Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Living During the DC Sniper's Reign of Terror

My daughter and I were in Bowie, MD, on Sunday to celebrate our independence with a burger or two at my parent's house.  It was a good day, and a nice visit, and we headed home towards evening.  Driving along Rt. 197, we passed Benjamin Tasker Middle School, and I had a flash of memory to October 2002.  If you don't remember, that's probably a good thing.  It was a terrible time for the entire DC Metropolitan area.

During that month, just over a year after 9/11, the area was plagued by a terrible shooting spree that resulted in 10 murders and 3 wounded by John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the notorious DC Snipers.  I noted that one of the victims was a young 13-year old boy who was shot and wounded just outside Tasker on his way into the school.  The shooter, Malvo, had hidden in the woods adjacent to the school at the neighboring community park when he pulled the trigger.  I told my daughter Melody that I had played tennis in the courts right next to these woods many times.  I quickly recanted the story of the snipers.

On October 3, 2002, I was sitting at my desk at work, in Silver Spring, with the radio tuned to WTOP.  The announcer had just read a story about a shooting in Rockville.  Not long after, a second shooting was reported in Aspen Hill, at a gas station.  A third victim was shot soon after at a post office near Leisure World, and when a fourth is killed at a gas station in Kensington, it was clear there was something greater going on.  The whole area was on high alert.  One of the reports included a white van/truck, which started a panic about box trucks being the shooter's getaway vehicle.

My wife, Teresa, and I, when we arrived home that afternoon, were concerned, and we talked about it all evening.  It was sad and scary, and we began to speculate what could be happening.  We promised each other that we would be extra vigilant when we were out and about.  There was yet another shooting that evening, in DC, bringing the total to 5 murders on the day.

The following day, there was another shooting way down in Fredericksburg, VA.  This time the victim wasn't killed, but it greatly widened the area that the shooters had targeted, and we were greatly concerned that nowhere was safe.  We began to change our habits, which included waiting in the car when stopping for gas, and not walking in a straight line from the parking lot to the grocery store.  These were scary times.

With everyone on edge, nothing happened for a few days, but then, on October 7, the young boy was shot on his way into the Middle School in Bowie, just a few miles from my parent's house.  Later that morning, as my mother stopped at the local Giant, being extra aware as she walked, a Baltimore Sun reporter stopped her at the entrance to the store and asked if she would be willing to be interviewed.  Mom said sure, but spent the entire conversation looking around the parking lot, something the reporter observed and mentioned in his newspaper article.  Mom expressed her concern and fear about the potential of being a victim just going about her daily routine.

On Wednesday, October 9, another shooting is reported at a gas station in Manassass, VA.  My family was preparing for a day at Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, VA, for Friday, and the shooting had us concerned about whether we should even make the trip.  Ultimately, we decided to go.  Teresa and I finished work on Thursday, October 10, and begin our trip to Williamsburg.  It had just finished raining, so the roads were wet.  We were in our 1998 Jeep Cherokee, sitting at the traffic light at Rt. 198 and Whiskey Bottom Road, in Maryland City, when a car came screeching around the corner and began sliding on the wet pavement.  I braced for impact, as Teresa screamed, and the Lexus rammed right into our Jeep.  We were fine, but the Jeep was clearly damaged, as was the Lexus.  The young lady driving the other car quickly accepted blame and apologized profusely.  We found out, while we talked, that she was a relative of one of our neighbors.  We moved the vehicles to the adjacent gas station and called the police.  Teresa waited in the Jeep while I talked to the girl, but Teresa reminded me that I still needed to be vigilant of the snipers, and I decided to wait in the Jeep with her.  The police didn't show up after 30 minutes, so we exchanged information with the girl, made a quick call to our insurance agent, and drove home.  We debated whether we should still make the trip to Williamsburg.  Mom & Dad had already headed down, and brother Darren and sister Angie were going to drive down in the morning.  Since we couldn't do anything with our Jeep, we decided to switch vehicles, so we limped home, hopped into our second car, and went ahead with our trip.  Teresa's mom was very concerned about us, and tried to talk us out of going, but we felt like we needed the getaway.  We made it to Williamsburg without incident.

Friday, October 11, Angie and Darren arrived in the morning and we enjoyed our day at Busch Gardens.  We heard later that evening, however, that there had been yet another shooting, this time at a gas station in Fredericksburg, just off I-95.  Ironically, it was very near where Angie & Darren had stopped for a quick breakfast that morning.  They were planning to go back home to Bowie that night, and Mom & Dad were really worried about them.  We stayed overnight in Williamsburg.  We went home Saturday morning.

Monday, October 14, came the report of another murder, this time in Falls Church, VA.  We were driving a rental vehicle with our Jeep in the shop for repairs.  It was a full size Chevy Suburban.  It was a bear to park.  Teresa didn't want to drive it, so she took my car, while I drove the big SUV in to work in Silver Spring.  I struggled to park it in the parking garage under my building.  With all of the shootings, Teresa and I could only look forward to our next getaway, a long weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada, with my parents, coming at the end of the week.  We were planning to fly out on Friday.

