Like others in his homicide squad two decades ago, McNerney, who has since retired, was unusually puzzled on that warm autumn Wednesday: There were no signs of a robbery attempt. No one reported seeing Martin in an altercation. Security video showed no assailant. And police technicians found no spent cartridge or evidence of a gunman at the scene. The bullet that had severed Martin’s spine left a tiny entrance wound in his back and a large exit hole in his torso. To the detectives, all this suggested a long-range, high-powered rifle shot.
“There was really nothing much we could go on,” McNerney recalled recently. “There was no evidence out there. No eyewitnesses. No idea who we’re looking for. That night after we left, I remember thinking, you know, we’re really going to have to do a deep dive on his family. What’s going on with them? Is this a murder for hire? I mean, who knows? Everything was totally up in the air at that point.”
So it had begun — the reign of the D.C. snipers.
Martin’s killer, a Jamaican immigrant named Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, had been a good distance from the supermarket, lying in the trunk of a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice, a used junk heap modified into a roving assassin’s perch, with a removable rear seat and a rifle port in the trunk lid. Also in the dilapidated Chevy was Malvo’s mentor in murder, John Allen Muhammad, a 41-year-old Gulf War veteran consumed by rage over the loss of his children in a custody fight with his ex-wife, whom he despised.
In the course of three weeks, their indiscriminate sneak attacks would leave 10 dead and three injured in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, crippling the terrified region and sparking a massive manhunt that was continually stymied and, in some ways, critically flawed.
Rest stop where suspects
Rest stop where suspects
Rest stop where suspects
Now, on the 20th anniversary of one of the biggest, most sustained public-safety crises in memory in metropolitan Washington — a generation after the wandering, unseen menace of Muhammad and Malvo disrupted life in the city and its suburbs for 22 days and nights — recollections of the ordeal have faded for many longtime residents. Countless newer arrivals, meanwhile, know little of it, having moved to the area after the communal nightmare blurred into history. But the wounded and the loved ones of the slain won’t forget, nor will those who helped track the elusive perpetrators, searching round-the-clock, up one blind alley and down another, as a fresh attack seemed inevitable and increasingly imminent with each passing hour.
“The tension was so thick,” said James Cavanaugh, then an agent at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a key figure in the investigation. “If they suddenly took the pressure off, everyone working the case would have got the bends.”
‘If this is a sniper case, we’ve got problems.’
Schoolyards and playing fields went silent in those fall weeks, just a year after 9/11, with outdoor youth activities canceled. No football, no recess in the crisp air. From Richmond to Baltimore, pedestrians scurried about, heads on swivels, some hustling from doorway to doorway against a ghostlike threat. You knew the crosshairs were out there someplace — scanning, scanning — maybe just over your shoulders. Gas stations shrouded their pump bays in giant tarps, shielding customers, while jittery motorists stuck in the open squatted like catchers to fill their tanks.
McNerney, the lead detective on the Shoppers Food Warehouse homicide, couldn’t have known on Oct. 2 that Martin, a husband and father who had planned to buy groceries for his church group, was victim No. 1 in the impending carnage. The rifle, as the world eventually learned, was a stolen Bushmaster XM15, a civilian version of the U.S. military’s M16. Equipped with a sighting scope, the .223-caliber weapon would prove lethal again and again, from long distances, even in the hands of a novice juvenile shooter.
The next morning, Thursday, Oct. 3, McNerney got a call at home from one of his sisters, a TV news assignment editor.
“She said there’d been a shooting at a Mobil station” in Montgomery’s Aspen Hill area, he recalled. Sleepily, “I said, ‘Anything strange about it?’ She said, ‘Yeah, people are saying it sounded like a cannon going off.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man, a loud boom’ — that was the telltale sign from the case I was working the night before. So not knowing anything else at the time, I just jumped in the shower and headed over to the scene. And from that moment on, I stuck with it to the very end. I mean, it was almost nonstop from there.”
