Remembering the nightmare
Oct. 6, 2003
Manju Subramanya
Staff Writer

The teddy bear is weathered and forlorn, its red-and-green scarf testament to the season it was placed on the pole. A plastic wreath with a rust-orange bow hangs over the bear, just over the plain wooden cross with the letters C.J. nailed to it.

The offerings at the Ride On bus stop in Aspen Hill memorialize a death, the last sniper death, but passersby pay scant attention. A man and woman lugging grocery bags get down from a Ride On bus and head past the memorial to their apartment.

Much like the makeshift memorial set up for the final sniper victim, Ride On bus driver Conrad E. Johnson, 35, of Oxon Hill, the three-week carnage that subsumed Montgomery County and

riveted the nation a year ago is fading from some people's memories.

But for those on the periphery of those killing sites, the tense ordeal of dodging an unknown killer roaming the streets for 23 days is both vivid and painful.

"It's still in your head," said Alan Maybin, a groundskeeper for the Cinnamon Run apartments on Connecticut Avenue in Aspen Hill not far from the spot where Johnson was felled Oct. 22 by one bullet to his abdomen as he stood at the bus door waiting to begin his daily run. "You never know what might come out of the woodwork."

Maybin woke up that morning to hear about Johnson's killing on the news -- the 10th person arbitrarily picked and skillfully shot to death by a sniper on the loose.

In those stressful fall days, Maybin put off shopping and rode the bus instead of walking the streets. He prayed for his girlfriend, his son, his friends, even his neighbors.

"It messed up a lot of things," he recalled.

Coming as it did in the wake of nine people killed and three wounded, Johnson's death was more than Maybin could take.

"It was very scary to me," he recalled.

The first bullet

The first inkling of the carnage to follow came with a bullet that punched through a Michaels craft store window in Northgate Shopping Center in the commercial heart of Aspen Hill. It was 5:20 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2002.

"At that point, no one anticipated a serial sniper," recalled county police Officer Guthrie V. Quill, who was on patrol in Aspen Hill that evening. His first thought was that the shot was the work of children with a BB gun.

Within the hour, Quill arrived on the scene of a shooting death in the huge parking lot of Shoppers Food Warehouse, across the street from the Wheaton-Glenmont police station. A number of other officers were already there.

Those catching the news item about the 6:04 p.m. killing at Shoppers of James D. Martin, 55, of Silver Spring may have shrugged it off as just another homicide.

But the events of the next day changed all that.

An angel in a pouch

On a side street off Nicholson Lane just south of bustling Rockville Pike, the memory of James L. "Sonny" Buchanan lives on. On a neatly mowed narrow strip of lawn, a telephone pole has become an unlikely memorial.

Strapped to its side is a pink flamingo Beanie Baby and a tan Gaithersburg High School pennant. Dangling from the other side is a gray suede pouch with a silver angel tucked inside.

A bouquet of flowers wrapped in lavender cellophane and tied to the pole has dried and turned dark -- much like Oct. 3, 2002, turned out to be.

Buchanan, 39, of Abingdon, Va., was cutting the grass behind Fitzgerald Auto Mall on Rockville Pike when he was shot at 7:41 a.m. Clutching his chest, he climbed the incline in the rear parking lot of the dealership and collapsed.

"Nobody knew it was a sniper," recalled Cathy Speeckaert, customer relations manager at another Fitzgerald dealership a block away. "They thought something flew off the lawnmower and hit him."

Once employees heard about the shootings that followed, she said, "Everybody was in a panic, going to get their kids."

Murder and mayhem

A few miles away at the Mobil gas station in the heart of Aspen Hill, mechanic Warren Shifflett was sipping his morning coffee near a colleague on a pay phone when he heard a loud bang. It was 8:12 a.m.

"It sounded like a gun shot," Shifflett recalled as he helped test drive a car in the garage. "But sometimes trucks backfire when they hit a bump."

Neither man paid much attention. Then they saw a cab driver -- later identified as Premkumar Walekar, 54, of Olney -- at pump no. 9 stagger over and collapse against a nearby van.

As they rushed to the scene, Shifflett saw that the cab driver was bleeding profusely. The van owner, a British doctor, was screaming that someone should call 911.