That Friday morning, October 18, after spending the night at Mom & Dad's, the four of us piled into our big SUV and headed to BWI, where we flew direct to Las Vegas.  It was a topsy turvy day.  We were so glad to be away from DC, but we were concerned about our loved ones back home.  As if on cue, on Saturday, October 19, we heard the report of yet another shooting, this time in Ashland, VA.  The victim survived the attack, fortunately, but we knew the reign of terror was still going on.

After a fabulous four days, we had to fly home.  On Tuesday morning, October 22, we were waiting to board our flight when we saw the report of a bus driver who was shot and killed in Aspen Hill, MD.  Our hearts sank.  This is what we had to fly home to.  It was an uneventful but enjoyable flight, with a short stop in Cleveland.  When we left Cleveland, there were only about a dozen people on the plane, and we enjoyed the attention we received by the flight attendants.  One accidentally dropped a cup of soda on Dad's shoulder, and she was so embarrassed and apologetic.

Late on October 23, police issue an arrest warrant for John Muhammad, and announce the license plate for the notorious Chevy Caprice.  Early the next morning, at a rest area near Hagerstown, MD, a truck driver sees the car.  He calls the police, and soon they storm the rest area and arrest Muhammad and Malvo without incident.  The weapon was found with them, along with all kinds of evidence linking them to the murder spree.  The reign of terror is over!

It was such a relief to hear the news later that morning.  I leave the house fairly early for work, and I woke up my wife to let her know the news before I left for work.  It was a reason to celebrate.

I don't know why driving past Benjamin Tasker Middle School set off such a memory, but I still remember so much of the several weeks of fear the gripped us all during that October in 2002.  I pray that we never experience anything like it again.

Have a great, safe evening, everyone!

The following timeline was borrowed from CNN.com:

Timeline - D.C. Area Shooting Spree: 
October 2, 2002 - A shot is fired through a window at a Michael's crafts store in Aspen Hill, Maryland, but no one is hit.
- Not linked by ballistic evidence.
October 2, 2002 - The first killing takes place when 55-year-old James D. Martin, a program analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is shot in the parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton, Maryland.
- Not linked by ballistic evidence.
October 3, 2002 - Police are called to a crime scene and find James L. Buchanan, a 39-year-old landscaper who has been fatally shot while mowing a lawn at a commercial establishment near Rockville, Maryland.
October 3, 2002 - 54-year-old Premkumar Walekar, a part-time cab driver, is killed while pumping gas into his taxi at a station in the Aspen Hill area of Montgomery County, Maryland.
October 3, 2002 - Sarah Ramos, 34, of Silver Spring, Maryland, is killed at a post office near Leisure World Shopping center. A witness reports seeing a white van or truck speed from the post office parking lot immediately after the shooting.
October 3, 2002 - Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring is shot dead at a Shell gas station in Kensington where she was vacuuming her van.
October 3, 2002 - In the only killing in Washington and the first one to occur at night, Pascal Charlot, 72, is shot in the chest as he walks along Georgia Avenue. He is taken to a hospital, where he dies less than an hour later.
October 4, 2002 - In a Michael's parking lot in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Caroline Seawell, 43, is shot as she puts her bags inside her Toyota minivan. She is released from a Fairfax hospital on Monday, October 14.
October 7, 2002 - Iran Brown, 13, is shot and critically wounded outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Maryland's Prince George's County.
October 9, 2002 - A tarot card is found near the scene of the shooting at the school. CNN sources say it is the "Death Card" with the message "Call me God" for police.
October 9, 2002 - Dean Harold Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, is killed while pumping gas at a station in Manassas, Virginia. A white minivan seen in the area was first thought to have some connection with the shooting but was cleared by police.
October 11, 2002 - Kenneth Bridges, 53, a Philadelphia businessman, is killed at an Exxon station just off I-95 near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Police enforce a huge roadblock, trying to find a white van-like vehicle (similar to a Chevy Astro) with a ladder rack on top.
October 14, 2002 - Linda Franklin, 47, of Arlington, Virginia, is killed by a single gunshot in a Home Depot parking lot in Falls Church, Virginia.
October 19, 2002 - Jeffrey Hopper, 37, is shot in a parking lot at a Ponderosa Steakhouse near I-95 in Ashland, Virginia, 83 miles south of Washington. Doctors remove the bullet from the victim during surgery on October 21 and connect him to the others by ballistics.
October 21, 2002 - Police surround a white van at a pay phone at an Exxon gas station in Richmond, Virginia. They arrest one man in the vehicle and a second man "in the vicinity" but later say that they can not be connected to the sniper shootings.
October 22, 2002 - Bus driver Conrad Johnson, 35, of Oxon Hill, Maryland, is shot as he stands on the top step inside his commuter bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland. He later dies at a hospital in Bethesda. Investigators confirm on October 23 that his death is connected to the sniper.
October 24, 2002 - John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo are arrested. They are later tried and convicted - Muhammad receives a death sentence and is executed on November 10, 2009. Malvo receives life in prison without parole.


  1. That was a truly a scary time living in the DC area.

    1. I agree. I remember how frightened my wife was during that time. She thought for sure the school she taught at would be a logical target given its proximity to "escape routes." Everyone had to change their habits and be constantly aware. Scary times.