The D.C. Snipers: One Man’s Deep-Seated Revenge

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In the fall of 2002, two snipers terrorized the suburbs of Washington D.C. They aimed at random people and left millions in fear. Over three weeks, a series of coordinated shootings left ten people dead and three critically injured. The spree started in February of that year, when the criminal duo committed murders and robberies across the country, resulting in seven deaths.

Lee Boyd Malvo / Witness in court / John Allen Muhammad.
Source: Getty Images

In a matter of ten months, the snipers killed 17 and injured ten others. Their murder binge led to one of the largest manhunts in American history. Finally, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were caught and convicted. Who were these two men, and why were they trying to make the world burn?

These are the facts…

He Wanted Revenge on His Ex-Wife

When these shootings were first reported, the main question was, why are these people engaging in such senseless killings? Many people assumed what’s only natural to suppose – that these two men are obviously insane. But here’s the thing: both John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were regular, sane individuals.

A mugshot of John Allen Muhammad / A mugshot of Lee Boyd Malvo.
Photo by Bureau of Prisons, Getty Images / Kevin Clark, The Washington Post, Getty Images

So, what on earth could drive them to commit mass murder? Well, for one, John Muhammad, a former soldier, was devastated that he lost his kids in a custody battle to his ex-wife, Mildred. He wasn’t just devastated; he was furious and threatened to kill Mildred. His death threats forced her to flee to the Washington D.C. area with their kids. She thought it would be safe there…

No One Would Expect an Anonymous Sniper

She didn’t expect her ex to follow her there and start shooting at random people in the street, hoping that she would be one of them. Many people have claimed the killing spree was a plot by Muhammad to kill his ex-wife and reclaim his children. He believed that the police wouldn’t focus on an estranged ex-husband as a suspect if Mildred appeared to be a random victim of an anonymous serial killer. Well, that was the idea…

A newspaper box headline reading ‘’Sniper Caught’’ on the street.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mildred later said that Muhammad began plotting against her as soon as she won custody of their son and two daughters in 2001. But their bitter divorce wasn’t the first time he showed such an ugly side of himself.

His Ex-Wife Was the Target of the Beltway Sniper

For years, he had told her that he hated her and that she was a bad mother. In 1999, after they separated, he kidnapped the kids and ran off with them to Antigua for 18 months. Still, she never suspected she would be the real target of the “Beltway Sniper” until the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives knocked on her door in Maryland on October 23, 2002.

A portrait of Mildred Muhammad.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Ms. Muhammad, didn’t you know he was shooting people around you?” they asked her. They told her about a man he shot in the hand with a laptop –right down the street from her. Then there was the other victim…

A Twisted Endgame Scenario

A man was shot at a store in Brandywine just two miles away from her. “You were the target,” they told her. In some twisted reasoning, Muhammad thought if a crazed gunman killed Mildred, he would be able to gain custody of their kids and collect the money owed to them as crime victims.

Mildred Muhammad testifies in court.
Photo by Tracy Woodward-Pool/Getty Images

“His endgame scenario was to come in as the grieving father,” Mildred declared. “He maybe would have been called the father of the year.” Mildred also claimed that her ex had wanted to kill her for years, but no one would listen.

He Came Back a Different Person

After they separated, Mildred was a marked woman. He broke into her house one night and woke his ex-wife with a terrifying message: “You have become my enemy, and as my enemy, I will kill you.” Most of their 12-year marriage was riddled with emotional and mental abuse.

John Allen Muhammad sits in court.
Photo by Davis Turner-Pool/Getty Images

Though happy at first, everything changed after Muhammad returned from the Gulf War. The man who was once well-liked by everybody became a negative, paranoid, and depressed man. Mildred said she doesn’t know exactly what turned him into a monster…

Scared Silent

She said that she tried to alert friends and neighbors about the abuse, but apparently, no one believed her since she had no physical signs on her face or body. She eventually wrote a book to tell her story, called Scared Silent, hoping it will help other victims break their silence and escape abuse.

Mildred Muhammad poses with her daughters.
Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

“What would have made a difference for me is that when John came back from Saudi Arabia that he would have been debriefed,” Mildred said. She believes that the whole rampage could have been averted had he had counseling before returning to civilian life.

A Rampage at Random

During the weeks of the random shootings, there was a huge public panic. Those at service stations and the parking lots of stores seemed to be at risk. As a result, pizza places reported a surge in deliveries as people feared to leave their front door.