She began CPR. Minutes later, a police officer cut loose from a funeral procession on Connecticut Avenue and began helping.

"It was like a nightmare," Shifflett recalled. It brought back memories of his 1969 service as a crew chief on an airplane in the combat zone of Vietnam -- where sniper shootings happened all the time, bombs went off and comrades died before his eyes.

Within the hour, he heard there had been another shooting nearby on Georgia Avenue. This time it was a woman sitting on a bench in a shopping center.

"It was so close together, happening so fast, in a three-four mile circle," Shifflett said.

Terrorists, he thought.

"It was chaotic"

That morning, Cathy LoPinto was walking down the sidewalk to her job as manager at the Images beauty salon near Leisure World when police turned her away from the shopping center.

LoPinto insisted that she had to get in: Customers were waiting, employees were panicking. When she tried a second time, police relented and allowed her in.

Sarah Ramos, 34, of Silver Spring had been shot at 8:37 a.m. as she sat on a blue bench in front of the Crispy & Juicy restaurant, six stores up from the beauty salon. Police had covered Ramos' body with a sheet, though passersby could see her blue shoes and stockinged feet peeking out.

LoPinto avoided the scene. "Some employees looked more than once," she said, shaking her head. "I don't understand that."

Police were everywhere, LoPinto recalled; people were terrified.

A landscaper told police he had seen a white box truck speeding away from the scene -- a clue that sent police down the wrong track for weeks.

"It was chaotic," LoPinto said recently in the midst of a busy morning scheduling customers and answering calls. "Everybody was in shock, absolutely in shock. It is hard to believe it is coming on a year."

Three doors away at the Honey Baked Ham Co., sales associate Ruben De Trinidad recalled how the scene shocked him.

"Is that a body?" he wondered. "There's blood on the concrete. What just happened?"

On days he arrived early on the job, De Trinidad often sat on the same bench where Ramos had been shot.

"It could have been me waiting there," Trinidad said. The thought still makes him nervous.

"Every now and then, you start to think, 'It could happen right now,'" he said, adding that it does not help that a sniper may be on the loose, today, in nearby West Virginia. "I need to be more careful -- oh man!"

The blue bench on which Ramos was killed has been removed.

More to come

The same day, mechanics were busy working in the open bays at the Shell service station at Connecticut and Knowles avenues in Kensington.

Station owner Jagjivan "John" Mistry was working on the office computer when he heard a loud noise. It was 9:58 a.m.

A mechanic noticed that a woman vacuuming her minivan had slid partially under her vehicle.

"We thought she had a heart attack," Mistry recalled.

When the two went closer, they saw blood coming from the side of her mouth.

They quickly jacked up the minivan and pulled her out. Within minutes, police and paramedics arrived on the scene.

Lori Ann Lewis Rivera, 25, of Silver Spring was dead.

"I was horrified for what happened on the property," Mistry said. "It was a bad thing to happen."

Customers still ask him about the shooting, press him on where he thinks the shot came from. Mistry points to the Safeway grocery store parking lot next door.

"In my mind I don't think about it," he said of the murder scene. "But for the rest of my life, I'm going to carry the image."

For months after the shooting, Rivera's husband came to the station every weekend and left flowers. He once brought their young daughter, Jocylin.

Mistry commiserated with the pair, but said little.

"What are you going to say? Can't say anything," Mistry said, shaking his head.

"I gave the girl candy."

County in panic

The killer was not done.

Across the Montgomery-D.C. line, Pascal Charlot, 72, was standing at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Kalmia Road, just south of Silver Spring, when a single bullet killed him. It was 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 3, 2002.

Five people had been killed in the space of 16 hours -- all from a distance, all with a high-powered rifle. People waited, wondering when, where, who would be next?

"This was a ghost with a gun," recalled Capt. John M. Fitzgerald, the police department's director of media services, who was an evening tactical commander during the last two weeks of the sniper siege. "No one felt safe. There was unusual fear, extraordinarily frightening, random and invisible."

Fitzgerald had just arrived at the funeral of police Cpl. William Foust, the same funeral another police officer left to go to the Walekar shooting, when he was paged about several shootings that morning. "It was very surreal," he recalled. "This does not happen in Montgomery County."

