Beltway sniper attacks

From Academic Kids

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Locations of the 14 fatal sniper attacks numbered chronologically. Note: No one was injured at location "2".

The Beltway sniper attacks took place during three weeks of October 2002 in the eastern United States. Ten people were killed and three others critically injured by spree killers in and around Washington D.C. in various locations throughout the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. It was later learned that the rampage apparently began the month before with murders and robbery in other states which had resulted in 3 deaths.

The sniper attacks finally ended on October 24, when police arrested John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo at a highway rest area in Maryland after receiving two telephone tips from alert citizens. It was later learned that the three-week-long rampage was motivated, at least in part, by a plot to extort $10 million from government agencies.

In 2004, Muhammad was sentenced to death and Malvo to several sentences of life imprisonment without parole in Virginia for several of the attacks. Many more criminal charges are pending against each man, although a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case in March 2005 effectively precludes a death penalty for Malvo. Muhammad's death penalty was affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court on April 22, 2005, and he is awaiting execution.

Neither sniper was legally allowed to acquire firearms in the U.S. The dealer responsible for the assault rifle used in the attacks had an extensive record of firearms violations, and had not reported the gun missing (after it had apparently been shoplifted by Malvo) as required by law. A civil lawsuit alleging negligence against both the gun dealer and the manufacturer who made and distributed the weapon resulted in a $2.5 million out-of-court settlement for survivors and families of victims. Gun control advocates considered the settlement a victory in their efforts to reduce gun-related violence in the United States.


The snipers

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Lee Boyd Malvo
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John Allen Muhammad

Authorities initially attributed the attacks to a lone sniper, dubbed by journalists the "Beltway Sniper," the "D.C. Sniper," the "Washington Sniper," the "Serial Sniper" or the "Tarot Card Killer."

After their capture, there was much confusion about the names of the two suspects. The older of the pair, John Allen Williams, age 41, had joined the Nation of Islam some years earlier and changed his name to John Allen Muhammad in October 2001. The younger man was born Lee Boyd Malvo, but also calls himself John Lee Malvo and had posed as Muhammad's son. Malvo's actual relationship with Muhammad was initially unclear, although it was later learned that Malvo's mother had been involved in some illegal activity with Muhammad in Antigua.

The attacks begin

The sniper attacks began October 2, 2002, with a series of five fatal shootings in 15 hours in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburban county north of Washington, and continued for the next three weeks in the Washington metropolitan area, filling residents of the region with fear. Police received messages left at the murder locations and believed, correctly, that the killer worked in concert with another person.

The shootings occurred at gas stations and in parking lots outside supermarkets, restaurants, and schools in a rough circular pattern around Washington. The victims were apparently selected at random, crossing racial, gender, and socioeconomic categories. The locations of the attacks always had close freeway access. It is believed the sniper used the circular Capital Beltway to get from place to place, although several of the attacks occurred along Interstate 95 south of the Beltway in Virginia.

The attacks were carried out with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle at a range of 50 to over 100 yards. The rifle came from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, which had an extensive history of firearms violations and had not reported the rifle as missing, as required by federal law.


Charles Moose
Charles Moose

The investigation was publicly headed by Montgomery County, Maryland Police Chief Charles A. Moose, with assistance from the FBI and police departments in other jurisdictions where killings and woundings had taken place.

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 throughout parts of one of America's largest metropolitan areas.

Eyewitness accounts of the attacks was 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. The most common tip was that the snipers were driving a boxy white van, which ultimately proved erroneous.

The sniper attempted to engage the police in a dialog, compelling Moose to tell the media cryptic messages intended for the sniper. At several scenes Tarot 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 sniper(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.

During the period of the attacks, the North American media devoted enormous amounts of air time and newspaper space to news of each new attack. By the middle of October 2002, all-news television networks were providing live, ongoing coverage of each new attack - with the coverage often lasting for hours at a time.

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 beltway in suburban Clinton, 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 older Chevrolet sedan 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 computers did not indicate that it was wanted. Of course, like almost everyone else, the police were looking very hard at white vans.

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 anxious and vigilant public, as well as law enforcement agencies throughout the region, this was a major change from the mysterious white van earlier sought based upon reported sightings. Within a day, the disclosure to the public of the new vehicle lookout information led directly to the sighting and report of the vehicle by two different alert citizens at a Maryland Rest Area, resulting in the capture of the two murderers.

The sniper attacks finally ended on October 24, when police arrested Muhammad and Malvo at a highway rest area on Interstate 70 near Hagerstown, Maryland, after receiving two separate tips from alert citizens who saw a parked, occupied car that matched the description distributed by the media. The former police car had been especially configured with a firing port so that a sniper could shoot from inside the closed trunk. Police called it a "killing machine."


Criminal prosecutions

Virginia authorities were selected for initial prosecutions. As is customary in the United States, each man was provided free legal counsel at public expense since they were both indigent. A change of venue was granted, and the first trials were held in the independent cities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach in southeastern Virginia, more than 100 miles from the closest alleged attack (in Ashland, Virginia).

During their respective 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 over 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, one 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 pursue the charges against Malvo, after all. Prosecutors in Maryland, Louisiana and Alabama are 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. The high court said Muhammad could be sentenced to death because the murder was part of an act of terrorism. The court also rejected an argument by defense lawyers that he could not be sentenced to death because he was not the triggerman in the killings linked to him and Malvo.

Muhammad, with his sniper team partner, Malvo, randomly selected innocent victims" Virginia Supreme Court Justice Donald Lemons wrote in the decision. "With calculation, extensive planning, premeditation and ruthless disregard for life, Muhammad carried out his cruel scheme of terror."

