Call Me God
In October 2002, there was panic in the greater Washington, DC area. 10 people had been shot, seemingly at random, at gas stations, shops, and at home. The Montgomery County (MD) Police Department requested the assistance of the FBI, as it was apparent there was a serial killer or killers on the loose. While the FBI has experience dealing with serial killers, this case affected the Bureau itself, as one of the victims was FBI intelligence analyst Linda Franklin. Over 400 FBI agents and other law enforcement officers worked on the case: setting up a toll-free tip line, mapping the crime scenes, creating a shooter profile, and following leads.
There were erroneous reports that a white van had been seen at the shootings, which led to faulty leads. The killers taunted police and the public with notes left at crime scenes. However, by analyzing fingerprint and ballistic evidence, FBI agents identified John Allen Muhammad as a suspect, and were able to track his movements, connecting him to previous murders committed in Washington, Arizona, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama.
Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were the shooters, driving Muhammad's dark blue 1990 Chevy Caprice. Someone spotted it at a rest stop parking lot off I-70 In Maryland. A team of Maryland State Police, Montgomery County SWAT officers, and FBI Hostage Rescue Team agents arrested Malvo and Muhammad at 3:19 am on October 24, 2002. Evidence Response Teams were surprised to find a hole cut in the trunk near the license plate, enabling them to fire from a concealed position inside. Agents found a Bushmaster .223-callber rifle with scope, walkie-talkies, the Caprice owner's manual with written impressions of one of the demand notes, and a laptop stolen from one of the victims inside.
Malvo and Muhammad actually parked the Caprice near white vans during their attacks in an attempt to throw of law enforcement.
At 3:19 in the morning on October 24, 2002, the FBI closed in on the snipers and their 1990 Chevy Caprice.
During the month, 10 people had been randomly gunned down and three critically injured while going about their everyday lives-mowing the lawn, pumping gas, shopping, reading a book. Among the victims was one of our own-FBI intelligence analyst Linda Franklin, who was felled by a single bullet while leaving a home improvement store in Virginia with her husband.
But now, the attacks-which had terrorized the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area-had finally come to an end.
How It Began
The murders that shocked the nation's capital and the nation itself had started three weeks earlier.
On October 2, 2002, a sniper's bullet struck down a 55-year-old man in a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland. By 10 o'clock the next morning, four more people within a few miles of each other had been similarly murdered.
The attacks were soon linked, and a massive multi-agency investigation was launched.
The case was led by the Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Department, headed by Chief Charles Moose, with the FBI and many other law enforcement agencies playing a supporting role. Chief Moose had specifically requested our help through a federal law on serial killings.
Within days, the FBI alone had some 400 agents around the country working the case. We had set up a toll-free number to collect tips from the public, with teams of new agents in training helping to work the hotline. Our evidence experts were asked to digitally map many of the evolving crime scenes, and our behavioral analysts helped prepare a profile of the shooter for investigators. We had also set up a Joint Operations Center to help Montgomery County investigators run the case.
The Beginning of the End
The big break in the case came, ironically, from the snipers themselves.
On October 17, a caller claiming to be the sniper phoned in to say, in a bit of an investigative tease, that he was responsible for the murder of two women (actually, only one was killed) during the robbery of a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama, a month earlier.
That set in motion a chain of events that led to the capture of a pair of snipers.
Here's how the investigation played out:
- Investigators soon learned that a crime similar to the one described in the call had indeed taken place-and that fingerprint and ballistic evidence were available from the case.
- An agent from our office in Mobile gathered that evidence and quickly flew to Washington, D.C., arriving Monday evening, October 21. While ATF handled the ballistic evidence, we took the fingerprint evidence to the FBI Laboratory (then located at our Headquarters).
- The following morning, our fingerprint database produced a match-a magazine dropped at the crime scene bore the fingerprints of Lee Boyd Malvo from a previous arrest in Washington State. We now had a suspect.
- The arrest record provided another important lead, mentioning a man named John Allen Muhammad. One of our agents from Tacoma recognized the name from a tip called into that office on the case. A second suspect.
