By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun
3:05 PM EDT, September 29, 2012
When the Washington-area snipers launched their shooting rampage a decade ago, Prince George's County restaurateur Paul LaRuffa suffered the same effects as everyone else: anxiety about leaving the house, fear of pumping gas, worry for loved ones — all adding up to a general jumpiness about when, where and whom the gunmen would strike next.
But in LaRuffa's case — though he didn't know it at the time — there was a difference.
He had been the snipers' first victim.
A month before the shootings that terrorized the region, LaRuffa, then 55, had closed his restaurant in Clinton for the night, walked out with a couple of friends and got into his car.
He was about to pull out when 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo approached, raised a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S rifle and fired five .223-caliber rounds through the driver's side window.
The bullets pierced LaRuffa in the chest, abdomen and back.
As he staggered from his car, bleeding and breathless, he was bewildered.
"There was no relation to anything," he said last week. "Obviously, it was Sept. 5. There were no 'snipers.' It was a random, insane act of violence."
But within a month, that fear and confusion would spread throughout the area. It was 10 years ago this week that Malvo and his mentor, John Allen Muhammad, announced themselves with a burst of killings in Montgomery County and Washington.
The shootings on Oct. 2 and 3, 2002, left six dead in little more than 24 hours. Businesses closed; parents raced to schools to collect children.
Less than 13 months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an unknown enemy was again menacing the capital region. Security was increased at the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court; gas station owners hung tarps around their pumps to hide customers.
Ordinary citizens holed up in their homes. Those with unavoidable commitments ducked their heads as they scurried from house to car, from car to destination and back again.
Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive at the time, calls it the longest stretch of sustained terror in the United States since the Civil War.
"People were scared for their lives, as they should have been," he recalled last week. "It was three weeks of 'you could be killed at any time, just walking down the street, getting groceries, getting gas.' And you didn't know when the next shot was coming."
The shots kept coming — and so, eventually, did the taunts: "Call me God," on a tarot card left at one shooting, and "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time."
The task force of local, state and federal law enforcement, meanwhile, appeared to be making little progress in identifying what at first was believed to be a single shooter.
By the time authorities caught up to Muhammad and Malvo, at a rest stop off Interstate 70 in Frederick County, 10 people in Maryland, Washington and Virginia were dead, three others were wounded, and the region was changed.
Carl Lejuez speaks of the emotional toll the shootings took. The professor of clinical psychology at the University of Maryland and director of its Center for Addictions, Personality and Emotion Research cites studies that show that extended periods of anxiety can cause more psychological and physical harm than actual trauma.
"There was never a moment where you were in DefCon 10 — although I will tell you that when I had to pump gas, I kind of did it halfway in the car and halfway out," he said. "No one relaxed for three weeks. ... Long term, that's much worse than having gone through a traumatic event where maybe even someone was shooting at you."
The terror began on the evening of Oct. 2, when James D. Martin, a 55-year-old program analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was gunned down in the parking lot of a Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton.
The next morning, James "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, was mowing the lawn at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in Bethesda. Premkumar Walekar, 54, was filling his taxi at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill. Sarah Ramos, 34, was sitting on a bench outside Leisure World. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, 25, was vacuuming her minivan at a Shell station in Kensington.
In little more than two hours, all were dead.
Vickie Snider was at an exercise class in Rockville when word of a shooting came. Class was canceled; the participants were told to get into their cars and go home.
Snider watched the news throughout the day. She had plans to catch up with her brother later. It wasn't until that evening, when the police detective came to her door with Buchanan's driver's license, that she learned he had been killed.
"You just go numb," she remembered last week. "It's like your brain can't handle it. You just want to say, 'No, it's a mistake.'
"Then I had to tell my parents."
With much of the Maryland State Police leadership away at a conference, Maj. Vernon Herron was acting chief of field operations statewide when the shootings began. He says the case was unlike any in the nation's history.
"Of course, we were all dumbfounded," said Vernon, now a senior policy analyst at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. "There was no ransom demand, there were no statements, nobody was taking responsibility for the attacks. ... Normally when somebody does something like this, they want to take credit."
The first communication came on Oct. 7. Iran Brown, 13, was arriving at Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie when he was shot in the torso.
This time, police found a message at the scene: The death card from the tarot deck, inscribed with a note. "For you Mr. Police/Code: 'Call me God'/'Do not release to the press.'"