The affluent county of 900,000 residents is considered relatively safe. The county saw 19 homicides in 2001, a fraction compared to Baltimore or Washington, D.C.

"It was clear something big and bad was happening," Fitzgerald said. "It was like a bad TV movie."

He offered his apologies to the corporal's family and quickly rushed back to Germantown, where he was district commander.

Police set up a command post diagonally across from the Mobil gas station where Walekar had been killed.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) cut short a two-day trip to Chicago to return home.

"We are all fearful. But we must continue with our lives," Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose told reporters that morning at the command post.

Asked what advice he had for residents, Moose said, "Say a prayer, but at this point we don't know who and what we are dealing with."

Assistant Police Chief John A. King was away for a three-month training session at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va. Ironically, the day before, he had stopped by the site of the Martin killing while returning from a viewing for Foust, who had died of a heart attack.

"I kept getting paged during the day. But my pager was not working inside the building," King recalled.

A colleague at the training session mentioned a shooting in Montgomery County. King did not think it was anything out of the ordinary.

Then he walked into a media session. CNN was on.

Everyone a victim

The killings pushed schools into Code Blue. Classroom windows were shuttered, doors locked, visitors carefully screened. Motorists crouched in front of gasoline pumps, shoppers debated whether to go to Michaels, people zigzagged across empty lots as fear enveloped Montgomery County.

"The county was truly paralyzed and traumatized," recalled Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D).

"What made this case distinct from any other case was that everybody in Montgomery County saw themselves as victims," he said.

Karen Bandy, packing groceries into her minivan at Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton where James Martin was killed, recalled the time as very stressful.

Her 14-year-old son chafed at having to stay indoors at school. "He took it personally," she said.

She remembered sitting outdoors at the Eatzi's restaurant in Rockville, enjoying lunch with a friend, when a thought flashed through her mind.

"Gee, I wonder why no one is sitting outside?" she wondered.

"We left the business quickly, did not hang around," Bandy recalled.

Hanging around was something no one did during the 22-day siege.

Cathy Speeckaert said she avoided grocery stores, scooping up essentials at the CVS drug store while picking up her daughter's prescription. She filled up at service stations where "guardian angels" offered to pump fuel for frightened customers. She walked her daughter to school.

"I spent those three weeks ducking," Speeckaert recalled.

Spread out

On Oct. 4, a 43-year-old woman loading her minivan in front of a Michaels craft store in Fredericksburg, Va., was shot from a distance and wounded.

There was no commonality among the seven victims. They were men and women, of varying ethnicities and stations in life, shot while carrying on the most mundane of everyday tasks. No one felt safe.

Then, three days later, the fear turned to terror.

On Oct. 7, soon after Moose had reassured residents that their children were safe in their schools, a 13-year-old boy was shot and seriously wounded as he was entering a Bowie middle school. Iran Brown was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was victim No. 8.

The killer seemed to be taunting the chief.

Moose, visibly tired and emotionally wrought as he handled the biggest case in his 27-year police career, lashed out at the faceless killer at one of his frequent briefings at police headquarters in Rockville.

"Now we're really stepping over the line," Moose railed, as a lone tear ran down his cheek. "Our children do not deserve this. Shooting a kid, I guess it's getting to be really, really personal now."

The targeting of a child had a profound effect.

Parents rushed to schools to whisk their children into the cocoons of their homes. Schools from Pennsylvania to Virginia were put on alert. In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, after-school activities and athletic events were canceled, and parents were urged to escort their children to and from school. The prospect of Halloween trick-or-treating only three weeks away seemed out of the question.

With each killing, the media horde grew and the front of police headquarters was transformed into a mini-village of tents, wires, microphones and portable toilets nicknamed "Moose Lodge" by reporters.

In his 20 years of policing, Fitzgerald said, he could not recall a single crime in the county that had such a widespread impact.

"We were on a world stage," Fitzgerald recalled. "Everyone descended on us. Thankfully a lot of help descended on us, too."

With the schoolboy shooting and the case getting too big for county police to handle alone, Moose asked for federal help.

A joint task force of county, state and federal law enforcement authorities was set up to crack the case. It was a task force that would expand as the sniper took more victims in more jurisdictions.