- Our work with ATF agents revealed that Muhammad had a Bushmaster .223 rifle in his possession, a federal violation since he had been served with a restraining order to stay away from his ex-wife. That enabled us to charge him with federal weapons violations. And with Malvo clearly connected, the FBI and ATF jointly obtained a federal material witness warrant for him. The legal papers were now in our hands.
- Meanwhile, on October 22, we searched our criminal records database and found that Muhammad had registered a blue Chevy Caprice with the license plate of NDA-21Z in New Jersey. That description was given to the news media and shared far and wide.
A Rolling Sniper's Nest
On the morning of October 24, the hunt for the snipers quickly came to an end, when a team of Maryland State Police, Montgomery County SWAT officers, and special agents from our Hostage Rescue Team arrested the sleeping John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo without a struggle.
Just a few hours earlier, at approximately 11:45 p.m., their dark blue 1990 Chevy Caprice with its New Jersey license plate had been spotted at a rest stop parking lot off I-70 in Maryland. Within the hour, law enforcement swarmed the scene, setting up a perimeter to check out any movements and make sure there'd be no escape.
What evidence experts from the FBI and other police forces found there was both revealing and shocking. The car had a hole cut in the trunk near the license plate so that shots could be fired from within the vehicle. It was, in effect, a rolling sniper's nest.
Also found in the car were:
- The Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle that had been used in each attack;
- A rifle's scope for taking aim and a tripod to steady the shots;
- A backseat that had the sheet metal removed between the passenger compartment and the trunk, enabling the shooter to get into the trunk from inside the car;
- The Chevy Caprice owner's manual with-the FBI Laboratory later detected-written impressions of the one of the demand notes;
- The digital voice recorder used by both Malvo and Muhammad to make extortion demands;
- A laptop stolen from one of the victims containing maps of the shooting sites and getaway routes from some of the crime scenes; and
- Maps, walkie-talkies, and many more items.
TIMELINE OF TERROR: BELTWAY SNIPERS October 2: Man killed while crossing a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland October 3: Five more murders, four in Maryland and one in D.C. October 4: Woman 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 shot dead 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 arrested in Maryland BELTWAY SNIPERS
That was the end of the attacks, but not our role in the case. We spent many more hours gathering evidence and preparing it for court-work that ultimately paid off.
Both Malvo and Muhammad were convicted at trial or pled guilty in multiple court cases in Maryland and Virginia. Both were sentenced to life without parole. Muhammad also received the death penalty in Virginia and was executed on November 10, 2009.
WIKIPEDIA The D.C. Sniper Attacks
Also known as the Beltway sniper attacks, were a series of coordinated shootings that occurred during three weeks in October 2002 throughout the Washington metropolitan area, consisting of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, and preliminary shootings, that consisted of murders and robberies in several states, and lasted for six months starting in February 2002. Seven people were killed and seven others were injured in the preliminary shootings, and ten people were killed and three others were critically wounded in the October shootings. In total, the snipers killed 17 people and wounded 10 others in a 10-month span.
The snipers were John Allen Muhammad (age 41 at the time) and Lee Boyd Malvo (age 17 at the time), who traveled in a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan.
In September 2003, Muhammad was sentenced to death, and in October, Malvo, a juvenile, was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences without parole. In November 2009, Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.
In 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated Malvo's three life sentences without parole in Virginia on appeal, with re-sentencing ordered pursuant to the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which held that mandatory life sentences for juvenile criminals without possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari, with oral arguments held on October 16, 2019. Should he be resentenced, Malvo's minimum prison sentence will be determined by a judge; the available maximum sentence would be life imprisonment. The ruling does not apply to the six life sentences Malvo received in Maryland. On February 25, 2020, after the passage of a Virginia law allowing those who are serving life sentences for offenses committed before the age of 18 to seek release after serving 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court case was dismissed at the request of lawyers on both sides.
- February 16, 2002, 21-year-old cashier Keenya Nicole Cook was shot and killed by Lee Malvo at the front door of her aunt's home in Tacoma, Washington. Cook's aunt, Isa Nichols, had been good friends with John Allen Muhammad's ex-wife Mildred and had encouraged her to seek a divorce.
