The Beltway sniper attacks took place during three weeks in October 2002 in Maryland and Virginia. Ten people were killed and three others critically injured in various locations throughout the Washington Metropolitan Area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. It was widely speculated that a single sniper was using the Capital Beltway for travel, possibly in a white van or truck. It was later learned that the rampage was perpetrated by two men, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, driving a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan, and had apparently begun the month before with murders and robbery in Louisiana, and Alabama which had resulted in three deaths.
After their capture, there was much confusion about the names of the two men. The older of the pair, born John Allen Williams (age 41 at the time of capture), had joined the Black nationalist organization the Nation of Islam some years earlier, and in October 2001 had changed his name to John Allen Muhammad. The younger man was born Lee Boyd Malvo, but also calls himself John Lee Malvo and had posed as Muhammad's son (17 years old at the time of his arrest). Malvo's actual relationship with Muhammad was initially unclear, although it was later learned that John found Malvo in a homeless shelter after John lost custody of his children.
On September 21, Claudine Parker, a liquor store clerk in Montgomery, Alabama, was shot and killed during a robbery. Her coworker Kellie Adams was also injured. 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.
At 5:20 pm, a shot was fired through a window of a Michaels Craft Store in Aspen Hill. As no one was injured, no serious alarms were raised. About an hour later, at 6:30 pm, James Martin, a 55-year-old program analyst at NOAA, was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery store, located in Glenmont.
On the morning of October 3, four people were shot within a span of approximately 2 hours in Aspen Hill, and other nearby areas in Montgomery County. Another was killed that evening in the District of Columbia, just over the border from Silver Spring.
In each shooting, the victims were killed by a single bullet fired from some distance. The pattern was not detected until after the shootings occurred on October 3.
Fear quickly spread throughout the community as news of the shootings spread. Many parents went to pick up their children at school early, not allowing them to take a school bus or walk home alone. Montgomery County Public Schools, District of Columbia Public Schools, and private schools went into a lockdown, with no recess or outdoor gym classes. Other school districts in the area also took precautionary measures, keeping students indoors.
On October 7, at 8:09 am, Iran Brown, a 13-year-old boy, was wounded as he arrived to the Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland, in Prince George's County (Brown's name was at first concealed from the public but has since been revealed). At this crime scene the authorities discovered a shell casing as well as a Tarot card (the Death card) inscribed with the phrase, "Dear Policeman: I am God."
Two days later, on October 9 at 8:18 pm, 53-year-old Dean Harold Meyers was shot dead while pumping gasoline at a Sunoco gas station on Sudley Road in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas.
Again, two days later, on the morning of October 11 at 9:30 am, 53-year-old Kenneth Bridges was shot dead while pumping fuel at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, near Fredericksburg.
On October 14, at 9:15 pm, 47-year-old Linda Franklin, an FBI intelligence analyst who was a resident of Arlington County, Virginia, was shot dead after she finished shopping at a 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 was subsequently arrested for interfering with the investigation.
After a five day interval, 37-year-old Jeffrey Hopper was shot on October 19 at 8:00 pm in a parking lot near the Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia, about 90 miles south of Washington, near Interstate 95. Authorities discovered a 4-page letter from the shooter in the woods.
On October 21, Richmond-area police arrested two men, one with a white van, outside a gas station. The men turned out to be illegal immigrants with no connection to the shooter and they were remanded to the custody of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently deported them.
The next day, October 22, bus driver Conrad Johnson was shot dead at 5:56 am while standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Chief Moose released part of the content of one of the shooter's communications, 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 tenth fatality in the Beltway shootings. Second, in a yard in Tacoma, Washington, near a sniper school operated by the United States Army, 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 attacks were carried out with the firearm found in the vehicle, a stolen Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle equipped with a red-dot sight at ranges of between 50 and over 100 yards. It should be noted that this rifle is not generally considered a sniper rifle even though scoped versions of it are used in long distance shooting competitions for ranges up to 600 yards. The XM-15 rifle came from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington.
The investigation was publicly headed by the Montgomery County Police Department and its Police Chief, Charles A. Moose. The FBI, the Secret Service, and police departments in other jurisdictions where shootings took place provided assistance in the investigation.
Police responded within minutes to reports of attacks during the three weeks of the sniper attacks, cordoning off nearby roads and highways and inspecting all drivers, thereby grinding traffic to a halt for hours at a time. Police canvassed the area, talking to people, and collected surveillance tapes.
By Friday night, October 4, the five shootings on October 3 and two on October 2 were forensically linked to the same gun.