More killings

Police found their first major clues -- a shell casing and a Tarot card saying, "Dear Policeman, I am God" -- at the Bowie crime scene.

Two days later, on Oct. 9, Dean H. Meyers, 53, of Gaithersburg, was killed by a single bullet as he refueled his car at a Sunoco station in Manassas, Va. On Oct. 11, Kenneth Bridges, 53, a father of six from Philadelphia, was shot and killed as he gassed up at an Exxon station in Massaponax, Va.

People were in a panic from Maryland to Virginia to Washington, D.C.

"Every time there was a call for shots fired -- we didn't know whether it was the lid of a Dumpster, a car backfiring, a hunter in the woods or the sniper," Fitzgerald said. "People were hearing things because they were tuned in.

"It was hectic, stressful, surreal in so many ways."

As police awaited the next shooting and plotted how to block off the killer, word came of an 11th victim.

Linda Franklin, 47, an FBI analyst, was shot and killed at 9:15 p.m. Oct. 14 while loading shelving material with her husband into her car in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Falls Church, Va.

Police immediately put out a dragnet, blocking all traffic in and out of the area. The effort proved futile. The killer eluded police once again.

Then -- remarkably, it seemed -- for five days, there was a lull. No shootings, no sightings, no word from the killer. Thousands of people called in tips to the hot line the joint task force set up to find the sniper. A constant feeling of dread cast a pall on the region. Events that had been months in the planning were canceled; field trips put on hold. People waited and watched news reports for a word, any word that the attacks had stopped.

On television, profilers and talk show hosts noted that the sniper had never before struck on a weekend, theorizing that was when he had to return to his family.

Then, the killer proved them wrong.

That Saturday -- Oct. 19 at 7:59 p.m. -- a 37-year-old Florida man, later identified as Jeffrey Hopper, was shot and wounded while leaving a Ponderosa steakhouse in Ashland, Va., with his wife. He was the sniper's 12th victim.

A four-page letter found at the scene near Richmond gave police the first indication that these were not just thrill killings. The killer demanded $10 million to stop.

Duck in a noose

On Oct. 20, Moose sent the first of a series of cryptic messages to the sniper.

"To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa last night, you gave us a telephone number," the chief said. "We want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided."

But any hope that police were any closer to solving the case was dashed. Police stormed in on two men as one made a call from a pay phone in Richmond, but they turned out to be undocumented workers unrelated to the case. A man purporting to be an eyewitness to the Franklin killing turned out a phony. Suspects on a short list were struck off, one by one.

"It was maddening and demoralizing," Fitzgerald said. "But the amount of frustration and anger was met with a great amount of certitude and a sense of mission -- there was more of a compulsion to find this person and bring them to justice."

In the predawn hours of Oct. 22, Conrad Johnson was shot to death in Aspen Hill as he stood on the steps of his idling bus. The final killing sent people reeling. The sniper had returned to the scene of the first killings.

Later that day, Moose revealed a postscript on the note that had been left at the Ponderosa shooting.

"Your children are not safe anywhere at anytime," the note read.

The revelation chilled parents already panicked about their children's safety and directed fresh criticism at Moose and task force members who had withheld that threat for three days as they wrestled with whether they should make it public.

But an end to the seemingly endless siege was near.

On Wednesday evening, the search for the killer veered surprisingly and dramatically to the other side of the country, Tacoma, Wash., where law enforcement agents' search of a duplex was shown live on national television. Additional searches were carried out in Alabama, New Jersey and various locations in the D.C. area. A Moose news conference scheduled for that evening was canceled because of sudden developments in the case.

Shortly before midnight on Oct. 23, Moose issued a bulletin for a 1990 blue Chevrolet Caprice and for two men wanted for questioning. CNN had reported the license tag number about two hours earlier.

Moose's last message to the sniper was the most cryptic. He repeated publicly the message the sniper had asked him to say: "You have asked us to say, 'We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.'

"We understand that hearing us say this is important to you."

Caught in their car

Profilers had speculated the end would be violent, with the sniper trying to shoot his way out. But they were wrong again.

