May 23, 2006

When the "Sniper" hit home: a personal account

Some of you may have heard about the "sniper attacks" that haunted the Washington D.C. metro area in October 2002 and ended up killing 10 innocent people. An article today on the CNN homepage brought back memories of the horrifying experience that we went through during those three weeks in October. This is the main headline from the story:
Lee Boyd Malvo testified Tuesday that his former partner and father figure, John Allen Muhammad, told him before the 2002 sniper attacks "we're going to terrorize this nation."
Malvo said Muhammad also outlined a plan for six sniper shootings a day for 30 days, to be followed by a bombing campaign that would target schools, school buses and children's hospitals.
Some people are really sick and I wish we could get all these psychopaths in hospitals before they go out on shooting sprees like these two did. So what was it like to drive the streets of northern Virginia knowing that there are two men lurking out there killing people through a small hole in a white van? It was scary as hell.

I first found out about this early on October 3rd when I tuned in to watch the morning news. All the local networks were covering this story of a series of shootings which they were still unsure if they were all connected. Now shootings in various parts of the DC region is not uncommon, but the way the networks were covering these shootings live from the scenes and waiting for press conferences caught my attention. I was glued to the TV for an hour or so, as the news started to come in reporting that two women had been killed within one hour, one while reading a book on a bench and the other while pumping gas into her car.

At that point, the police hadn't connected a shooting that had occurred the night before in a grocery store parking lot, and 2 other shootings earlier in the morning that killed a man mowing his lawn and another cab driver pumping gas into his car.

Now everyone was one edge, waiting for the forensic reports to indicate whether the shots fired were from the same gun, and therefore from the same shooter.

When I finally managed to get myself away from the TV, I headed to my university with the radio on still following the investigations, and getting more freaked out by the minute.

That evening, the forensics reports proved that all 5 victims so far had been shot by the same gun, and that eyewitness reports indicated that a "boxy white van" had been seen in the area before a few of the shootings.

By the time I come home from college, everyone is talking about the "sniper," as he/they came to be known. A few hours later, we would find out on the 11 o'clock news that another innocent person had been killed, this time a 72-year old walking on a street in D.C.

The problem is that there was nothing in common among the victims. Their ages varied widely, men and women, of all races and ethnicities (white, black, Hispanic, Indian, etc), of all social classes, and in various areas of the DC metro region and during all times of the day and night.

They were completely random shootings which made anyone living in northern VA, southern MD, and Washington D.C. a possible victim. That includes myself, my family, my friends, my co-workers, my college classmates, my professors...everyone one of us was a potential target.

The tips from various individuals that the sniper was traveling in white boxy van was probably the worst part of this ordeal. I'm not sure if it's just this area that we live in or all over the US, but white boxy vans are everywhere! They are used mainly by various kinds of services such as painters, carpet cleaners and movers, A/C fixers, plumbers, handy men, craftsmen, and various other types of businesses. If you don't see like 10 of them on the road everyday then something must be wrong! One of my neighbors even had one for a business that he had.

So you can imagine how scared people were as they drove in the streets and avoided every white van they saw. I would avoid eye contact with the drivers but still try to get a good look at them in case I saw something and had to give a description to the police. I examined their facial expressions and wondered if they were the sniper. They, on the other hand, looked just as scared as we all were. All of them were being scrutinized because of the possibility that one of them may be used by the sniper. They were even forced to stop at certain checkpoints and random stops by the police. Many businesses chose to stop using their trucks for a few days until things settled down. But the shootings continued, and got closer to my home.

Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose became a household name. We waited daily for his press conferences on the morning & evening news, to hear if the next victim was shot by the same gun. If there were any clues found at the scene. If there were any more tips that would help us find this animal who was terrorizing our towns. In D.C., volunteers from a group I can't remember the name of came to gas stations to fill up for people who were too scared to get out of their cars (4 people were killed at gas stations).

My family tried to limit our outings. They forced me to come home early from college, and drive on certain roads they thought were safer than others. They wanted me to avoid the highway which the police had said the sniper was traveling on. If a class was not important, don't go, they told me. "Don't go to the gas station; your dad will fill up for you." Just sit at home and wait for the bastard to be caught so we can live normally again.

But the shootings continued. A 13-year old boy was injured by a shot near his school. Mothers loading their shopping bags into minivans were killed in open parking lots. October 7, 9, 11, 14, 19, 21, 22, 23. During each of those days there was at least one shooting. The days that there weren't were even worse as the panic attacks continued. Schools considered shutting down until the sniper(s) was caught. The shooting on October 14th in the parking lot of Home Depot in Falls Church, Virginia was the closest to my home. Only 20 minutes away, I knew the area by heart; I had been in that parking lot; I had dined in the restaurant next door. This was too close, too damn close.

The media of course took this story and ran. We have a tendency here to blow things out of proportion, to scare people rather than make them feel safe. And the media did just that. Of course it was a scary and dangerous time, but the media used it to their advantage, getting people glued to their TV screens. I mean, in this area, we panic when we get more than 3 inches of snow and people rush to the stores to buy milk and bread, so you can imagine what it was like at this time.

Living in an area with a good number of Muslims and Arabs of course raised other fears. We prayed together and hoped that the perpetrator would not be Muslim or Arab. A year after 9/11, we did not need something like this to strike our community again. Please God don't let him be Muslim...Please.

With all the attention on the sniper, all the tips and all the clues, we all expected a Hollywood-like arrest. Maybe a high speed chase on our own Interstate-95. But the end wasn't even close to anything dramatic.

On October 24, police received a tip of a suspicious car in a Maryland highway rest stop. When the police arrived, they found two black men sleeping in their 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice with a rifle that later proved to be the one used to target 11 of the 14 shootings. Wait, let me repeat, they were SLEEPING. And they were not in white van. The white van tip turned out to be fatally wrong. The men had a small firing port in the car where one could lie down and shoot without being seen and other drove the car after the shots were fired. The rifle could never be seen by the public.

And then, their names were revealed. The older man, John Allen Muhammad and his younger counterpart, 17-year old Lee Boyd Malvo, had worked together during the shooting spree. Originally John Allen Williams, he changed his name in Oct. 2001 after having joined the Nation of Islam a few years earlier.

Of course, our worst fears became a reality when we heard his last name, Muhammad. But the fact that he wasn't part of mainstream Islam, and that the investigation revealed that his religion was not a motive, put many of us at ease. They had planned to some how terrorize the region and extort $10 million from the US government.

Finally, the case was put to rest in our view when they were arrested, later charged, and eventually convicted and given the death penalty and life in prison (for the younger). It was something I had never experienced before, living in such fear. Of course the cliche is that it makes you appreciate the safety you live in. That my neighborhood has not witnessed any such crimes on a regular basis. That I don't find drug dealers near my home, or drive by shootings outside my window.

Thank God they were caught. They got what they deserved as they destroyed families and terrorized millions in our area.

[more on the sniper attacks]

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At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Luai said...

I cannot believe the it's already been over 3.5 years. WOW! I remember following this saga quite closely. These were really sick people and got what they deserved.

At 4:50 PM, Blogger chris said...

Yea, that was scary. i'm in georgia, but i have family in the virginia area.

At 10:08 PM, Anonymous f. d. rahman said...

I remember that.. we were all really scared and looking out for "white box vehicles" .. and of course, all of us were praying it wasn't someone claiming to be Muslim.

At 11:41 PM, Anonymous tommy said...

Does anybody remember exactly what J.A. Muhammad even believed in? I heard some story that he was a member of this oddball group:

I am not certain if he was a member of this group at the time of the crime, however.


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