Eyewitness accounts of the attacks were mostly confused and spotty. Hotlines set up for the investigation were flooded with tips, as was the post office box set up for tips by mail. Early tips from eyewitnesses included reports of a white box truck with dark lettering, speeding away from the Leisure World shopping center, with two men inside. Police across the area and the state of Maryland were pulling over white vans and trucks. A gray car was spotted speeding away after the October 4 shooting in Spotsylvania.
The shooter attempted to engage the police in a dialogue, compelling Moose to tell the media cryptic messages intended for the sniper. At several scenes Tarot cards were left as calling cards, including one Death card upon which was written “Dear Policeman, I am God. Do not tell the media about this.” This information was leaked to the press. Later scenes had long, handwritten notes carefully sealed inside plastic bags, including a rambling one that demanded $10,000,000 and threatened the lives of children in the area.
At one point, a telephone call from the shooter(s) was traced to a pay telephone at a gasoline station in Henrico County, Virginia. Police missed the suspects by a matter of a few minutes, and initially detained occupants of a van at another pay telephone at the same intersection.
On the phone call, the sniper, boasting of his cleverness, also mentioned a previous unsolved murder in "Montgomery". This was identified as the September 21 shooting at a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama. On October 17 authorities said they matched Malvo's fingerprint found at the Benjamin Tasker Middle School site with one lifted from the liquor store scene. After further research into Malvo's background it was discovered he had close ties to a John Allen Muhammad.
During the period of the attacks, the North American media devoted enormous amounts of air time and newspaper space to each new attack. By the middle of October 2002, all-news television networks were providing live coverage of the aftermath of each new attack, with the coverage often lasting for hours at a time. The Fox show “America's Most Wanted” even devoted an entire episode to the shooters in hopes of aiding in their capture.
Despite an apparent lack of progress publicly, federal authorities were making significant headway in their investigation and developed leads in Washington state, Alabama, and New Jersey. They learned that Muhammad’s ex-wife, who had obtained a protective order against him, lived near the capital beltway in Clinton, a community in suburban Prince George's County, Maryland. Information was also developed about an automobile purchased in New Jersey by Muhammad.
Much to their shock, police discovered that the New Jersey license plates issued to Muhammad on the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice had been checked by radio patrol cars several times near shooting locations in various jurisdictions in several states, but the car had not been stopped because law enforcement computer networks did not indicate that it was connected to any criminal activity and they were focused exclusively on the "white van".
On October 3, D.C. police stopped the Caprice for a "minor traffic infraction", two hours prior to the shooting of Pascal Charlot, after which witnesses reported seeing a Caprice near the scene.
On October 8, Baltimore city police investigated a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice with a person sleeping inside parked near the Jones Falls Expressway at 28th St. in Baltimore. The officers were concerned that the driver's license was from Washington state and the vehicle tag was from New Jersey. Despite the fact that the vehicle was suspicious enough for them to investigate, and the fact that the vehicle fit the description of a vehicle associated with the shooting in D.C. five days earlier, the officers did not question the occupants extensively nor did they search the vehicle.
Authorities were quick to issue a media alert to the public to be on the lookout for a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice sedan. For the public, as well as for law enforcement agencies throughout the region, this was a major change from the mysterious “white box truck” earlier sought based upon reported sightings.
During their trials in the fall of 2003, involving two of the victims in Virginia, Muhammad and Malvo were each found guilty of murder and weapons charges. The jury in Muhammad's case recommended that he be sentenced to death, while Malvo's jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty. The judges concurred in both cases. Alabama law enforcement authorities allege that the snipers engaged in a series of previously unconnected attacks prior to October 2 in Montgomery, Alabama. Other charges are also pending in Maryland and other communities in Virginia.
After the initial convictions and sentencing, Will Jarvis, a Virginia prosecutor in Prince William County, stated he would wait to decide whether to try Malvo on capital charges in his jurisdiction until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether juveniles may be subject to the penalty of execution. While that decision in an unrelated case was still pending before the high court, in October 2004, under a plea-agreement, Malvo plead guilty in another case in Spotsylvania County, Virginia for another murder to avoid a possible death penalty sentence, and agreed to additional sentencing of life imprisonment without parole. Malvo had yet to face trial in Prince William County, Virginia.
In March 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution for crimes committed when under the age of 18. In light of this Supreme Court decision, the prosecutors in Prince William County have decided not to pursue the charges against Malvo. Prosecutors in Maryland, Louisiana and Alabama were still interested in putting both Malvo and Muhammad on trial. As Malvo was 17 when he committed the crimes, he will no longer face the death penalty, but still may be extradited to Alabama, Louisiana, and other states for prosecution. At the time of the Roper v. Simmons ruling, Malvo was 20 years old, and was held at Virginia's maximum security Red Onion State Prison in Pound in Wise County, Virginia.