Police pass by the house of John Allen Muhammad’s arrest.
Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

People pumping gas would walk around their cars quickly, trying to avoid being a target. People were advised to crouch down while filling their cars with gas, and pedestrians were even urged to walk in zigzags to avoid becoming a target for the crazed sniper.

The Youngest Victim

On October 7, 2002, 13-year-old Iran Brown became the youngest of Muhammad and Malvo’s victims. That day, Brown has reportedly kicked off the school bus for eating candy. His aunt then drove him to Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie, Maryland.

Iran Brown testifies in court.
Photo by Dave Ellis-Pool/Getty Images

As soon as he got out of her car, he suddenly dropped to the ground with a gunshot wound to his chest. With blood across his shirt, he pulled himself up and got back into his aunt’s car. She raced him to a nearby hospital.

Shoulder to Shoulder

He received life-saving surgery, in which they removed his spleen and parts of his liver and pancreas. Luckily, the boy made it and lived to tell his tale as the youngest of the snipers’ victims. He would have been the seventh fatality in the three-week spree.

The mother of Ira Brown watches her son testify in court.
Lisa Brown. Photo by Dave Ellis-Pool/Getty Images

At the scene of Brown’s shooting, investigators searched the area. Two of the cops discovered a flattened area in the shrubs where it was likely that one of the snipers had been lying. They also found some key pieces of evidence.

Code: Call Me God

The most significant piece of evidence discovered was a tarot card with “Call me God” written on the front of it. On the back, on three separate lines, were the words:

“For you, Mr. Police.”

“Code: ‘Call me God.’”

“Do not release to the press.”

The tarot card on a screen in court.
Photo by Adrin Snider-PooL/Getty Images

It was clear that the suspects did not want the media to find out about this, and the task force wanted to honor the request since it would establish a line of communication, which was crucial at that point. But the problem was that the media was everywhere, and secrets weren’t safe.

Driven to Tears

The tarot card information was eventually leaked to the press, and it made the front page of The Washington Post. Obviously, the media wanted its hands on any piece of information, but this kind of reporting was devastating to the case.

Charles Moose talks to the reporters.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Once Iran Brown was shot, it felt as though things escalated. But just as detectives thought it couldn’t get much worse, it did. Montgomery County’s Police Chief, Charles Moose, felt so helpless by that point that he cried on national television. Not something you see every day.

It Was Exactly What They Wanted

Later, Malvo told Maryland jail guards that he shot Iran Brown to show the authorities that they “meant business.” He also said that the shooting was meant to upset Chief Moose. He went on to say that they were pleased to see Moose crying on TV.

Charles Moose walks to the podium for a news briefing.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

There was hysteria, considering the shootings occurred just one year after 9/11. That’s why people assumed the attacks were being made by members of Al Qaeda. It was even front-page news, with The Washington Post printing “Snipers and Al Qaeda.”

The Event That Led to the Snipers

One of the shootings targeted a man named Jeffrey Hopper, who was at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ashland, and that shooting sparked a series of events that ultimately led to the arrest of the two killers.

Jeffrey Hooper testifies during the trial.
Photo by Adrin Snider-Pool/Getty Images

In the woods near the steakhouse, with the help of an ATF dog, the police discovered a note that had been tacked to a tree. It was a handwritten note, demanding $10 million and threatening the lives of children in the surrounding area. A shooting in Montgomery, Alabama, was also mentioned in the note.

The Montgomery Shooting

The Montgomery shooting targeted two people at a liquor store: 52-year-old Claudine Parker, the manager, and 24-year-old Kellie Adams. They were closing up shop at about 7:30 p.m. when the shots were fired.

An exterior view of the liquor store after the shooting.
Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

Muhammad and Malvo called the tip line to claim that they were the D.C. sniper attackers, and they had already mentioned the Alabama shooting to the police. But other callers were taking false credit for the attacks, making it difficult for the authorities to determine what was real and what was fake.

The Incriminating Note

The snipers got desperate and wanted to be acknowledged as the killers, so they mentioned the Alabama shooting. At the time, the police didn’t link the crimes because the liquor store shooting was a robbery murder, and the cops believed the D.C. snipers didn’t rob their victims.

A view of the note.
Photo by Adrin Snider-Pool/Getty Images

The gun they used wasn’t a Bushmaster rifle, leading the police to assume that the cases were unrelated falsely. But once the Montgomery shooting was mentioned again in the note, the police dove deeper into that case. And it proved worthwhile.

The Two Were Like Father and Son

The police discovered that Malvo had left his fingerprints on a magazine he had been carrying near the liquor store. Investigators then ran the fingerprint through the national databases, leading to a match with none other than Lee Boyd Malvo.