The climax was low-key. A van driver and then a truck driver called police to say they had seen a car matching the Caprice's description at a rest stop along Interstate 70, three miles west of Myersville in Frederick County. Maryland State Police secured the rest stop while a SWAT team of state police, county police and FBI agents headed to the scene.

"Things were unfolding rapidly that day. Early on the 24th, the names popped up, the pictures popped up," Fitzgerald recalled.

As police zeroed in on the two men sleeping in the Caprice, Fitzgerald and 50 others crowded into a small room at task force headquarters in Rockville to listen to the capture via cell phone from a Maryland State Police lieutenant on the scene.

"Honestly, I was fairly confident that when they approached the car, they would find it empty and that the sniper would have abducted an elderly couple and made off in their Buick," Fitzgerald said. "Surprisingly, happily so, that didn't happen."

The tactical team found the two sniper suspects sleeping in the car. It was 3:19 a.m. Oct. 24.

Officers shattered the windshield and arrested Gulf War Army veteran John Allen Muhammad, 41, and his Jamaican companion Lee Boyd Malvo, 17. They seized a rifle and a tripod from the car.

"There was a feeling of elation second to none when the arrests occurred," Fitzgerald recalled. "There was a sense of overwhelming relief and victory.

"That was also dampened by the thought that so many tragedies occurred to get there."

Despite the predawn arrests of the suspects, there was no official word until late that evening. The day seemed interminable as reporters milled around at task force headquarters, waiting for the official word that the attacks were over.

Moose, exhausted but triumphant, emerged inside police headquarters just after 8 p.m. He began by asking for one minute of silence for a Virginia state trooper who had died responding to a call. Then, one by one, he introduced task force members, including the police chiefs from every locality the sniper had struck.

Finally, Moose recounted the morning's arrests. Michael R. Bouchard, special agent in charge of the Baltimore office of the U.S. Bureau of Firearms, Alcohol and Tobacco, announced that ballistic tests had linked the rifle to several of the killings.

A cheer went up.

The three-week ordeal was over.

A morbid tourist attraction

The notoriety of the arrests has put the tiny town of Myersville on the map.

"This is supposed to be a quiet little town," bemoaned Teresa Flook, a cashier at the Exxon minimart in Myersville. "We don't want to have stuff like this happen."

She recalled that once the pictures of Muhammad and Malvo were flashed on television, she recognized them as visitors to the station, though she is not 100 percent sure.

"Oh my God, if we had seen their pictures earlier, we would have called police," she said.

"The older one was very stone-faced, no emotion," Flook said, saying he bought gas, candy and soda.

Pressed by fellow cashier Tammy Kline, she also recounted the evening three days before the arrests when she stepped outside the mart and had the strange sensation that someone was watching her.

"It was a creep attack," she recalled, saying she quickly headed back in.

Three miles west, those walking into the information office at the rest stop off Interstate 70 ask for more than just maps, says Carol Alpin, travel counselor.

"Is this the rest stop?" they lean over the counter to whisper.

Hours after the arrest, as hordes of reporters descended on the scene, one man walked in and asked Alpin if she had a container that would hold shattered glass.

"It was just someone looking for a souvenir," Alpin recalled, rolling her eyes.

On the first day, she was amused when some took pictures of the wrong car, parked in the same spot where the Caprice had been. But as the same question kept coming her way, Alpin recalled, "It was beginning to get on my nerves."

Now, a year later, she gets at least one query a day, sometimes more.

"We sit here and listen," she said with a shrug.

A defining experience

Police have learned much from the tumult of those three weeks, King said.

"We learned good tactics -- how to quickly shut down streets," he said.

The experience came in handy when police shut down roadways Aug. 13 after Officer Kyle Olinger was shot in the neck in downtown Silver Spring during a traffic stop. Police caught those suspects within 90 minutes, King said.

The department has improved the way it interacts with other agencies, he said, a result of dealing with multiple agencies during the sniper siege.

Information on firearms gleaned from tips that poured in during the attacks has helped police seize and keep those guns off the streets, making the community safer, King said.

And seared in the psyche of police officers like Quill is the constant awareness that the next call, the next shooting, could be the beginning of something similar.

"There is still an undercurrent of the time that affected so many so profoundly," Quill said. "We see a lot of things through the lens of that experience.

"It's one of those defining experiences that you will always remember."