- March 19, 2002, Jerry Taylor, 60, was killed by a single shot to the chest fired from long range as he practiced chip shots at a Tucson, Arizona, golf course. Muhammad's sister lived near the golf course, and he was visiting her at the time of the shooting.
- August 1, 2002, John Gaeta, 51, was changing a tire slashed by Malvo at a parking lot in Hammond, Louisiana. Malvo then shot him in the neck. The bullet exited through Gaeta's back, and he pretended to be dead while Malvo stole his wallet. Gaeta ran to a service station after Malvo left and discovered that he was bleeding; he went to a hospital and was released within an hour. On March 1, 2010, he received a letter of apology from Malvo.
- September 5, 2002, at 10:30 p.m., Paul LaRuffa, a 55-year-old pizzeria owner, was shot six times at close range while locking up his Italian restaurant in Clinton, Maryland. LaRuffa survived the shooting, and his laptop computer was found in Muhammad's car when he and Malvo were arrested.
- September 14, 2002, 22-year-old Rupinder "Benny" Oberoi, an employee of the Hillandale Beer & Wine liquor store in Silver Spring, Maryland, was shot in the back outside the store. Oberoi survived the shooting. The shooting was officially linked to Muhammad and Malvo by the Montgomery County Police Department.
- September 15, 2002, Muhammad Rashid was shot while closing Three Roads Liquors in Brandywine, Maryland. Rashid later identified Malvo as the shooter in court.
- September 21, 2002, at 12:15 a.m., 41-year-old Million A. Waldemariam was fatally shot in the head and back with a .22-caliber pistol in Atlanta, Georgia. Waldemariam was helping the owner of a Sammy's Package Store close up for the night when the shooting occurred.
- Nineteen hours later on the same day, Claudine Parker, a 52-year-old liquor store clerk in Montgomery, Alabama, was shot in the chest and killed during a robbery. Her coworker, 24-year-old Kellie Adams, was critically wounded with a shot through the neck but survived. Evidence found at the crime scene eventually tied this killing to the Beltway attacks and allowed authorities to identify Muhammad and Malvo as suspects, although this connection was not made until October 17, almost four weeks later.
- September 23, 2002, at 6:30 p.m., 45-year-old Hong Im Ballenger was shot in the head and killed with a Bushmaster rifle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Muhammad and Malvo were later linked to the killing.
DC and Montgomery County, Maryland
In each shooting, the victims were killed by a single bullet fired from some distance, and, in each case, the killers struck and vanished. This pattern was not detected until after the October 3 shootings occurred.
- October 2, 2002 At 5:20 p.m. a shot was fired through the window of a Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill, Maryland. The bullet narrowly missed Ann Chapman, a cashier at the store. Since no one was injured, the shot was assumed to be random, and no serious alarms were raised. However, approximately one hour later, at 6:30 p.m., James Martin, a 55-year-old program analyst at NOAA, was shot and killed at 2201 Randolph Road, in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery store located in Wheaton.
- October 3, 2002 At 7:41 a.m., James L. Buchanan, a 39-year-old landscaper known as "Sonny", was shot dead at 11411 Rockville Pike, near Rockville, Maryland. Buchanan was shot while mowing the grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Malls.
- October 3, 2002 At 8:12 a.m., a 54-year-old part-time taxi driver, Prem Kumar Walekar, was killed in Aspen Hill in Montgomery County, while pumping gasoline into his taxi at a Mobil station at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue.
- October 3, 2002 At 8:37 a.m., Sarah Ramos, a 34-year-old babysitter and housekeeper, was killed on 3701 Rossmoor Boulevard, at the Leisure World Shopping Center in Norbeck. She had gotten off a bus and was seated on a bench reading a book at the time of her murder.
- October 3, 2002 At 9:58 a.m., 25-year-old Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was killed while vacuuming her Plymouth Grand Voyager at the Shell station at the intersection of Connecticut and Knowles Avenues in Kensington, Maryland.
- October 3, 2002 The snipers waited until 9:20 p.m. before shooting Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old retired carpenter, while he was walking on Georgia Avenue at Kalmia Road, in Washington, D.C. Charlot died less than an hour later.
Virginia and Other Areas
At this point, Malvo and Muhammad started covering a wider area and taking two or three days between shootings.
- October 4, 2002 43-year-old homemaker Caroline Seawell was wounded in the chest at 2:30 p.m. in the parking lot of another Michaels store at Spotsylvania Mall in Spotsylvania, while she was loading purchases into her minivan. By this point, hundreds of journalists had converged to cover the unfolding events. School officials reassured the public that they were taking every measure possible to protect children, by tightening security and canceling all outdoor activities. But when the work and school week resumed 3 days later, so did the shootings.
- October 7, 2002 at 8:09 a.m., Iran Brown, a 13-year-old student, was shot in the chest and critically wounded as he arrived at Benjamin Tasker Middle School on 4901 Collington Road in Bowie, Maryland, in Prince George's County (Brown's name was initially withheld from the public but was later revealed). His aunt, Tanya Brown, was a nurse who had just brought him to school, and she rushed him to a hospital emergency room. Despite sustaining serious injuries, including damage to several major organs, Brown survived the attack and ultimately testified at Muhammad's trial. At this crime scene, the authorities discovered a shell casing as well as a Tarot card (the Death card) inscribed with the phrase "Call me God" on the front and, on three separate lines on the back: "For you mr. Police." "Code: 'Call me God'." "Do not release to the press." Despite police efforts to honor the request not to release information about the card to the press, details were made public by WUSA-TV and then by The Washington Post, just one day later.
- October 9, 2002 at 8:18 p.m., 53-year-old civil engineer Dean Harold Meyers was shot dead while pumping gasoline at a Sunoco gas station on 7203 Sudley Road in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas.
- October 11, 2002 at 9:30 a.m., 53-year-old businessman Kenneth Bridges was shot dead while pumping fuel at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near Fredericksburg.
- October 14, 2002 at 9:15 p.m., 47-year-old Linda Franklin (nee Moore), an FBI intelligence analyst who was a resident of Arlington County, Virginia, was shot dead in a covered parking lot at Home Depot in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Falls Church at Seven Corners Shopping Center. The police received what seemed to be a very good lead after the October 14 shooting, but it was later determined that the witness was inside the Home Depot at the time and was lying. The witness, Matthew Dowdy, was subsequently convicted of interfering with the investigation.
Beltway SnipersBy this point, no one felt safe being outdoors in public
Gas stations had begun to put tarps up to conceal their customers (see below). Some people crouched over to pump gas, while others waited in their cars. Malvo and Muhammad did not commit any more shootings for five days before striking again.
- October 19, 2002 at 8:00 p.m., 37-year-old Jeffrey Hopper was shot in a parking lot near the Ponderosa Steakhouse at State Route 54 in Ashland, Virginia, about 90 miles (140 km) south of Washington, near Interstate 95. His wife Stephanie called out to passersby, who phoned for an ambulance, enabling Hopper to survive his injuries. Authorities discovered a four-page letter from the shooter in the woods that demanded $10 million and made a threat to children.
- October 21,2002 Richmond-area police arrested two men, one with a white van, outside a gas station. The men turned out to be illegal aliens with no connection to the shooter. The pair were administered cavity searches and were remanded into federal custody (what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently deported them).
- October 22, 2002 Ride On bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, was shot at 5:56 a.m. while standing on the steps at the 14100 block of Grand Pre Road in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Johnson died of his injuries. On the same day, Chief Moose released part of the content of one of the shooter's letters, in which he declares, "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time."
While no shootings occurred on October 23, the day is significant for two events. First, ballistics experts confirmed Johnson as the 10th fatality in the Beltway shootings. Second, in a yard in Takoma Park, Maryland, police searched with metal detectors for bullets, shell casings, or other evidence that might provide a link to the shooters. A tree stump believed to have been used for target practice was seized.
The crime spree came to a close at 3:15 a.m. on October 24, 2002, when Muhammad and Malvo were found sleeping in their car at a rest stop off Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland, and were arrested on federal weapons charges. Police were tipped off by two 911 calls from individuals at the rest stop.