Bracing for the sniper trial

Sniper shootings coverage
Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was the shy little girl with fine blond hair, the teenager who didn't use profanity, the young woman absorbed in mystery novels and, finally, a 25-year-old nanny thousands of miles from home. She was Marion and Jo Lewis' daughter, Nelson Rivera's wife and Jocelin's mom.

At 9:58 a.m. Oct. 3, 2002, she became the fifth victim in a 16-hour rampage when she fell into the cross hairs of a sniper team that roamed Montgomery County in a beat-up, dark blue Chevrolet Caprice with a makeshift gun port built into the trunk, prosecutors say.

Marion Lewis, who lives in Idaho, says he can't think about his daughter without crying. "She got loans to go to a nanny school. She baby-sat. She loved being with the kids," he recalls.

But he and his wife have no plans to relive the horror of her death by flying in for the six-count murder trial of convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, 45, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

"The next time I come to that area is, I hope, to see Mr. Muhammad executed" in Virginia, where he has been sentenced to death in one sniper shooting, Marion Lewis says during a telephone interview.

Victims' relatives and Montgomery County residents are bracing for a recounting of the nightmarish days and nights when the random killings terrorized millions of people from Baltimore to Richmond, Va., mostly claiming victims as they performed mundane daily tasks, such as mowing lawns and pumping gas. Lewis-Rivera was vacuuming her minivan at a Kensington gas station when she was shot.

For the victims' families, the trial will revive painful memories but could offer some satisfaction. For county residents, who stayed home on weekends and zigzagged through parking lots, the trial will evoke that frightening fall when no one could predict who would be the next victim.

"When I see the bench, I still think of the poor woman who got shot," says Ilse Pierkes, recalling the shooting of housekeeper Sarah Ramos as she sat on a bench in front of a restaurant in Silver Spring's Leisure World Plaza.

Denise Johnson, 37, who attended the two Virginia sniper trials, has been steeling herself for this trial. Her husband, Conrad E. Johnson, a 35-year-old Ride On bus driver, was the last victim.

"Initially I didn't want to go through it again," she says. "But I didn't want Conrad's murder to go unsolved. He [Muhammad] is responsible. He should be held accountable."

Lewis, too, wants to see Muhammad found guilty.

But some see the trial as pointless for a man already condemned to die. The trial is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Muhammad's accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 21, who is serving a life prison term in Virginia for one of the sniper shootings, has a fall trial date here.

"You are wasting time, money," says Luis Urbina of Wheaton, manager of Crisp & Juicy restaurant, the scene of the Ramos shooting.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler says a conviction would stand as insurance if Muhammad's Virginia conviction and death sentence, now under appeal, are overturned.

But Gansler says the trial and what he hopes are convictions will help the victims' families and others put the sniper incidents behind them.

"In discussions with the families, it became clear that they felt they did not have their day in court," Gansler says. "The community at large has not had its day in court."

Shooting rampage
Montgomery, the 13th-richest county in the nation and with a generally low crime rate, seems an unlikely locale for such terror. The 2,000-square-mile Washington suburb boasts an increasingly diverse population of about 922,000 residents and features upscale malls, business headquarters, federal offices and a high-tech corridor.

In the three weeks between Oct. 2 and Oct. 22, 2002, though, the county saw the first and last sniper deaths. Of the 13 sniper shootings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, 10 were fatal; six of those 10 were in Montgomery County.

About 6 p.m. Oct. 2, a bullet felled federal worker James D. Martin, 55, as he walked on a Shoppers Food Warehouse parking lot in Wheaton. A shooting rampage ensued during the next morning's rush hour: James L. "Sonny" Buchanan, 39, was killed about 7:40 a.m. as he mowed the grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall in White Flint; Premkumar A. Walekar, 54, was fatally shot about 8:10 a.m. as he pumped gas into his cab at a Mobil station in Aspen Hill; Ramos, 34, died about 8:35 a.m. as she waited for a ride; then, Lewis-Rivera was killed.

"The parents are supposed to go first," says Lewis-Rivera's father, choking back tears.

Next, the snipers cut down people in Washington, Virginia and Bowie. The victims defied categorization -- they were male and female, spanning races and ranging in age from 13 to 72.

Officials kept hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren indoors -- 140,000 in Montgomery County alone. Leafy neighborhoods were devoid of strollers. Gas stations hung blue tarps to shield customers at the pumps.

The snipers then returned to Montgomery County where, on Oct. 22, Conrad E. Johnson, 35, was fatally shot at 5:55 a.m. near Aspen Hill as he stood in the doorway of his bus.

Two days later, Muhammad, a Gulf War veteran depicted as an angry loser from Washington state, and Malvo, a Jamaican teenager, were arrested at an Interstate 70 rest stop near Myersville in Frederick County.

Muhammad has pleaded not guilty and is representing himself in the coming trial.

A climate of fear
Montgomery County residents have long resumed doing what was unthinkable in October 2002. Children play on monkey bars, and adults slowly carry bundles through parking lots. But many residents recall the terror when they pass by the shooting sites, such as the bench in front of the Crisp & Juicy restaurant.

Pierkes, a resident of the Leisure World community, was not in the area when Ramos was killed. But she was so frightened that immediately after returning from a trip to North Carolina in mid-October, she repacked her bags.

"I got in the car. I have a place down in Southern Maryland. I stayed there for a while," she says.

