The Killings Begin
On Wednesday October 2, 2002, the windows of Michael’s craft store in the wealthy town of Wheaton, Maryland were shot out at 5:20 PM. It would be the only shot fired that was a miss. Less than an hour later a killing spree would begin that would terrorize the Washington D.C. area for the next 22 days.
At 6:04 PM that same day, James Martin, a program analyst at NOAA, was killed by a single shot while walking across a nearby grocery store parking lot. He had stopped at Shoppers Food Warehouse to buy groceries for his church.
The sniper apparently got a good night’s rest and then woke up early the next day to begin a series of killings which would total 5 deaths during a 16 hour period.
On Thursday at 7:41 AM, James Buchanan was killed in White Flint, Maryland while mowing the lawn of a car dealership. His was killed with a single bullet to the chest.
30 minutes later, at 8:12 AM, Kumar Walekar, a cab driver, was killed while filling up the gas tank of his mini-van in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Kumar had taken off early that day and was heading home – it was his 25th wedding anniversary.
20 minutes later, at 8:37 AM, Sarah Ramos was killed while sitting on a bench reading outside a post office in Silver Spring, Maryland.
An hour and a half later, at 9:58 AM Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was killed while getting ready to vacuum her van at a gas station in Kensington, Maryland.
The sniper took the rest of the day off and then 12 hours later at 9:15 PM, Pascal Charlot was killed while crossing the street in Washington DC. Police have no doubt the killings are related as the first reports of two men in a white van are offered by witnesses.
The following day, Friday October 4, the sniper moved southward. A woman was shot and wounded at 2:30 PM at another Michael’s store parking lot in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She was critically injured but recovered and was later released – her identity is unknown.
The Killings Continue
Police quickly tied the killings together and determined that the murders were the work of a single killer using some sort of high-powered .223 caliber gun – probably an assault rifle.
In what would soon be recognized by profilers as a pattern, the killer took the weekend off and resumed his hunt on Monday. After news reports and questions about whether the area’s schools were safe, the killer took a bold step forward and shot and wounded a 13-year old boy walking into Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland. The boy was shot in the chest and although he suffered grave wounds, he survived the attack after his aunt, who witnessed the attack, rushed him to a Bowie hospital. The boy was airlifted to a Washington hospital where doctors took 3 hours to remove his spleen, pancreas, and parts of his stomach.
In addition to ballistic evidence found in the area, police discovered a Tarot card about 150 yards from the scene of the shooting and apparently some sort of additional evidence that the killer left requesting the police keep this item to themselves. The Tarot card, the “death card”, had scrawled on it the chilling words, “Dear Policeman: I am God”. The police were annoyed when news of this evidence reached the public and in a public news conference, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose publicly admonished the media for publicizing the leak. FBI profilers had believed the message was being used to open a dialog between the sniper and the police. Police later admitted that other tarot cards had been found during their investigation.
Police began to realize that the killer was carefully monitoring the media reports since during the previous days a segment on the early morning Today Show, featured a guest who talked about the sniper’s apparent “god complex”. “This person thinks his is in total control. He thinks he is God”.
According to former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt, the killer’s pattern shows every indication that he is toying with the police, using the media for information, challenging assumptions we make about him, and generally taking great pleasure in outsmarting all of us. The shooter knows he’s got our attention, Van Zandt speculates, – he gets all the confirmation he needs whenever he turns on the television – and hints like the carefully placed tarot card mean he’s playing to the spotlight. We don’t know anything for sure about the killer’s state of mind, but chances are he’s enjoying himself enormously.
2 days later Dean Myers, a Civil Engineer and Viet Nam veteran, was shot at 8:18 AM with a single bullet in the chest, just after filling his gas tank at a Sunco gas station near Manasses, Virginia. A white mini van was stopped in the area and the occupants questioned but their explanations for being in the area proved to be valid.
Figuring out the methods
On Friday, October 11, the killer returned at 9:30 AM to Fredericksburg and claimed another victim, Kenneth Bridges, in yet another gas station parking lot. Kenneth had stopped at an Exxon gas station off of I-95 on his way home to Philadelphia to fill his car with gas. The victim fell to the ground in front of a number of people including a nearby state trooper. A white Chevy van was spotted by several witnesses, including the state trooper. The state trooper, who was dealing with a traffic accident across the street, rushed to the scene and offered assistance until the medical personnel arrived.
