensation of the sudden death of innocent people’(Richmond Times-Dispatch, 29 September, 2012 – ‘Ten Years Later, Sniper Saga Still Defies Comprehension’).

Both John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo would be convicted of capital murder in both Maryland and Virginia; Muhammad would be sentenced to death while Malvo would be sentenced to six consecutive life sentences. On the 10th of November, 2009, Muhammad was executed via lethal injection. When he was asked if he had any final words, he refused to respond; he never showed any remorse for his actions (NBC News, 10 November, 2009 – ‘D.C.-Area Sniper “Died Very Peacefully”’).

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court challenged mandatory life-without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder in Alabama and Arkansas and this law became retroactive meaning that it applied to older cases as well (Springfield News-Sun, 22 June, 2018 – ‘Beltway Sniper Lee Boyd Malvo Granted New Sentencing Hearing in Virginia Killings’). In 2017, Malvo’s life without parole sentence was overturned but only in the state of Virginia. He is currently in the process of appealing his life without parole sentences in Maryland.