Muhammad's death penalty was affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court on April 22, 2005, when it ruled that he could be sentenced to death because the murder was part of an act of terrorism. This line of reasoning was based on the handwritten note demanding $10,000,000. The court rejected an argument by defense lawyers that Muhammad could not be sentenced to death because he was not the triggerman in the killings linked to him and Malvo.
There has also been speculation that authorities in Virginia may proceed with what is termed a "backup case" against Muhammad. The death sentence is under appeal. It is not clear how many other jurisdictions will be allowed to try him on the capital charges they have pending before he is executed. Prior to extradition to Maryland, he was held at the maximum security Sussex I State Prison near Waverly in Sussex County, Virginia, which houses Virginia's death row inmates.
Muhammad and his legal team responded by fighting extradition to Maryland. Muhammad's legal team was ultimately unsuccessful, and extradition was ordered by a Virginia judge in August 2005.
Maryland has agreed to transfer Muhammad and Malvo back to the Commonwealth of Virginia after their trials. A date for Muhammad's pending execution in Virginia has not been set.
Malvo pled guilty to six murders and confessed to others in other states while being interviewed in Maryland and while testifying there against Muhammad. Malvo was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
On May 30, 2006, a Maryland jury found John Allen Muhammad guilty of six counts of murder in Maryland. In return, he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without possibility of parole on June 1, 2006.
On May 6, 2008, it was revealed that Muhammad has asked prosecutors in a letter to help him end legal appeals of his conviction and death sentence "so that you can murder this innocent black man." An appeal filed by Muhammed's defense lawyers in April 2008 cited evidence of brain damage that may render Muhammad incompetent to make legal decisions, and that he should not have been allowed to represent himself at his Virginia trial.
Part of his testimony concerned John Allen Muhammad's complete multiphase plan. His plan consisted of three phases in the Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD metro areas. Phase one consisted of meticulously planning, mapping, and practicing their locations around the DC area. This way after each shooting they would be able to quickly leave the area on a predetermined path, and move on to the next location. John Allen Muhammad's goal in Phase One was to kill 6 people a day for 30 days. Malvo went on to describe how Phase One did not go as planned due to heavy traffic and the lack of a clear shot and/or getaway at different locations.
Phase Two was meant to be moved up to Baltimore, MD. Malvo described how this phase was close to being implemented, but never was carried out. Phase Two was intended to begin by killing a pregnant woman by shooting her in the stomach. The next step would have been to shoot and kill a Baltimore police officer. Then, at the officer's funeral, they were to create several improvised explosive devices complete with shrapnel. These explosives were intended to kill a large number of police, since many police would attend another officer's funeral.
The last phase was to take place very shortly after, if not during, Phase Two. The third phase was to extort several million dollars from the United States government. This money would be used to finance a larger plan. The plan was to travel north into Canada. Along the way they would stop in YMCAs and orphanages recruiting other impressionable young boys with no parents or guidance. John Allen Muhammad thought he could act as their father figure as he did with Lee Boyd Malvo. Once he recruited a large number of young boys and made his way up to Canada, he would begin their training. Malvo described how John Allen Muhammad intended to train all these boys with weapons and stealth, as he had been taught. Finally, after their training was complete, John Allen Muhammad would send them out across the United States to carry out mass shootings in many different cities, just as he had done in Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD. These attacks would be coordinated, and were intended to send the country into chaos.
The underlying cause for the terrorist plan was not directly addressed at the trial. One theory that gained wide circulation was that Muhammed intended to kill his ex-wife Mildred, who had estranged him from his children. According to this theory, she would appear to be just another random victim of the snipers. Muhammed frequented the neighborhood where she lived during the attacks, and some of the incidents occurred nearby. Additionally, he had earlier made threats against her. Mildred herself made the claim that she was his intended target. Outside of the circumstantial evidence, there was nothing to back this speculation up.
A series of trial exhibits indicated that Malvo and Muhammed were motivated by an affinity for Islamic Jihad.
"Exhibit 65-006: A self-portrait of Malvo in the cross hairs of a gun scope shouting, 'ALLAH AKBAR!' The word 'SALAAM' scrawled vertically. A lyric from Bob Marley's Natural Mystic 'Many more will have to suffer. Many more will have to die. Don't ask me why.'
"Exhibit 65-016: A portrait of Saddam Hussein with the words 'INSHALLAH' and 'The Protector,' surrounded by rockets labeled 'chem' and 'nuk.'
"Exhibit 65-043: Father and son portrait of Malvo and Muhammad. 'We will kill them all. Jihad.'
"Exhibit 65-056: A self-portrait of Malvo as sniper, lying in wait, with his rifle. 'JIHAD' written in bold letters. . . .