Lee Boyd Malvo walks out of court.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Malvo was known as an associate of Muhammad’s. The two had been living together for a year in Tacoma, Washington. Muhammad had helped Malvo and his mom enter America illegally from the Caribbean. The two became friends and even came off as father and son. The police then provided the public with Malvo’s description and Muhammad’s license plate number.

Capturing Malvo and Muhammad

Sooner than later, a woman named Whitney Donahue spotted Muhammad’s car in Frederick County, Maryland, and called the police. Muhammad and Malvo were captured on October 24, 2002, in Maryland, where most of the murders took place.

A picture of the vehicle used by the snipers.
Steve Earley-Pool/Getty Images

They were arrested while sleeping in their blue Chevrolet Caprice. The trucker who saw the snipers parked his truck in a way that made sure the men couldn’t drive away while police were on their way. Once there, the task force moved in quickly. Grenades were thrown in the car window, and the two were yanked out onto the parking lot.

It Was Over in Seconds

It was “over in seconds,” as one police officer reported, adding that “two of the most heinous killers in American history were on their way to justice.” Although Malvo was only 17 at the time, he was convicted of two murders in Virginia and six in Maryland.

A sniper survivor talks to the press.
Paul LaRuffa. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The trial was ultimately moved to Virginia because the state was viewed as more likely to impose a death sentence, which is precisely what Muhammad was given (lethal injection). As for Malvo, he was sentenced to life without parole.

The Tip That Got Lost

The case could have been solved much earlier, though. The police dealt with the case by providing the public with as much information as possible and continuously asking for help. But the tip line was flooded by fake confessions.

A government vehicle transports the sniper suspects.
Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The police had as many as 100,000 tips coming in. Unfortunately, the overwhelming number of calls meant that real tips were lost along the way. Actual, crucial information about the case had been provided by Robert Holmes, a longtime friend of Muhammad’s, but it got lost entirely.

They Weren’t Driving a White Van

There was a point when the snipers wanted to talk to the task force, but they also had trouble getting through. The authorities also tried to get information from the people who were at the scene of each shooting.

A sheriff holds up two pictures of a white van.
Sheriff Ronald Night. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

What might be the biggest mistake of the entire search was the assumption, based on witness accounts, that the snipers were driving a white box truck. In the end, too much time and human resources were thrown into searching for a white van instead of paying attention to other, essential leads.

Mishaps and Mistakes

A man named Matthew Dowdy, who was craving media attention, came forward to give yet another false statement to the police. He reported that he saw a gunman holding an AK-47 around his shoulder. Dowdy was initially treated as a critical witness, only to be found not credible.

A mugshot of Dowdy.
Photo by Fairfax County Police/Getty Images

Criminal profilers made their own mistakes, too. They mistakenly predicted that the sniper was likely a white male – an assumption based mainly on the characteristics of former serial killers. Of course, all of these tips and mishaps made it take longer to catch them, and unfortunately, more people lost their lives.

The Plan That Failed

Investigators noticed a pattern in the snipers’ shootings. The shootings were close to major roads, and certain stores were consistent in these places. They also noticed that the snipers were well-informed about the area’s traffic patterns.

A witness points to a diagram of a sniper shooting scene.
Photo by Dave Ellis-Pool/Getty Images

Muhammad and Malvo made sure to use the path of least resistance. Based on their predictable movements, police came up with a scheme: the “concentric circle” plan. They set up an immediate response team to deploy within a minute of an emergency call. Police teams planned to create a trap with a series of widening circles around the area.

The Snipers’ “Killing Machine”

Roadblocks were to be mounted everywhere to get the snipers trapped in a specific location. But, as we know now, the killers were one step ahead of the cops and vanished after every shooting.

The owner of the liquor store points to the shooting spot.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Investigators faced one nagging question: how were the snipers able to carry out their attacks and go unnoticed? Muhammad and Malvo had devised a plan, and it was better than the cops’ plan. They drove around in a blue Chevrolet Caprice, which was their “killing machine.” The trunk of the car had two holes – one for the rifle, one for the scope.

A Frightening Set-Up

The two holes meant they could fire shots without opening the trunk. The car had dark tinting on the back windows, making it very hard to see them inside. They had removed the wall between the trunk and the back seat, and the rear seat folded down, giving them room to stretch out in the back without needing to step their feet outside.

A bullet hole in a window of a store.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As frightening as this sounds, it was the perfect killing machine. They could shoot at random and continue to drive around. Even if the cops weren’t flooded with false tips and fake confessions, it would have taken a long time regardless.

