Twenty years since the Beltway sniper shootings paralyzed the D.C. region, law enforcement officers who were on the job at the time still vividly remember those weeks of terror and the pressure they felt not only to catch the killers, but also to calm a concerned public.
John Allen Muhammad, 41, an ex-army man, trained 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo to become a sniper assassin. Two men shot and killed 10 people and wounded three others over a three-week period in October 2002.
“It’s a deep level of damage that they’ve done. They’ve torn apart families that will never be able to repair the hurt and pain that they’ve gone through,” said US Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger. At the time of the sniper attacks, Manger was the police chief of the Fairfax County Police Department.
The sniper’s killing machine was a 1990 Chevy Caprice. They cut a slot in the back of the trunk, put a glove in the slot and Malvo would lie on his stomach in the trunk and put the barrel of the gun in the glove before firing.
After eventually capturing Muhammad and Malvo, federal agents took their gun and Chevy Caprice to the sets to see how the killers carried out the attacks.
The car, the gun, the agents’ reconstruction photos and some disturbing drawings from Malvo’s notebook are now at the National Law Enforcement Museum in DC
“It’s important to have a place. It’s important to remember how we came together to get through that event,” said Tom Canavan of the National Law Enforcement Museum.
Many people involved in the hunt for the snipers have vivid memories of what happened 20 years ago.
“People were very scared. Parents were calling – ‘Is it safe for my child to go to school?’ People were afraid to fill up their tank or go to the store,” said Paul Starks, who was on the Montgomery County SWAT team at the time.
Four people were killed in Montgomery County, Maryland, in one day. A man mowing the lawn in Rockville, a taxi driver getting gas in Aspen Hill, a housewife sitting on a mall bench and a woman vacuuming her car at a gas station in Kensington were all killed in less than three hours.
At the time, no one knew where the shots were coming from or what was happening. Homicide detectives wore vests as they worked the scene for clues and information.
In at least one of the scenes, a witness said he saw a white box truck speeding away.
“The biggest damage she did was the fact that she gave everybody tunnel vision to just look for a white box truck, a white van, and it just wasn’t as solid a lead as everybody thought it might be,” Manger said.
Snipers shot and wounded a 13-year-old student at Benjamin Tasker High School in Bowie, Maryland. They left behind a tarot card with the message: “For you, Mr. Police. Call me God. Do not give to the press.”
Hundreds of kids skipped class Tuesday in D.C., heard from the youngest victim of the Beltway sniper shootings and headed to Maryland’s Field of Screams.
The snipers appeared to bait the officers at times, sending threats such as a note that read: “Your children are not safe anytime, anywhere.”
“You asked us to say, ‘we got the sniper like a duck in a noose,'” Montgomery County Sheriff Charles Moose once said at a news conference.
As time went on, investigators collected fingerprints, ballistics evidence and tips from near and far to identify Lee Boyd Malvo as the suspect, which led police to Muhammad and the pursuit of the blue Chevy Caprice.
A trucker called 911 when he saw the car at a rest stop in Myersville, Maryland.
Jeff Nyce was the SWAT team leader involved in the takedown when police converged on the Chevy Caprice.
“A citizen asked me, they said: ‘Why didn’t you shoot the bastards?’ I’ve been asked that several times since I was a designated shooter. I said, ‘Unlike Malvo and Muhammad, we are all men of conscience. That’s the difference between them and us,” Nyce said.
Muhammad was executed in 2009. Malvo was sentenced to life in prison and has since tried to appeal that sentence. Virginia denied Malvo parole in September, ruling that he remains a risk to the community.
“The things he did, the pain he caused people, the impact those things had on so many people’s lives — I think we’re all safer with him behind bars,” Manger said.