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A painful anniversary approaches

FamilyJuvenile DelinquencyDeathPersonal Weapon ControlGun Control

SILVER SPRING -- One year later, the sites of the killings are again ordinary. People buy and sell used cars at Fitzgerald Automotive on Rockville Pike with little notice of the fading memorial nearby. At the Shell station on Connecticut Avenue, motorists fill up their cars without hesitation.

But elsewhere, the horror caused by a sniper's indiscriminate attacks lingers. In Abingdon, Va., Alice Fay Buchanan keeps expecting her son Sonny to show up at her door. In Olney, Margaret Walekar dreads attending family functions without her husband. In Oxon Hill, Denise Johnson plays the role of father at her two sons' sports events.

It was a year ago this week that a sniper killed five people in the span of 16 hours in Montgomery County, police say, before going on to shoot eight more people over the next three weeks, killing five of them.

For residents of the Washington area, the shootings instilled a terror that ended as suddenly as it began, with the arrests of John Allen Muhammad and teen-ager Lee Boyd Malvo at a Maryland rest stop.

For the few survivors of the shootings and the families of those killed, the nightmare has stretched on without end.

"I am still so confused. I don't know why this happened. Why did these people do that to an innocent person? What did they get out of it all?" said Margaret Walekar, whose husband, Premkumar Walekar, 54, was killed Oct. 3 while refueling his taxicab at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill.

"In most cases, they didn't kill one person," she said. "They killed whole families."

Every day, across the country, families are torn apart by horrible car accidents, bungled robberies, deadly feuds. What has made the sniper deaths so painful, say those left behind, is the persistent question of what prompted someone to kill strangers without provocation.

'Never get any answer'

"I keep asking, 'Why? What did they do to them?'" said Charles-August Charlot, whose cousin Pascal Charlot, a 72-year-old Haitian-born carpenter, was killed late Oct. 3 in Northwest Washington. "That is the only question I keep asking, and I never get any answer."

In tiny Mountain Home, Idaho, far from the scene of last fall's violence, Marion "Boots" Lewis has decided that an answer might never come. His daughter, Lori Rivera-Lewis, 25, was killed Oct. 3 while vacuuming her van at the Shell station on Connecticut Avenue.

"There's no understanding. There's nothing to understand," he said. "How can any reasonably decent person understand this?"

Over the past year, the victims' families have responded to their losses in different ways. Those who survived the attacks include Bowie middle school student Iran Brown, now 14, who told reporters just two months after the shooting: "I'm not in any pain. I feel normal."

Some relatives of those who died have tried to reclaim their own normality by seeking solace in community. One family launched a scholarship fund to reflect the spirit of James "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, who was shot Oct. 3 while mowing a strip of lawn at Fitzgerald Automotive in Kensington. A small memorial tied to a utility pole marks the spot.

A landscaper, Buchanan was best known around the area for his volunteer work with Crime Solvers and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Montgomery County, where he served on the board, did lawn work for free and made frequent donations.

Soon after Buchanan's death, his generosity was reflected back in an outpouring of support. Friends and family formed Sonny's Kids, a foundation to provide scholarships for Boys & Girls Clubs members. Donations poured in, and this spring the foundation gave $9,500 in scholarships to four college-bound students.

"We had to celebrate my brother's life, to continue his good works," said Buchanan's older sister, Victoria Snider of Rockville. "You have to take all this negative and turn it into something good."

Suddenly a widow, Denise Johnson found a voice as a gun-control activist. The Prince George's County woman became one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought in Washington state against a gun manufacturer and a Tacoma gun store linked to the Bushmaster assault rifle used in the attacks. Eight other families have joined the lawsuit.

Johnson's husband was the final victim in last fall's attacks. Conrad Johnson, 35, a Montgomery County bus driver, was shot as he prepared to begin his morning route, and as police were closing in on the suspects.

She has struggled with the question of why authorities had not arrested Muhammad and Malvo by Oct. 22, when her husband was killed at dawn.

"I'm telling you, it ate at me," she said. "I was like, 'You mean to tell me you couldn't catch these guys beforehand?'"

Gradually, she and her mother-in-law, Sonia Wills, focused their anger and energy on holding accountable the gun maker and gun shop linked to the crimes. Going further, Johnson has made the rounds on Capitol Hill to lobby against a measure that would shield gun manufacturers from the kind of legal claim she and other victims' families are pursuing.

Dennis Henigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, credits the work of Johnson and relatives of other sniper victims with so far keeping the legislation from clearing the Senate.

