Charles is a true crime addict and has been watching and reading about crime for more than 15 years.
In the autumn of 2002, two deadly killers stalked the suburbs of Washington DC. They murdered people at random and left millions in fear. Their spree triggered one of the largest manhunts in American history, which eventually led to the capture of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. The series of coordinated shooting occurred in a three-week period which left 10 people dead and 3 critically injured.
The crime spree started earlier in the year, in February, when the pair engaged in murders and robberies in various states across the U.S, resulting in seven deaths. In just ten months, the snipers killed 17 people and injured 10 others.
1. The Motive for the Murders Is More Twisted Than You Think
The first question anyone would ask him or herself is why would two individuals take a high powered rifle and engage in a series of senseless killings. They must be mentally unstable. No, it turns out that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were perfectly sane individuals. So what was the underlying reason? John Muhammad was devastated when he lost his children to his ex-wife, Mildred. He was furious and threatened to kill his ex-wife, which forced her to flee to the Washington DC area with their kids. It is a strong belief by many that the killing spree was a twisted plot by John Muhammad to kill his ex-wife and get his children back. He intended to kill her and make her one of the murder victims. Muhammad believed that the police would not focus on an estranged ex-husband as a suspect if she looked like a random victim of a serial killer.
2. People Initially Thought the Attacks Were Coordinated by Al Qaeda
The killings occurred just a year after the 9/11 attacks which claimed the lives of almost 3000 people. It was as such understandable that residents of the DC area would assume that these attacks were being undertaken by members of Al Qaeda. The front page of the Washington Post at the time even read, “Snipers and Al Qaeda.” Making matters worse, there had also been an anthrax scare during which 5 people had lost their lives, and 17 had been infected. People therefore faced the possibility that a team of terrorists were hunting them down.
3. The Case May Have Been Solved Earlier
The police decided to deal with the case by presenting as much information as possible to the public and continuously asking them for help. The tip line that was set up was overwhelmed by callers who were sure they knew the snipers. The police had over 100,000 tips coming to the tip line which was astronomical. The tip line was so overwhelmed with calls that the most crucial information about the case, provided by Robert Holmes, John Muhammad’s longtime friend in the army, got completely lost. Other callers were also trying to take credit for the murders which complicated the investigation. Ironically, the snipers even wanted to talk to the task force at one point but also had trouble getting through.
The police also tried to get as much information as they could possibly extract from the people who happened to be at the scene of each shooting. Perhaps, the biggest mistake of the entire three-week manhunt was the belief, based on witness accounts, that the killers had been driving a white box truck. Too much time and too much manpower were thrown into the search for the white van, overlooking other leads. A man by the name of Matthew Dowdy seeking media attention even came forward to give a false statement to the police about seeing the gunman holding an AK-47 to his shoulder. He was initially treated as a key witness but was later found not to be credible. Criminal profilers were not left out of the mishaps. They predicted that the sniper was most likely a white male. That assumption was based largely on the characteristics of past serial killers.
4. The "Concentric Circle" Plan
Law enforcement saw a pattern with the snipers' shootings. They realised that they were close to major road ways and that certain stores were consistent at these places. They also found out that the snipers were really abreast with the traffic patterns in the area. They made sure to go to the path of least resistance. Based on those movements, police devised a scheme to trap the snipers. It was called the concentric circle plan. An immediate response team was made ready to deploy within one minute of an emergency call. Police teams will then create a trap consisting of a series of widening circles around the area. Road blocks will be mounted everywhere with the goal of locking the snipers in a certain location. Unfortunately, the killers stayed one step ahead of the police and slipped away after every shooting.
5. The Snipers' Vehicle Was Reinvented to Be a "Killing Machine"
The nagging question that investigators faced was how the snipers were able to carry out their attacks in public places and go unnoticed. It turns out John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had devised a masterful plan. They moved around in a Chevrolet Caprice which was designed to be a “killing machine”. The car had two holes in the trunk, one for the rifle, the other for the scope. The two holes were there so that shots could be fired without opening the trunk. The car also had darker than normal tinting on the back windows. The firewall between the trunk and the rear seat had been removed and the back seat could fold down, enabling a potential shooter to stretch out in the back without stepping foot outside. It was a perfect place for a shooting platform.
6. The Level of Fear That the Shootings Brought on the Area Was Unprecedented
During the weeks when the attacks occurred, the random shootings generated a great deal of public fear, especially at service stations and the parking lots of large stores. Pizza restaurants reported a surge in delivery requests apparently as people feared to step outside their front door. People pumping gasoline at gas stations would walk around their cars quickly, hoping that they would be a harder target to hit. Pedestrians were advised to walk in zigzags and motorists to crouch down while filling their cars with petrol to avoid becoming a target for the sniper.
7. Caroline Seawell Was the First to Miraculously Survive the Sniper’s Long Range Bullets
Caroline Seawell, a stay-at-home mother of two, was discussing the sniper shootings over breakfast with her husband the morning of October 4, 2002. Hours later, she became a victim as she loaded a newly purchased scarecrow and a wreath into her minivan at a shopping center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While lying on the pavement, Caroline prayed that she could live for her two children. The bullet that tore through her body hit her liver, a lung and diaphragm and cracked multiple ribs before exiting. She spent four days in the hospital with a chest tube to help her breathe. Another half-inch to the left and the bullet would have come close to her heart or a major artery, which would have been detrimental.