"Exhibit 65-067: A suicide bomber labeled 'Hamas' walking into a McDonald's restaurant. Another drawing of the Twin Towers burning captioned: '85 percent chance Zionists did this.' More scrawls: 'ALLAH AKBAR,' 'JIHAD' and 'Islam will explode.'
"Exhibit 65-103: A lion accompanies chapter and verse from the Koran ('Sura 2:190'): 'Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you and slay them wherever ye catch them.'
"Exhibit 65-109: Portrait of Osama bin Laden, captioned 'Servant of Allah.'
"Exhibit 65-117: The White House drawn in crosshairs, surrounded by missiles, with a warning: 'Sep. 11 we will ensure will look like a picnic to you' and 'you will bleed to death little by little.' . . .
"Exhibit 65-101: Malvo's thought for the day: 'Islam the only true guidance, the way of peace.'"
According to U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) officials, the store and its owners had a long history of firearms sales and records violations and a file 283 pages thick. In July 2003, the ATF revoked the federal firearms license of Brian Borgelt, a former Staff Sgt. with the U.S. Army Rangers and owner of Bull's Eye Shooter Supply. Later that month he transferred ownership of the store to a friend and continued to own the building and operate the adjacent shooting gallery.
On January 16, 2003, the Legal Action Project of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, on behalf of the families of many of the victims of the Beltway sniper attacks who were killed (including Hong Im Ballenger, "Sonny" Buchanan, Jr., Linda Franklin, Conrad Johnson, Sarah Ramos and James L. Premkumar Walekar) as well as two victims who survived the shooting (Rupinder "Benny" Oberoi and 13-year old Iran Brown) filed a civil lawsuit against Bull's Eye Shooter Supply and Bushmaster Firearms, Inc. of Windham, Maine, the gun distributor and manufacturer that made the rifle used in the crime spree, as well as Borgelt, Muhammad and Malvo. Muhammad, who had a criminal record of domestic battery, and Malvo, a minor, were each legally prohibited from purchasing firearms.
The suit claimed that Bull's Eye Shooter Supply ran its gun store in Tacoma, Washington, "in such a grossly negligent manner that scores of its guns routinely 'disappeared' from its store and it kept such shoddy records that it could not even account for the Bushmaster rifle used in the sniper shootings when asked by federal agents for records of sale for the weapon." It was alleged that the dealer could not account for hundreds of guns received from manufacturers in the years immediately prior to the Beltway sniper attacks. It was also claimed that Bull's Eye continued to sell guns in the same irresponsible manner even after Muhammad and Malvo were caught and found to have acquired the weapon there. Bushmaster was included in the suit because it allegedly continued to sell guns to Bull's Eye as a dealer despite an awareness of its record-keeping violations.
The case had been set for trial in April 2005. After losing several decisions as the case made its way through the courts, Bull's Eye contributed $2 million and Bushmaster contributed $500,000 to an out-of-court settlement. Bushmaster also agreed to educate its dealers on safer business practices.
After the settlement was announced, WTOP radio in Washington, D.C., reported that Sonia Wills, mother of victim Conrad Johnson, said her family took part in the lawsuit more to send a message than to collect money. "I think a message was delivered that you should be responsible and accountable for the actions of irresponsible people when you make these guns and put them in their hands," she said.
During the fall season of 2007 BET showcased a documentary on the DC snipers in its "American Gangster" series.
In June 2008, Barbara Kopple, known for her Oscar-winning labor grievance films Harlan County, USA and American Dream, released her documentary The D.C. Sniper's Wife. It's a firsthand account of John Muhammad's transformation from controlling husband, to embittered father, to sniper terrorist, as seen through the eyes of Mildred Muhammad, his wife who had recently filed for divorce. According to the film, Muhammad hatched the sniper plan in order to make his impending murder of wife Mildred appear random. Extensive interviews with Mildred Muhammad create a fascinating firsthand account of John Muhammad's transformation. Upon his arrest, when first asked why he did it, Muhammad's only response was, "It's all Mildred's fault.". The documentary premiered on TruTV.
After the specific threat against children was delivered, many school groups curtailed field trips and outdoors athletic activities based upon safety concerns. At the height of the public fear, some school districts, such as Henrico after the Ponderosa shooting, simply closed school for the day. Extra police officers were placed in schools because of this fear. In addition to this, Joel Schumacher's film Phone Booth was deemed potentially upsetting enough that its release was delayed for months, although it bore little resemblance to the shootings beyond the villain being a sniper. Reportedly, when news of a sniper attack made the nightly news, people that had been "hiding" in their homes would make a large exodus to their local gas station, which they had been avoiding as long as possible in order to not be a target. It is not known if this is an urban legend, or an actual change in behavior for a significant portion of the local population during the affected time.