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. He is held at the maximum security Sussex I State Prison near Waverly in Sussex County, Virginia, which houses Virginia's death row inmates.

In May, 2005, Virginia and Maryland announced that they had reached agreements to allow Maryland to proceed with prosecuting charges there, where the most number of shootings occurred. There were media reports that Malvo and his legal team have been willing earlier to negotiate his cooperation, while Muhammad and his legal team responded by fighting extradition to Maryland.

Regulatory, civil actions

According to the Seattle Times in a story of April 20, 2003, Muhammad had honed his marksmanship at Bull's Eye's firing range. The newspaper also reported that Malvo told investigators that he shoplifted the 35-inch-long carbine from the "supposedly secure store." [1] (

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 of 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 transfered ownership of the store to a friend and continued to own the building and operate the adjacent shooting gallery. [2] (,2061,565561,00.html)

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 assault rifle and laser scope used in the crime spree, as well as Borgelt, Muhammad and Malvo. Muhammad, who had a 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 assault 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 utilize Bull's Eye as its dealer despite an awareness of its negligent practices.

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 and Bushmaster contributed to an out-of-court US$2.5 million settlement. According to the Legal Center, it was agreed that "Bushmaster will also educate its dealers on safer business practices. The settlement is the first time a gun manufacturer has ever paid damages for negligence leading to criminal violence and the largest settlement by a gun dealer ever."

After the settlement was announced, WTOP radio in Washington, DC, reported that Sonia Wills, mother of sniper 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. [3] (

TV movie, book

On October 17, 2003, on USA Network's USA cable station, a TV movie was shown that was based on the events that occurred in 2002's sniper incident. The movie's name was D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear. Also in 2003 a book written by former Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose was published.

Effects on Society

The Beltway Sniper attacks may have permanently damaged the notion that mass murderers are primarily disgruntled and/or mentally unbalanced middle-aged white men. Indeed, eyewitness reports gave descriptions as erroneous as "A crazy white guy armed with an AK-47, driving about in a boxy white van." Ironic that the sniper was in fact, not one but two African-American men driving about in an old blue Chevy sedan.


  • September 5, 2002, 10:30 pm: Paul LaRuffa is shot six times at close range while locking up his pizzeria. LaRuffa's laptop was found in Muhammad's car when he was arrested.
  • September 21: Claudine Parker, a liquor store clerk in Montgomery, Alabama is shot and killed during a robbery. Her coworker, Kellie Adams, is also injured. Evidence found at the crime scene eventually ties this killing to the Beltway attacks and allows authorities to identify Muhammad and Malvo as suspects, although this connection is not made until October 8.
  • October 2, 6:05 pm: The first Beltway-area sniper shooting occurs on October 2 in Montgomery County, Maryland, a northern suburban county near Washington, DC in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. The first victim was James Martin, who died in the parking lot of a grocery store.
  • October 3: The next wave of shootings occurs in Montgomery County in a 15-hour period.
    • 7:41 am: James L. Buchanan, known as "Sonny," is shot dead while mowing the grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall as part of his landscaping.
    • 8:12 am: Taxi driver Prem Kumar Walekar is killed in Aspen Hill, Maryland while pumping gasoline into his taxi at an Amoco station.
    • 8:37 am: Sarah Ramos dies while reading a book on a bench at the Leisure World Shopping Center shortly after she exits a bus.
    • 9:58 am: Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera dies while pumping gasoline at a Shell station in Kensington, Maryland.
    • 9:15 pm: Pascal Charlot is shot while walking on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC. He dies less than an hour later.
  • October 9 8:18 pm: Dean Harold Meyers is shot dead while pumping gasoline at a station in Prince William County, near Manassas, Virginia.
  • October 14 9:15 pm: Linda Franklin is shot dead at about 9:15 a.m. after she finishes shopping at a Home Depot in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Falls Church. The police receive a supposedly very good lead after the October 14 shooting, but it is later determined that the witness was inside at the time and was lying. The witness was arrested for interfering with the investigation.
  • October 19 8:00 pm: Jeffrey Hopper is shot in a parking lot near the Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia, about 90 miles south of Washington near Interstate 95. Authorities discover a 3-page letter from the sniper in the woods.
  • October 21: Richmond-area police arrest two men, one with a white van, outside a gas station. The men turn out to be illegal immigrants with no connection to the sniper and they are remanded to the custody of the INS.
  • October 22, 5:56 am: Bus driver Conrad Johnson is shot dead while standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Chief Moose releases part of the content of one of the sniper's communications, in which he declares, "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time."
  • October 23: Ballistics experts confirm Johnson as the 10th fatality in the sniper attacks.
    • In a yard in Tacoma, Washington, near to a sniper school operated by the United States Army, police search with metal detectors for bullets, shell casings, or other evidence which may link to the snipers. A tree stump believed to have been used for target practice is seized.
  • October 24: John Allen Muhammad (born John Allen Williams) and Lee Boyd Malvo (also known as John Lee Malvo) are found sleeping in their car, a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, at a Maryland rest stop, and arrested on federal weapons charges. Police were tipped off by a trucker who noticed the parked car and also received another call from an alert motorist. A .223-caliber weapon and tripod are found in a bag in Muhammad's car. Ballistics tests later conclusively link the seized rifle to 11 of the 14 bullets recovered from earlier attacks. Muhammad was previously a member of the United States National Guard and later the United States Army, where he earned medals for expert marksmanship under his given name of John Allen Williams.

Possible copycats

See also



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