Monday, April 9, 2012

End of a Rampage

During the month of October, 2002, the Washington DC area was menaced by two snipers, shooting at random and causing widespread panic throughout the region. The assassins were John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, travelling throughout the area in a blue Chevrolet Caprice; they had customized the vehicle by removing part of the back seat and boring a hole in the trunk, so that one of them may lie down and fire out the rear of the car without being spotted. Their plan, as it was later learned, was to terrorize the area, extort ten million dollars, and kidnap children to raise as a guerilla army.

The investigation was led by Montgomery County (Md.) Police Chief Charles Moose, and he was assisted by elements of the ATF, the FBI, the US Marshals service, and just about every local police force from adjoining states or counties. The search was hampered by administrative bungles, press leaks, mistaken reports, and even deliberate misinformation spread by "witnesses" with still-unexplained motives. Eventually, however, ballistics tests on recovered ammunition linked the shootings to a series of crimes in Alabama and Louisiana, and then - after one of Muhammad's friends recognized the weapon - to the gun shop in Tacoma, Washington, where Muhammad purchased the .223 caliber Bushmaster XM15 E2S three years earlier. Police put out an arrest warrant for Muhammad, and issued broadcasts asking civilians to report any sightings of Muhammad's car, the 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.

Three hours later, at 12:30 in the morning early on Thursday, October 24, refrigerator repairman Whitney Donahue was on his way from Manassas, Virginia, to his home in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where he lived. Donahue stopped at a rest stop along Interstate Route 70 between Frederick and Hagerstown, in western Maryland, when he spotted Muhammad's Caprice parked in the lot. He could just make out two forms inside, and the New Jersey license plates matched those which he had heard about on the radio just minutes before. Donahue pretended not to look directly at the car for fear of raising suspicions, moved out of sight, and then called 911 to report the sighting.

After a local police cruiser verified the sighting, law enforcement descended on the parking lot with haste. The rest stops on both sides of the highway were evacuated, and I-70 itself was closed in both directions. Police cars stealthily blocked both exits from the parking lot, and commandeered two tractor-trailers to park sideways to prevent any chance of the Caprice making it out. Lt. David Reichenbaugh of the Maryland State Police, the highest ranking officer on the scene at first, deployed canine units on the highway's median strip, telling the handlers, "If you see anyone on foot, let the dogs eat them."

A 19-man SWAT team was organized at about 3:30 a.m., with 5 men each from the Maryland State and Frederick County police forces, and 9 men from the FBI's Hostage Rescue Unit. Commanders from Montgomery County were flown up 90 miles from Montgomery County in helicopters, all the while evading press corps camped out in search of any kind of breaking news. A six-man "assault element" of SWAT members was organized as two teams of three men each, and plans to pull the inhabitants out of the car were developed and practiced in the parking lot of a nearby McDonald's. Finally, the SWAT team headed over to the rest stop, and the six SWAT members - dressed in black, wearing helmets, and carrying automatic weapons - huddled in the trees about 20 yards from Muhammad's parked car.

The officers had estimated that a person inside the car, if awake, would take four seconds to realize, react, start the car, and get moving, but that the assault squad could cover the area and extract the men in three and a half. That left very little room for error, and their worst case scenario was if the Caprice became mobile, so timing was crucial. Finally, FBI Hostage Rescue Team Supervisor Charles Pierce held up three fingers and counted down - three, two, one. The six men stormed the car.

Muhammad was fast asleep in the back seat of the car. Malvo - who was supposed to be awake and on watch - was asleep in the front. Both men were yanked out of the car in less than thirty seconds; they were sweating, dirty, sleepy and utterly defeated without offering any resistance. They were placed in cars and removed to Montgomery County; Muhammad stayed alert for the trip, but Malvo fell asleep. Muhammad's car remained untouched until a search warrant was obtained, which came at about 5:30; it was searched at the site, and then moved into a van to be thoroughly scoured in an enclosed facility.

Finally, after 19 days of panic and fear across the region, and after ten deaths and three serious injuries, the DC area sniper rampage was over. A laptop found in the car showed their detailed plans, including a map with different areas highlighted, and observations noted about how feasible each site would be for future sniper attacks. The snipers, while captured in Maryland, were tried in Virginia for one of the murders committed there, because Virginia was more likely to return a death sentence. Lee Boyd Malvo, being a minor at the time of the shootings, was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. John Muhammad was executed in Virginia in 2009.

A monument to the victims stands today at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, near where most of the attacks took place.

Links and Sources:

Horwitz, Sara, and Michael E. Ruane, Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation, Random House, 2003.

1 comment:

  1. I'm getting chills just remembering that. Unfortunately those events were way too close to home.


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