The dead man at the Mobil station, Premkumar A. Walekar, was a 54-year-old taxicab driver who had been pumping gas. The slug that pierced his left lung and heart at 8:12 a.m. appeared to have been fired from afar. As it turned out, Walekar was victim No. 3. A half-hour earlier, in the county’s White Flint area, James L. “Sonny” Buchanan, 39, had collapsed while cutting grass at an auto dealership. Initially, Buchanan’s death seemed accidental. Witnesses heard a boom, as if his mower had exploded or had kicked up a heavy object that struck him. It took a while that morning for hospital personnel to determine that a bullet had torn into his back and come out through his chest.
When word reached the Walekar homicide scene that a landscaper had been gunned down in similar fashion six miles from the Mobil station, McNerney could tell from looking at his fellow detectives that they were feeling shivers of dread, as he was. “My God,” he remembered thinking, “if this is a sniper case, we’ve got problems.” Then, as police walkie-talkies squawked with urgent calls for help from elsewhere in the county, it was clear that their fears had been realized.
Victim No. 4: Sarah Ramos, a 34-year-old housekeeper, was shot in the head at 8:37 a.m. while sitting on a public bench near the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, waiting for her employer to give her a ride.
Victim No. 5: Lori Lewis Rivera, 25, a nanny, was shot in the back at a Kensington gas station at 9:58 a.m. while vacuuming a minivan that belonged to the woman she worked for.
“I heard a huge, loud noise, like a bomb,” a witness in Kensington said that morning. “It wasn’t a bomb” but “it was that kind of noise.”
Another witness, in Silver Spring, gave detectives a description of a medium-size white truck, like a delivery vehicle, with a “box-type” rear that he said had driven away hurriedly from the scene of Ramos’s killing. Here was the origin of the mythical “white box truck,” thousands of which could be found cruising on the area’s roads. For days, police seemed intent on stopping every white box truck they saw, often ordering occupants to get out with hands in plain sight. It proved to be a time-consuming distraction in those tense weeks, when every minute mattered for investigators. No such vehicle had been used in the crimes.
The killing zone expands, and a child is shot
With 900,000 residents back then, Montgomery County, bordering Northwest Washington, was home to some of the D.C. area’s wealthiest families, as it is today. In the decade before the sniper scourge, the county usually recorded 10 to 20 murders annually, or one or two per month on average (in 1994, during the crack epidemic, the body count spiked into the 30s). On Oct. 2 and 3, though, five people had been fatally shot in 16 hours — four in just 2½ hours on one morning — all in a densely populated stretch of central Montgomery. Police Chief Charles A. Moose quickly mobilized his entire force, set up an operations center and sought assistance from federal officials.
“Our homicide rate just increased 25 percent in one day,” Moose, now deceased, told reporters. As journalists from all over the region swarmed into the county, McNerney recalled, “Everyone with a federal badge in D.C. was coming up Connecticut Avenue.” The FBI, ATF, the Marshals Service and the Secret Service joined in. Eventually even the Pentagon helped, with surveillance aircraft.
Before the manhunt gained much traction, however, the sniper rifle boomed yet again, at 9:20 that evening.
Victim No. 6: Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old carpenter, was shot in the chest while standing on a street corner in the District’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, a block from the Montgomery line.
Who would be next? Where would the killer or killers strike? As a battalion of task force investigators, working out of Moose’s operations center, chased down hundreds of early leads and phone tips, the public fretted: Was anyone safe in the county? The terror, the anger, which seemed mainly confined to the Montgomery area on that first full day of mayhem, spread regionwide on Oct. 4 after another random shooting. The gunfire this time was in Virginia, 75 miles south of the initial killing zone, about halfway to Richmond. Just like that, the geography of the attacks had widened considerably, jolting authorities.
Victim No. 7: Caroline Seawell, 43, a mother of two, who survived her wound, was shot in the lower back while loading bags in her minivan at a Fredericksburg, Va., shopping plaza.
“You’re looking for a needle in a haystack,” McNerney recalled. “Now, you thought you were looking for a needle before? Suddenly you’re looking in a much bigger haystack — a gigantic one.”
