The Beginnings of a National Tragedy
On October 2nd, 2002, a series of bloody shootings would begin, lasting for three weeks and encompassing several different cities. Around 5:20 PM on that evening, the first victim was shot at through the glass windows of a Michaels Craft store. Luckily, the bullet barely missed its intended target. Only an hour later, however, another person was fatally shot in the parking lot of a grocery store in a nearby city. What seemed like random acts of violence would soon be revealed to be a horrific plot that was only just beginning to unfold.
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA – OCTOBER 27: Prince William County prosecutor Paul Ebert holds a map as witness Ingrid M. Shaw points to her apartment during her testimony in the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad in Courtroom 10 at the Virginia Beach Circuit Court October 27, 2003 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Photo by Davis Turner-Pool/Getty Images)
The next morning, four new victims were shot within a few hours of each other, with another following that same evening. It was around this time that the police (and the press) began to notice the pattern, sending ripples of chaos and fear through the community. Schools went into lockdown for days, and the population feared what was to come. Over the next several weeks, more innocent people would become victims of the vicious attacks, and the area where they were carried out widened considerably.
The bloody, senseless shootings would continue in earnest until the evening of October 24th, when two suspects were arrested on federal weapons charges at a rest stop off of Interstate 70 in Maryland. A total of 17 innocent civilians had lost their lives up to this point, with multiple in critical condition.
The Terror Comes to an End
The two individuals who were arrested on October 24th were named John Allen Mohammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who was only 17 at the time. State Trooper D. Wayne Smith was first to arrive on the scene, and immediately blocked the exit of the rest stop with his squad car. As more police arrived, they completed the barricade and began staging their operation, unbeknownst to the two suspects who were sleeping in their vehicle. They were quickly apprehended, alongside weapons later conclusively tied to many of the shootings.
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA – OCTOBER 29: Witness Christine A. Goodwin points to a diagram of a sniper shooting scene. Goodwin stopped at a gas station in Spotsylvania County where sniper victim Kenneth Bridges was shot on October 11, 2002. (Photo by Dave Ellis-Pool/Getty Images)
Initially, motives for the numerous murders were a mystery to investigators. Theories were wide-ranging, with one pre-investigation rumor that they were carried out to cover up the eventual murder of Muhammad’s ex-wife. She had estranged him from his children sometime before the shootings began, and many of the attacks took place very close to her home. Despite this, Judge LeRoy Millette Jr. did not believe enough evidence was present to go forward with this assumption.
Trials Reveal the Full Extent of the Terror
Trials for the two killers began in the fall of 2003. The pair were quickly found guilty of both murder and illegal weapons charges in Virginia, and new charges were pending in several other states at the same time. Once prosecutors had a chance to reveal the full scope of the terror plot, they were horrified to learn just how much planning had gone into the attacks.
Sniper suspect Lee Malvo (c) leaves a pre-trial hearing at the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court 04 December 2002 in Fairfax, Virginia. Malvo is a suspect in a sniper style killing spree. AFP Photo/Luke FRAZZA (Photo credit LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Based on firsthand accounts from Malvo, it was revealed that the two had planned to kill many more than they ultimately were able to, including murdering a pregnant woman by shooting her in the stomach and murdering a police officer with the intention to set off improvised explosives at his funeral. This would culminate in the two retreating north to Canada, stopping at YMCA’s and shelters along the way to attempt to recruit impressionable young men to their cause.
The ultimate goal was to train these individuals than to be agents of terror, spreading throughout cities in the US and carrying out more shootings, with the aim of sending the country spiraling into chaos. Eventually, in September of 2003, Mohammad was sentenced to death by lethal injection, which was carried out despite attempts by his legal team to stay the order at the federal level on November 10th, 2009. Malvo received six consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, though a federal district judge later overturned this. The status of the trial has been contested since this time, with judges as recently as 2018 stating that they wish to have the case reviewed by the supreme court.
The aftermath of these horrific events saw many subsequent investigations carried out, including an extended look into Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply, the store where the killer’s weapons were shoplifted from. According to sources at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the store owner had a long history of firearms sales violations, including other cases where weapons “disappeared” without a trace. Eventually, a class action lawsuit was filed against the store and its owners by several victims of the shootings, claiming that even after the events of the murder spree were traced back to the store, no changes were made to its operations.
MANASSAS, VA – MARCH 9: Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad (C) addresses the court along with his attorney’s Peter Greenspun (L) and Jonathan Shapiro prior to being sentenced to death for the shooting of Dean Meyers at the Prince William County Circuit Court March 9, 2004 in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo by Steve Helber-Pool/Getty Images)
In the years that followed the attacks, several memorials were erected to honor the fallen victims of the senseless sniper spree. These include monuments in Wheaton, Maryland and Rockville, Maryland. Seeing as these events took place only a year or so after the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center buildings, it took the country, and especially the area around where the shootings took place quite a while to recover and return to normal life.
Over the years, several movies and TV shows were made about the sniper attacks, including D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear and The D.C. Sniper’s Wife, a retelling of the events through the eyes of Mildred Muhammad, the wife of the older killer involved in the shootings.
Today, the world remembers these heinous attacks carried out on US soil, but the communities involved have largely recovered from the tragedy. If history shows anything, it’s that the American people have always used moments of tragedy like this one to band even closer together than before, denouncing acts of terror in unison in an attempt to make the world a safer place to live for all.