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Here's how the cops caught the Beltway snipers 20 years ago

Experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives say they'll never forget the shootings that seemed unstoppable.

WASHINGTON — October marks the 20th anniversary of a spasm of violence that left people across our region fearing any moment could be their last. Two men – John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo – were crisscrossing the area in a rolling snipers’ nest, murdering people at random.

By the time police finally arrested Muhammad and Malvo asleep in their Chevy Caprice at a Frederick County rest stop, as many as 1,000 law enforcement officers were on the case. 

Among them, Mike Bouchard, April Carroll and Walter Dandridge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Every time there was another shooting, it was another sick, unexplainable feeling, like, ‘Oh my god, we have to catch this guy,’” said Carroll.

They were dealing with a new kind of terror.  "We’re dealing with someone shooting from a distance. Someone using a high velocity round," then Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose told reporters after five people were killed in five separate shootings in a single day, October 3, 2002.

  • James L. Buchanan, 39, a landscaper, was shot dead at Fitzgerald Auto Mall at 11411 Rockville Pike. He was mowing the grass.
  • Premkumar Walekar, 54, a taxi driver, was killed in Aspen Hill while filling up with gas at a Mobil station at Aspen Hill Road and Connecticut Avenue.
  • Sarah Ramos, 34, a babysitter and housekeeper, was killed while sitting on a bench reading a book at the Leisure World Shopping Center.
  • Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was shot while vacuuming her minivan at the Shell station at the intersection of Connecticut and Knowles Avenues.
  • Pascal Charlot, 72, a retired carpenter, was walking on Georgia Avenue at Kalmia Road, in DC that night.

The seemingly unstoppable killers targeted schoolchildren, shoppers, people filling their cars with gas.

Over the course of three weeks, the snipers killed 10 and critically wounded three more.

  • On October 7, Iran Brown, 12, was shot in the chest and critically wounded at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie. 
  • On October 9, Dean Meyers, 53, was shot dead while pumping gasoline at a Sunoco station in Manassas.
  • On October 11, Kenneth Bridges, 53, was killed at an Exxon station off Interstate 95 near Fredericksburg.
  • On October 14, Linda Franklin, 47, an FBI intelligence analyst, was murdered at the Home Depot in Seven Corners, Fairfax County.
  • On October 22, Conrad Johnson, 35, a Ride On bus driver was shot to death in Aspen Hill.
Credit: MPD
Over the course of three weeks, the snipers killed 10 and critically wounded three more.

Bouchard said he'll never forget it. 

"Picture elderly people running from their cars zig-zagging from their cars. People trying to gas their cars up ducking down. People coming in and out of stores trying to keep an object between them and who knows what," he said.

Bouchard remembers struggling to figure out what he could share with the public to help catch the killers. 

"There’s no plan. There’s no playbook. No one has ever experienced something like this."

Firearms examiner Walter Dandridge said there was intense pressure to process the bullets and shell casings investigators had recovered from the murder scenes. "Essentially the whole world watching," he said.

By October 4, he'd had honed in on three potential rifles. "“The 222, the 22250 and Remington 223,” he said. "If you’ve seen anyone with weapons similar to this," contact us, Bouchard told dozens of TV cameras at Montgomery County Police headquarters.

All these years later, Bouchard, who was the special agent in charge of the Baltimore ATF office, still has big regrets. The include the bad lead that had investigators and citizens chasing white vans and box trucks. But also the good lookout -- for a dark colored Chevy Caprice -- that somehow was ignored. DC police broadcast a lookout for the vehicle after Charlot was killed.

"We still struggle with that. The car stops. That these guys had been stopped numerous times," Bouchard said.

The big break in the case came from the snipers themselves. Seeking credibility on a phoned-in ransom demand, Malvo claimed a previous murder in Montgomery, Alabama. 

"Don't say anything, just listen. We're the people who are causing the killing," Malvo said in the chilling recording of the call to Rockville City Police.

 At the murder scene in Alabama, investigators had collected a fingerprint. Rushed by an FBI agent to DC, the fingerprint came up as a match for Malvo, who had been fingerprinted after a previous arrest in Washington state.

That arrest record mentioned Muhammad, and an FBI agent recognized the name from a previous tip called in by a guy who had been in the Army.

Carroll remembers the conversation with the tipster: "'I really hate to say this, but I think your shooter might be a friend of mine from the Army.' And we said, 'Did you ever meet him in the company of somebody named Lee Boyd Malvo?' And he said, 'He had a companion with him that fits that description, but his nickname was Sniper.' And we sent that man a photograph of Lee Boyd Malvo, and he said, 'Yes, that’s him.'"

Searching firearms sales records, ATF agents found Muhammad had purchased a Bushmaster .223 rifle, a federal violation since he had been served with a restraining order to stay away from his ex-wife, Mildred.

The FBI charged Muhammad with federal weapons violations. And with Malvo clearly connected, the FBI and ATF jointly obtained a federal material witness warrant for Malvo.

On October 22, a records search found Muhammad had registered a blue Chevy Caprice with the license plate of NDA-21Z in New Jersey. Police shared the description of the car with the media, and later that night, a sharp-eyed driver saw the Caprice at a rest stop in Frederick County.

Heavily-armed cops swept in and surprised Muhammad and Malvo while they were sleeping in the rolling snipers' nest.

"That’s how we found him," said Carroll. "I’ll never forget any of it," said Bouchard.

After he got the rifle, Dandridge fired a round into a tank of water and then compared it with bullets and shell casings recovered at the murder scenes, tracing the unique microscopic marks left on the bullet as it tears through the barrel at more than 2,000 miles an hour.

In front of two juries, Dandridge confirmed the rifle found with Malvo and Muhammad was the one used to shoot a dozen different people. 

"There was no question that this firearm, of the more than 123 that we looked at, was the correct firearm," he said.

Virginia executed Muhammad in 2009.

Malvo is serving two life terms at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, and faces another six in Maryland. But Maryland’s highest court has just ordered a new sentencing hearing for the then 17-year-old killer. And Malvo’s still hoping someday to be free.

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