Learning To Drive In the Era of the D.C. Sniper
This was in October 2002 in Ellicott City, MD, and like a lot of places, you can’t really get around or out of Ellicott City without a car.
I had just received my learner’s permit when the sniper attacks began. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. Remember them?
Muhammad was orphaned at three years old and raised by his godfather. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1987. He was not well known within the movement.
In 1999 he kidnapped his children and took them to Antigua, where he became close to Malvo, the son of a friend.
His second ex-wife Mildred was granted a restraining order against him in Tacoma two years later, which he was arrested for violating prior to the attacks.
The defense attorney in Malvo’s trial and the prosecutor in Muhammad’s pretrial argued that Muhammad’s ultimate goal in committing the sniper attacks, which he kept hidden from Malvo, was to kill Mildred in order to regain custody of his three children. The idea being that police would not suspect him if she appeared to be the victim of a random spree sniper.
Muhammad had made threats against Mildred and frequented her house during the time of the shootings, causing Mildred to flee into hiding and possibly preventing her death. Mildred herself testified that she believed she was the intended target, but the pretrial judge prevented the theory from being used in trial due to lack of evidence.
During Muhammad’s 2006 trial in Montgomery County, Malvo’s testimony sort of better elucidated their motives. Malvo expressed remorse and apologized to the families of the victims. He also said that Muhammad sexually molested him around the time he began indoctrinating the teenager to his bizarre vision.
Malvo explained that their original plan was supposed to have been conducted in three phases. First, they would kill six white people a day for thirty days. But then traffic conditions put a wrench in their strategy. It was never clear how or why several of their victims, including their first, were people of color.
The second part of the plan involved killing cops and a pregnant woman. The third phase was to extort money from the United States government, which was attempted halfheartedly in one of Muhammad’s letters to the police. The purpose was to finance the recruitment of young boys who would be trained at a facility in Canada to carry out acts of mass terrorism across the United States.
The first killing, or what people assumed was the first killing until after they were caught, occurred about 20 miles from Ellicott City, in Wheaton, Maryland. Shootings in Wheaton aren’t that uncommon, so the snipers didn’t become national news until the next day when there were more killings. I was in Mr. Kennedy’s geometry class when they made the announcement.
“Students and staff,” said Principal Hoffman, “there’s currently a situation unfolding. Five people were shot and killed between 7 and 10 a.m. in five different locations in our area. Four of those attacks were in Maryland – in Rockville, Silver Spring, Aspen Hill and Kensington – another was in Washington D.C. The police believe the shootings are all related. I want to ask all students to remain in their classrooms until further notice. The school is now on lockdown. Everyone in the portables please calmly return to the main building in single file lines.”
Because Centennial High School was built for 1,000 students and now had close to 2,000, a lot of the classes were held in these dinky portable trailers out by the baseball diamonds. Mr. Kennedy’s geometry class was one of these. Kennedy stood up and said, “Well fuck. You heard the lady. Let’s everybody drag ass single file.”
I remember thinking how the reaction was much more businesslike than how it had been on 9/11. My first terrorism rodeo, they had the teachers break the news to their classes one on one. My health teacher sobbed as she said, “Students…the world trade center…has been attacked…it’s all gone.”
She answered everyone’s questions in this very kumbaya way. Then my friend Rob asked her if the terrorists were Australian and she pegged him in the head with a dry erase marker.
I was less caught off guard by the sniper attacks than I was by 9/11, though my emotional reaction was not so dissimilar. I recall feeling genuine sadness for the victims in both instances, but within the sadness a vague and correct sense that somehow my autonomy was going to be restricted. It was more than just my sense of autonomy though and I knew it even if I couldn’t explain it. Nobody could explain it and it was driving me insane. The best thing I’d found for it was weed.
As it was on 9/11, a lot of parents picked their kids up early. But just like on 9/11, my parents were both working in D.C. and all the roads out were jammed with federal roadblocks. I ended up scoring a lift home with my pot dealer, whose real name was Bobby Blaze. Bobby said he planned to sell t-shirts that said I went to Maryland and all I got was shot by the sniper.