LaRuffa, who had spent 10 days in the hospital after the September attack, followed the news from home. His shooting remained unsolved; while friends suggested it might have been the work of the sniper terrorizing the area, he didn't think so.
His attacker had walked up to his car, shot him several times at close range and stolen his laptop computer and $3,500 in cash from the restaurant. Whoever was killing people was using a single bullet fired from a distance.
In fact, investigators would learn, Muhammad and Malvo had staked out LaRuffa at his Margellina Restaurant before the attack. They were using his money to finance their killing rampage. From Oct. 9 through 14, they killed three more people, all in Virginia.
Snider, grieving for her brother, winced at every new report.
"The whole thing was so surreal and so sad, and for them to take so many lives in such senseless ways," she said. "They were all hardworking people just going about their daily lives.
"Just watching other people die as the week went on, that was very difficult, to know that other families were going through what we were going through."
Duncan, the former county executive, says he had a responsibility to present a face of calm to the community as he appeared at public meetings, news conferences and funerals.
At the same time, he said, "When I went home early in the morning, I didn't dawdle. I scurried into my house. You're on TV a lot, and you know they're watching because of their communications. You just assume that you've become a bigger target."
He speaks with pride about the courage of the community, and cites an example.
"We didn't want school crossing guards out there with the uniforms and the vests standing there as targets," he said. "So we pulled them out, but we asked for volunteers. And we had several hundred people come forward and say they were willing to help kids cross the street, help kids get to school, knowing that they could be a target."
While there appeared to be no end in sight to the shootings, investigators soon caught a break. They identified a fingerprint at Benjamin Tasker Middle School as Malvo's, learned of his relationship with Muhammad and found that Muhammad had registered a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice in New Jersey. Police named the suspects, described their car and called on the public to report any sightings.
Early on Oct. 24, a refrigerator repairman from Pennsylvania spotted the Caprice at the I-70 rest stop near Myersville and dialed 911. Police swarmed over the scene and arrested the pair without incident.
Muhammad and Malvo were charged, tried and convicted of six counts of murder in Maryland and two counts in Virginia.
During Malvo's trial in Maryland, he described the pair's plans to take their terror to Baltimore, where they planned to kill a pregnant woman and a police officer. At the police officer's funeral, he said, they planned to lay improvised explosive devices, similar to the roadside bombs used by insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, to cause more deaths.
In Maryland, Muhammad and Malvo were each sentenced to six life terms without possibility of parole. In Virginia, Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of patrol. Muhammad was sentenced to death.
Snider attended the trials and was present Nov. 10, 2009, when Muhammad was executed. She described it as "very medical."
"I didn't expect closure," she said. She says she and her family have decided to focus on the positive: her brother's love for them, and for life.
She says he was committed to his community, where he volunteered with the Boys and Girls Clubs and Crime Stoppers. Her family has established a foundation in his name that continues to award scholarships to young people.
But as Snider tries to look forward, she finds that each new shooting in the news — at Virginia Tech, at the "Batman" movie premiere in Aurora, Colo. — freshens the pain.
"I wish there were more we could do in gun control," she said. "I was so devastated when the assault weapon ban expired [in 2004]. ... If it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone. I just feel like somebody else is going to get that knock on the door."
LaRuffa, now 65, sold his restaurant in 2008 and lives in Southern Maryland. For nearly two months after the attack, he was shaken nightly by vivid flashbacks — worse, he says, than any nightmare he had ever had.
Then police found Muhammad and Malvo with his laptop, solving the crime, and the flashbacks ended.
When LaRuffa learned that Malvo had laughed and bragged during his initial interviews with investigators, he was furious.
"I would say things like, 'I'm 55, but I'll take my shot. Put me in a room with him and give me a shot.'
"But that feeling changes because I learned — and I'm glad I learned or figured it out or something, somehow — that if you keep that feeling, you destroy yourself. ... If you hold that anger in you, then he wins far past shooting you."
LaRuffa dismisses Muhammad, who never admitted any wrongdoing, as a sociopath. He skipped his execution, he says, because he didn't want to let him steal another day of his life.
"It's not going to make me feel better watching him die," LaRuffa said.
Malvo, in contrast, has shown remorse and apologized to the families of some of his victims. Over the years, LaRuffa has thought about reaching out to him.
"I believe there's a chance he is a different person," LaRuffa said. "Not in any way that he's not responsible or they should let him out or anything. But I think somehow, humanly, he's different than he was."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun