Twenty years ago, DC sniper attacks terrorized the Washington DC area for three weeks
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
For three weeks in October 2002, the “DC sniper” shootings terrorized and put fear into the Washington, DC region which includes Maryland and the Virginia area.
On October 23, 2002, at 11:45 pm, a refrigerator repairman named, Whitney Donahue, pulled into the rest stop area off I-70 in Myersville, Maryland. It was the usual routine for him to rest after working the late shift. Donahue soon noticed another vehicle parked with two men sleeping inside. He drove closer to the vehicle and saw it was a 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice sedan with a New Jersey license plate, NDA-21Z. It matched the description of the vehicle and license plate circulated in the media linked to the “DC sniper” shootings. Donahue was familiar with the “DC sniper” news coverage and had already written the license plate in his notes.
According to a September 2012 article on washingtonian.com, Donahue, who was nervous, picked up his cell phone and called 911, patiently informing the dispatcher for two hours. Then at 3:30 am, a team of Montogomery County SWAT officers, Maryland State Police and agents from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team swarmed the Caprice and arrested the two men without a struggle: John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. The short but terrifying reign of the “DC sniper” was over.
The “DC sniper” shootings occurred 20 years ago during an unsettling period in the US. It followed the Columbine High School shootings of April 1999 and the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent anthrax strike in September 2001. For three weeks in October 2002, the “DC sniper” shootings terrorized and put fear into the Washington, DC region which includes Maryland and the Virginia area. Ten people were killed with three people injured. The victims were chosen randomly as they went about their daily routines. Some were shopping, mowing their lawn, buying gas and driving a bus. The killings made headline news nationwide and in the international media. The fact that the assailants were hiding and undetected at the time of the shootings further intensified the uncertainty, fear and panic. If anxiety were gasoline, it would have filled an entire tank of an SUV and overflowed. It was scary.
After Muhammad and Malvo were arrested, police examined the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan. The car had been modified in the back seat area, so the shooter could lie prone while aiming the gun inconspicuously through the keyhole of the trunk. It was cold, calculated, diabolical: seek target, aim, shoot to kill, repeat. It is beyond comprehension how someone could put in so much dedication, meticulousness and labour to commit murder.
According to biography.com, John Allen Muhammad was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 31, 1960. He joined the US Army in his 20s and was stationed in Germany and the Middle East during the Gulf War—having become an adroit shooter. According to the same washingtonian.com article, Muhammad was an angry man who lost his three children in a custody case. This buildup of anger was about to burst.
Lee Boyd Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica on February 18, 1985. During the shootings, Malvo was 17 years old and a Jamaican immigrant. According to a September 2004 article on vanityfair.com, Malvo and his mother, Una James, first met Muhammad in the early 2000s on the Caribbean Island of Antigua. It would be a father and son relationship, with Muhammad having a very dominant influence on the young Malvo. But the influence would eventually turn darker and more sinister as their violent future drew near.
A June 2003 article in the Washington Post reported that James during an appearance on a Jamaican television show called Profile denied having an intimate relationship with Muhammad. A transcript from the interview had James stating she disapproved of the relationship between her son and Muhammad: “That man, I had no relationship with because when I first saw him, I said to my son, ‘That is a demon.’”
Remarkably, the arrest of Muhammad and Malvo was enhanced by a combination of persistent detective work and assistance from citizens. According to a February 2022 article on wusa9.com, Lee Malvo phoned authorities telling law enforcement in Montgomery County that he and Muhammad were responsible for a previous shooting in Montgomery, Alabama. Local police there obtained a catalogue dropped at the scene that had a fingerprint. At the time, there were no matches for the fingerprint in the Alabama state system. But when the catalogue was later brought to Montgomery County authorities, a scan of the fingerprint identified Lee Malvo—who was fingerprinted by the INS in early 2002. Then an FBI tip line received a phone call from a man named Robert Holmes, who lived in Tacoma, Washington. As the washingtonian.com explained, Holmes said the shooter was his friend who he knew from the US Army: John Muhammad. Investigators later identified the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice used by the killers, leading to their eventual arrest.
According to britannica.com, Muhammad and Malvo were prosecuted in the state of Virginia. Muhammad was convicted on weapons and multiple murder charges in November 2003, before receiving a death sentence for his role in the killings. A month later, Malvo was found guilty of terrorism, murder, and firearms charges. He was sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility for parole.
Over the years, crime investigation programs, news segments, articles, and crime podcasts, have attempted to uncover why Muhammad and Malvo committed these heinous acts. According to an ABC News article in January 2006, John Muhammad was at the breaking point with his custody battle after he lost his three children. Gregg McCrary, a former criminal profiler for the FBI, says Muhammad fit the profile of a killer who was emotionally unstable and capable of violence as an outlet. “If they have a propensity to violence, and no guilt and no remorse about committing acts of violence, then violence becomes a very logical choice for them to make to vent their frustrations, to show their anger and to take revenge on a society that they feel has wronged them,” he said.