Three days later, on Oct. 7, came perhaps the most stunning attack of those bloody three weeks — a shooting that sent an especially frightful signal to parents of schoolchildren, while vastly intensifying the horror pervading greater Washington. In Prince George’s County, Md., bordering Montgomery, the rifle boomed from a grove of trees near a middle school at 8:09 a.m. on a Monday, as students climbed off buses and out of cars to start a new week of classes. With the sniper(s) at large, the public learned that morning, kids were no safer than adults.
Victim No. 8: Iran Brown, the youngest target at 13, and also a survivor, was shot in the abdomen while walking from a school drop-off lane, clad in a football jersey and toting a backpack.
Near the wooded spot from which the bullet apparently had been fired, investigators found an occult tarot card — the death card, bearing the image of a skeleton riding a white horse and carrying a black flag. The perpetrator(s) had left a printed message on it: “For you mr. Police/Code: ‘Call me God’/‘Do Not release to the Press.’ ” The code was meant to be used in future communications.
As forensics experts studied the card for clues, the killings went on, mostly in Virginia.
As investigation sprawls, opportunities are missed
The life-or-death drama unfolding around the nation’s capital seized global attention. Every day, a phalanx of investigators wearing grim expressions, fronted by the dour, combative Chief Moose, faced scores of news cameras and a cacophony of questions — and the officials usually said little, because they had nothing much to share. The more persistent the querying, the more obvious was Moose’s disdain for the press.
“I have not received any messages that the citizens of Montgomery County want Channel 9 or The Washington Post or any other media outlet to solve the case,” he said at one briefing, bristling with annoyance. “If they do, then let me know … and we will turn the case over to the media and you can solve it.”
Victim No. 9: Dean H. Meyers, a 53-year-old civil engineer, was shot behind the left ear Oct. 9 while gassing up his Mazda at a Sunoco in Prince William County, Va., 40 miles southwest of Montgomery. No. 10: Kenneth H. Bridges, 53, an entrepreneur, was shot in the back Oct. 11 while fueling his Buick at an Exxon in Spotsylvania County, Va., close to where Seawell had been wounded in Fredericksburg. No. 11: Linda Franklin, a 47-year-old FBI analyst, was shot in the head Oct. 14 while putting packages in her Mercury at a Home Depot in Fairfax County, Va., just outside the nation’s capital.
“Looking back, it’s surreal the way it impacted the lives of millions of people in our region,” said J. Thomas Manger, who worked 18-hour days as Fairfax police chief during the sniper crisis. He recalled his wife phoning him at headquarters one evening to say she wanted to go out to get gas for her car. But he wouldn’t hear of it.
“I told her no,” said Manger, who has been chief of the U.S. Capitol Police since July 2021. “I told her, ‘I’ll run home and get gas for you.’ It was maybe 7 o’clock on a weeknight. I got the gas in Tysons Corner. And it was a ghost town. I mean, Tysons at 7 at night would be nothing but wall-to-wall traffic and people. But it was empty. I’m looking around, and I remember it was just creepy.”
By this point, almost every jurisdiction with a sniper shooting had set up its own “joint operations center,” each serving as a satellite of the mother ship JOC at ground zero — Montgomery County — where a triumvirate (Moose and the top agents in the Baltimore FBI and ATF offices) was overseeing the investigation regionwide. In Montgomery, the FBI deployed its Rapid Start Information Management System, with the goal of quickly prioritizing tens of thousands of tips and leads and transmitting them to the appropriate jurisdictions for follow-up. But many investigators considered Rapid Start to be problematic and complained that its failings led to missed opportunities throughout the arduous case. “We used to call it ‘Rapid Stop,’ ” said Cavanaugh, who has since retired from law enforcement.
A 2004 report on the sniper dragnet by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank, echoed those criticisms.
Rapid Start, which is no longer in use, “was unable to meet the demands of the sniper case,” the study found. “The complexity and scope of the investigation generated so many tips and leads that data entry operators were overwhelmed.” And when it came to prioritizing information, the system had “no basic analytic capabilities,” according to the report, which also described the investigation’s chaotic system for handling phone tips.