My sister was in West Virginia for two weeks with this program for gifted science students, and I knew my parents wouldn’t get home until late that night. After Bobby dropped me off, I smoked a joint and watched the news.
At 6:00, they held a press conference. They brought out this portly cop in a wide-brimmed sheriff’s hat. The reporter asked him about a white van that was spotted driving away from the Silver Spring shooting.
In a forceful monotone I still find unsettling, the cop said, “We don’t want to speculate, but certainly it’s not beyond any reality that the person or persons involved in this would have numerous vehicles that they could be using.”
The cop was Charles Moose, Montgomery County Chief of Police. A man entirely out of his league in charge of the investigation. Nevertheless, Chief Moose heeded the call to his 15 minutes with the zeal of a Warhol star.
He went on: “At this point we have very little hard evidence to deal with…[The victims] still all appear to be random victims. They don’t appear to be anyone’s enemy, don’t appear to be involved in anything coordinated…People are on edge. We’re all human. We’re all afraid.”
I passed out in the living room before my parents arrived. When I woke up the next morning they were both on the couch watching the news.
“Any more shootings?” I asked.
“Not yet, but this Moose asshole is saying the ones yesterday and the day before are definitely connected,” said my mom. “Looks like it’s terrorists. They’re connected.”
“Why terrorists?” I asked.
“Because they’re committing terrorism,” said my dad.
“Oh…but why isn’t it like, a serial killer?”
My dad rolled his eyes and threw up his arms because that’s how he expresses disappointment. My mom scowled and slapped him on the wrist.
“No, no, it’s a good question,” she said, then paused to gather the following answer.
“Well, it isn’t a serial killer because they…or he or she…they’re trying to keep it a secret. They want to make a spectacle to make us scared. You know, in the 70s I had to cancel a trip to New York because of the Son of Sam. See, the Son of Sam was a serial killer, not a terrorist, because he didn’t try to make his killings a big spectacle. It’s just a different world now.”
“Oh…so do I have to go to school today?”
My dad said I had to go to school so the terrorists didn’t win, but that I wasn’t allowed to go outside after school since that would just be stupid.
My mom insisted on driving me. She kept looking around swerving nervously. When a white box truck turned the corner behind us she almost drove us off the road. I grabbed the wheel.
“Jesus Christ, mom!”
She slammed the brakes and pulled to the side of the road in front the school parking lot. She slapped me on the cheek and said not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Then she cried.
As I walked away I remember her shouting, “Duck and run, honey!”
I can still smell the petrichor of acid rain on asphalt. On one side of the parking lot was Burleigh Manor Middle School, named after the slave plantation that once occupied its grounds. On the other was Centennial, named erroneously in honor of the year it opened. I suppose Bicentennial High School doesn’t have the same ring to it.
I was in the middle of the parking lot, between my past and present, when I was caught doing this walk. A crabwalk you might call it. I was crouched low and kind of scuttling sideways past the rows of parked cars. Apparently this is how my subconscious assumed one could avoid being shot by terrorists.
I heard a man shout, “You there! Hey boy, why you walking that way?”
Officer Broccolino, the school cop. I tried to play it off like I’d just tripped on something.
“Walking what way?”
“Walking like a gosh darn crab.”
Then he got up in my face and said in a low sort of paternal voice, “Don’t worry son, I’ve got eyes on this entire facility. You’re safe here.”
He waved his arms in a circle around the campus. I thought he was suggesting that his presence held some kind of magical anti-terrorist power, but then I noticed half a dozen squad cars parked across the street.
Before class I was hanging out in my usual morning spot by the cafeteria where all of the punks sat. Bobby Blaze was there, and born entrepreneur that he was, he had a box filled with the freshly screen printed t-shirts he’d described the day before. The assistant principal saw him opening the box and pounced on the it right away, presumably thinking it was filled with weed. When he saw what the box was actually filled with, poor Bobby was suspended before his first sale.
Right after the hubbub from the t-shirt bust died down, Travis was talking smack to Adil because Adil said that the sniper was obviously a white guy. He said it was obvious due to the serialized nature of the shootings. Something only white people did.