Another question that has been posed is why did the two killers choose to murder their 10 victims in the Washington, DC area? Forensic psychologist, N.G. Burrell believes the area was selected because John Muhammad’s ex-wife had moved there with his three children. “It is entirely possible that by coming down to the [DC] area he was demonstrating his contempt—his contempt for perhaps the situation and circumstances he found himself in, a sense of powerlessness, and an attempt perhaps in some way to even say obliquely to this woman, ‘Look. I am powerful. I’m not one down. I can tie up this entire locale. I can frighten the heck out of everybody—and you’re included here.’”
In October 2009, NBC News reported John Muhammad, after using all his appeals, was scheduled to be executed for the October 2002 slaying of Dean Harold Meyers at a Manassas gas station. Rather than showing any remorse for the lives he took, he was fighting to save his own life. The state of Virginia had sealed Muhammad’s fate. Fittingly, Muhammad received the death penalty. It was an “eye for an eye.”
Ironically, Muhammad, who made quick decisions in who he would murder using a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, could not make a quick decision for himself—regarding the method to be used in his own execution: lethal injection or electrocution. The same NBC News report stated Virginia Department of Corrections spokesperson, Larry Traylor, said after Muhammad declined to select his method of execution, under state law, the method defaults to lethal injection. Muhammad was executed on November 10, 2009. And it was an eerie coincidence that Muhammad was pronounced dead at 9:11 pm.
In 2012, ten years after the DC sniper shootings, Lee Malvo gave an interview to the Washington Post. He stated that he was heavily influenced by Muhammad. But Malvo conceded that he committed despicable acts. “I was a monster,” he 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.” Malvo also was “outwardly apologetic” to his victims and their families. Yet, he believes there is no way he can express that. “We can never change what happened,” he said. “There’s nothing that I can say [except] don’t allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life …” In February 2022, wbaltv.com reported Malvo and his attorney, Kiran Iyer, are requesting the Maryland Court of Appeals to allow Malvo to be re-sentenced. He is now 37 years old.
Lastly, the DC sniper shootings revealed how anger and a blatant disregard and value for human life can make a person become a monster. John Muhammad and Lee Malvo are prime examples. The two men worked together as a deadly duo, in terrorizing the Washington, DC region for three weeks in October 2002. Retired Supervisory Special Agent, April Carroll, an investigator during the DC sniper shootings—said the terror caused by Muhammad and Malvo 20 years ago still resonates. “I can’t remember a chapter I read in my book the day before or what I had for breakfast, but this case comes back with an instant memory of the victims and the dates and the evidence,” she said in a February 2022 interview with wusa9.com. “No matter what age you were, you’ll remember this, I think, for a lifetime.”
Remembering the victims of the DC sniper
October 2: James Martin, 55, in Maryland
October 3: James L Buchanan, 39, near Rockville, Maryland
October 3: Prem Kumar Walekar, 54, in Maryland
October 3: Sarah Ramos, 34, in Maryland
October 3: Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, in Maryland
October 3: Pascal Charlot, 72, in Washington, DC
October 9: Dean Harold Meyers, 53, in Virginia
October 11: Kenneth Bridges, 53, in Virginia
October 14: Linda Franklin, 47, an FBI intelligence analyst, in Virginia
October 22: Conrad Johnson, 35, in Maryland
Timeline of Terror
October 2: Man killed who was crossing a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland
October 3: Five more murders, four in Maryland and one in DC
October 4: Woman shot and wounded while loading her van at Spotsylvania Mall
October 7: 13-year-old-boy wounded at a school in Bowie, Maryland
October 9: Man murdered near Manassas, Virginia, while pumping gas
October 11: Man fatally shot near Fredericksburg, Virginia, while pumping gas
October 14: FBI analyst Linda Franklin killed near Falls Church, Virginia
October 19: Man wounded outside a steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia
October 22: A bus driver, the final victim, killed in Aspen Hill, Maryland
October 24: Muhammad and Malvo are arrested in Maryland
Items found in the vehicle used by John Muhammad and Lee Malvo
- The murder weapon, a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle that was used in each attack.
- A rifle’s scope for aiming and a tripod to fire steady shots.
- A backseat with the sheet metal removed between the passenger compartment and the trunk, giving the shooter easy access to enter the trunk from inside the car.
- The Chevy Caprice owner’s manual with written impressions of one of the demand notes (FBI laboratory later detected).
- The digital voice recorder used by both Muhammad and Malvo to make extortion demands.
- A laptop stolen from one of the victims that contained maps of the shooting sites and exit routes from some of the crime scenes; and maps, walkie-talkies and other assorted items.