On October 14, 2002, Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst, was killed in the parking garage of a Home Depot store in Falls Church, Virginia. Linda and her husband were loading purchases into their car, items bought for their newly purchased home, when a single shot hit Mrs. Franklin in the chest. A witness report was immediately filed by Matthew Dowdy – he claimed to have seen a man step out of his van, aim a AK-47 at the victim, and fire a single shot. Police were elated with this new information – their first close up description of the shooter and his activities. Later, after discovering the man has a prior criminal record, the witness was questioned heavily. He finally admitted that he had lied and was charged with one count of knowingly and willingly making a false statement to a police officer. The police, once again, were facing a dead-end. The only lead they had was the frequent descriptions of the white van.
Just when the profilers thought the date/time pattern had been figured out (the sniper never attacked on the weekend), the Washington Area Sniper changed his method. He also widened his geographic coverage which further baffled the police. On Saturday, October 19, 2002, a 37 year old man was shot as he and his wife walked across the dimly lit parking lot of the Ponderosa restaurant in Ashland, Virginia (a small town located about 90 miles south of Washington and 35 miles south of Fredericksburg). They were out of towners who had stopped to get a bite to eat and gas up the car. Police quickly surmised that the single shot had been fired from a wooded tree line behind the restaurant. The man was rushed to MCV Hospital where doctors removed part of his stomach, pancreas, and spleen. Ballistic details could not immediately be obtained because of the danger of removing the bullet from the man’s body. A second operation was later performed, the bullet removed, and the ballistic tests run that tied this shooting in with the others..
Immediately after the attack, the police received a phone call on a tip line, later traced to an area near Richmond, Virginia, from a man using a voice disguising machine. The man indicated that a note could be found at the scene of the crime.
The message, wrapped in plastic and found taped to a tree in the woods behind the restaurant, was described as lengthy (at least 3 pages) and poorly worded but the specific contents were not immediately released to the public. People began to speculate that the message described future attacks that the sniper had planned. Information began to leak that the note contained specific threats against children and hinted at a demand for money. Sources also indicated that the note contained a “timeline” for more attacks. According to one investigator who read the message, “This could be a very difficult time we are about to go through.” Schools all over the area began to close their doors as the public slipped deeper into panic.
Police and the media at this point began to recognize the intelligence of the sniper. When media reports were issued describing geographic profiles of the sniper, the killer would change his location. When they surmised that the killer thought he was “God”, the killer left a Tarot card proclaiming such. When the profilers recognized that the killer never struck on the weekend, he shot and wounded his next victim on a Saturday. Doubts of a white van being the getaway vehicle began to arise with some suspecting the common vehicle descriptions were a result of mass hysteria or possibly the sniper was misleading the police by waiting for a white van to enter the area before he took a shot at one of this victims. The authorities also began to wonder if the sniper was working in tandem with a second person. The only thing authorities knew for sure was that the killer used a .223 caliber weapon and that he was enjoying his game of cat and mouse with the police.
Police did not immediately open the letter because they wanted to obtain forensic information first. When they finally did open the letter they found a specific phone number that the killer would call on. More time was wasted as police scrambled to get the non-functioning number working. After not hearing from the sniper, Chief Moose made his first appeal for the killer to call. Two days after the incident, Montgomery County, Maryland Police Chief issued a chilling statement to the media.
To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night, you gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided.
The following day the sniper called again on the number provided. It was traced to an Exxon gas station in Richmond. The message was garbled. It has been tape recorded and altered electronically making parts of it unintelligible. Investigators could not determine whether the “accent” on the tape was real or if the sniper was purposing trying to fool the authorities by talking with a fake enunciation. Claiming that only 25% of the call was audible, Chief Moose made another plea.
Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said, “The person you called could not hear everything you said. The audio was unclear and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand.”
