Sunday, July 1, 2018

Where the Story Began: the Washington Sniper Incident

Zoë Sharp

I make no secret of the fact that it was the Washington Sniper incident from 2002 that gave me the original idea behind my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE. But, although I was aware of the story, I didn’t research it in detail because I knew from the start that my take on it was going to be very different.

It’s only recently, therefore, that I’ve gone back over the events. They make horrifying reading. The basic facts are that between February and October 2002, the partnership of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed a total of seventeen people across the States, injuring a further ten. Events culminated in the incidents that became known as the Washington Sniper or the Beltway or D.C. Sniper in October of that year.
Lee Boyd Malvo (l) and John Allen Muhammad
Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1985. His mother, Una Sceon James, met Muhammad in Antigua and Barbuda around 1999, and he and the young Malvo formed a strong bond. James left her son with Muhammad when she came to the States, and the two followed in 2001. 

Both mother and son detained by Border Patrol in December of that year, and in fact Malvo had just been released on a bond in January of the following year, just before the killings began. It’s hard to define the exact relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. The certainly stayed together for over a year. At one point Muhammad enrolled the boy in school claiming to be his father. Malvo later claimed that he’d been brainwashed and sexually abused.

Lee Boyd Malvo at the time of his arrest
Muhammad was born John Allen Williams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His mother died when he was three and his father left him in the care of his grandfather and an aunt. He served in the National Guard and the US Army, serving in the Gulf War, and was a noted expert shot. He mustered out in 1991 with the rank of sergeant, after seventeen years’ service, during which, in 1987, he converted to Islam. He changed his last name in 2001.

It was initially claimed that Muhammad’s motive for the killings was that he wanted to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his three children, but there was insufficient evidence to prove this. He had indeed kidnapped his children in 1999 and taken them to Antigua, which was when he met Malvo.
John Allen Muhammad at his trial
Events unfolding
In February, 21-year-old Keenya Cook was shot and killed at her aunt’s house by Boyd Lee Malvo. Keenya’s aunt was a friend of Muhammad’s ex-wife, and had encouraged her to seek a divorce.

Following this, a further five apparently random people were killed in various states, including a liquor store clerk in Mongomery, Alabama who was shot to death during a robbery—where the two men left behind fingerprint evidence that would eventually convict them. Another seven people were injured, such as a man in Louisana who was shot in the neck and played dead while Malvo stole his wallet, and the owner of a pizzeria in Maryland who was shot six times at close range but also survived.
map showing the locations of the sniper shootings in order
Washington area
On the afternoon of October 2nd 2002, a shot was fired through the window of a store in Aspen Hill, missing the cashier. As nobody was injured, the incident was not thought to be serious, until an hour later when a man was killed in the parking lot of a grocery store in Wheaton.

The following morning, a landscaper was killed while mowing grass; a taxi driver while he was filling up his car; a housekeeper while sitting on a bench reading a book, and a woman while vacuuming her car at a gas station. These killings all happened within the space of two hours.

Later that evening, a retired carpenter was shot while out walking. He died an hour later.
the Bushmaster rifle used in the sniper shootings
Initially, the police had little to go on, and received conflicting reports about what type of vehicle the shooter(s) might be using, although one of those reported was the blue Chevy Caprice that did indeed belong to Muhammad.

The next day, October 4th, a woman was shot and wounded while loading groceries into her vehicle in Spotsylvania. The police soon had a forensic link between the killings.

On October 7th, a 13-year-old boy, Iran Brown, was critically wounded as he arrived at school in Bowie, Maryland. After this shooting, police recovered a shell casing and a tarot card with the code ‘Call me God’ written on it.

drawing by Malvo, showing the interior of the Chevy Caprice
Two days later, a civil engineer was shot dead while filling his car just outside Manassas, Virginia. On October 11th, a businessman was killed also while pumping gas, this time just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia.

A few days later, on October 14th, an FBI intelligence analyst was shot in the covered parking lot of a Home Depot just outside Falls Church, Virginia.

As soon as the first connection between the killings was made, schools went on to lockdown. Later, gas stations started putting up tarpaulins to shield people filling their cars from view, and the White House and other federal buildings had their security beefed up. Specific threats were made against schoolchildren, and many schools cancelled outside trips or physical education that involved being out of the school buildings.

tarps were strung from the awnings of fuel stations to shield customers
Eventually, Muhammad and Malvo tripped themselves up. They began to contact the authorities, boasting. During one such phone call, they mentioned an unsolved murder in Montgomery, where Malvo had dropped a magazine with his fingerprints on it. Once he was identified, his close ties to Muhammad soon came to light.

And with the identification of Muhammad came the licence number of his blue Chevy Caprice, which had already been stopped and checked near to several of the crime scenes. Eventually, after a public alert, the men were spotted sleeping in the car in a rest area off the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore and were arrested. A slot was found in the rear panel of the car which allowed a rifle to be sighted and fired from inside the vehicle.

Muhammad's blue Chevy Caprice, with firing point slot in rear panel 
Both were convicted of the homicides. Muhammad was given the death sentence, which was carried out by lethal injection in 2009. Malvo, only seventeen when the crimes were committed, was given six life sentences without the possibility of parole. Although he originally confessed to pulling the trigger in most of the sniper attacks, he later changed his story and claimed that he was attempting to protect Muhammad from the death penalty. 

Last week, a federal appeals court threw out four of the life sentences Malvo received for his part in the killings, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to such a term. However, life with parole sentences still stand for murders committed in other states, so despite his apparent remorse and changed attitude as a result of his imprisonment to date, it is highly unlikely Malvo will ever be released.

Lee Boyd Malvo now
I didn’t know, when I was writing DANCING ON THE GRAVE, that Malvo—who acted as Muhammad’s spotter and lookout—had tried to take credit or blame for the crimes. But that does have spooky similarities with my story.

Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s art imitating life, or life imitating art.

This week’s Word of the Week is commination, meaning a threat of punishment or vengeance, a denunciation, or in the Church of England it is read on Ash Wednesday to proclaim God’s judgement and anger against sinners. It dates back to the 16thcentury, from the Latin comminatorius, from comminat- threatened.


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