2002, the year in review:
Beltway snipers confound expectations
How police finally ended deadly ‘cat-and-Moose’ chase
It looked in December as if accused Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo had confounded expectations yet again.
Authorities this month said that they now believed it was the 17-year-old Malvo, and not his 41-year-old partner, former Army infantryman Muhammad, who was the shooter in the rampage that terrorized the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., for three excruciating weeks in October.
After reviewing the evidence, members of the sniper task force say that the lack of evidence against Muhammad will complicate prosecutors’ efforts in getting a death sentence. “There is not much pointing to Muhammad, and that is going to make it really hard to show that he was the triggerman,” a senior law enforcement official told The New York Times. “There are other ways to attempt to obtain a death sentence, but this lack of evidence has been one of the most perplexing things about the case.”
Experts have been proved wrong here from the start, as profilers pegged the sniper as a single white man, when in fact there were two, both of them black. The experts believed the shooter would live nearby the victims; Malvo and Muhammad lived in Tacoma, Wash. The two drove a blue Chevrolet Caprice sedan, not a white van, as authorities believed.
“Nothing is what it seems in this case,” said Douglas F. Gansler, the state’s attorney in Montgomery County, Md., where six of the shootings occurred.
The murders began on Oct. 2 when a shot fired from a high-powered rifle killed James D. Martin, 55, in a supermarket parking lot in Wheaton, a town in Montgomery County. James L. Buchanan, 39, was shot the next day in the chest while he mowed a lawn near a shopping mall in Rockville, Md. Then Sarah Ramos, 34, was killed while sitting on a bench outside a Montgomery County post office. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was next, killed vacuuming her van in Kensington, Md. Pascal Charlot, 72, was shot dead near a bus stop in Washington, D.C.
On Oct. 4, the focus shifted south, after a 43-year-old woman was shot in the back as she loaded shopping bags into her car outside of a store in Fredericksburg, Va. She survived. At that point, police had linked the killings to the same .223-caliber weapon. Three days later, on Oct. 7, the sniper struck again, wounding a 13-year-old boy in front of his Bowie, Md., school. A Tarot death card found near the scene bore the ominous-sounding message: “Mr. Policeman, I am God.”
Dean Harold Meyers, 53, was shot dead as he pumped gas in Manassas, Va., on Oct. 9. Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, was killed at a gas station near Fredericksburg on Oct. 11. Linda Franklin, a 47-year-old intelligence analyst for the FBI, was shot in the head in Falls Church, Va., in a Home Depot parking lot on Oct. 14. On Oct. 19, a 37-year-old man survived after taking a bullet in the abdomen outside of a Ponderosa Steak House in Ashland, Va. The snipers claimed the last victim, their 13th, on Oct. 22 in Silver Springs, Md., when they gunned down 35-year-old Conrad E. Johnson.
Federal, county and local law enforcement agencies were involved in the 23-day manhunt, in what was said to be the largest investigative team ever assembled in a case involving a local murder. Police chased down 16,000 leads culled from more than 100,000 calls made to a special tip line. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose became the public face of the investigation, leading the probe in partnership with Michael R. Bouchard of the Baltimore office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and Gary M. Bald of the Baltimore office of the FBI.
“Local law enforcement asks for help from federal law enforcement with a lot of hesitation,” said Moose. “We’ve got to get past it. Hopefully, there is a lesson here that it can work. I might still have people dying because I could not resolve my issues with the feds.”
After intensive discussions with his federal counterparts, Moose sent messages to the snipers through the media. Another note found at the Ashland scene threatened more murders if calls made by the killers to the hotline were not taken seriously. Incompetent call takers, the message said, had already cost five lives. It also contained a ransom demand, along with a PIN number and 16-digit account number. “We will have an unlimited withdrawal at any A.T.M. worldwide,” said the letter.
In his first direct contact with the snipers through the news media, Moose said: “To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa Saturday night, you gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number provided.”
Authorities had already received a phone call on Oct. 21 that directed them to a robbery-murder in Montgomery — not the county in Maryland, but the Alabama capital. The caller, who is said to have been one of the snipers, bragged to a priest in Ashland about an unsolved crime committed on Sept. 21 at a liquor store, in which a fingerprint was left behind on a magazine about guns. Police were able to trace that print to Malvo, and from there to Muhammad and their vehicle, a Caprice.
On Oct. 23 a tree stump was removed from outside a home in Tacoma, Wash., after investigators had chased down a tip from someone who believed Muhammad might have used it for target practice. An Air Force C-17 was supplied to fly the stump back to the District of Columbia for testing, in the belief that it might contain bullet fragments. The 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice was traced through motor vehicle records to New Jersey. The names John Lee Malvo and John Allen Muhammad were released to the public, along with a description of their vehicle. After the weeks of escalating public tension, they were captured without bloodshed on Oct. 24 at a truck stop near Frederick, Md., after a trucker noticed their car and alerted police. Inside, police found a semi-automatic Bushmaster XM15 capable of firing .223-caliber bullets. Ballistics tied the rifle to 11 of the 13 shootings.
Muhammad and Malvo, a Jamaican immigrant who was smuggled into the U.S. illegally, will be tried in Virginia under a new anti-terrorist statute. It will be the first time the law has been used and its enactment in July was a key reason why the state was given first crack at the accused, according to aides for Attorney General John Ashcroft. Under a provision of the statute, prosecutors do not have to prove who fired the shots in order to win a death penalty conviction.
But lawmakers are uneasy with the prospect of using the law, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for this type of case. Said state Delegate James F. Almand, a Democrat from Arlington: “There is a possibility that the terrorism law might open the door to all sorts of capital prosecutions we did not intend.” Virginia was second in the nation last year in the number of inmates executed, behind Texas.
Should Muhammad be convicted solely under the law, officials said it is likely that any death sentence would face numerous appeals. To try and obtain a conviction under Virginia’s traditional capital murder law, prosecutors would have to prove that Muhammad was the triggerman. That would be difficult, they said, with much of the evidence now pointing toward Malvo, including hair linked by DNA to the teenager, which was found in the sniper’s nest carved into the trunk of the Caprice.
“There is not much pointing to Muhammad, and that is going to make it really hard to show that he was the triggerman,” said a senior law enforcement official. “There are other ways to attempt to obtain a death sentence, but this lack of evidence has been one of the most perplexing things about this case.”