The Beltway Sniper attacks left the country on edge throughout the fourth quarter of 2002. The snipers, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, engaged in a three-week killing spree that left ten people dead and three others critically injured in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area and Virginia’s Interstate 95.
Incidents before the attacks
The pair were involved in multiple incidents before their killing spree in October 2002. On August 1st, 2002, Malvo shot John Gaeta in the neck in a parking lot in Hammond, Louisiana, and stole his wallet. Gaeta survived the shooting and ran to a service station before seeking medical treatment at a hospital.
On September 5th, 2002, an unknown assailant shot Paul LaRuffa six times while closing up his Clinton, Maryland restaurant. LaRuffa survived the shooting, and his laptop was found in Muhammad’s car the month after.
On September 21st, 2002, Claudine Parker was shot and killed in a robbery in Montgomery, Alabama. Her co-worker, Kellie Adams, was critically wounded but survived the incident. The evidence gathered at this crime scene was linked to the Beltway Snipers later in the year.
Muhammad and Malvo’s killing spree picked up speed in October 2002. On October 2nd, a bullet destroyed the window of a store in Aspen Hill, Maryland, and narrowly missed the cashier working there. The same day, a man was shot and killed as he attempted to cross a parking lot in Wheaton, Maryland.
These incidents were just the start of Muhammed’s and Malvo’s killing spree that would last 23 days. By October 3rd, they had shot and killed another five individuals in Washington’s metropolitan area. Investigators believed that fired bullets recovered from most of these shootings were from the same .223-calibre rifle.
On October 7th, a 13-year old boy was shot and injured in front of his school in Bowie, Maryland. However, Muhammad and Malvo chose to leave a tarot card with a note written on it at the scene. Soon after, multiple law enforcement agencies banded together to apprehend the shooters.
The October 3rd killings appeared to have to be random, with the only connecting factor being that each one was carried out using a single bullet, shot from a distance. Police had received conflicting reports around the shootings. Some stated that assailants carried out the shootings in a white van, a white box truck, and a dark-colored Chevrolet Caprice. Investigators initially believed the sniper was a white male based on the profiles of past serial killers.
Between October 9th and October 14th, three more individuals were killed in separate incidents in Virginia. Another shooting occurred on October 19th in Ashland, Virginia. However, the investigators found another message from the shooters at the crime scene. The letter included demands for money and instructions for the police to call a number at a specified time and location.
Investigators were unable to reach the phone number, as it was invalid. However, the U.S Secret Service matched the note’s handwriting to that on the tarot card recovered earlier. Police personnel gathered additional information via tips provided to local police stations and the FBI hotline.
The most valuable piece of information came from the attackers themselves. Both Muhammad and Malvo confessed to their crimes to a Roman Catholic priest in Ashland, Virginia. They then asked him to lead the police to investigate the robbery-homicide incident from September 2002 in Montgomery. The evidence at this site helped investigators discover that 17-year old Lee Boyd Malvo was involved with the incident. Malvo’s prints were initially taken by U.S Immigration and Naturalization services when he immigrated from Jamaica in December 2001.
Soon after, investigators discovered Malvo was on the move along with John Muhammad. Muhammad was a war veteran who was also a trained marksman. The two were spotted firing practice shots at a Tacoma residence. The investigators were surprised by this discovery and immediately issued a warrant for Muhammad.
A hole cut at the rear of the blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice driven by Muhammad and Malvo was used as a firing port during their attacks. This allowed them to remain hidden and easily escape the scene following their attacks.
The police quickly identified the license plate number on Muhammad’s Chevrolet Caprice and released a vehicle description to the public on October 23rd, 2002. A motorist reported seeing the vehicle at a rest stop the same day, and police quickly arrived at the scene and found Muhammad and Malvo asleep inside the car. Police took them into custody while investigators searched the vehicle.
The search uncovered a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle, an advanced weapon capable of firing 45 rounds per minute. Investigators also discovered a hole cut into the vehicle’s trunk. This hole was presumed to be a concealed firing port; the shooters could fire at their victims without being seen.
By User: Tom - Made using an existing map of the area from http://www.nationalatlas.gov. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4289080
Both Malvo and Muhammad appeared to have complex motives for their crimes. Prosecutors initially believed Muhammad planned to kill his ex-wife, Mildred, after distancing their children from him. The other shootings were a way to conceal the initial motive for his crime. Muhammad believed these shootings would serve as a distraction that would keep the police fixated on finding a random serial killer instead of a bitter ex-husband who intended to kill his ex-wife.
Many of the incidents occurred close to the neighborhood where Mildred lived. In addition to this, Muhammad had made direct threats to his ex-wife. When asked, Mildred stated she was confident he intended to target her at some point. However, prosecutors could not present this theory during the trial. Prosecutors could not establish the link.
Malvos’ motives were more difficult to deduce. While imprisoned, Malvo wrote several pieces about “jihad” or “holy war” and created drawings of figures such as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and characters from the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix. Investigators could not confirm whether or not Malvo had ties to any terrorist groups of ideologies. However, he was found guilty of killing under the order or direction of terrorism during one of the trials.
A 2006 trial further revealed the motives. Malvo testified they aimed to kidnap children, extort $10 million from the local and state governments, and eventually set up camps to train children to terrorize cities.
John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo’s trials took place in Virginia in the fall of 2003. Both men were found guilty of murder and weapons charges. The jury recommended the death sentence for Muhammad and life in prison without parole for Malvo.
Will Jarvis, the Assistant Prince William County prosecutor, was interested in pursuing the death sentence for Malvo. However, he was reluctant to do so as the U.S Supreme Court had yet to rule on whether juveniles could be subject to execution as a penalty. In October 2004, Malvo pleaded guilty to murder in a different case in Spotsylvania Country. His confession allowed him to avoid a possible death penalty sentence. However, it also added to his life imprisonment sentence without parole.
Court judge Mary Grace O’Brien ordered and scheduled Muhammad’s execution date via lethal injection for November 10th, 2009. Muhammad’s attorneys petitioned to stay his execution, but the judge denied their request.
John Allen Muhammad was executed on November 10th, 2009, at the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia. He was pronounced dead within five minutes of receiving the lethal injection.
The Beltway shootings’ impact
The Beltway shootings were considered atypical in many respects. Serial killers typically choose victims that fit a particular profile or share specific characteristics. However, both shooters chose their victims regardless of their sex, age, or background. These shootings’ random nature kept Washington, D.C, area residents on edge for a long time.
The media covered the killings and the trials extensively in 2002, and news of the shootings spread across the country quickly.
Two shooting survivors and the families of some of the slain victims filed suits against Bushmaster Firearms, which produced the firearm used in the shooting. They also filed a lawsuit against the Tacoma gun store that Muhammad and Malvo had stolen the gun. Both Bushmaster and the gun store eventually reached a $2.5 million settlement with the victims and their families.
The Beltway Shootings serve as a frightening reminder that anyone can be a victim of serial killings and that such heinous acts can be perpetrated by just about anyone. Muhammad and Malvo’s crimes impacted the lives and families of over a dozen individuals. One can only hope they were remorseful for the pain and suffering they caused.