The next day, at 5:56 AM on Tuesday October 22, 2002, another attack occurred in Silver Spring, Maryland, an area near where the first attacks had occurred (less than half a mile from the location of the first shooting where the Michaels store windows were shot out). A bus driver, Conrad Johnson, 35 was standing on the top step platform of a commuter bus when he was shot in the chest. He was airlifted to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda where he died leaving behind a wife and 2 children. Police immediately descended upon the area, roads were once again closed down, and bloodhounds were brought in to comb the wooded area near the scene of the attack. Montgomery County schools were ordered to lock down and staff positioned at all entrances and exits to the schools.
Chief Charles Moose soon released more details about the note found at the Ponderosa restaurant and admitted that another note was found near the scene of the bus stop shooting. He indicated that the sniper had been critical of the police investigation at this point and had complained that he had tried on six occasions to talk to the FBI over the tips phone line only to be hung up on or cut short. Authorities explained:
“The individual taking the call did not understand the importance of what was happening,” the law enforcement official said. “She pretty much blew him off.”
Officials said the caller was extremely angry and used such phrases as “Just shut up and listen”, or “Hear me out”, and his often repeated “I am God” idiom. He also added that the killer had implied that his actions were about much more than just violence and that a specific request for money had been received. He also confirmed that specific threats about the area’s children were mentioned.
“Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time…”
The public was stunned when the sniper’s demands for money were denied with authorities indicating “we have researched the option you stated and found it is not possible electronically to comply in the manner that you requested.” Moose reiterated that a specific timeline had been outlined and that the bus stop killing has occurred only hours after the first “stage” in the timeline had expired.
The sniper, boasting of his cleverness, also mentioned a previous unsolved murder in “Montgomery”. The police mistakenly began digging deeper into a unsolved killing that had happened earlier in Montgomery County. On Friday a priest called the hotline and told police he too had received a strange phone call from a person bragging of a killing in Montgomery – Montgomery, Alabama! The police quickly surmised that the reference to the Montgomery crime was referring to a shooting incident that took place on September 21 at a ABC Beverages liquor store robbery in Montgomery, Alabama. One woman was killed and another injured when a assailant snuck up on them from behind and shot them before robbing them of their belongings. One of the items taken during the robbery was a credit card – a credit card that would later be tied to the demand by the sniper for an electronic transmission of funds to that credit card account.
Fortunately, a fingerprint had been found at the crime scene of the liquor store robbery. An extensive computer search tied the fingerprint to Lee Malvo, a 17 year old Jamaican citizen (his fingerprints were on file through the Immigration and Naturalization Services). Authorities researched Malvo’s background further and discovered he had close ties to a John Allen Muhammad (aka John Allen Williams), a Gulf War veteran recognized as an expert marksman. As in most crimes, this strange chain of events caused things to begin falling into place and the investigation accelerated to warp speed.
It was quickly discovered that Muhammad was the boyfriend of Malvo’s mother and that he was often thought of as Malvo’s “father”. It was also discovered that Muhammad had an encounter with law enforcement officers on October 8, one day after the sniper critically wounded the 13 year old boy outside of his school. Muhammad was found sleeping in his car and chastised by the officer for being a vagrant. The incident was logged which was critical to the investigation because two important elements came from it: (1) it put Muhammad in the general location of the killings and (2) the police now had a description of his car (which up to this point was surmised to be a white van).
By Wednesday, the Police were now on the lookout for a ’90 Caprice with New Jersey license plates (NDA 21Z). This information was quickly released to the media and broadcast on nationwide TV. Almost immediately, truck driver Ron Lantz recognized the car at a rest stop and notified the police who traveled 50 miles northwest of Washington D.C. where Muhammad and Malvo were quietly arrested at a rest stop in Maryland.
Inside the car was found a Bushmaster rifle, a scope, a tripod, and a “sniper’s perch” inside the trunk of the car. The Caprice was described as a “killing machine” with two holes drilled in the trunk – one for the rifle and the other for the scope. The back seat had been altered to fold down allowing the sniper to enter the trunk, make his shot, and never leave the confines of the car. It immediately became apparent why there were no witnesses to the shootings.
Tests by the FBI sealed the case by linking the weapon to all but 3 of the sniper killings.