The First Survivor

Caroline Seawell was a stay-at-home mom of two, and one day, she and her husband were discussing the sniper shootings over breakfast. It was October 4, 2002. A mere matter of hours later, she became a victim of the snipers.

Caroline Seawell gestures during her testimony in court.
Photo by Adrin Snider-Pool/Getty Images

When the shots were fired, she was at a shopping center, loading a newly purchased scarecrow and wreath into her minivan in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As she lay on the pavement, Caroline prayed that she would see her kids again. Miraculously, she did.

An Incredibly Close Call

The bullet tore through her liver, one of her lungs, and her diaphragm. The bullet managed to crack multiple ribs before exiting the other side of her body. She was in the hospital for four days with a chest tube to help her breathe.

Caroline Seawell looks at a photograph of her wounds.
Photo by Adrin Snider-Pool/Getty Images

If the bullet had hit her just a half-inch to the left, coming close to her heart or a major artery, she would never have survived. Caroline’s near-death experience has had a serious impact on her life. She is thankful for every day she has.

Married… in Prison

Malvo got married in a ceremony at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia in 2020. Carmeta Albarus, who was on Malvo’s defense team back in 2003, witnessed the marriage. “I was honored to be there,” she said. “It was a beautiful occasion, given the circumstances of where it took place.”

Deputies escort Lee Boyd Malvo in court.
Photo by Davis Turner-Pool/Getty Images

But who’s the bride? Albarus didn’t give any details, only saying, “She’s an absolutely wonderful individual.” She also said the bride and groom “were allowed to hold hands.” At the time, nothing was known about the woman who married the sniper. Until now…

The Woman Who Married the Sniper

The woman who married Malvo has finally been exposed. Her name is Sable Noel Knapp, and she’s the 31-year-old granddaughter of a real estate developer from Iowa. She is also an activist who has contributed large sums of money to several causes.

Sable poses with Marianne Williamson.
Source: Tumblr

Knapp, however, doesn’t have a clean record. In 2016, she was taken into custody in Portland, Oregon, for blocking a road during a Black Lives Matter protest. Her lawyer told The Daily Beast that she is “really committed to social activism, for sure, and I think she was always looking for ways to make changes.”

Malvo Speaks Out

The 36-year-old has spoken to the filmmakers of the recent documentary entitled “I, Sniper,” which came out in May 2021. He stated: “It is unnatural to kill anything. But once you’ve done it the first time, it becomes easier each time. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. What inside me made that possible?”

A picture of Malvo and Muhammad.
Source: Tumblr

Malvo has recently described his struggles growing up in Jamaica. His father abandoned him, and his mother would abuse him. In 1999, at 14, he moved to Antigua and met Muhammad, who became something of a father figure to him. Some say they were also lovers.

He Says He Was a Victim Too

When Malvo met Muhammad, a 41-year-old Gulf War veteran, he understood that he wanted to take revenge on the military. And not just the Army, but also White people, and even his own family. According to Malvo, he was Muhammad’s victim; he “used” him to punish his “enemies.”

A mugshot of John Allen Muhammad.
Photo by Virginia Department of Corrections/Getty Images

Malvo stated: “Muhammad was the master puppeteer. I was an instrument.” According to his testimony at trial, Malvo’s mother abandoned him to work on another island. He was 15 when he moved in with Muhammad, who had fled to Antigua with his three kids.

Training and Brainwashing

In 2001, Malvo entered America with Muhammad, reunited with his mom in Florida, and rejoined Muhammad in Washington. Muhammad started training Malvo in the use of firearms and began brainwashing him politically.

A handout image of John Allen Muhammad.
Photo by Montgomery County Police/Getty Images

Malvo started calling himself John Lee Malvo and speaking with an American accent. At 16, in February 2002, he killed his first victim. Muhammad ordered him to shoot and kill a woman in Tacoma, Washington. It was the first of at least six slayings the killer duo committed as they made their way toward the D.C. area, where Mildred and the kids were living.

He Might Be Out Next Year

Cooley argued in the trial that Muhammad fully dominated Malvo. He managed to convince the jury not to give him the death penalty for one of the killings – that of Linda Franklin in Falls Church, Virginia.

A view of the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Malvo is eligible for parole in 2022, after which he is hoping to enjoy married life with Knapp. Another of Malvo’s defense lawyers, Craig Cooley, said he believes the two are “soul mates” and that Knapp “sees the good” in him. As for Muhammad, he was executed in 2009.