For her part, Johnson said, she hopes that by telling her story, she gave pause to some lawmakers who otherwise might back the legislation. But it also brought her a small measure of comfort.

"Honestly, it is helping us," Johnson said. "Of course, the pain will forever be there. The loss will forever be there. But for us, it will help if my husband's death is not in vain."

Shielding grief

Others have responded to the shootings more privately. Two of the victims who survived were never publicly identified, choosing instead to mend in anonymity. Some family members of those who died say they want to shield their grief, even from their own relatives.

Margaret Walekar, an obstetrics nurse, has skipped some gatherings of her extended family in Maryland, not wanting to ruin the mood with tears that spill without warning.

What is most difficult, she said, is thinking about the future she had planned with the man who became her "soul mate" after their arranged marriage. After years of working as a convenience store owner, newspaper distributor and cabdriver, her husband planned to retire early. The Walekars were going to start splitting their time between Maryland and India, from which they emigrated in the 1970s and where they recently bought a house for visits.

"Now, all those plans are destroyed," she said. "In one minute, everything is gone."

The couple's daughter, Andrea, 25, was too upset to continue attending the University of Maryland, but she managed to graduate in May after finishing her studies from home. Their son, Andrew, 24, stopped going to church.

"He thought his dad was a very good person," she said. "He thinks, 'Where was God? Why didn't he save him?'"

The victims' families and friends have changed their daily routines and restructured their lives. But reminders of the shootings cannot be avoided.

Tim Sheehan, executive vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, was at a meeting recently in Manassas, Va., when someone mentioned that Muhammad was being held two blocks away. Sheehan thought immediately of his friend, Buchanan.

"I thought, 'God, you can't get away from it,'" said Sheehan.

Charles-August Charlot thinks of his cousin each time he passes near the shooting site in Northwest Washington. Often, he visits Pascal Charlot's grave.

There, the Silver Spring man reminisces about how his cousin called him "Preacher" because he was prone to doling out advice. He recalls how the two men, one a draftsman and the other a carpenter, would help each other with house projects.

Casting back further, he remembers growing up together in Haiti, where his cousin would get the best grades in Greek class even as he put off studying until the last moment.

On a recent trip to the cemetery, Charlot, 67, looked down at the gravesite and shared the news that he had become a grandfather.

"I wave and I say, 'Hi, Pascal,' and 'I miss you,'" he said. "I bow my head. I say, 'You're going to tease me for being a grandfather.' There are many little moments I have like that."

For Alice Fay Buchanan, one of the hardest moments of the past year came on Mother's Day. The year before, her son had surprised her by picking her up in a rented convertible to take her to breakfast.

"I said, 'I'm not going to ride in that and have my hair blown,' and he said, 'Yes, you can, today you can.' He rolled the windows up so my hair wouldn't get blown," she recalled. "He gave me $100 and flowers. I had gravy and biscuits, and he had an egg and tomato omelet."

As they have struggled to heal emotionally, the families have struggled as well with practical concerns. Lori Lewis-Rivera's husband, Nelson Rivera, a Honduran-American landscaper, is raising their 5-year-old daughter alone. He considered moving in with his in-laws in Idaho but decided to stay in Washington.

"He was having some troubles with schedules and work, the last time I talked to him," said Lewis, Rivera's father-in-law. "I'm not sure if he's found any solutions."

Suspects on trial

Still looming is the start of Muhammad's trial Oct. 14 and Malvo's on Nov. 10.

The courtroom, some relatives hope, could provide some explanation for the crimes. Others dread revisiting the shootings and facing the accused.

"How are people even going to sit there and look at this guy who destroyed all your family?" Walekar said.

The families are divided about the possible outcome. Some say it is in the court's hands to decide whether Malvo and Muhammad, if convicted, will receive the death penalty, as prosecutors are seeking.

Lewis has no such equanimity. Both should be sentenced to die, he says. For Lewis, the only question is why defendants facing such a weight of evidence should have the benefit of a prolonged and expensive trial.

"I'd like to go to the execution. Actually, I'd like to go to the state and work for the executioner, though I don't think they'd go for that," said Lewis, who decided not to attend the trials. "My personal thought is, bring both those boys out here, and I'll save them a lot of money real quick."

Charlot does not desire vengeance. But he, too, wants a chance to confront the defendants in person.

"If there were a possibility to see the guys, I would say, 'What did my cousin do to you?' I would like to ask that question," he said. "If I got a chance to ask him, 'Why did you shoot my cousin and all those people?' I might feel satisfied."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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