“Several call centers, including 911 centers and dedicated tip centers, were unable to keep pace with the workload and may have inadvertently disregarded calls from the suspects because call-takers were overwhelmed, inadequately equipped or trained,” the authors wrote. They said authorities neglected the need for “additional operators and dispatchers, as well as additional supervisors.”
Overall, though, the 200-page postmortem lauded the “professionalism [that] personnel demonstrated” in “a huge investigation spanning more than 2,500 square miles” that ultimately led to arrests in “one of the most traumatizing crimes in the history of the country.”
Indeed, Muhammad and Malvo had repeatedly called sniper tip lines and other numbers over the weeks, hoping to work out a $10 million payment for halting their attacks. But it was a struggle for them to reach anyone in authority. So they just kept locking and loading the Bushmaster.
Victim No. 12: Jeffrey Hopper, 37, passing through the area on a trip from Florida, was shot in the abdomen Oct. 19 while leaving a Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Va., 20 miles north of Richmond. He survived.
So frustrated were the snipers at not being able to contact upper-echelon officials about their $10 million demand that Malvo called a Catholic monsignor and began babbling anonymously about the difficulty they were having. In doing so, he indirectly gave investigators the break they’d been desperately hoping for. Malvo mentioned a robbery-homicide he’d committed in an Alabama liquor store in September, shortly before the D.C.-area killings began. After the monsignor relayed this story to the sniper task force, authorities phoned police in Alabama and learned that fingerprints from the store hadn’t yet been sent to the FBI for identification. The FBI processed them immediately, and they matched those of a Jamaican teenager, Malvo, who’d once been detained by U.S. immigration agents.
Malvo’s closest associate, Muhammad, lived in Washington state. Investigators learned that Muhammad thought of Malvo as a son and protege. An old Army buddy of Muhammad’s told them that, for several reasons, he suspected Muhammad had orchestrated the sniper rampage, with the aim of eventually murdering his hated ex-wife, Mildred Muhammad, who lived in Maryland with their three children. This and other evidence convinced authorities that Muhammad and Malvo were the long-sought killers.
A records check showed Muhammad owned a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey license plates. The car had to be located — and quickly. But where was it?
Victim No. 13: Conrad E. Johnson, a 35-year-old bus driver, was shot in the abdomen Oct. 22 while standing in the doorway of an empty bus in Montgomery’s Aspen Hill, silhouetted in the dim early morning by the vehicle’s interior lights.
Johnson was the last to die — the final target. His widow, Denise Johnson, said recently that she had to reinvent life without her husband. Their two boys are now adults. She has not remarried.
“It’s a struggle, to be honest,” she said. “It still hits us to this day. It doesn’t lessen.”
But normalcy would return to the region.
About 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 24, two days after Johnson’s killing, heavily armed police and federal agents arrested Muhammad and Malvo at a highway rest stop north of Montgomery, where the snipers had been snoozing in the Caprice. They gave up without a struggle. The Bushmaster, with its attached bipod for added firing accuracy, was in the car, too. Ballistics tests would definitively link the rifle to all but a few of the 13 shootings, and authorities believe it was used in every case.
Besides the sniper killings, the two were implicated in nine other shootings, five of them fatal, in Washington state, Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Maryland. Most of those attacks occurred in September 2002 as the pair, headed for the D.C. area, zigzagged across the country toward infamy. Malvo, who was sentenced to nine life terms, is now 37 and incarcerated in Virginia, where his first application for parole was recently rejected.
“I was a monster,” he said in a 2012 prison interview with The Post. Describing himself as having been in thrall of the much older Muhammad, Malvo said: “I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. I did someone else’s bidding just because they said so. … There is no rhyme or reason or sense.”
Muhammad got six life terms in Maryland and a death sentence in Virginia for the killing of Dean Meyers. The ultimate penalty was meted out to him in a rural penitentiary on the evening of Nov. 10, 2009, in a stark, concrete blockhouse called L Unit, as Meyers’s brother, Bob Meyers, looked on.
The prisoner offered no last words. “They injected him, and pretty soon he was still,” Meyers recalled.