She returned to Silver Spring from St. Mary's County several weeks later, after Muhammad and Malvo were arrested.

Now, throngs walk through the plaza. The restaurant's window has been replaced, the bench relocated.

"They're not scared anymore," says Tony Newton, taking a cigarette break from his job a few doors away at Honey Baked Ham. Ask him about sniper season, and he seethes. He was off the day Ramos was killed; he was planning to celebrate his birthday. The shootings precluded that. After the police asked the public to look out for a white box truck, which they believed to be the snipers' vehicle, drivers such as Newton attracted scrutiny from authorities.

"They pulled me over three times -- I had a white van," he says. He got rid of it within two days. Newton, a man used to chatting up customers, says that he felt lonely in an empty store.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan recalls telling people that they must carry on with their lives as he went from funeral to funeral amid his own fear. "Several times I thought when I walked back into my house at night, maybe I won't make it in," he says.

Crime sprees do not affect so many people so profoundly, but terrorism's randomness does, says Michael S. Greenberger, a law professor who is director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

"What terrorists hope to do is alter behavior and have people live in fear," he says. "When you look at what these guys were doing, it was terrorism."

Life after the deaths
Reminders of the sniper shootings dot the midsection of Montgomery County. There are unmarked shooting locations, makeshift memorials, the county's gracefully landscaped memorial in Wheaton Regional Park's Brookside Gardens, and places visited by the snipers, some better-known than others.

Some days, on his way to work, Pat Mistry feels as if he is taking a sniper tour. He drives by the spot where bus driver Johnson was fatally shot, the Mobil station where Walekar was killed and the Michaels craft store in Aspen Hill where a bullet pierced the glass on the evening of Oct. 2 -- all before arriving at the Shell station he manages, where Lewis-Rivera died.

Mistry took over the station after his brother, who owned it, died in 2004. He says not a month passes that a few people don't ask whether a sniper shooting took place there.

"I say, 'Yes.' They still come back," he says. He does, sometimes, feel overcome by sadness when he looks at where Lewis-Rivera died. "The mother is always the focal point of a family," he says.

There is no memorial by the car vacuum, he says, though someone leaves flowers there once a year.

In contrast, at the rear of Fitzgerald, a granite marker covers the site where Buchanan, known for his volunteer work with the region's Boys and Girls Clubs, was killed cutting the auto dealership's grass.

Where Johnson was killed, a homemade memorial with a white cross envelops a pole by the bus stand.

His widow, who lives in Fort Washington, has never seen it.

"I have never been there, and I don't plan on going. Why would I want to go? That is the place where he was murdered," says Denise Johnson.

She thinks of her exuberant husband in happier times; take that message on their bathroom mirror.

"He just wrote on the bathroom glass, 'I love you,'" she recalls, laughing. "Then I looked and saw that it was my best lipstick. It was so sweet, but honey, no, that was a $12 lipstick."

After her husband's killing, Johnson poured her grief into lobbying against gun violence and into the legal claim that she, two survivors and the relatives of five other victims made against the maker of the Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle tied to the crimes, and the Tacoma, Wash., store from which it was stolen. (The lawsuit was settled for $2.5 million in September 2004.)

She quit her human resources job two years ago to pull herself out of sorrow and devote more time to her sons, now 18 and 10, who she says needed more attention as they came to terms with her husband's death. In recent weeks, the family has visited the University of Pittsburgh, where her older son will start college in the fall, and has traveled the area with her younger son's basketball team.

"I refuse to have us live in grief, sadness and depression. Muhammad and Malvo killed Conrad. I am not going to let him kill me and kill my children," she says.

Among Montgomery officials, there was a sense that the hardest-hit county -- which also served as the headquarters of one of the largest police investigations in the nation -- should have the opportunity to confront Muhammad.

"There is no schoolchild or adult who doesn't recall what it was like," Gansler said. "Montgomery County was the epicenter of both the carnage and the fear."

Charles A. Moose, the police chief who led the investigation and later wrote a book about his experience, was not available for comment last week, his wife said. The couple have moved to Hawaii.

Maryland prosecutors took the death penalty off the table in Muhammad's case in early March, saying it would be difficult to secure and, if won, would likely not survive appeals.

Instead, Muhammad, who fired his defense attorneys from the public defender's office after they alleged he was paranoid and too mentally ill to stand trial, faces multiple life sentences without parole if convicted.

"The more I tell them I'm innocent, the more they tell me I am incompetent," Muhammad told Montgomery County Circuit Judge James L. Ryan during a March hearing. Ryan has appointed three Baltimore lawyers as standby counsel.

The trial promises to be a spectacle.

Malvo is the first person on Muhammad's handwritten list of 178 witnesses, and Muhammad wants to call an additional 354. The judge has issued 28 defense subpoenas. Prosecutors, who expect to call about 135 witnesses, have not said whether they expect to put Malvo on the witness stand to give his account.

On Friday, Muhammad, sporting a closely cropped haircut, again failed to get his trial postponed and then asked that it be moved, arguing that he could not get a fair trial in Montgomery County. That request was denied by Ryan.

In remembrance
In Brookside Gardens, a few miles from the Montgomery's sniper killings, a reflection terrace by the water is dedicated to sniper victims.

"This place also honors the kindness of so many who supported their families and whose active compassion still strengthens the bonds of community," reads an etching in one of the stones.

A few paces away, the pinks and greens of a weeping cherry tree quiver in the breeze. And just uphill sits the stump of a tree cut down.