Travis said something along the lines of, “Hey man, we all saw you yesterday and well, I can’t say you weren’t involved but at least you weren’t the one pulling the trigger.”
Adil laughed maniacally. He pointed to Travis’s shoes.
Travis was wearing these ridiculous shiny penny loafers he’d never worn before, and which, amazingly, nobody had noticed until Adil pointed them out.
“Travis, why the fuck you wearing purses on your feet?”
This resulted in a fist fight, and before 2:30 p.m., when the next shooting happened, both Adil and Travis joined Bobby Blaze in suspension.
There were two days of quiet, and then, on October 7, the snipers shot but failed to kill 13-year-old Iran Brown outside of his school in Prince George’s County. Chief Moose said that the school district’s was going from code blue to code red as part of the emergency alert system created after Columbine.
The police found a shell casing at the Iran Brown scene. They also found a Tarot card. On the front of the card was inscribed, ‘Call me God.’ The back read: ‘For you Mr. Police’ and ‘Call me God. Do not release to the press.’
Chief Moose honored this request and did not reveal the Tarot card until later. He did give a press conference in which he addressed the sniper directly. “God,” his speech began.
More shootings occurred on the 9th, 11th and 14th in Virginia, and because the first two victims were pumping gas at the time of their deaths, gas stations across the regions installed tarps around the gas pumps so people would be harder targets.
By the 15th, the paranoia in Maryland had tapered slightly. The state of collective panic, of people experiencing all possibilities at the same time, that temporarily narrowed down to a manageable range of mere probabilities. Recess and outdoor sports remained suspended at Centennial High however.
Down in Virginia, thousands of callers were reporting suspicious white vans to the police, even though on October 8, Baltimore Police had alerted the public to be on the lookout for a blue Caprice after a witness reported seeing a suspicious person sleeping in one.
On October 21, 37 year old Jeffrey Hopper was shot outside a Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, Virginia. A note was found in the woods nearby, demanding $10 million to stop the shootings and promising death to children if the ransom wasn’t delivered. The note was not immediately released to the press.
On October 21, Richmond police arrested two men, one with a white van, outside of a gas station. The men were not the shooters but they were undocumented immigrants and were subsequently deported.
The following day, a bus driver was killed in Aspen Hill. The snipers had returned to Maryland. Another letter was found, which Chief Moose read a part of. I was watching the news with my parents when he said, “Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time.”
The following day there were no shootings but there was a major turn in the case. News crews flocked to Tacoma, Washington, where police and federal investigators were canvassing a yard in which .23 caliber bullet casings had been discovered, along with a tree trunk believed to have been used for target practice.
The next morning, Chief Moose relayed another cryptic message the sniper wanted released: “You have indicated that you want us to do and say certain things. 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.”
Four hours after Moose relayed the quote, a woman at a rest stop in Myersville, Maryland reported two men sleeping in a blue Caprice. Exits to the rest stop were blocked off and Muhammed and Malvo were captured by SWAT officers.
Only in the days after did the police realize this had all started earlier, between the previous February and September, when Malvo and Muhammad shot 12 people and killed six on a cross country tour from Washington State to the Washington D.C. suburbs.
Currently, Malvo is serving life without parole. Muhammad was executed in 2006.
Academics still debate whether they were spree killers, serial killers or jihadists. Historians are in agreement that the duck in a noose was a reference to a Cherokee folktale. In the story, an arrogant rabbit catches a duck with a lasso. Being an untested hunting technique, lassoing, the rabbit is surprised when the prey takes flight, and he is pulled to the sky. He decides to give up over the forest canopy, and plummets into the hollowed out shaft of a dead Sycamore. He survives the fall, but he’s trapped inside the tree for a long time. Eventually he’s forced to eat his own fur to survive.
John Farley is a writer from Ellicott City, Maryland. He currently lives in Mexico City, where co-edits the literary zine Call of the Void. His fiction and journalism have appeared in Full-Stop, Hologramma, Outpost Journal, PBS.org, Tell Us a Story and elsewhere.