She believes God saved her for a reason and that reason revolves around her family. Her near-death experience has had a long-term impact on her. She has learnt to take things a little lighter than she might have before and is thankful for every day she has. The other two to survive were Jeffrey Hopper and Iran Brown.
8. The Snipers Shot an Innocent Child to Prove a Point
On Oct. 7, 2002, Iran Brown, who was 13 at the time, became the youngest victim of the Washington-area sniper. Iran Brown had been kicked off the school bus for eating candy, so his aunt drove him to Benjamin Tasker Middle School, in Bowie, Maryland. Moments after he got out of her car, he fell to the ground, a gunshot wound to his chest. As blood spewed across his shirt, he pulled himself back into his aunt's car and they sped off to a nearby hospital. He underwent a life-saving surgery that removed his spleen and parts of his liver and pancreas. The boy came close to becoming the seventh fatality in the three-week shooting spree.
Once the child was shot, it was like things had escalated and as bad as they were and detectives didn’t think it could get much worse, they did get worse. The then Montgomery County Police Chief, Charles Moose, felt so helpless at that point, he was forced to cry on national television. Lee Boyd Malvo would later tell Maryland jail guards that he shot Iran Brown to show authorities that the snipers "meant business" and to upset then-Montgomery County Police Chief, Charles Moose. He said they were pleased to see Moose crying on television.
9. The Press Almost Threw the Case Into Jeopardy
At the scene of school boy’s Iran Brown’s shooting, investigators undertook a forensic walk stepping slowly shoulder to shoulder through the area. Two of them discovered a flattened out area in the shrubs where it looked like someone had been lying. They pursued that area much more intensely and found some key pieces of evidence. The most significant evidence discovered was a mysterious tarot card upon which was written "Call me God" on the front and on the back on three separate lines the words, "For you Mr Police." "Code: 'Call me God'." "Do not release to the press." The suspects had made it clear that they did not want the media notified with regard to this.
The task force wanted to honour their request to establish communication which was crucial at that point in the investigation. However, the media was everywhere and no secret was safe. The police were determined to keep the tarot card evidence away from the press but unfortunately, the tarot card information was leaked and made the front page of the Washington Post. Even though it was understandable the press wanted to get a big story, that kind of reporting was devastating to the case.
10. An Unrelated Event Led to the Arrest of the Snipers
The shooting of Jeffrey Hopper at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland sparked a series of events which eventually led to the arrest of the killers. In the woods near the restaurant where Jeff Hopper had been shot, police discovered a note tacked to a tree with the help of an ATF dog. The handwritten note demanded $10,000,000 and threatened the lives of children in the area. The note also mentioned of a shooting in Alabama. This was an unsolved robbery and murder where two people were shot at a liquor store in Montgomery, Alabama. The manager, Claudine Parker, 52, was killed, and a co-worker, Kellie Adams, 24, was wounded as they closed up about 7:30 p.m.
The snipers had initially called the tip line to claim responsibility for the DC sniper attacks and had already mentioned the Alabama shooting to police. Other callers were taking credit for the sniper attacks, and the snipers got desperate for law enforcement to accept they were the killers, thereby bringing up the Alabama shooting. The police didn’t link the crimes at the time since the shooting at Alabama was a robbery-murder, and they believed the DC snipers didn’t rob their victims. The gun also used at that crime was not a Bushmaster rifle, and so they were very sure the cases were totally unrelated.
However, with the mention of the Alabama shooting again in the note, the police decided to delve deeper into that case. They discovered that the suspect left his fingerprint on a magazine he was carrying near the store. When investigators ran the fingerprint through national databases, it matched that of Lee Boyd Malvo. After further research into Malvo's background, it was discovered he had close ties to John Allen Muhammad. Muhammad helped Malvo and his mother enter the United States illegally from the Caribbean. Muhammad and Malvo became friends often passing themselves off as father and son. The police provided the description and license plate number of John Muhammad’s car to the public. Whitney Donahue spotted Muhammad's car at a rest stop in Frederick County, Maryland and alerted the police. The two were ultimately arrested.
The DC Sniper Documentary
D.C. sniper attacks. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from
"Minds of the D.C. Snipers." CNN Live Events, October 10, 2007.
"Caprice was 'killing machine'." Kelli Arena and Jeanne Meserve, CNN, October 25, 2002.
"Sniper shooting survivor savors life." Pamela Gould, Fredericksburg, October 7, 2012.
"Sniper victim prayed 'that God wouldn't let me die'." Mike Ahlers, CNN, October 29, 2003.
"Youngest Victim of Sniper Tells of Bullet in Chest." James Dao, The New York Times, October 30, 2003.
Questions & Answers
Question: Did investigators initially think the DC sniper was a white male?
Answer: Yes. Criminal profilers predicted that the sniper was most likely a white male, but that assumption was based largely on the characteristics of past serial killers and not the sniper case itself.
© 2017 Charles Nuamah